At Manhattan's Salk School, a prestigious public middle school for the scientifically minded, the best-read book this fall has nothing to do with physics. It's Spanking Shakespeare (Random House) a bawdy, faux memoir about a high school senior in search of a sex life, written by Jake Wizner.
“The staff has read it, the book club has read it, actually, I think just about everybody in the school has read it,” says principal Rhonda Perry. “Jake is a big star around here.”
To take nothing away from Wizner's accomplishment (in a starred review, PW called the book “exceptionally funny and smart”), it helps to have the inside track. Wizner has taught English at Salk for 12 years.
“What they all want to know is, 'How much of this is true?' ” Wizner says. “We've had a lot of conversations about it being a work of fiction.”
The eponymous hero is Shakespeare Shapiro (his brother is named Gandhi), a Hemingway High senior who is required to write a memoir. The idea sprang from an exercise Wizner annually gives his own students, since Salk requires its eighth graders to produce a major English “exit piece.” When the idea of a memoir was first proposed, Wizner thought it ridiculous, but now admits, “Consistently, the most amazing writing I get is from the memoir unit.”
Writing as a career was not something he had considered, having come from a family of educators. Both his parents worked at Yale, his father as a law professor, his mother as a residential dean. Like those of the hero of his book, Wizner's own parents were “ruthless editors,” he recalls. “They shredded everything I wrote.”
Outside the house, Wizner got more encouragement. A high school teacher thought his essay about a rabbi who loved pork was hilarious. He majored in English at Wesleyan University (Daniel Handler was a classmate).
While working at Salk, he took the Gotham Writers' Workshop children's writing class three times (“because I loved the guy who taught it,” he says of Alex Steele, the program's dean), producing a middle-grade manuscript about the world's most disgusting sandwich. He pitched it to agent Marcia Wernick who asked, “What else have you got?” Wizner had nothing but ideas, and the one Wernick liked best became Spanking Shakespeare.
“I didn't even show the book to [my parents] until the galley came,” Wizner says, “because of the huge amount of anxiety involved. My mother is very much the type who will say, 'What will people think?' ”
So what did they think, after reading it? “They really, really liked it. They cackled,” Wizner reports, although at his book party, when he introduced his father to his editor, Jim Thomas, his father responded, “I'm not at all the alcoholic my son portrays me as in the book.” (“This would have been more convincing if he didn't have a drink in each hand at the moment,” Wizner notes.)
Wizner has turned in a second YA manuscript to Thomas, about three kids at a Yale summer arts program who are collaborating on a musical, which has the working title Castration Celebration. “When I told that to my mother,” he says, “she put her head in her hands and said to my father, 'We might have to change our names.' ”