eMusic Q&A: Elissa Schappell
Elissa Schappell’s second collection of linked stories, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, is some dark business. Her protagonists — all of them women, ranging from high school age to adulthood — exist in a kind of moral grey area: They have hate sex, and wait for ailing ex-boyfriends to die so they can write about them. But there’s a real spark to these stories; the language crackles, and there is a deep humanity running through each of them. The characters, even as they are burning up from within, are deftly written as witty and relatable; it is impossible not to be invested in them.
Schappell, the co-founder of acclaimed literary magazine Tin House and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, spoke with eMusic’s Jami Attenberg about the process of writing linked collections, songs that empower women, and her visions of life as a rodeo clown.
First, let’s talk audiobooks. The narrator, Julia Whelan, is a former child actress, which seems fitting for Blueprints for Building Better Girls. So many of your characters seem to be faking it till they make it, or at least trying to pass for something normal. Have you listened to your audiobook yet? Are you a fan of audiobooks?
I’ve only listened to a little bit. In all honesty it freaked me out. I believe I’m not quite there yet, though I’m certain Julia has done a swell job.
I really got turned on to them when my kids were small. We listened to Roald Dahl, all of the Harry Potter books, plus Peter and the Stargazers, just about anything Jim Dale reads, Bill Moyers’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, and, of course, David Sedaris. I confess I have Anna Karenina but, as with the book, I’ve yet to listen to it all the way through. I guess the next one I’ll buy will be War and Peace and not to listen to that one either.
Your characters tend to be extremely quick-witted, and dialogue plays a big part in this book. Do you read your work out loud at all when you’re writing it?
I do read my dialogue — actually all my work — out loud. I’ve discovered that when I read my work aloud I will balk in certain places, not wanting to read a section because I know it’s poorly written, or just plain wrong.
Do you enjoy giving readings?
I enjoy doing readings, and think I have yet to do one where, as I’m reading, I’m not changing a word here and there, or skipping a line. I edit as I’m reading; it’s a compulsion. I don’t know if Julia has done that while reading my book. I suppose once I steel myself I’ll have to listen to more of it and see.
What are some great readings you’ve seen other authors give?
I’ve been very fortunate to hear some amazing readings. Toni Morrison was extraordinary.
And every year Tin House has a literary writing workshop out in Portland, Oregon. Every night, there is a reading by one of the authors who are teaching for us, which has afforded me the opportunity to hear some incredible reading too, like Joy Williams, Denis Johnson and Dorothy Allison, who is positively riveting. The best readers really embody their work.
Luis Urrea is another one, I’ve seen him drop his book in the middle of a reading, and start to recite the story from memory. He records his own books. I find that very moving, profound — to record your own work so future generations could hear your stories in your own voice.
In one of the stories from Blueprints, “Out of the Blue and Into the Black,” one of your characters, Bender, talks about making a playlist for her funeral. What was the inspiration behind that?
I once had a boyfriend who used to do this, he’d call me up at midnight and be like, “Okay, so when I die — subtext here: After I commit suicide — I want you to play, Rush’s “Red Barchetta.” It seems like a classically narcissistic thing to do.
Did you make any playlists while you were writing this book?
I made two playlists for this book. One that is the music the characters listen to, the music that is of the time I’m writing about — Springsteen, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Led Zepplin, Rush, Joan Jett, Neil Young, The Go-Go’s, the English Beat, Miles Davis. Listening to that helped me access my memories of that time.
The other was my “Bad Girls” playlist, which included a wide range of female artists from ’60s to present time. A lot of the songs are about female empowerment, or power, from Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to L7′s “Shit List” and MEN’s “Who Am I to Feel So Free.” And, of course, sex: The Runaways, “Cherry Bomb” and the Donnas’ “It’s Too Bad About Your Girl.” Girl-on-girl aggression, and some of them are just fun, like Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” and Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” which salutes all these badass feminists.
What kind of music are you listening to right now?
Right now I’m listening to a lot of different things, but every season I make a playlist of what I’m listening to and so far what I’ve got is the Like, who sound like a ’60s girl group, they have a great song called, “Wishing He Was Dead,” and the Sneaker Pimps’ “Tesko Suicide,” the new Peter Bjorn and John, and the Arctic Monkeys. Also, X, they were just in town and I couldn’t see them, so I’m trying to convince myself that cranking up “Wild Gift” and “Los Angeles” is like being at a show. Though, of course, it’s not at all.
Did you set out to write a linked short story collection, or did your characters find a way to each other in the writing of it?
Good question. I didn’t really have a set structure in mind when I started writing the stories. In fact, because my first book, Use Me, was linked stories I had this idea I must do something completely different. So, despite the fact that the linked stories form really speaks to me, I spent a long time working on a novel that was lousy, but that I felt I ought to write. I realize that everything you make is part of the process, nothing is wasted, but I would be a flat-out liar if I didn’t tell how piteously I’d cried about the time I felt I’d wasted on that book.
At the same time, though, I was also writing stories, some of which are in Blueprints for Building Better Girls. I didn’t really think too much about how connected the women were at first, I would just find myself, while writing, discovering that a character in one story was also the protagonist of an entirely different story. It made sense — they are from the same town in New Jersey — they have similar backgrounds, each feels like an outsider, each feels alienated, each relies on a persona to function in the world.
When I had it all put together, yes, there were definitely connections that I’d made that I took out. So much stuff I took out of these stories. I didn’t want the stories to feel too connected, because it’s not about one place, or one group of friends, or a family, it’s about the connections they make with each other, and the missed connections, the spaces between people, the judgments we make about people we barely know. We overlap more than we know with others; we share landscapes and sometimes friends, without knowing it. I like that idea.
You’ve worked extensively as an editor as well as a writer. Do you feel any sort of push and pull between those two universes, especially when you’re creating your own work?
When I’m creating work, I try to make sure that my interior editor — a true tear-you-down harridan — is locked up in chains in a steel box at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Or that’s my intention. Of course invariably she has hidden a key under her tongue and will, after a time, free herself.
I do find when I’m revising my work that I use this strategy that Allen Ginsberg, when he was teaching at NYU, used to talk about. Which was to look at your work through the eyes of your most trusted readers, friends, teachers. I do that. One of my old professors from grad school used to mark sections of my stories. OTT? Which meant “Over the top?” When I’m editing, I often ask myself, “OTT?”
It’s nearly a 10-year gap between this and your first collection, Use Me. Do you think we’ll have to wait that long for another book? What are you working on now?
As long as I’m upright, and enough people buy the new book so I can afford to pay my electric bills, feed my kidlets and occasionally buy a new hat, then yes, I’m hopeful. I do have to admit that a job as a rodeo clown or a poo-smith in the big cats’ exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, is very intriguing. Especially when you figure that the pain-of-death to success ratio heavily favors rodeo clowns and poo-smiths.
Right now I’m working on two books; one I can tell you about. It deals with this kind of crazy epilepsy I have, called TLE and was inspired by an essay I just published in the Fall issue of Tin House, and the second one, well…you’ll just have to wait and see.