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Feature Mon Aug 23 2010

Answers and Questions: Deb Olin Unferth

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

Chicago-born Deb Olin Unferth, author of many short stories and the 2008 novel Vacation, may have said in the past that "fiction is everything that life is not," but I honestly wonder if this had happened to her yet:

Once a fist fight nearly broke out while I was reading. A man in the audience -- the writer Clancy Martin, in fact -- started heckling me, shouting at me while I was reading. Another man got to his feet and yelled across the room, defending me. Then, a third man -- a graduate student -- jumped up, and I believe he pushed the second man, although I couldn't see what was happening very well. Then a bunch of people got up, moving their chairs and making noise. People were shouting and men were pushing their chests at each other, but no actual punches got thrown. I went on reading through the whole thing. Eventually everyone sat back down. Clancy is my good friend now.

Sounds like the makings of an absurdist short story to me.

Unferth, who now teaches at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, publishes her next book, a memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, in February 2011.

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CLANCY MARTIN / August 24, 2010 8:04 AM

Deb has not told this story quite the way it happened. We were already very close friends at the time--in fact I was supposed to drive her back to Lawrence, but I was so drunk that she had to drive us and we were lost for hours. In any event, I was not heckling her, but PRAISING her to the skies--much too loudly, I was hammered--then this guy said "please shut up and let her read!" and one of my students rose to my defense (Simon Gatsby, recent Yale M Div). Then the fella who was angry at me--probably a colleague of mine from UMKC English and Simon began to bump chests, while I went to find another glass of wine. Deb and I and several others went to dinner afterward, where I proceeded to do more crazy alcoholic things. Poor Deb. But yes, we are still very good friends, and were at the time, though she almost dumped me over that one.

Deb Unferth / August 24, 2010 8:39 AM

It's true. Now I remember: he was praising me to the skies. He was shouting, "ISN'T SHE WONDERFUL!" very, very loudly and waving his arm. He looked bewildered and hurt when the other guy told him to shut the hell up. At the dinner he fell asleep, put his head on the table, and his students had to carry him to the car.

We were already friends, yes, but the "very close" part came later. I think we both had to screw up a few times before we could reach "very close."

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