One Good Sentence with Another: An Interview with Melissa Bank

Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot, arrives almost six years to the day after its predecessor belatedly turned its author into an overnight success. The Girls’ Guide To Hunting And Fishing was a publishing phenomena, a book that fell somewhere between Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, both in popular appeal and literary intent. For a time, it was the book you noticed being read on subway trains, in coffee shops, and in practically every public or private place where contemporary fiction was considered a legitimate entertainment.

Like the earlier book, The Wonder Spot maps out the emotional terrain of a single female protagonist, only this time, we follow our lead’s progress over a period of 25 years, and through 325 pages.

The new book might easily have been subtitled ‘The Selected Stories of Sophie Applebaum’. Sophie, along with her charismatic older brother, Jack, and her quietly successful younger brother Robert, grows up part of a nurturing Jewish family in Pennsylvania. After leaving home, she survives her awkward college years at a ‘not-very-good’ school in upstate New York, before taking on the innumerable challenges of love and work in New York City. The story is a quest of sorts… Sophie’s quest to find her own identity and place in the world at large.

One blurb on the book jacket — culled from the Los Angeles Times, no less — describes Bank as “like John Cheever, only funnier”. This is a claim that does just about everyone involved a disservice. Bank’s work doesn’t have the moral weight of Cheever’s, but then again, it isn’t her intent that it should do so. Her book is packed full of sweet epiphanies, neatly expressed, though few are likely to alter your deeper understanding of the world. Certainly the pages turn without too much difficulty, however, and it’s easy to imagine why publication date was set for the first day of summer.

Melissa Bank discusses her new novel, the writing process, and what it feels like for a girl…

The Wonder Spot
by Melissa Bank

May 2005, 336 pages, $24.95

The Wonder Spot is being promoted as ‘a novel,’ yet I think its publishers are prudent in not going out of their way to announce it as such. Individually, each chapter possesses a requisite level of charm, but as a novelistic structure, the whole doesn’t really stand firm. Most of the book’s satisfactions are found in small moments rather than through any overriding arc, and in particular, the weight of individual chapters has not always been carefully considered. In this respect then, the book is probably best enjoyed as a series of interwoven short stories, in much the same fashion of A Girls’ Guide.

As for Melissa Bank, she is open, engaging, and pleasantly free of pretension. She is 39, and having spent numerous years bouncing from one unsatisfying job to another, now makes her living exclusively from writing (the title story from her previous book was originally commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola; another story from that collection is currently being adapted for the screen, and is slated to star Sarah Michelle Gellar). For those concerned with such matters, Ms. Bank has been romantically involved with a man she’s “crazy about” for nine months, and currently divides time between her Chelsea apartment and “a small cabin in East Hampton”. I spoke with her on the eve of The Wonder Spot‘s publication, a week before she undertook the long, arduous grind of a national publicity tour.

PopMatters: While you were working on this new book, did you feel any great weight of expectation, based on the success of the previous book?

Melissa Bank: For me, any kind of writing is nerve-wracking, and until you’ve published a book, whether it’s successful or not, you don’t really understand writing as a public act. You don’t see it as this huge opportunity for public humiliation. On the one hand, it’s everything you’ve ever wanted, and a miracle when it actually happens, but on the other hand… it kind of changes writing. You always want people to read your book, but when there are people waiting to read it, there’s something a little scary about that.

The expectation only becomes a real impediment though, or a terrible pressure to me, when I’m outside of a story. Once I’m inside of it, none of that has any power. And the truth is I’ve always had a problem with writers block, even before I was published. Before, I might write a sentence or a paragraph and think, “Well, I can’t picture that in The New Yorker“. Or, “This is just like all those other stories I’ve written that nobody wants”. There are a million different ways to get locked outside of your work, and for me this was just a new one.

PM: One theory of writing fiction is that it represents a means of revenge. In this story, your protagonist, Sophie, is something of an outcast… she’s not especially hip, she’s not particularly “cool” or “successful”. I wonder then, if this character came out of a perception you had of yourself at some point?

