Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Elissa Schappell on the Continuing Conversation

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls (Simon & Schuster), tells why she put her collection together the way she did, describes a painful writing experience, and names the books and writers that inspire her.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
Arranging the stories in the collection was a challenge for me because, unlike a traditional story collection, I wanted the book to have an arc of sorts and thus read more like a traditional novel with the first and last stories serving as bookends. I also wanted the stories to move back and forth in time, overlapping directly or obliquely, so you’d see the character from several different perspectives and distances. So you could see how, say, the experience of being labeled a slut in high school would inform your identity, reverberating, even twenty-five years later when you’re a grown woman and mother. The ways in which we exist only in the imagination or memory of others and how at odds this perception is with reality. My hope is that as the stories progress, each revealing a new side of a character through another lens, the reader will be challenged to confront their preconceived notions of who these women are. Perhaps question the judgments they’ve passed on these women earlier and consider why they were inclined to do so.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Once. It’s called, "Try An Outline" and it’s from Use Me.

I knew that there would have to be a story in the book where the father dies. And I hated it. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want it to be all sentimental, then-a-golden-ladder-of-sunlight-reached-down-into-the-hospital-room. I wanted it to feel authentic. I was angry at the universe, angry with my father, and confused. I felt like child. Now were I a girl, faced with writing a difficult paper, my father would have helped me. He’d have said, as he always did, “Make an outline.” This always bothered me to no end. I didn’t want to make a freaking outline. I wanted him to help me write this paper on Of Mice and Men.

As it would happen, the day I sat down to write the story, feeling reluctant, angry and full of doubt, I heard his voice in my head: “Try making an outline,” he said. As ever, this pissed me off. “Really,” I thought. “You really think that’s going to help me get through this? An outline? Sure. Right. Fine. You want an outline so bad, well here it is.”

And so it went. It was the most painful writing experience of my life. I was shaking and sobbing, completely rattled. Anytime I started to slow down, or thought, “I can’t do this, I’ve got to stop,” I’d tell myself, “No. Just keep going. Go down. Go down, touch the bottom and then, when you come up, it won’t hurt as much."

For the next five hours I sat and wrote it, and when I was done, I got up, went to the loo and vomited.

Later when I read it, there were parts I didn’t even remember writing, parts I scarcely recognized.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
I don’t think I ever wanted to be a writer. I’ve just always been one. At this point in my life, I have no other marketable skills, at all. So, I suppose I’m stuck with it.

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, so I read a lot and wrote a lot in my notebooks. I loved all of Salinger, especially Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories. Although later, I’d carry a copy of Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter because I liked that, despite the experience of being there [editor's note: *spoiler alert*] when Seymour kills himself in “A Good Day for Bananafish,” I could go back, across this bridge of other books and visit him. The conversation continued. The idea that a book could do that, continue the conversation, is what spurred me to write my first book, Use Me, which is about, in part, the relationship between a daughter and her father who is dying of cancer.

As an adult, Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore gave me permission to take my world and the characters that populated it seriously. To write in my voice, to realize a story needn’t be long to be deep. Length doesn’t equal strength. I own all their books—multiple copies of some—the ones most lined and worn are Amy’s Reasons to Live and At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, and Lorrie’s Self-Help and Birds of America.

There was anger and desire and awkwardness in these stories; these women were going into dark places. Their stories were honest in a way I couldn’t be in life, or on the page, and they were using humor as a vehicle to deliver the truth. They made me smarter about the world and myself. They were writing sentences so perfect they demanded re-reading and memorizing. They were able to give up something of themselves without drawing attention to themselves as writers, or ever lapsing into sentimentality. Still, there was always the sense that some part of the story was written with a bone. The humor and sadness, the terrain was familiar to me, so reading them felt a bit like discovering my pack. Although they were bigger and faster and cleverer than me, even if I never made it to the front, I could be a writer, and I wasn’t alone anymore.