Elissa Schappell is a powerhouse, an amazing writer, and also very, very funny. She's Vanity Fair's Hot Type book page editor, a senior editor at The Paris Review, she co-founded Tin House where she is now editor-at-large, and her amazing debut, Use Me was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. I raved about Blueprints for Building Better Girls in the Boston Globe, and it's now available in paperback. Buy it now. Trust me. You need this book. I'm so jazzed and honored to have Elissa here on my blog Thank you, Elissa!
So, do you think there are, or should be, blueprints for building better girls--or boys?
Society has always proffered, nay, dictated, rules of conduct, since the first time a cavewoman was grabbed by the hair in front of the neighbors and questioned, Do I make a fuss, or not make a fuss? Should I invite them back to the cave to share our mammoth shank?
I do think good manners are important. In that regard I take Emily Post’s point of view that, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.”
You may damn the forks, but you should, no must, say Please and Thank you, and Pardon me, and Please take my seat, and It’s fine I wasn’t using my left foot anyway. Rarely have I regretted not being polite in a social situation. There are, of course, certain situations where rudeness is not only acceptable it’s demanded.
As to the blueprints for women, I’d start with: Don’t Give Away Your Power, and If You Wait for Someone to Give You Permission to Be Yourself You’ll End Up A Nobody.
There’s a whole list for men too, but I’ll start with: Don’t Tell Girls It’s Cute When They Get Mad, and Don’t Rape People
I loved and deeply admired the structure of the book, linked short stories, where the same characters would sometimes re-pop up.
I’m so glad. I love this structure too. Only recently have I come to terms with the fact that at my core I’m trans. A proud trans-structural writer. People always ask when I’m going to write a novel—like, When are you going to grow up and get serious? Get a real job. As though the pinnacle of achievement is the traditional novel. Preferably one of those two-hander, he-man-sized doorstops.
I’m mad for linked-story collections as a reader because they deliver the pleasure of a story—a contained world with beginning middle and end—with the gift of the novel, a unified landscape of characters and storylines joined in a larger web of meaning.
The form speaks to the way I think—which is far from linear. As well as my abiding desire to capture those transformative experiences in our lives, big or small that make us the individuals we are.
Having the characters appear in each other’s stories whether directly or indirectly was appealing to me because that’s the way life is when you socialize within the same social strata, there’s overlap. We exist on the peripheries of each other’s stories without even being aware of it. Sometimes we are characters in other’s people’s minds or memories, and sometimes we simply occupy the same space.
I wanted to highlight the ways women judge each other on the basis of looks, a pre-conceived notion of who they are, or what we’ve heard about them. In truth we have no idea what we might have in common with someone else, or how other people suffer.
One of the nice things about having the women pop up in each other’s stories is that reader knows them in a way the other characters don’t. We know their secrets, while the other players in the story don’t. (I love this as a reader) That intimacy between reader and character bonds them the way people who know each other’s secrets are bonded.
Plus, by getting to see the characters through a different lens, from another angle, at a different time in their lives challenges the reader to consider the judgments they made about them, and confront their own biases and prejudices.
Your brilliant novel Use Me, was also linked stories, but it seemed more to focus on just one character, so I wanted to ask, were there any problems or surprises in doing linked stories? Did you end up preferring one form to another?
I hadn’t intended to write linked stories. I loved Alice Munro’s “The Beggar Maid” and Elizabeth Tallent’s “Time With Children” I fairly worship Grace Paley’s work and the recurring character of Faith, although her stories aren’t linked in a chronological narrative. Still, I hadn’t considered it--obviously this was pre-Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Jenny Egan’s Goon Squad--I was just doing what I always have done which is write the stories that I wanted to, needed to write.
It wasn’t until my agent pointed out despite having different names my main character was always the same person (I thought by changing the names perhaps no one would notice) and when you laid all the pieces out—it was almost like a scrapbook—the trajectory of the stories was clear.
In Use Me I wanted to tell the story of how one young woman’s sense of identity was shaped by the love and loss of her father and on a larger scale how a woman’s sense of power, her sexuality and ability to form intimate attachments with men, are related to their relationships with their fathers. What was surprising to me was that as I was writing that book, which is episodic in nature again like postcards or photos capturing the pivotal moments in Evie’s coming of age—I kept hearing another voice, a Catholic school girl who was in love with her abortionist. This young woman, Mary Beth would become the other point of character in the book. (The only other time this voice insisting on a story has happened to this same degree was in Blueprints when I started hearing the voice of Bender.) Unlike Evie, Mary Beth, in the absence of a good father has a very different power dynamic with men.
In terms of Blueprints for Building Better Girls I wanted to write about a range of universal female experiences and female archetypes, subverting the reader’s expectations and pre-conceived notions of who these women are. The cast of stereotypes: the good mother, the bad mother, the slut, the party girl, the good girl, the bad girl, the good wife, the artist. The structure can be seen as a sort of etiquette or anti-etiquette book as the stories all address the way our cultural mores influence women—what is valued, what is considered appropriate behavior, what is attractive—and how these messages inform our sense of self. Each story is a reflection or response to the image we have of these female stereotypes
Belinda, one of the characters, says, ““Everybody forgets who they used to be, and they become better people, even though inside they’re exactly the same.” Do you think there is ever really a possibility of change on a deeper level? (I’m afraid of the answer).
I do think there is the possibility of change on a deep level, if one wants it bad enough. No, you can’t change where you come from or what you’ve done, but you can change how you choose to look at it. You can grow out of that. At the risk of sounding like a goof ball, your past is the seed, you are the flower. That said, on some cellular level I am very much the girl I was at thirteen—in fact I am more like her now than I was twenty years ago. I am passionate and I want to change the world, I think I can, in some way change the world.
You are taking the pulse of modern America, from discontented moms on the playground to women who are struggling to become moms (discontented or not) to young women with eating disorders, in a wickedly funny way. Do you find yourselves always watching people and situations?
Always. Like all writers I am continually registering information. Having a writer in the family is like having an assassin at the breakfast table. It’s no different with friends and acquaintances, which may explain why—after the last book—I’m not getting invited to as many parties. While I am writing about experiences that are not necessarily my own, I hope that I am doing so in a way that feels truthful and empathetic. No matter how unlike me a character is, I hope I never write about them in a way that suggests they’re a stranger to me.
You’re also the co-founder of Tin House, the ravishingly great literary magazine, and you write the Hot Type column at Vanity Fair. So, when do you sleep?
I don’t sleep. Or not often, and when I do—whine, whine--it’s poorly. That’s something I have to learn how to do. Seriously.
Actually, the question is what’s your daily writing life like?
My whole life I’ve struggled with organization (perhaps that’s clear from my answers here?) were I not to organize my writing life I would spin out of orbit and do nothing but careen through the universe, shooting out sparks and clouds of dust. Which I did for years. What works for me is to break down my week thusly—Monday’s I scheduled appointments, lunch dates, shop for food and sundries, what have you. If I’m on deadline, I’ll write once this is accomplished. Tuesdays are wholly dedicated to teaching, again if on deadline, I’ll work at night. Wednesday through Friday, I’m in the studio writing. Mornings are dedicated to fiction—I have to start as early as possible to beat my super-critical ego out of bed, and lock the door. In the afternoon I work on non-fiction. Saturdays and Sundays I try not to work unless I’m on a roll or absolutely have to. You know as a writer you can work all the time, you can convince yourself that you must. (I have a dread fear of being thought lazy.) However, what I found was that when I went into the weekend thinking I was going to get to write, I was resentful when I couldn’t find the time because I was with the kids or doing something else around the house. And when I was writing on a Sunday I felt guilty for not hanging out with my kids. I longed to be with them but thought, No you can’t. You have to work. This way everyone wins. As they’ve gotten older and have their own plans and lives on the weekends it’s easier for me to work, should I really desire it, or have to.
I do also want to ask, since I’m also a book critic, how you feel reviewing books has impacted your own work.
It’s made me a harsher critic of my own work. I can be rather thinned skin--imagining a writer/critic reading my work as critically as I read theirs--makes me reluctant to publish anything before I’m certain it’s perfect. I’m not about to publish a book—which is really the equivalent of sending poorly lit naked pictures of yourself cleaning the tub--into the world, until I’ve fixed every flaw I can see.
On the flip side I hope that being an author has made me a better critic. I know how hard it is to write a book, so I go in rooting for the writer to win. It’s why I never review anyone’s work I don’t care for.
(Personally, I find being able to figure out what works and why and what doesn’t and how it could be fixed, really helps me in my own work. Is that the case for you?)
Absolutely. I find reading other writer’s incredibly instructive and inspiring. And yes, I can always see how someone else might improve their piece, but rarely can I see the flaws in my own. Oh that stories were tires you could just immerse in water, and follow the bubbles to find the holes.
What’s obsessing you now, and why?
As you know if you ever go to my FaceBook page or read “The Weeklings” online, I’m fairly obsessed with the war being waged against women by the GOP. Once I’d have written, “radical Conservative right wing of the GOP” but they are in the majority now, and while they’re radical—in terms of extremism, they aren’t radical in relation to the majority views of the Republican party. I’m also obsessed as it were with the rising acceptance of rape-culture, this idea that rape really isn’t that big of a deal. This despite the fact that 1 in 4 college girls, and 1 in 6 women will be the victim of rape of attempted rape. The majority of these women ages 12-34, will be assaulted by someone they know. The victim shaming and blaming is something that angers me greatly.
So, yes, that, that has me a bit obsessed.
What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask?
Darling, I think you’ve covered it all.