Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the story-collection MINOR ROBBERIES (McSweeney's, 2007) and the novel VACATION (McSweeney's, 2008) which comes out in September and has a trailer.
I love this story. It's so funny. I'm not sure if the students thought it was quite as funny as I did. I think they thought it was a little disturbing -- maybe not as disturbing as Diane Williams, but disturbing enough--and disturbing that I liked it. I think what I like about it and the reason I used it in a class is that it shows how effective it is to leave out explanation, exposition, backstory, and also how the repetition of the word cancer creates this appealing rhythm, and yet you vary the rhythm, such as at the end, the phrase "stomach cancer" disrupts the rhythm of the rest of the piece slightly and allows you to end the piece on a different-sounding note. Otherwise, it could have sounded too repetitive. I like that.What did people say about the iguana in my story about cancer?*
Maybe you should put a link to the piece here, in case someone wants to read it.
Did anyone think I was a girl from reading my poems from my first poetry book?No. Did that happen? I wanted to teach your poetry when I first read it because it surprised me and I hoped my students would be surprised too. I remember being very surprised when I first read it. It had such a clear pronounced voice that was flat in a way that I found interesting but also had a lot of emotion and humor and moments of odd writing in it. I really like the moments of odd writing. Here, I just read one of the poems from that collection and here is a line that reads, "I said I was going to pants you." Ha! What a strange thing to say. It feels sexual but it wouldn't surprise me if it turned out not to be. That kind of playfulness is lovely to me. It is very hard to strike a balance so that the playfulness doesn't feel sloppy or overdone or unclear. But I feel like you have control over it and that makes it work and makes it exciting.
Did most of your students want to leave Kansas for New York City or somewhere else after college?I guess I get all kinds of students. Some want to stay where they are. Some go to New York -- like Antonia. I have ex-students in Chicago, in Utah, in France. I have fantastic students. i am very lucky.
I had a class one time where everyone pressured the teacher into making her bring in her own writing to pass out for everyone to talk about, did any of your students ever do that or try to do that to you?It is possible that they have asked me to do that but I never would. Classtime is their time, not my time. But I like it when my students read my work -- when they find it on their own and read it outside of class and maybe mention it to me in the hallway or something. It means a lot to me because I take a lot of care with their work, I read it several times and I think about it and I write them long letters about it on their papers. It's nice when they've read my work too.
I substituted one time a college class and near the end I "lost control" and saw that people were looking at their cell phones a lot and eventually they pressured me, sort of, into just letting the class "be over" 40 minutes early, has that ever happened to you? If that happened what would you do?Ha. That's very funny and cute. I've been teaching for years now. That sort of thing doesn't happen too much to me anymore. But I've had plenty of uncomfortable classes over the years, especially when I first started teaching. I think the worst teaching experience I ever had was the first time I tried to teach Diane Williams's book Excitability. To me, the book made perfect sense and was such a fantastic book, it didn't even occur to me that someone might not understand it if they hadn't been introduced to that kind of work. So I assigned it with no explanation or preview and I showed up in class the next week, eager and happy and unsuspecting. It was my first year teaching, I think. I had a class rebellion on my hands. They hated the book. They thought it was pornography. They thought it was ungrammatical. They thought I was outrageous for having assigned it. They had gone to the chair and complained about it and me and the class. They yelled at me. It was awful. It was the last semester I taught at that school.
But I'll tell you what happened. The last day of the semester in that class, the students were supposed to do little presentations on stories they picked from any book we had read in the class. They were supposed to talk about different elements of craft. Almost all the students picked a Diane Williams story to present, even though we had read about ten books. And the pages of their Diane Williams's books were very dog-eared and the books looked worn and had bookmarks sticking out all over the place and bent covers. So in the end, Diane Williams won, even without my help.