MB: Oh, that’s funny. I mean, I don’t think so. And I really wouldn’t call Sophie, or myself, an “outcast”. I would say I certainly grew up as an outsider. But I always stop myself with that, because people always think of themselves in that way, and I wonder, well, that big crowd of people who were “in”, where are they now?! But I think the difference is, as a writer when you say “I was always an outsider”, that does make writers and artists out of people. I also think what Sophie goes through is the very unromantic, un-bohemian experience of wanting to be “inside”. It’s not this romantic, beautiful thing but rather, “What do I have to do to fit in?” There’s nothing romantic about that.

PM: One of the most subtle and tender portraits in the book is of the relationship between Sophie and her father. In contrast, Sophie’s relationship with her mother is fraught with danger, a minefield of difficult emotions. Do you think this is often the case in relationships between mothers and daughters?

MB: Oh yeah. I think girls in general cut their fathers enormous slack, but we’re so hard — so hard — on our mothers. I think there are reasons for that too. I don’t feel I have a [female] friend who has a simple, loving, un-conflicted relationship with her mother.

PM: In fact, there are surprisingly few successful relationships between women in the book. For all their faults, the male-female relationships seem tighter — father/daughter, brother/sister, boyfriend/girlfriend. Is this also particularly true of your own experience, or does it simply reflect Sophie’s own compatibilities?

MB: No. Well, it’s a regret I have about the book that anyone can make that generalization. Not that you’re at fault for making it, because its certainly there to be made…

I do feel that I’m interested in relationships that are complicated or fraught, and I think that Sophie does have good relationships… but they’re a little more in the background because they’re not fraught. I also think that Sophie’s drawn to strong women, and that the women she has trouble with are in some sense women she admires, women who are also stronger than Sophie is in a lot of ways. They seem to go through the world a little easier than she does, and in a funny way, that kind of relationship requires a subservience that she’s not willing to provide.

But personally, I have great relationships with women. And it’s a little painful to me that that’s something you could say about this book.

PM: The men Sophie becomes romantically involved with represent a range of male archetypes: there’s a poet, a rebel artist/motorcycle-type, an outdoorsman, a doctor, a musician. And yet it’s possible that each one of them ends up disappointing her eventually. Are women always destined to be disappointed by men?

MB: No. (Laughs) I think it’s not so much that men are destined to disappoint, so much as how difficult it is for men and women to be together. It’s so funny to even talk about choices, because if you consider your own life, and certainly when I consider mine, I think you end up making choices about who you wind up marrying or having children with, but I think in terms of love, it’s this very mysterious process that has very little to do with the conscious mind. Who knows why we’re attracted to the people we’re attracted to? I’m sure there are many things a psychologist may say about it, but I do feel there’s this whole mystery about it… and then there’s the whole mystery of how people manage to get along and make love stay.

PM: There’s a choice you made in the book that struck me as a little odd. We spend entire chapters with a couple of Sophie’s boyfriends, at least one of whom, Josh, is quite easily dismissed eventually. In contrast, there’s a brief storyline about, Chris, a man whom Sophie was briefly engaged to, and who has an element of great tragedy attached to him, and yet that story is passed over in less than a page. Why is that?

MB: I like what that implies in a way, that there is a whole world of Sophie’s life that you don’t know. Similarly with the story of her father’s death, which takes place offstage. But I tried, quite honestly, to write that story, and it wasn’t meant to be. For whatever reason, I couldn’t do it, and I kind of deferred to that inability. I mean it’s possible I’ll try again, but for whatever reason it wasn’t right for this book, it didn’t go.

PM: Did this book begin as a series of stories, or was it always intended as a novel?

MB: When I sit down to write I don’t have any real goals except to follow one good sentence with another. And a good sentence is one that you can follow with another sentence. I’m not the kind of writer who has a map. I don’t have any outline. I have some characters in my mind somewhere, in my subconscious, and the main thing is for me to get out of the way. Especially structurally, I try to let the story take the form that is organic to it. When I was writing some of the very long stories, I was not happy with them. They were more leisurely than a short story, more complicated, and I felt at times out of my depth; I tried to rein them in and make them short stories. But the stories tell you what to do, and eventually I just gave into it… and so that’s how the book happened.

PM: I understand that you probably never need hear the phrase “chick-lit” again, but do you consider it a legitimate genre description, or is it simply a derisive slur wielded by literary snobs?

