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?