No joke: Minnesota author's novel wins Thurber Prize for American Humor

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A University of Minnesota professor has been awarded one of the most sought-after prizes in humorous writing.

Julie Schumacher is this year's winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, for her book "Dear Committee Members." She was honored at a ceremony Monday night in New York City.

The prize is presented each year by the Thurber House, a nonprofit literary center located in Columbus, Ohio, at the boyhood home of humorist James Thurber. It's the only recognition of the "art of humor writing" in the U.S., according to Thurber House.

Schumacher is a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota, and lives in St. Paul.

"Dear Committee Members" is the story of Jason Fitger, a disillusioned professor of creative writing at a small Midwestern college, which is told through a year's worth of recommendation letters he writes for others.

Here's the description from Penguin/Random House:

"His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His life, a tale of woe, is revealed in a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies." 

Schumacher said the Thurber award is "especially meaningful" for her, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

“I wasn't enamored of reading as a child, so my mother read The Thurber Carnival (a collection of essays and short stories) to me. We laughed and laughed," she said. "I have great affection for James Thurber because of that."

Schumacher has a lot of fans, including colleagues and former students at the U of M, who took to social media to congratulate her:

The award is notable not just because of Schumacher's Minnesota connection, but also because she's the first woman to ever win the prize since it was established in 1996 -- although that would have happened this year, regardless, because the two other finalists are also women:

  • Roz Chast, a well-known New Yorker cartoonist, for Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? - a memoir that focuses on her aging parents.
  • Annabelle Gurwitch, a commentator and essayist, for I See You Made An Effort: Compliments, Indignities and Survival Stories From the Edge of 50.

Previous winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris and Calvin Trillin.

Schumacher, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, graduated from Oberlin College and Cornell University. Her first novel, "The Body Is Water," was published in 1995. She's written several other books as well, including four novels for younger readers.

Here are links to a couple of interviews Schumacher has done with the Kansas City Star, Minnesota Public Radio and NPR.

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