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Interview with Elissa Schappell on Nonlinear Writing, Female Identity, and Crafting While Watching TV

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Elissa Schappell’s latest 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 inNew 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 inAmerica 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.

Read the rest at The Faster Times


Written by Gabrielle

September 6, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Posted in books, interviews

Tagged with , , ,

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