MB: I do feel it’s a derisive term, and what it implies is that these books are limited to women who feel that the books describe them. In other words, if there were a series of books about migrant farm labor, and they were written from the point of view of migrant farm workers and then called Migrant Farm Worker Lit, then the implication is that they’re only of interest to migrant farm workers! They’re limited in scope and never achieve any universal value outside of their own specifics. But you know, I haven’t really read those books, so I can’t speak to them in an informed way.

PM: Was “chick-lit” possibly a reaction to the “lad-lit” of say, Nick Hornby or Irvine Welsh?

MB: The thing that makes it seem less true is that Nick Hornby’s appeal has always seemed greater; it’s not specific to age or to men. And the same with Irvine Welsh. After the emergence of this group of books that was called “chick-lit”, I think there was briefly a spate of five or ten books that were classified as “lad-lit” — I’m thinking of one called “Love Monkey” or something like that — and there were a series of books about men who were with a bunch of different women, lotharios or whatever they were, and they really didn’t take off. What happened was that the “chick-lit” thing emerged when publishers recognized an audience and marketed a series of books to that audience, a large book buying public, and the “lad-lit” was a misstep, thinking there was that same kind of audience amongst men. I don’t think there is.

PM: There’s a moment in your book where Sophie is working in a publishing house, and she meets a newly discovered author, I. Tittlebaum. Upon meeting him, she’s surprised to find that he doesn’t faintly resemble the protagonist of his book. Was this a note to the reader, not to confuse fiction with autobiography?

MB: You know, maybe unintentionally. I feel the part of me that does things deliberately is in the editing, while the part of me that comes up with I. Tittlebaum is in the subconscious. I’d love to think I put all of these things in, but in fact, everything is inadvertent — except trying to make the sentences contain as few words as they should. Well, that’s not quite true, I definitely have a hand. But no, that wasn’t meant as a warning.

PM: You’ve said that one theme of the book is “how choices create identity, and how we find out who we are, how we belong”. One conclusion that Sophie draws is that people spend years trying to find their calling in life, when in fact, for most a calling doesn’t really exist…

MB: I think that is the reality. And I think in some ways it may be harder for girls or women than it is for men. Partly because I think men always understood that they would find something interesting, or that you find work to make a living. Whereas I think women of my generation were brought up with the idea that this huge opportunity had been made for you, and you could be anything you wanted. That was going to be defining you now, instead of being a wife and mother. But I think most people don’t have a calling. There are maybe seven great creative jobs in the world, but most of us just have to find our way. You try to guide your own career path, but mostly you just fall into jobs, and it doesn’t feel like you’re the pilot of the plane.

PM: What are some of the jobs you’ve held?

MB: Years of waitressing… and bussing tables when I couldn’t even get a job waitressing. I did work in advertising for a year and a half, and I worked for a literary agency for about six months. One of the agents there actually became my agent. She’s wonderful, and I always really admired her as an agent, so ten years later… I tried here and there to do some freelance writing without much success. I did a lot of temping. And I handed out flyers, outside a shop on the streets of Philadelphia [laughs].

PM: Did you always maintain belief in yourself as a writer?

MB: I think the one thing I realized at a certain point, was that nothing might happen with writing, that I might never get a book published, and I might find myself working in advertising forever. And, you know, I never made much money in advertising because I didn’t want to be promoted. I actually made the statement to my boss that I didn’t want to have more authority, I didn’t want to be promoted, and in fact, you never have to give me a raise! I felt, and I actually believe, that the more a company pays you, and the more responsibility that you take on, the more they feel like they actually own you.

But I never cared about being a successful copywriter. It never seemed like good, important work, not like teaching or publishing or any kind of writing that actually would mean something. But what happened was, I sort of made peace with it and realized that if I never got anything published again and this was my life, it would be okay. And that took a lot of pressure off. I feel that I was able to write better because I wasn’t looking at my writing to save my life, or to save me from advertising, or in some way define me. I was just going to try to do it and make it as least painful as possible.

PM: Have you started to think about what comes next?

MB: I don’t know what’s next. I have no foresight gene. I’ve never really been good about planning my life, in any regard. I do hope I’ll write something again though…