Naked tradition gets an update with a postmodernist mystery
Colorado native Rebecca Shepard is a newly minted author, and she's barely old enough to drink. Her book, Naked Came the Post-Postmodernist, already has the New York Times talking. Actually, make that the book in which she has a part. There's a story to this Naked and it began when seasoned Sarah Lawrence professor Melvin Bukiet started the 2012 school year with a lofty goal: Each of the thirteen students in his year-long writing seminar would be published novelists come May 2013.
How? He came up with a variation on the Naked Came the Stranger tradition.
"I was vaguely aware of the legend of Naked Came the Stranger, published in 1970 under the penname Penelope Ash," says Bukiet of the cult-classic parody written by 24 Newsday reporters who set out to write the worst book they possibly could.
Twenty-five years later, in the mid-'90s, Tom Shroder, then-editor of the Miami Herald, commissioned thirteen Florida mystery writers to contribute one chapter each to a parody novel titled Naked Came the Manatee, which was eventually published as a book after being released serially. Bukiet came across Shroder's installment at a conference. "As I was reading," says the professor, "I thought: my students could do this." So that summer, he met with a publisher at Arcade Publishing, who agreed to buy a book written by thirteen college students.
Shepard is one of the thirteen who came together to pen Naked Came the Post-Postmodernist: A Mystery (Arcade Publishing, November 2013). The story begins at Underhill, a small liberal arts college where all of the students are close to their professors, and at least one was a little too close to Eric Davenport, now deceased. Before long, a student-of-interest in the Davenport case is found dead in the library. And that's just the beginning as the crime scenes quickly multiply in this campy new Naked Came The installment, where explicit sexual encounters and a raucous (but superbly fun) narrative are splattered with promising, quality literature from students like Shepard, who just might be the next big name in writing.
Shepard, a Boulder resident Bukiet describes as "incredibly competent with a wide, vivid imagination," was asked to write the first chapter as well as a hilarious metafictional chapter appearing later on. "There were very few parameters," recalls Shepard. "Melvin came up to me in October and said I'd be writing the first chapter of the novel, but didn't give much guidance other than the story being a murder mystery that was set on a college campus."
For her first stab at genre fiction, Shepard focused on the characters. One of the primary ones she created was a "rough, pervy, older guy" -- the kind you'll love to hate. "I've never written genre fiction before, and murder mysteries aren't something I've been interested in as a reader or writer," admits Shepard, who prefers historical fiction. Still, focusing on being entertaining was a very helpful exercise in itself, she says.
In crafting the preliminary chapter upon which all others would rest, Shepard tried not to impose too much structure on the plot. "I wanted to leave hints or clues such that the story could go in a lot of different directions," she says. After Shepard completed her part, it was distributed to the rest of the class and students and their teacher workshopped the piece, giving comments and speculating about where the story might go.
Then another student was assigned chapter two. "He could listen to the voices of the class," Bukiet explains, "but was under no obligation to do so. He took the baton and then handed off to the next student." While the voices were eclectic and discombobulated -- and that's sort of the point, isn't it? -- the overall plot was imaginative, fun, and worthy.
Shepard has wanted to be a writer since she was about eight years old, and has already released a collection of poetry, compiled a collection of short stories, and is working on a first (independently-written) novel. In an age where it's increasingly difficult to get published through the traditional route, Shepard says she was grateful for this opportunity -- and is fine with advances and any royalties from Naked Came the Post-Postmodernist going to the school.
Will there be another novel to follow? "Maybe next will be Naked Came the Board of Trustees, or the Tennis Coach," says Bukiet. But not for a few years, since the professor will be on sabbatical and won't teach another year-long class until 2016 at the earliest.
Shepard's plans, too, are up in the air. Over the next decade, she'd like to travel and work toward a graduate degree in writing or the classics. For more of Shepard's fiction, visit her website.