Part of the brilliance Blueprints for Building Better Girls brings is in the way Elissa Schappell moves between narrative perspective. As in Woolf, as in Tan, as now in Schappell, readers are walked through the psychological labyrinths of women evolving. This book is a pressure cooker which ebbs and flows between decades and the pivotal moments women as women, women as girls, women as daughters, women and mothers, women as wives, women as girlfriends, and women as friends brave through every day life. The stories are innovative, riveting, smart, and relatable.
Schappell is the co-founder and Editor-At-Large of Tin House magazine. Her first book, Use Me was a finalist for the PEN/Hemmingway award, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Her recent collection Blueprints for Building Better Girlssurpasses the weighty expectations these accolades acquire. This collection is an example of when writing from a distinctly female perspective works, proudly.
Starting with “Monsters of the Deep,” Schappell introduces a brash, almost female version of Dazed and Confused narrator named Heather. Heather is a guiding light in her attitude, her heart, her genuineness. She is the “slut” at school because she wears leotards. She is a science geek who draws words on her arms. She spends afternoons running into bathrooms to erase her name and incorrectly written phone numbers from tile. Though told through a deeply feminine, rough tomboy voice, the moving parts in the story come from the understated moments in which Heather and her boyfriend Ross connect. “Even now, this summer, undeniably handsome, twenty-seven pounds shed, his chest smooth from bench pressing, every time he starts to pull off his T-shirt at the pool or in his bedroom, I sense there is still a moment of panic as he raises his arms up and the shirt sails over his head, the fat boy inside him hesitating.”
In “A Dog Story,” we again see this kind of deeply femininely observed painting of a man anticipating his time forthcoming as a father.
He did things he’s never done before. Put his arm around me and walked on the side where the traffic raced by. In restaurants, he sent back food that suddenly seemed inedible … While I napped, he did the dishes, necktie flipped over this shoulder. He danced. My husband, who never danced, not even at weddings, boogied around the apartment humming, along to the radio.
While the interactions between many of the women as daughters and mothers might have been read as “another mother daughter story” what entirely separates Schappell’s work are the observations of interesting place and how they directly have an affect on the characters. A couple miscarries and moves to Brooklyn to find that seemingly everyone there is pregnant. “It must be in the water,” Schappell writes. Time and time again in moments like these, residents past and present of New York will think, “She’s so right. It is exactly like that,” and readers who want to know what New York actually is like will be gifted an entirely true, if not remarkably accurate description, beautifully.
With a Dorothy Parker-esque quality, Blueprints for Building Better Girls sings wit, gorgeously written prose, and unexpected entry points into character. Each story within the woven collection contains not one but numerous there-it-is moments. These innovative realistic portrayals of modern women will be looked to as examples of how to write right, and the book is a breath of crisp air. Schappell shows up and says that not only can she recognize good writing, she crafts it herself.
Nicolle Elizabeth Your recent collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls tells stories through many different distinctly female perspectives. As in Tan, as in Woolf, we ebb and flow between threads of the female experience under different lighting in each work. Were the pieces written with the express interest of expressing different aspects of the female experience?
Elissa Schappell Not at first, and not in the first draft stage. I had no agenda in mind at all. I know a lot of writers employ maps and coordinates, but I can’t. It’s like writing from the deck of a lighthouse zeroing in on the story—written already and corked in a bottle—with a telescope. There’s too much distance, not enough potential for discovery. I’m more the, hey, I see something bobbing in the waves, why don’t I just dive in with my clothes on and go get it? Of course, who knows what it is. Could be a tin can, a headless Barbie, or perhaps a bottle. Perhaps one of many bottles. For all I know there’s a shipwreck out there.
I’ve learned that I have to write the stories that want to be written. They aren’t always the ones I think are the cleverest, or the most “important.” I just know that to try and do anything else is folly. These were the stories I had to write. I didn’t see clearly what shape the book was taking, and why, until about half way through. Although it didn’t shock me, I did feel a little slow when I saw how naked my agenda was. While these stories are about the female experience, (in the way that a man writing about being a father would be about the male experience) I think what we express are universal emotions.
NE Much debate still exists regarding gendered writing. Some of the voices in this diverse collection come from a distinctly female voice, though I also found, that so many of the moving moments actually were how the women in these stories view their men.
As in “Monsters of the Deep” we see common ground between two perhaps disenfranchised a bit characters who arguably find comfort in one another’s feelings of “being unpopular” in their own self-conscious way. How does gender help separate the two perspectives, and likewise bring them to a bonded place?
ES I don’t know what the debate is. Gendered writing? There’s a history of ascribing the female gender to objects like boats, cars, guitars, (it’s interesting, they are all things that can be a man’s downfall) but in terms of writing, female and male gendered writing?
