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Friday, April 12, 2024

Deb Olin Unferth speaks at UC Davis


Critically-acclaimed author reads new collection

On Jan. 19, the English Department brought critically-acclaimed writer Deb Olin Unferth to campus for a reading of her new collection of short stories titled “Wait Till you See Me Dance.” The event was a part of the Creative Writing Reading Series that the department has organized. The goal of the series is to bring both up-and-coming and established writers to campus as well as to bolster interest among students in contemporary fiction.

Unferth is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and has received many awards for her writing. She was a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle award, has won four Pushcart Prizes and received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Her writing is concise and poignant, with subtle hints of dry wit and irony present throughout her work. She is able to tackle dark themes effortlessly and has mastered several different genres of writing.

Unferth had a bit of an unusual start to her writing career. As an undergraduate student at Syracuse University, she studied philosophy. She then worked at a homeless shelter in Chicago for some time after graduation.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life,” Unferth said. “That went on for a couple of years.”

It wasn’t until she was 25 that she would even begin writing. Her career started when she met a man she had an interest in.

“He said ‘I’m a writer, what are you?’” Unferth said. Without thinking, she told the man that she was a writer as well. “And then we started going out, and I had to actually write something to show him,” Unferth continued.

But it was when she sat down to write proof of her ostensible career for the guy she was dating that suddenly her whole life fell into place.

“As soon as I wrote it I was like…this is what I want to do,” Unferth said. “So then I just started writing.”

While the man may be “long gone” according to Unferth, she has continued to grow and improve as a writer.

Unferth has a wide range of work under her belt, including a novel “Vacation,” a graphic novel “I, Parrot” and a memoir, “Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War.” When asked why she chooses to explore so many different mediums and genres of writing, Unferth explained that she has a lot of interest in form.

“I like trying different forms and seeing what happens,” Unferth said. “I feel like a lot of the formal things I learn from one, I can carry over into another.”

Her most recent work uses short stories as the vessel to unleash her ideas. Published in 2017, “Wait Till You See Me Dance” has been described as smart, profound and chillingly dark.

Jenni Ahlquist, a graduate student in the Creative Writing program, introduced Unferth at the event. Ahlquist praised the book and Unferth’s style of writing. Ahlquist, who had read the entire book just a few days before the event, said that “Wait Till You See Me Dance” perfectly encapsulates Unferth’s distinct voice as a writer. She noted that Unferth is a “master of compression in a sentence” and that each story in the book displays such mastery.

“I like to say it’s ‘muscular’ writing,” Ahlquist said. “Every sentence is doing the most work it could possibly do. And it means that it’s just really clean and a lot of her sentences are really simple, but they’re really effective.”

Unferth intertwines a rapid stream of consciousness with short, concise sentences that jar the reader. There is a constant swerving of directions and emotions in her writing that keeps the reader on their toes throughout each story.

“She can devastate you and make you laugh all in one sentence,” Ahlquist said.

At the event, Unferth read two stories from “Wait Till You See Me Dance.” The first story, titled “Your Character,” speaks to the frustrations of writing and the difficulty of creating a plot for a story. Unferth explained how she came up with the idea after getting writer’s block and proceeding to Google, “How to write a book.” She stumbled upon forums of writers offering plot devices or story prompts for overcoming a rut in the writing process. Unferth then wrote an abstract piece about an ambiguous “character” who lives through random plots and story tropes.

There is a sort of humorous self-deprecation that comes across in the story, making Unferth and her writing even more likeable. Jyotsna Natarajan, a fourth-year genetics major, came to the reading for her ENL 5F (Introduction to Creative Writing: Fiction) class. She thought that Unferth’s attempt to get story ideas off the internet was relatable.

“We’re learning in class about tones and inspirations for stories,” Natarajan said.

The second story Unferth read aloud gave the entire audience chills. Titled “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” the story takes place over the course of 15 minutes. It is about a family climbing sand dunes together, as an unnamed shooter watches over them from a parked car. As Unferth read, the room grew silent. Everyone was hanging onto each word she said, desperate to find out what happens in the end. There are dark comedic moments mixed with the sensitive subject matter, making the audience feel guilty for laughing almost immediately after they do.

“That’s what’s exciting to me, the way [Unferth] marries humor with kind of really serious personal quandaries,” Ahlquist said.

The story reads like a punch to the gut, yet stays with the reader long after it is over. Unferth’s writing is enthralling and ponders the deep questions and complexities of life. Surely, all the other stories in “Wait Till You See Me Dance” will have a similar effect upon the reader.

“I guess if there’s any sort of overarching theme as a whole it would maybe be that it’s really hard to help someone,” Unferth said. “But you have to try anyway.”

There will be two more writers coming to campus this quarter on Feb. 7 and March 7 for the reading series. All readings are held at 7 p.m. in the Shields Library.

Written by: Alyssa Ilsley — arts@theaggie.org


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