This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.
It's been 10 years since Elissa Schappell published her first book, "Use Me," a collection of linked stories about the lives of women and girls that was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. There, Schappell developed a nuanced approach to the telling of long-form narrative: to work by inference, leaving gaps for the reader, making us work to fill them in. The same strategy is on display in her second collection, “Blueprints for Building Better Girls,” which gathers eight pieces of short fiction, loosely connected, about a number of women whose lives intersect -- sometimes directly and sometimes in the most oblique of ways.
Schappell -- who writes the Hot Type column for Vanity Fair -- lives in Brooklyn, but she'll be in Los Angeles on Sunday night to read at Skylight Books. She answered questions about "Blueprints for Building Better Girls" by email as she prepared to travel west.
Jacket Copy: Let's start by talking about structure. The stories here all have individual narrative arcs, but also work in conjunction with one another to create a loose narrative cycle.
Elissa Schappell: I didn't set out with a set idea or plan. What happened was that I was 2-1/2 years into a forced march through writing a novel. It wasn't any good. I had no passion for it. Still, I was sticking with it. It wasn't that I was uncomfortable with the material -- discomfort is good for me -- no, I was bored. While I was slogging through the novel, I was also writing stories.
I've always been interested in proper etiquette and etiquette books, as well as bizarre self-help books. I collect them. The stories I was writing were in response to books like "Mrs. Dale Carnegie's How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead in Business," and "Thin For Him!," a Christian diet book. They were fun, if overly clever, and ultimately just tricks. Nothing in those stories for anyone else.
When I showed the novel to my agent, she called me out on it. There wasn't one tear, not one bloody fingerprint. Which was not the case with the stories I'd been running around with behind my novel's back.
When I showed her a few of these stories -- in an attempt to salvage some part of my ego, I suppose -- she said, Yes, here you go. These sound like you. See, what a good girl I am? How susceptible I am to the opinions of others? I did what she told me to do.
It came together when I started hearing the voice of this college girl (this would be Bender) saying, Write about me. Why aren't you writing about me? Aren't I good enough for you? And my answer was, No. That bothered me. Why not? I started wondering what it was in her story that I was avoiding. I didn't take her seriously. She was a drunken sorority girl, a girls-gone-wild girl. She was a joke. Then I began to feel protective of her. If I thought she was silly, then surely others would too. That [angered me]. Who were they to judge this girl in my head? I thought, She's got a mother, an inner life. If I don’t write about her, who will?
I liked the concept of the stories confronting and pushing back against the messages being hustled to women in these self-help books, but they had to be deeper than that. Etiquette is different than self-help. Etiquette books address a broad range of situations from birth to death, with the express purpose of instructing an entire society in the proper ways to behave. Obviously what passes for good manners, acceptable and unacceptable behavior, changes with the era.
That was when I knew what I wanted to do was create these archetypal female characters -- the slut, the good girl, the bad mother, the party girl, all these women we think we know -- and subvert the reader's expectations of who they were. I wanted each story to in some way confront what would be considered, "a problem" or "female dilemma" that was ages old. So what if you're called a slut? What do I do if I'm raped? I wanted them to be clear and distinct.
JC: In some ways, the frame is novelistic, beginning with a character named Heather as a high school student and ending with her, years later, as an adult. But Heather doesn't factor into the other stories here, except inasmuch as her issues echo those in the rest of the book. Why use her as the frame?
ES: I've always been interested in female sexuality and how it relates to identity and power. It was a theme in "Use Me" and it's definitely one of the connecting threads in this book. I also wanted to explore the ways that society's reaction to female sexuality changes, or stays the same.