'I didn't know you were funny': Minnesota writer a Thurber prize finalist

'Dear Committee Members' by Julie Schumacher
'Dear Committee Members' by Julie Schumacher
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

When Julie Schumacher's novel "Dear Committee Members" came out last year, several of her friends all had the same reaction: "I didn't know you were funny."

"It doesn't really seem like a compliment, does it?" Schumacher recalled, with a laugh. But the joke's on them; "Dear Committee Members" is now a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor — the only humor writing prize in the country.

Her novel is one of three vying for the top prize, and its experimental format makes it a nontraditional delight: "Dear Committee Members" is written entirely in letters of recommendation.

The letter writer is one Jason Fitger, a creative writing professor who is barely holding it together as he churns out letter after letter of recommendation for his students and colleagues. Details about his failing personal life — and writing career — find their way into the letters to hilarious and biting effect. Hailed as a sharp satire of the academic world, Schumacher's book was called a "mordant minor masterpiece" by NPR.

Roz Chast, a longtime staff cartoonist for the New Yorker, is also a finalist for her graphic novel memoir "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" The third finalist is Annabelle Gurwitch, for "I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50."

It's the first time in the prize's 14-year history that the entire slate of finalists have been women. This guarantees that a woman will take home the prize — which will also be a first. Eight women have previously been named finalists, but the winning authors have all been men.

The all-women slate is exciting — but Schumacher doesn't think it should be an anomaly.

"I know lots of women who are funny," she said. "Women have always been funny. Maybe men didn't notice before."

Schumacher teaches at the University of Minnesota, and tries to squeeze her writing into summers when she has the time to devote to a project. She's the author of five books for young readers, which she wrote while her own children were growing up. "Dear Committee Members" marks her return to writing for adults.

Unlike her other projects, with "Committee Members," the structure came first. She challenged herself to write a book entirely in letters.

"I'll try this as an amusing experiment and see if I can get away with it," she thought when starting.

So far, the experiment so far has paid off. Schumacher will travel to New York City at the end of the month for the Thurber Prize ceremony. The winner will be announced at the event on Sept. 28. No matter which author takes the prize — Schumacher, Chast or Gurwich — it will be a historic win for humor writing.

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