What's a girl have to do to shake the chick-lit label, anyway?
Ask Melissa Bank, whose name practically became synonymous with "chick lit"—a label she's not altogether comfortable with—when her book The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing was released in 1999. But even though critics have compared her writing to that of John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Updike—who explore a similar landscape from a male perspective—her books still get slapped with the one-size-fits-all label of chick lit.
This year, Bank released The Wonder Spot, another collection of interlinked short stories chronicling a young female protagonist coming of age, negotiating jobs and enduring problematic relationships. In this interview, she talks with WD about the pros and cons of being categorized, and how she succumbed and tri-umphed over second-book syndrome. She also shares her creative and playful solution for writer's block.
Your first book, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, was an enormous bestseller. Did you feel at all prepared for that level of success, and how did it affect writing your follow-up?
Unless you're seriously delusional, you never believe your first book is going to be a great success. You just hope that maybe your family and friends will read it. I still have a hard time believing it. And honestly, it made it harder to write that second one. Not so much because I worried about what people were expecting, but because I worried, like a lot of writers do, that the first book was a fluke, and the second book was going to reveal that.
As much as you're dying to be published, once you have been and you're aware of how public an act writing is, it can be too self-conscious. You're too aware of what your writing says about you, and that was something I had to get past.
The Girls' Guide is also frequently called one of the first of the chick-lit trend. How do you feel about being put into that category?
You know, I don't feel good about it, honestly. I think that the book's success must be partly due to being categorized in some way, and I'm so grateful for that success. On the other hand, I think the term "chick lit" sounds more chick and less lit. It sounds derogatory to me—that it's not serious or substantial or wouldn't be of interest to anybody who isn't a "chick." I feel like it's a funny ghettoization, the way African-American or gay literature is classified that way. It puts them in a category that says, Oh, you'll want to read this if you're one of "them"—that it's not really for everybody. It's a code word for limited audience or limited appeal.
Both of your books are essentially collections of linked short stories, but they seem to get reviewed as novels. Why?
For me, it's a form that I feel comfortable in, and it worked for the stories I was telling. It's a book. I think when you say short stories, people think, I'm going to read a story about this character, then that character. These stories are more cohesive than that.
But I'd be falsifying my own process if I said I had intentions. There are times in the longer stories—some are almost 100 pages—that I wanted to make them shorter, and they just wouldn't budge. It's almost like writing a short story is like writing a song—it has a certain rhythm and refrain, and it's something that's within your control, whereas these long stories aren't. They take more space, they have a more leisurely pace and they aren't about just one thing. So some stories didn't really follow the rules that I'm used to following for a short story, but that was the right length and form for them.
Your stories vacillate between past and present tense. Is this a conscious decision?
It's a mixture of conscious and unconscious. Generally I go back and forth. Sometimes right away it comes out present or past. In the Dena Blumenthal story (in The Wonder Spot), I started in past tense. I moved it to present tense after many drafts, and it solved so many problems I was having with the story. I'd say that what you get from present tense is immediacy—which can actually be a burden in writing. What you get from the past tense is the benefit of reflection and not having to pretend that you don't know what's going to happen next. Past tense, in a sense, seems more refined to me.
And you nearly always choose to write in the first person.
I don't really know why. At some point, I think I'll try other things, but I think I'm almost more of an oral writer. I guess that's the way I've been playing with consciousness or the relationship that a character has with him- or herself. In some stories, the tension is between what the character says and what the character thinks or what the character is trying not to know.
You have an M.F.A. degree. How important do you feel this was to your development as a writer?
I think it helped me a lot with the things about writing that can be taught. Which is to say, craft. It helped me to become a good editor of my own work. When I was coming up, you were told that editors weren't editors any more. They're really deal-makers. So you had to learn to edit yourself.
Do you have a set writing regimen?
It varies a lot. If it's going well, and I'm right in the middle of it, it may be 16 hours a day. When I'm on the outside of a story, I have to force myself to do it. I generally like to write at night.
You've said you're an expert on writer's block. Can you comment on this?
I feel like I know about it because I'm always living through it or working through it. The best advice I can give is to get to know the exact character of the writer's block and then work with it. Know your enemy and figure out how to outfox it. The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is a terrific book and has helped me. But I think every writer works differently, and you have to respect what works.
With me, if I'm writing well, my subconscious is doing it. When I get blocked, it's the conscious getting in the way—the editor, the judge, the critic—it just squelches the part of me that writes. I'll rewrite and rewrite and get lost in editing and criticizing the work. Then I start to hate the work and hate myself.
I'll make myself stay away for as long as a few days or even a week. It helps me to go back to liking writing again. Another thing I do is draw or take pictures. When I'm taking pictures, no one expects me to be a photographer, and I don't expect that of myself, so I can really get lost in it and have fun and see things differently. That sort of reminds me that writing is play.
Your protagonist in both books is a young, single female who works in publishing. How much do your characters, Jane in Girls' Guide and Sophie in The Wonder Spot, have in common with you?
A lot. Honestly, things didn't go so easily for me. I didn't fit easily into some career slot or in terms of men. I'm not an easy fit, and I think the same is true of my characters. They're quirky, and I think I'm kind of quirky.
Do you keep a journal?
I always have a notebook—sometimes I'm writing in it all the time and sometimes not at all. I usually write in my journal when I'm traveling—kind of talking to myself. I take notes, but I don't think I've ever once read over an entire journal.
Mostly they're just notebooks I don't have any room for, and I store them for no discernible reason. You don't want to throw it out because it sort of tells you about a part of your life.
Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine Zoetrope was one of your first publishers. Coppola's also reportedly adapting Girls' Guide into a film. What, if any, role do you have in the film?
As far as I know, not much is happening with it now. Coppola does own the film rights for the title story in Girls' Guide because Zoetrope commissioned it. I've also optioned two more of the stories to another production company. But I haven't been too involved in it. I don't think it's a great idea for a fiction writer to be involved unless you come into the film as a full partner, and you have control. For me, that's a definition of hell—being involved at the sidelines.
I did work initially on a screenplay with Coppola, and it was really fun to work with him. It was an unbelievable start because I hadn't tried it before, and he's a genius. I fleshed out Girls' Guide into a full-length movie. It went through a number of directors and screenwriters, then I sort of lost track of it.
Who are your literary inspirations?
I'm influenced all the time, but I've been really influenced by Tolstoy, who knows more about the human condition than anybody. I learned about being playful with language from Nabokov. And I learned about telling a story from Tobias Wolff.
And the poet Billy Collins inspires me more than anybody right now. He does in poetry what I try to do in fiction. His poems manage to be sad and hilarious at once. He writes with the lightest touch about the deepest and most important matters.
What's next? What are you working on now?
Getting through this book tour. I'm not a planner. I wasn't born with the foresight gene.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Young writers are always dying to be published because that's the way the world tells you you're a writer, and you feel desperate for that kind of affirmation. But publishing doesn't prove anything. What makes you a writer is that you sit down and write.
I was rejected everywhere for the first 10 years. If I'd listened to those rejections, I wouldn't still be writing. It's good protection once you do get a book published because your own opinion is the one that matters. Whether you get great reviews or terrible reviews—what sustains you is that sense of being a writer.