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 worlds best
new writers featured as Fictions 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.
Its really character-driven fiction about human
connection, Feitell said when asked to describe her stories.
Its 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 dont 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 intimacywhich
is often used as a weaponto 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.
Ive 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. Ive
gathered a plastic bag full of eucalyptus leaves from the Oakes
path because the smell reminds me of Santa Cruz. Ill keep
them all by my desk to remind me as Im 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. Im going to have one of the characters
in the novel rely on those Food Bin messages. Its going
to be the girls conscienceher tarot card to check
on how shes doing whenever she drives by. I never would
have thought of that if I hadnt 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 Feitells 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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