Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles on contemporary American fiction by women authors who will be speaking at UCCS in upcoming weeks.
Crammed with a fellow author, four educators, and one book reviewer into the large back booth at The Ritz downtown, Boulder-resident Erika Krouse, looking younger than her 32 years, unwound after a late-afternoon colloquy of her first short-story collection, Come Up and See Me Sometime, by sipping a pre-dinner Manhattan on the rocks.
The first of six American women writers slated to visit UCCS this spring, Krouse addressed about 60 people at the university on Feb. 11. All six of the scheduled speakers published their first books last year.
The course, "Recent American Women's Fiction: First Efforts," is the brainchild of professor Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, who is in his 14th year at UCCS.
"It's enormously popular," said Rubin-Dorsky, partly because the course is an extended sojourn from the literary canon. The professor has read each book only twice, the students once, creating less of a pedagogical mismatch. "That gives [students] a tremendous liberty," Rubin-Dorsky said, "not to depend on me but to offer things for themselves."
In addition to Krouse, authors Dana Spiotta, Laura Glen Louis, Jenny McPhee, Ana Menendez and Andrea O'Reilly Herrera will visit. Four of these six have had their books recognized as "Notable Books" by The New York Times Book Review.
Re-enter Krouse. After years of sailing a sea of rejection notices and being denied admission to some prestigious master's in fine arts programs, Krouse got her break.
"About two months after I got rejected from those programs," Krouse said, "I got a call from The Atlantic Monthly saying, 'Hey, guess what? We want to publish your story,' and it happened to be the first story I had ever written ("My Weddings," Atlantic, October 1998).
"I thought it was one of my friends pulling my leg, so I was rude and nasty on the phone, saying, 'Yeah right, get to the point,' and then I finally figured out what was going on, and I started screaming."
Scribner agreed to publish her collection a year later. Krouse's story "The Husbands" appeared in The New Yorker's 2001 summer fiction issue.
Come Up and See Me Some Time takes its title from Mae West's line in I'm No Angel (1933). West's one-liners introduce each story.
Krouse's characters, original and well drawn, are no angels either. They navigate a minefield of cultural pressures including abortion, domestic abuse, motherhood, mother-daughter relations, flings, loser boyfriends, bisexual curiosity, marriage and sex. Krouse prefers a "fade in, fade out" approach to sexual writing, effective without being squeamish or prudish.
Characters' interior discussions and direct addresses to the reader are especially effective, as are wonderful observations like the following: "He was gorgeous, gorgeous in that way a person is when you've seen him naked, but only once."
Strong stories include "No Universe," "Impersonators" and "The Husbands," but the collection is not flawless. A microfiction piece involving a sixth-grade girl on a balance beam is less effective. Another plot involving a character's escape from domestic violence contains an improbable pick-pocketing detail, juxtaposed with a coincidental witnessing of another woman's victory over a mugger.
Krouse's prose is nevertheless clever, felicitous and economic, her characters original, honest and tough, like this woman living with a heroin addict: "I felt a new respect taking shape. This was a man who sought out a controlled substance and injected himself on a daily basis. Say what you will, but that takes initiative."
After dinner, Krouse, whose temp-job rsum may actually include butcher, baker and candlestick maker, returned to Boulder, where she is night manager at a bed and breakfast. She is working on a novel during the day.
The next speaker in the series, Dana Spiotta, will talk about her first novel Lightning Field, lauded by author Don DeLillo as a "wonderfully funny, accomplished and far-reaching first novel about our consumer colossus and the human products it makes and shapes."