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Merrill Feitell says her stories are "character-driven fiction about human connection." Photo: Kim Albano

November 15, 2004

Alumna wins prestigious Iowa Fiction Award for first book of short stories

By Scott Rappaport

UCSC alumna Merrill Feitell is on a roll.

Her debut collection of short stories, Here Beneath Low-flying Planes, received the 2004 Iowa Short Fiction Award--an honor described by the New York Times as “among the most prestigious literary prizes America offers.”

She was named one of “fifteen of the world’s best new writers” featured as “Fiction’s New Luminaries” in the Summer 2004 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

And her new book has been getting rave reviews from people like best-selling author Michael Chabon, who called Here Beneath Low-flying Planes “rueful, bittersweet, funny, written with tenderness and bite,” adding, “Merrill Feitell's stories, like so many classic short stories, are made from the plain and painful stuff of this world, haunted by the possibility, and the impossibility, of a better one.”

A native New Yorker, Feitell left the East Coast in 1989 to attend UCSC, graduating in 1993 with a B.A. in literature and creative writing. She went on to earn an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University in 2000. Her short stories soon began appearing in various publications such as Book Magazine, Glimmer Train, and the Best New American Voices 2000 anthology, edited by renowned author Tobias Wolff.

“It’s really character-driven fiction about human connection,” Feitell said when asked to describe her stories. “It’s about strange, singular encounters with people you never see again--or who eventually become friends--that stimulate change. I think we have a tremendous impact on each other and don’t always realize it.”

Despite her recent success, Feitell is still paying her dues, working at a multitude of freelance jobs to support her writing career. Over the last five years she has run brainstorming workshops for marketing companies, written ad copy for pantyhose and chicken parts, proofread at Business Week and Nickelodeon Junior magazine, edited recipes for cookbooks, reviewed books for web sites, and flown around the country teaching new legal software to law firms.

But Feitell has also found time to begin work on her first novel, a work-in-progress that she said is based geographically in Santa Cruz. Titled “Any Minute Now,” the story is about two half sisters who befriend each other in defiance of their father and how they rely on intense intimacy—which is often used as a weapon—to support each other. “Both the characters in the novel are students at UCSC,” Feitell noted. “I have them both living in a house that I once lived in on Cedar Street, across from the Bagelry.”

Feitell said she did research for the book by walking through the town and campus during her recent Santa Cruz visit to promote Here Beneath Low-flying Planes.

“I’ve been taking photos of the Bagelry and things like the walls of the shuttle stops on campus that are lined with staples, and the steam coming off the redwoods when the sun cuts through the fog at noon,” Feitell explained. “I’ve gathered a plastic bag full of eucalyptus leaves from the Oakes path because the smell reminds me of Santa Cruz. I’ll keep them all by my desk to remind me as I’m writing.”

Feitell also noticed other quirky details during her time in Santa Cruz that she plans to incorporate into the novel.

“I drove by the Food Bin/Herb Room on Mission Street that always has a sign with a saying on it that faces traffic,” she said. “I’m going to have one of the characters in the novel rely on those Food Bin messages. It’s going to be the girl’s conscience—her tarot card to check on how she’s doing whenever she drives by. I never would have thought of that if I hadn’t come here.”

Feitell added that she has fond memories of her undergraduate days at Porter College, a place where she made countless friends and served as a residential adviser in the dorms.

“I would really love to come back to the campus someday and teach,” Feitell said. “UCSC was a valuable experience for me in so many ways. I felt very supported as a writer and as a student who was so far away from home.”

Merrill Feitell’s debut collection of short stories, Here Beneath Low-flying Planes, can be found locally at Bookshop Santa Cruz and Capitola Book Café. Visit her web site at: www.merrillfeitell.com.

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