Elissa Schappell, whose Blueprints for Building Better Girls is out in paperback this month, talks process, novels vs. stories, musical inspiration, etiquette, motherhood and more with Justin Taylor, author of The Gospel of Anarchy and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever.
To begin at the beginning, or to try anyway, can you tell me a bit about the process of writing Blueprints for Building Better Girls? Were the stories written in the order in which they appear? Did you yourself employ a “blueprint” of some kind?
God no. I don’t care for outlines and blueprints. I don’t like to be told what to do, even if it’s me doing the telling. Which isn’t to say I didn’t have a direction in mind. I began with the idea of writing a series of “instructive” stories inspired by the rules governing proper female behavior in old etiquette and women’s self-help books from Emily Post to What to Expect… Not surprisingly, the stories felt over-determined and too clever by half. (See what I mean?) So I abandoned the idea. However, clearly my subconscious didn’t because that’s pretty much what I ended up doing.
The order the stories appear in is not the order in which they were written. Although I felt strongly about having the book begin as it does—with the story of Heather who has been labeled a slut and how that effects her sense of self and sexuality—and then ending with her as a mother having to come to terms with her past and her own mythology. I wanted you to see how growing up in this time, under these circumstances made her that woman. I also knew when I wrote the last line of that story that was the end of the book. I wanted the reader to acknowledge their complicity in the suppositions that have been made about these women. These women aren’t just what I’ve shown you, their lives are infinitely richer and more complicated.
Both your books are collections of linked stories, but Use Me is strict enough in its forward-moving chronology and in its limits on point of view that it can “pass” as a novel-in-stories, particularly in the latter sections where Evie’s narrative largely eclipses Mary Beth’s. Blueprints, its mosaic structure notwithstanding, has at least as strong a sense of thematic unity as Use Me–maybe a stronger one. Was it tempting to bring this book to market as a novel-in-stories or even, in a post-Goon Squad world, as simply a novel?
I’ve never had any interest in trying to pass off one of my books as a novel. I’m fine being a trans-structural fiction writer. I embrace my differences. This is how God made me damnit. I’m not saying I’ll never be attracted to the novel or write one (this is how I keep my agent and editors from abandoning the idea I’ll ever make them a penny) it’s just not where my desire lies now.
There were some murmurs about revising the stories and restructuring the book as a novel, after Goon Squad came out especially. I was fortunate that no one, not my agent, editor or publisher pushed it and they might have—novels certainly sell better than novels-in-stories, which is how, if I have to label the book, think of it. Rewriting it as a novel would have ruined the integrity of the book.
I wanted each story to be very clearly it’s own narrative: a story about a particular kind of woman in a situation that captured a moment in their lives that made them who they are, maybe a moment of true feeling—the beliefs and prejudices that created their identity and capture a wide range of experiences unique to the female experience of growing up in America from the 70s to the present time: a chorus of female voices singing different songs but all songs about the experience of being an American woman.
This notion of a dissonant chorus starts on the epigraph page. We’ve got the feminist art icon Barbara Kruger declaring “I will not become what I mean to you” and the etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige reminding us that “A lady never swears.”
Simply put, labeling women is an act of oppression. Not only is it wrong, it’s dangerous. Not to mention stupid. (I never use that word, ever, so there you go—that’s how strongly I feel about it.) So, each story is a reflection or response to the image we have of these women, and the messages the culture has given us over the last thirty years, and how they have informed our ideas about female identity. While these women are all different they are singing the song familiar to a lot of American women and, yes, there are some swear words in the lyrics.
The themes and structure of this book can be read as an etiquette book, or anti-etiquette book. However unlike those books, these stories aren’t driven by a question—How should one behave when meeting one’s husband’s boss? What is the proper way to speak to a new acquaintance?—which is then answered. They’re driven by a character who is dealing with an issue that polite society deems inappropriate to discuss—rape, teenage sex, drug addiction, miscarriage—but which is a universal experience. There are no simple answers.
Kruger’s message to the viewer and the larger culture is, I will not allow you to dictate my identity or project your biases on me based on gender, ethnicity, age, or politics. I will not kneel. That’s how I feel. “I will not become what I mean to you.” Discovering Kruger’s work was a formative experience for me. Her point of view, humor, fierceness set fire to my brain. The first piece of hers I recall seeing was, “Your body is a Battleground”; the second: “You are the Perfect Crime.”
There’s another Kruger piece from that same era that uses the collective “we” in place of the individual “I.” Did you consider both versions of the quote?
I think the “I” is more powerful. It works as a personal affirmation, a message, and a prophecy. I think the “we” is implied. These characters are all part of a “we” but it’s a book of individuals, and each of these women should have her own voice. I didn’t like the idea of the women in the book banded together and at odds with the reader. I wanted each to have a separate relationship with readers, as the reader has with them.
In every story, there’s this struggle against (or toward) what someone else wants you to be. To what degree is this imbalance between reality and imposed vision the circumstantial result of politics/culture/sexism/etc. and to what degree is it an existential condition?
Obviously, there is a lot of pressure for women (as well as men) to conform to a certain ideal. We’re always struggling to reconcile who we think we should be with who we are, regardless of whether the pressure is coming from inside or outside influences. Inevitably we come up wanting.
There is also the struggle to negotiate power within these intimate relationships—lovers, friends, spouses—as well as within the women themselves. I’m very interested in the notion of personas. The characters in these stories are acutely aware of people’s perceptions of them, and the masks they each need to put on to protect themselves, as well as to protect their families and friends from their experiences. Charlotte, the young woman who’s been raped in “Are You Comfortable?” must protect her parents from the crime committed against her so she can remain in their minds, (and her own) a “good girl”. Which she is, but she doesn’t feel that way. It made me terribly sad when in a later story, “Elephant,” we see Charlotte grown up with children of her own, reflecting on a conversation with her mother where she very obliquely suggested she wanted to tell her then-fiancée about what happened to her, and her mother’s response that a husband shouldn’t know everything about his wife. That were certain things a lady keeps to herself. She calls it “mystery.”