If by gendered you mean, point of view, then yes, that springs from a genuinely female source, but male writers can create just as convincing female characters, and certainly, vice versa.
It’s no secret how crazy the concept of “gendered” writing makes me. What, Jane Austen has to wear a strap-on to be taken seriously? Female is a gender; it is not a genre of literature. Even that term, gendered writing, it is clinical, it sounds like something done to the writing, sexing it against its will.
While girls and boys may be “unpopular” for reasons that are distinct to their gender—Heather, the young woman in “Monsters of the Deep” is labeled a “slut” (a boy would be hailed as a “stud”) Ross, the young man, formerly fat, has always been a weakling (If he was a girl no one would care)—the result is the same, they are both outsiders, both acutely familiar with alienation. They are “the other.”
The Slut and the Fat boy. We don’t imagine they have real inner lives. To do so would give them too much power. In this case, these are two lonely, misunderstood, angry, hungry creatures. Each of them unsettling people in different ways. Heather is strong and appears to be a sexual creature, and that is destabilizing to their peers. Ross appears impotent and asexual, and that is what makes other boys bully him.
NE Each of these stories reads as though it could be a novel about any of the characters within them. Were any of the stories written by longer works in process?
ES That’s kind. I would hope that the characters in the stories live for the reader outside of the story. They do in my imagination. There are one or two I would revisit, as they’re still blowing in my ear. That is something I love about Salinger’s work, how the characters live across books.
And, yes. Some of the stories came out of much longer works. One of the stories, “Why Aren’t You Dead Yet” was born out of a novella that gave birth to two stories. The playground in “Elephant” was excavated from a novel I quit after working on it for two years. It’s the only thing, I believe, I saved, so it’s imbued with mad history.
In general I tend to write long, too long. Sometimes I’m just word drunk. Other times, I just get carried away. It’s like throwing a party, I begin locked in conversation with a character who fascinates me, troubles me, and I’m following their story closely, but doors keeps opening, guests keep arriving, the main character introduces me to their friends, before I know it the place is teeming with drunks and party crashers, some of whom have brought pets. Its only hours later, when my arms give out, that I collapse. This means I spend days, weeks even, ripping down streamers, booting out characters—the crack smoking cheerleader, a couple, covered in scratches from fighting in my linen closet, sending the blind seeing-eye dog back to the Amy Hempel story, which is his rightful home, putting the monkey-fur fringed fainting couch, which has no place in this story, in storage. I’m sweeping glitter out of stories for years.
NE In many of the stories, we see repeating characters, though arguably, they are similar in their humanity, sometimes their brashness, sometimes their vivid candidness. Why did you choose to weave characters similarly as opposed to isolated stories in the collection? Do you believe doing so makes for a stronger collection and why?
ES I wanted this stories to feature archetypal female characters, such as the slut, the bad mother, the good girl, the anorexic, the party girl—and subvert the reader’s expectations of who they are. The majority of these stories are written from a first person point of view. Given that sort of access to the character’s consciousness, women who very much want their stories, their voices to be heard, to be understood—they are going to be candid, perhaps brash. Why not?
I wanted the characters in these stories to come into contact with each other in different stories for several reasons. One being I’m curious about the ways our lives overlap, how people live in our imaginations versus how we appear in theirs—if we occupy their memory at all. How what people do knowingly or unknowingly affects others in positive and negative ways. The landscapes we share.
I also wanted to present multiple sides of these women—again, confronting the idea that these female characters are what the culture has labeled them, they are what we mistakenly perceive them to be. What better way to do that then to see how another character, one we are also well acquainted with, sees them.
I wanted the reader to have the experience of reading about a character in one story, form an opinion, based on what is revealed in their own story, and when they meet them again, learn in another story what their back story is, for their understanding of them to evolve. Perhaps their feelings change. Perhaps they judge them less harshly now. In any case, they hopefully know them better.
NE So much of this collection has an undercurrent of apt descriptions of place. How important is setting in writing in your view, as in so many of these stories, the actual sense of geography reads as a character unto itself.
ES A story can’t exist without a setting, some sort of landscape, no matter how abstract. Because this book is in part about how American culture from the ’70s to the present, has informed the lives and shaped the identity of these women, setting is crucial. I’m glad you think the descriptions are apt. As recognizable as the characters are, so must be the places where the dramas unfold.
And I like that idea of geography reading as a character unto itself. As we can attach to places the way we do to people. It is possible to feel more love for a landscape, a skyline, an ocean, than we do for a person. Certainly places take on personality in our lives, we feel we own them, are jealous and protective of them. In one story there is a bar on the Lower East Side that is dear to the characters. They will never forget it. Nor whom they were when they were there.