Theres something rotten in Underhill College.
An exclusive liberal arts institution, Underhill is a quiet-enough place until a popular math professor is found murdered in his office. An unauthorized autopsy carried out by a hardboiled detective and a sexy medical examiner leads to uncomfortable questions concerning secret campus tunnels, professor-student relations and some disturbingly invasive insects.
Such is the set-up for the semi-serious murder mystery novel Naked Came the Post-Postmodernist, a collaborative effort by 13 undergraduate students at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. The brainchild of writing instructor Melvin Bukiet, Naked was written over the course of a yearlong fiction workshop, with each student writing a chapter, then handing off the story to a classmate.
One of those students, Chapel Hill native Jessye Holmgren-Sidell, was a freshman enrolled when she learned she would be a published author by years end. A 2012 graduate of Carolina Friends School in Durham, Holmgren-Sidell had previously participated in writers workshops in Hillsborough and at Duke University.
Bukiet said the idea was sparked when he came across a copy of the mystery parody Naked Came the Manatee, in which a group of 13 writers including Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen authored a book by writing one chapter each. That book, in turn, was inspired by the infamous 1970s literary hoax, Naked Came the Stranger.
The second I started reading it, I thought my students can do this, Bukiet said. I contacted a publisher and somehow sold him on a book to be written by a class of 19-year-olds who had never published a word.
Getting a handle on ideas, plots
The collaborative writing project started simply enough.
Our first writer created our detective character and put the plot in motion, Holmgren-Sidell, 19, said. If someone had an idea they could volunteer for the next chapter.
During each class session, students would discuss what direction the story was going.
For example, I wanted to write a chapter that involved one of the murders, Holmgren-Sidell said. So when we decided as a class that this particular character should be killed off next, I was like, That sounds great! Ill write that!
The original plan called for 13 authors and 13 chapters, Bukiet said. But as the story expanded, it became clear that too many characters and story threads were in play, and the last writer was going to face a Herculean task tying everything together. So each student was assigned a second mini-chapter, and the story was reassessed.
We looked at where the plot holes were that needed to be addressed, Holmgren-Sidell said. We literally mapped out the whole story on the blackboard and figured out where scenes had to be added.
One late addition was a down-the-rabbit-hole scene in which a writing class at the fictional Underhill College sits down to collaboratively author their own murder mystery novel.
Thats a hilarious chapter, Bukiet said. I dont know that the professor in that chapter is exactly me, but it certainly captured some of the, um, free-floating energy in the room.
Holmgren-Sidell has since transferred shes a sophomore at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio but she said the writing workshop was a high point of her experience at Sarah Lawrence.
I want to be a writer, she said.
Aside from Naked and some short stories published years ago in the tween lit magazine Stone Soup, Holmgreen-Sidell hasnt published anything else yet. But shes constantly working on personal writing projects.
Ive written a lot about the Blitz in World War II, in London, she said. Im interested in magical realism but also realistic historical fiction.
Who are her favorite authors?
Let me see what I have on my bookshelf, she said. I love this series by Philip Reeve, The Hungry City Chronicles. Its the only sci-fi that I like, but I just love it. I love Richard Peck books; he does young adult fiction, he has a great voice. I like Edith Wharton. A lot. Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain.
I like a lot of books.