BRONXVILLE, N.Y. — The first dead body simply had to be a math professor, said Rebecca Shepard, 20, a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College.
“Math isn’t the most popular subject here,” said Ms. Shepard, sitting in her fiction workshop class at the college one recent weeknight.
But writing — Ms. Shepard’s course of study — is one of the more popular ones at this exclusive school a few miles north of the Bronx, known for its liberal arts curriculum and its high tuition.
The school may also soon be known for a mystery novel called “Naked Came the Post-Postmodernist,” which Ms. Shepard is writing with 11 classmates in a yearlong workshop, and which is to be published this year.
The book is really “one vast exercise,” the class’s instructor, Melvin Jules Bukiet, said. Each student is given two or three weeks to write a chapter, he said, with all of the writing to be finished in May. Mr. Bukiet described his role as “facilitator, muse and massager,” but said he left nearly all the plot choices to the students.
“All I told them was that it was to be a mystery on a small liberal-arts college campus,” he said. “I wanted it to have a familiar background, something they knew, but a mystery would force them to address a different type of world than their own.”
Ms. Shepard wrote the first chapter in November, having a character named Professor Davenport turn up mysteriously murdered during office hours at Underhill College, where as one of Ms. Shepard’s other characters put it, “All the students here are close with their professors.” The campus, just off a highway named 95, is populated by privileged, liberal undergraduates. It all sounds vaguely familiar.
David Calbert, 22, a senior, handled the second chapter, introducing a libidinous female medical examiner. The third chapter, by Kelsey Joseph, 24, who graduated after after the fall semester, added a student who was having an affair with the murdered teacher, and also delved into dormitory culture, presenting students like Hannah, Marin and Clay and other “hemp kids” and “J Crew girls.” There are also “Ugg girls,” decked out in “university sweatshirts, pajama bottoms and Ugg boots.”
Sasha Pezenik, 21, a senior who is Mr. Bukiet’s assistant and an editor of the manuscript, compared the ensemble writing process to a relay race.
“Each of us is running the race as best as we can, and passing the baton to the next writer,” Ms. Pezenik said. “We want each other to write as gracefully as possible.”
The book’s authors will be listed as the Sarah Lawrence Fiction Workshop WRIT-3303-R, the class’s official course number. The title was blurted out by a student as the class discussed two group-written books that helped inspire Mr. Bukiet: The straight-faced 1969 trash-novel parody “Naked Came the Stranger” and the amusing 1996 novel “Naked Came the Manatee.”
He pitched the idea and title to Tony Lyons, who owns Arcade Publishing, the Manhattan press whose authors include the Nobel laureate Mo Yan. He liked it immediately. Mr. Lyons called it “a collegiate episodic experimental fiction — the first book of its kind that’s ever been done.”
“We read about school shootings and the incredible debt this generation of college kids has, and how hard it is to get jobs,’’ Mr. Lyons added. “But behind all the statistics about depression and anxiety and psychological drug use, we really don’t know what these kids are thinking.”
The modest advance for the book is being contributed to the college, said Mr. Bukiet, now in his 20th year teaching at Sarah Lawrence, which he attended in the 1970s, studying under E.L. Doctorow.
On a recent Tuesday night, Mr. Bukiet took stock of the work in progress. “O.K.,” he said. “We have lots of dead people and we have a college.” He suggested new elements: maybe adding an alumni donor who is horrified at the string of on-campus homicides, or the ubiquitous crime scenes posing awkward moments for a campus tour guide leading around prospective students.
The writers sat at a round table, each with a copy of chapter six, written by Jesse Holmgren-Sidell, 18, a freshman. The discussion veered from grammar and character details to comedic brainstorming to Agatha Christie-like discussions with competing ideas for plot lines and macabre elements.
“This is gruesome but comedic at the same time,” Mr. Bukiet urged the class. “Remember, you can play.”
Inevitably, the fictional Underhill campus will wind up reflecting aspects of Sarah Lawrence, he said. And by all means, the student writers are free to take some jabs at the college.
“There should absolutely be academic egos at stake,” in the plot of the book, Mr. Bukiet said. “I wouldn’t mind if they killed a few deans.”