My favorite character in Blueprints is Bender, who we first meet as an extra in “Monsters of the Deep” and see again in a few other stories. But when she narrates “Out of the Blue and into the Black” we get a whole new sense of her—or I did. She’s a type of girl who is often depicted but rarely afforded the space to articulate her own experience. I couldn’t help but imagine the counterfactual version of that story, written by a man (me, for example) and told from Andy’s perspective—everything that version of the story would probably leave out or gloss, no matter whether out of circumstance or necessity, and what you’d be left with was a story everyone’s heard a hundred times before. Was this or something like it going through your mind when you were writing “Out of the Blue…”?
That’s exactly what I was thinking. She’s the “Girls Gone Wild Girl”—a caricature, a type of girl everybody knew in college, and dismissed, most likely as being nothing more than a character, if you will. No one cares what a girl like Bender has to say—in fact when I heard her voice in my head, I wrote her off as a joke. Until I realized what a hypocrite I was being. I was treating her the same way everyone else treated her. I didn’t see her as anything other than a joke, and that wasn’t fair. If she was so slight why did I keep hearing her voice? She was the key that unlocked the book—that made me see that what I’d been doing all along was writing about all these archetypal female characters, everyone thought that they knew, but didn’t know at all. I had to write Bender’s story as much as I had to the write everyone else’s because if I didn’t tell the truth about her life maybe nobody ever would. And she’s hardly an anomaly.
I chose not to tell the end of the Bender’s story. I wanted her to disappear. Because that is what happens in the lives of girls like Belinda, they exist for us in a time and place in our past. Perhaps the vanishing is of their own making, they want to distance themselves from the person they once were, and that time in their life. Perhaps they simply moved on. I know what happened to her, but the reader doesn’t.
I try to always ask authors about their influences. In addition to Kruger, there’s “Out of the Blue…” which takes its title from a Neil Young song, and in which several other bands are name-checked. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the music that’s in the book.
I listen to music all the time. I don’t understand or trust people who don’t like or listen to music. There is a lot of music in the book: Top 40, 70s rock, Motown, 80s pop, punk. Music provides the soundtrack of these characters’ lives. Bender and Charlotte and their college girlfriends listen to the Supremes and the Go Gos, Heather likes Blondie, Debbie Harry of course being a strong woman with a very powerful presence. The couple from “A Dog Story” listen to jazz and NPR—which tells you who they are. In the days after Kate’s miscarriage, her husband Douglas has music on in every room of their apartment, to fill the silence, as a way to not talk to each other about this terrible thing they’ve just suffered.
More than any of that though, in the case of these characters, music particularly in a story like “Out of the Blue and Into the Black” articulates the feelings the character can’t express. That Neil Young song is on Bender’s “funeral play list” because it perfectly sums up her world-view: what she believes, what she’s afraid of. “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust / fade away…. There’s more to the picture than meets the eye… Once you’re gone you can’t come back, when you’re out of the blue and into the black.”
The song she shares with Andy, “their song,” is Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”. Bender is like a hurricane. The lyrics capture their relationship perfectly, although it goes unacknowledged, even as they are singing to each other. Andy going, “I want to love you but I get so blown away.” While Bender sings, “You are just a dreamer / and I am just a dream,” which turns around Neil Young’s pronouns. The real line goes, “I am just a dreamer / and you are just a dream.”
Some of the story titles—”Are You Comfortable?”, “Aren’t You Dead Yet?”, “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once”—reminded me of Carver. Are there other figures or works you regard as influential—on you in general, or just on this book in particular—that aren’t named anywhere in the text?
As an American writer of short fiction I of course admire the hell out of Raymond Carver. His open endings, the way he makes the reader fill in the blanks, how his characters talk to each other and around each other. They’re all a little broken. They want something they can’t ask for. It’s the same with Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel, who were both revelations to me in the way they use humor to tell a dark serious story how they convey regret and unfathomable sadness in a joke, and the way they play with form. Amy’s refusal to focus on plot, refusal to explain, that urgency in her work has had a great impact on my own. I wish I could write with her economy. As I get older, I am more and more impressed with Grace Paley’s ability—no, insistence, on being not only a first-rate writer, but a political figure, a writer who felt we all—but especially those people who have a platform—have a responsibility to be citizens, involved in making our world a better place, and on top of all that was a mother. True, unlike her male counterparts she didn’t put out a new book every three years, but the work she made was exemplary. It was art. When she said, “I will sacrifice nothing” she meant it.
I’ve read interviews where you described motherhood as an experience that totally upended your worldview.
I can’t separate my experience as a mother from my life as a writer. Writing has always been the way I order the universe and make sense of chaos. It’s how I figure out what I think and feel. It’s where I pour my anger and dread. It’s where I feel most free, and it’s where I fight.
Becoming a parent has profoundly shaped my vision of the world, the same way that becoming a pirate or an arsonist or chronically ill changes your perspective and how you move in the world. You never look at the world the same way. The stakes are different. You are different. I know stuff about the world, about myself, I’d never know if I wasn’t someone’s mother. I’d like to think it’s made me a smarter, more compassionate human being. By the same token it also changes how people look at you. It’s funny we so often regards mothers as being one-dimensional, sexless, creatures—toothless, when in fact I know I’m a much more interesting and dangerous person now than I ever was before.
Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is a contributing editor and the Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and co-founder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine.