Elissa Schappell Discusses Nonlinear Writing, Female Identity, and Crafting While Watching TV
Elissa Schappell’s lastest book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, might at first glance look like a short story collection but upon reading it unfolds as something more complex, something interwoven, almost playful as it toys with time and perspective. Readers are taken into the lives of multiple characters as they deal with real life challenges in very real ways. In Blueprints Schappell proves that preparing girls for their teen years—and adulthood—sometimes requires more than tea parties, cupcakes, and tiaras.
In 2008, in an interview with the New York Times, you mentioned that writing Blueprints for Building Better Girls was taking much longer that you’d imagined. I’m sure you’d like to put that all behind you now that it’s here but were there moments when you considered tossing it in a drawer? What kept you going? Looking back on it now, was there anything in particular that stymied the process?
One reason it took me so long to publish this book—ten years since Use Me—was that I spent two plus years working on a novel that eventually “went to live on a farm.” I had wanted to write a sly novel of manners that was a commentary on the relationship between white liberal parents in New York City and their nannies. It felt like a book I should write. It was never, however, a book I felt I needed to write. Which, in my case, dooms my relationship with a subject, from the start.
While I was writing that novel, I was cheating on it with these stories. I couldn’t help it. Writing is how I process the world. How I sort out what I’m thinking and feeling. In the process of writing the novel I had two kids, which completely altered the way I saw the world. It was like getting new glasses. Truth told I felt like a freak. The sort of stories I needed to read, to make me feel less alone and crazy, to make me laugh, were the stories I needed to write.
What stymied me was, that as the kids got older and I thought more about what it means to be a woman in our culture–the seminal experiences that create female identity–I felt compelled to go back and write new stories, and revise the stories I had armed with this new knowledge.
What kept me going was the idea that I shouldn’t be telling these stories. Any time I wrote something that made me think, Oh that will make some people uncomfortable, or I really shouldn’t say that, I got a charge. It’s not that the stories are radical, or shocking—they aren’t. The only way they are transgressive is that they are true. Not autobiographically true necessarily, but authentic representations of what it’s like to grow up female in America at this time.
You co-founded Tin House, a successful literary journal now in its twelfth year, and are still on staff as the Editor-at-Large. You were a Senior Editor at The Paris Review and now write the monthly book column, “Hot Type,” for Vanity Fair magazine. You’ve also contributed to The New York Times Book Review. How do your roles as editor and book critic factor into your own writing? Do you find it more effective to turn that part of you off while writing fiction or tap into it?
Often when I’m reading for my Vanity Fair column I feel overwhelmed by how many marvelous books are being written right now, and I think, Really, Elissa? Think of the trees. Does the world really need one more book? And the answer is, Yes, at this point in your life, living out of your car is not an option.
I find editing others work much easier than my own. I can see as clearly as if I were wearing night goggles, where the trouble lies, where the holes are, where the forest is too dense. In terms of my own work, I’m constantly stumbling in the dark, tripping over rocks, walking into trees, stepping into bear traps.
When I’m writing non-fiction that critical part of my brain is a level-headed guide who reads the map and keeps me on the path, asks questions—Are you sure you want to make a hairpin turn here? The editor part of my brain carries a machete, and says, Honestly, if you really want the best view of the sunset, you have to hack through those bushes. The editor says, This trip was a bad idea, turn around.
When I’m writing fiction, I have to tie up the editor and stick a sock in the mouth of the critic otherwise I’d never leave the path. I’d never discover anything new or exciting to me. For me, the best view is always from the edge of the crumbling cliff.
As in your previous book, Use Me, Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a collection of interweaving stories featuring the same characters. In this one you play with time and point of view. Once noticed, it can be a bit of a shock. It also creates this feeling of wanting to go back to the previous stories and look through them again, as if the text as a whole were a puzzle. What draws you to this non-linear style? How does this approach change the nature of the story?
I don’t think linearly. A lot of the fiction I love, especially collections of short stories with recurring characters don’t move in a linear fashion. In one story a character is alive, in another they’re dead. It’s why I read Salinger over and over again.
In the case of this book, part of what I wanted to do was to explore how, over decades, changing cultural attitudes shape female identity. To that end, I wanted the stories to be grounded in different eras. The book starts with a story set in the 70s about a young woman whose been labeled a slut, and ends with her story, set in the present day. What you see is how that formative experience, and the cultures’ views on women’s sexuality, have lead her to become the kind of wife and mother she is at the end.
Because I wanted to make the point that despite the fact these women are all different, these are shared experiences, I wanted multiple points of view. How it is that, based on a woman’s appearance, reputation, or a pre-conceived notion that the culture has ascribed to them, we believe we know them.
So, the reader meets a character in one story and gains access to their personal life, then sees them in another story behaving in a way we can see as perfectly logical given the way they’ve been brought up, or given what has happened to them, but others in the story have a different take on them. This changes our perception of them. A woman who is grieving a miscarriage is perceived as being cold and unfeeling when she doesn’t ask to see a co-worker’s baby pictures. A girl, who the culture dismisses as nothing but a Girls-Gone-Wild-style party girl, has a brain and parents. I wanted to show the ways in which these women connect, or don’t, or can’t connect, and because we know them we know what is lost and at what cost.
It is a puzzle, though in some cases a purposefully incomplete one. You don’t know what happens to every character, in the same way that there are people who disappear from your life, and you are left to imagine what happened to them. What we imagine, given what we know, what our own biases may be, tells us a lot about ourselves.
The title, which comes from an imagined 1960s etiquette book you mention in one of the stories, is quite tongue-in-cheek given the darkness that pervades these women’s lives. Your portrayal of the teenage years, of married life, and of mother-daughter relationships tends to be pretty bleak but it never feels forced; in fact, they feel very real.
It’s funny I don’t think of the stories as bleak at all. Some are sad, I suppose. I guess I see them as capturing dark, often absurd moments in our shared experiences, and doing so with humor. That’s the way life is. These are the experiences that shape us and later we recognize as having made us profoundly who we are. Hopefully that is a person who is living a life of fulfillment and as much happiness as they can bear. We are who we are in part because of the culture we grow up in—whether it’s a tribe of pygmies in Australia or a tribe of preppies on Park Avenue.
My desire here isn’t to make people feel happy, or uplifted. There are other writers who can do that, and do it far better than me. I want readers to be happy they read the book. If there is a generous impulse here, it’s to make some people feel less alone.
I bet every woman who picks up your book will either be able to relate to at least one of the characters personally or it will remind them of someone close to them.
I hope so. I’m hardly creating an alien world here. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not. I’d hope though that it’s not only women who pick it up. While the experiences may be those of women, I don’t see how it’s different than a woman picking up a book about men fighting in a war. War is war.
Gender is not a genre.
We’ve seen the trials and tribulations of life as a female in literature before but much of it has a politeness about it. Blueprints lacks apologies. Is this unguarded, honest look at the lives of women a fairly new phenomenon? Is there a freedom that female writers have today that previous generations of women didn’t?
I feel no need, or see any reason to apologize to anyone for writing this book. Apologize for what, to whom? It’s the same idea as having to ask for permission. If women waited to be given permission to create the art they need to make, our art would be confined to greeting cards, and we’d be confined to institutions.
As to whether it’s a new phenomenon, I don’t think so. You’re right there’s a lot more freedom, many more voices, and a greater diversity of experiences being shared. And, yes we are, on the whole, less guarded and polite than generations before us.
Readers love to question whether fiction is autobiographical or not.
I know. It’s unfortunate. I attribute it to lack of imagination, combined with the scourge of reality TV, and the explosion of memoirs depicting Dickensian childhoods, and sexual peccadillos that would make Anais Nin blush. Fiction requires a willful suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, something many readers seem either unwilling, or incapable of doing and thus they deny themselves the pleasure of getting truly lost in a fictive universe.
Forget the fact that it’s insulting to a writer to suggest a writer has so little imagination that they could never imagine a world outside the sphere of their experience.
Is this threat of conflation ever a consideration when you approach your fictional work?
Never. I have no control over how people read my work. If I thought about it, or cared, I’d never work at all. If I did all the things my characters do, if I felt all they feel, I’d be a basket case. For all my insanity, I’m rather sane.
As a reviewer for Vanity Fair you receive many books, probably more than most people can imagine, even with all of these varied books in the marketplace, do you see a hole anywhere? A theme or tone that you hope will land in your inbox?
There are so many books it’s hard to say where the holes are. I can say with certainty that there are far too many celebrity memoir/work-out/cook books. I like the rise in the books that further the DIY movement, be it in art or politics.
Where do you seek refuge when you need an escape from words?
I watch movies, or seasons of televisions shows I never saw, and make things. As a kid I was never allowed to watch television unless I was doing something like drawing or making pot-holders, or dusting. It never left me. So I’ll make jewelry, or animal sculptures, or knit. After I signed off my final page proofs, I watched six hours of Downton Abbey, made feathered hairpieces, and embroidered a hedgehog patch that said, Fight the Power. Going to see live music is also a reliable means of escape and inspiration. Being in the dark with a hundred other people, watching a performance, dancing and singing along, terrifically loud music scrambling my atoms, that pretty perfect.
Elissa will be at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on Thursday, September 8th at 7:30pm
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