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Friday, August 20, 2010

Letter Perfect

Famous Writers School
Steven Carter

Counterpoint, 2006

Famous Writers School is composed of the letters and stories of three would-be authors who are taking a correspondence course advertised in the classified pages of a writing magazine. At a cost of only $295, payable by personal check, money order or certified check, students can receive several lessons by mail, plus the comments and advice from a published author, Wendell Newton. Wendell's oddball collection of students includes Rio, an alluring blues singer on whom he quickly develops a crush; Linda Trane, an unhinged housewife who seems to be stalking him; and Dan, a truly talented author of hard-boiled detective fiction. As the novel progresses through the correspondence between each student and Wendell, it becomes apparent that Wendell’s advice is more self-serving than helpful to the students. Not only that, but the students begin to suspect that Wendell Newton has not been completely honest with them regarding his work or his life. Gradually the slender threads of connection between each character become apparent, even as Wendell's imagination careens out of control, causing these stories within the story to come to a screeching halt with very interesting results.

I love the way the author reveals bits of each character’s personality through the stories and letters they submit to Wendell. From Dan’s very publishable detective story to Rio’s airy comments on every little thing that comes into her head, the characters come alive as they respond to Wendell’s criticism and interest in their work. As the letters and stories continue, we start to see that Wendell is far different than he portrayed himself to be. Also, each character comes unraveled a little as the book progresses: Linda becomes kind of scary and crazy, Rio shows she is more than a ditzy stripper, and Dan has some real potential as a writer. In fact, at some point I cared more about the next installment of Dan’s novel in progress than I cared about what was happening with the other characters – until Linda sent in her story about a character that broke into a writer’s house – and suddenly I was caught up in her drama as well.

There are several surprises in this novel, which make it unpredictable and mildly amusing in a wacky sort of way. I very much enjoy epistolary novels like this one, because the reader is not witness to the action but instead must experience it through the characters’ eyes, thereby adding another element to the reading experience: trust. Can we trust all the characters and believe them when they describe their actions? It’s fun to try and figure out what’s true and what’s not, based on the characters’ words themselves. And in this case, the end result is very rewarding indeed.


Other books by this author:
I Was Howard Hughes, 2003

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Writing Circle by Corinne Demas (2010)
In a tale of love, betrayal, and literature, six members of an elite writing circle share much more than their works-in-progress.

Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer (2010)
An aspiring writer with a low-paying day job at a coffee shop becomes embroiled in an elaborate scheme to create a fake memoir of his own. Ian quickly realizes that fact and fiction can be dangerously intertwined.

Ibid: a life: a novel in footnotes by Mark Dunn (2004)
After the only copy of his book is destroyed in a warm bath, Mark Dunn is forced to publish only the footnotes to his biography of Jonathan Balshette, a three-legged former carnival star turned deodorant magnate cum philanthropist. Using the digressions, asides, and accoutrements of a life, the footnotes tell the story of a man's journey through the historical milestones and colorful personalities of the twentieth century,

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