Blueprints for Building Better Girls
(Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Sigmund Freud famously asked, “What does a woman want?” Elissa Schappell seeks the answers with her second fiction collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Schappell, a former senior editor for the Paris Review, contributing editor and “Hot Type” book columnist at Vanity Fair, and co-founder and editor-at-large of Tin House, published her first fiction collection, Use Me, in 2000. Jenine Holmes spoke with the author over the phone from her Brooklyn home about her latest work.
Jenine Holmes (Rail): Where or when do you find time to write?
Elissa Schappell: Well, I take a lot of speed. [Laughs.] No, I really had to get to a place where I take my work really seriously, which I think is hard for a lot of writers, and certainly for a lot of women writers. My general working routine is, get up in the morning, get my kids to school, go straight to this studio space I have over at the Brooklyn Writer’s Room, and then start working before my really hypercritical brain can rise and shine.
Rail: To quote Rebecca Solnit, “To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide…” What landscape did you want to represent of the modern woman in Blueprints for Building Better Girls?
Schappell: I’m not one of those writers, like a Faulkner who lays out the butcher paper on the floor and knows completely how they’re going to get from A to B to C. I just started with voices, the voice—I started off basically writing the stories that I really wanted to read because I was really lonely. Having a kid and working all the time and being home by yourself is very isolating. And so one way to process the world that I was in now, and to try to make sense of that landscape, was to write, which is the only way I’ve ever been able to process what I’m feeling or even thinking sometimes. The stories are field notes. Blueprints is a far less autobiographical book, so once I had the stories together and it started to feel like a novel, then I went back and I started thinking about each era, what was important at that time, and what were the values. Are we moving forwards or are we moving backwards? And a lot of that was in the voices. I started thinking about the characters, how women were looked at, how the culture was treating them, what their relationships with men were like, what their relationships with their girlfriends were like. So, when we think about a landscape even if it’s through my own little warped telescope, it’s a picture of America over the last 30 years.
Rail: Blueprints seems to explore the power of sex to transform, whether it’s through birth, intercourse, rape.
Schappell: I’m kind of obsessed with sex and death. And power. So much of my work, again whether it’s the first book (Use Me) or whether it’s even in the non-fiction that I choose to write and the personal essays—I didn’t intend it, really, but I’m interested in the way that power shifts in relationships. Who’s got what power at what time, how men and women negotiate power. How parents negotiate with their children. And sex, for me, in some ways, is about power. In these relationships, in these stories, sex is a currency. The character Heather has been labeled a slut. She’s not a slut but you know what she is; she’s the girl who likes sex.
Rail: And she’s comfortable with her body and her experimentation, but ultimately she pays a price for it socially, with the other kids.
Schappell: Yes, and she feels utterly betrayed. She’s angry at herself because she’s made herself vulnerable to him. I think some way that I learn about my characters is through their sexuality, the kind of sex they like or don’t like, how they see themselves as sexual people or non-sexual people. In the “Out of the Blue and Into the Black” story, Bender has sex but for her it’s not about anything other than wanting to have a void filled, or it’s about connecting without connecting.
Rail: Well, at that moment.
Schappell: She would say that the easiest way for me to get to know somebody would be to sleep with them. Because she reads that sex as real intimacy, when in fact what you see, I hope, is that real intimacy is so difficult for her with that boy, and with Andy. She would love to be in love with him, but we all know it’s a tragedy—you don’t always fall in love with the people you should fall in love with.
Rail: Blueprints appears to be taking up the mantle of Ann Beattie, as a translator of relationships past and present. Do you agree? Disagree?
Schappell: I guess it’s like when people tell you, “Oh, you look just like your mother,” or, “Boy, you look like that woman from Weeds or whatever”—but no, I think in this case, she’s someone who has been cited in the way you mentioned. And then also Lorrie Moore, which is nice because she’s dark and funny. It’s nice to have someone say, “Boy, you remind me of someone,” or, “The territory you’re staking out is territory that these great writers have staked out,” not like, “Wow, you remind me of the crazy babysitter I had who used to huff PAM and pass out.”
Rail: You have an amazing talent for capturing the internal and external thoughts of your characters. Do some characters speak louder to you than others? Charlotte, for example, with her thoughts on perspiring versus sweating.
Schappell: She definitely was someone who I thought—we all have these little scripts that run through our heads, stuff we were told as a kid. We carry that landscape forever, that soundtrack of what we’ve been told and what we’ve been taught, the songs that we learned, and the messages we got. Some people are better at tuning them out than others, and some people really cling to them. They become to them their sacred text. And for Charlotte the sacred text is, in some way, Emily Post. And it’s believing that if I’m good and I hold my salad fork this way, I don’t perspire, that I don’t wear white after Labor Day, that I can control the universe. And the fact of the matter is that she can’t, no one can. So you can try and buttress yourself with as many “Lady should do this” and “Lady should do that” and “A good girl never swears”—God, I have a million of them stored in my head—but in the end, they don’t protect her.
Rail: That script is written early on. You can’t always ignore it.
Schappell: No, you really can’t. So, for some people, when they read the book, they’re like, oh, Charlotte’s kind of comical. I don’t find anything comic about her or her mother, that’s just the way that they’re wired.
Rail: In a way, it’s a family tradition.
Schappell: Absolutely, and it’s funny—the family tradition thing—because I’m thinking in “The Joy of Cooking” how the mother in that story also—I don’t know how clear it is—but she also has her own history with bulimia, because I do think these ideas about what it means to be a woman, and to look like a woman, certainly must include food—you can’t write a book about contemporary women living in America and not address the topic of food. I think our attitudes certainly about food and the way that we eat, and what food means to us, is handed down through generations.
Rail: Or, even, what we deny ourselves, for example the story where the mother instructs the daughter on how to throw up properly.
Schappell: Just in the way that a dad might teach his kids how to throw a baseball, or not to be sexist, the way a parent might teach their kid how to throw a baseball, or how to cut down a tree, or swing a tennis racket.
Rail: Your work has a striking honesty about motherhood.
Schappell: I guess I’ve always been that person who says the thing you’re not supposed to say. Most writers, in my experience, are standing off to the side, at a distance from the group, even if they’re right in the middle of the group. I feel it’s a writer’s job to say what everybody knows but doesn’t want to say. I’m painting the world as I see it. I want it to feel truthful. I know that I’m not alone in what I’m feeling, what I’m experiencing. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that some of the stuff, which to me doesn’t seem like a big, terrible thing to say—that sometimes mothers feel ambivalent about the fact that they had a kid? You know? But you’re not supposed to say that and certainly not in a group.
Rail: That’s part of the motherhood creed. You’re not ever supposed to say that, not out loud.
Schappell: No, certainly not. And when you do, you’re a beast. Suddenly everybody is treating you like you’re Anne Sexton, like you’re going to put out a cigarette on your kid next.
Rail: Speaking of writers at work, 10 years passed between Use Me and Building Better Girls. Considering that writers have some of the longest gestation periods of any creative mammal, will we have to wait another decade for your next fiction collection?
Schappell: No way, no. You know what I learned? If you feel like a book really isn’t working, don’t invest two-and-a-half years in it. I think part of what kept me from finishing the book was this idea that there were so many stories that I wanted to write, so many things I had collected, and at some point I had to really pull back and focus. We’re taking these archetypes and we’re subverting them. We’re going to take the images of these women that everybody believes they know. Okay, here’s the party girl. Here’s the slut. Here’s the good girl. Here’s the bad mommy. And I’m going to turn them inside out. And I’m going to show you what really is inside these women that you think you all know. That’s the book.