To Tell the Truth and Not Die: The Millions Interviews Elissa Schappell

February 26, 2013 | 3 books mentioned 6 11 min read

covercoverIf there were a contest to name a literary wonder woman, I would without hesitation elect Elissa Schappell, who is never without wit or an incisive quip, who pens the Hot Type column for Vanity Fair, and keeps her hand firmly in the lit scene as co-founder and editor-at-large of Tin House; she is also a lit champion extraordinaire, an active proponent of women’s rights, and a mother. However, none of this should overshadow her literary accomplishments. Her first book, Use Me, was a runner up for the Pen/Hemingway Award, and her most recent, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, was named a best book of the year by multiple media outlets, including The San Francisco Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal. As a series of interlinked stories that depicts women across generations, Blueprints for Building Better Girls encourages a burning of old blueprints in favor of forging new paths. Schappell approaches the chronicling of women’s lives as a serious endeavor, but never fails to leverage darkness with humor. Schappell’s wit is one that allows her “to tell the truth and not die,” as she puts it. The conversation here extends in many directions, including approaching Blueprints as an anti-etiquette book, recent forays into cross-genre writing, and Grace Paley as a guiding light.

The Millions: The title Blueprints for Building Better Girls comes from a vintage etiquette book that the character B and her beau read for kicks in the story, “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” B thinks, “It was hilarious how clueless these women, teetering in heels, on the cusp of the sexual revolution were.” You’ve confessed that you share B’s fascination for etiquette books, and yet your stories are far from being proscriptive, cautionary tales. What role does the idea of the etiquette book play within your collection? Do today’s women need new guideposts for contemporary living?

Elissa Schappell: I liked the idea of the book being an anti-etiquette book. Because etiquette books reveal what a culture values most. They clearly delineate the behavior one must exhibit to be considered an acceptable member of society. My book pushes back against that in that it’s not proscriptive — and there is a book group in Arizona that is really pissed that wasn’t the case — it doesn’t tell you how to behave, but shows you how the reality of women’s lives are at odds with the labels the culture has slapped on us and the narrow roles the culture lays out as acceptable for women. As we know women who don’t conform to the dictates of society pay a much higher price than men. I wanted to show you the price women pay for not choosing to conform or being unable to conform.

Because of that I would argue that yes, women need new guideposts. (Let me crawl up on my soapbox here.) And they should create them for themselves. Because women have to stop letting people tell them who they are, and decide for themselves who they are, who they want to be.

For too long women have let the patriarchy dictate the rules, assumed the daddies would always be in control, always make all the decisions, when things are changing. Women are taking over the work place, becoming more educated than men, assuming more positions of power. (One only hopes we’ll soon be paid equally for our work.) Why shouldn’t women remake the world in their image? Men have had their shot, and they’ve left a hell of a mess. Thankfully, women have been cleaning up the messes men make since man first set fire to the hut by lighting one of his farts.

I don’t know if it’s Stockholm Syndrome or if in some way a lot of women feel inferior to men — our achievements always measured against the baseline of men, our work literally of less value to society, and to call oneself a feminist is to align oneself with a shrill and hairy and man-hating stereotype, when in reality — when you consider the definition of a feminist, “one who thinks women should be the accorded the same rights as men” — most women and men are feminists.

Short answer: Yes.

TM: Throughout the collection, the characters’ lives intersect in subtle, often tangential ways. I found great pleasure in connecting the dots. Kate, who had difficulties getting pregnant in “A Dog Story” makes a cameo as Charlotte’s uptight, inconsiderate, and childless boss in “Elephant.” Charlotte makes the most appearances, with each story providing a slightly different perspective on her character. The network of connections within your stories emphasizes not only the many roles that a woman plays over the course of her life but also underscores that she exists within a community of women — made up of mothers, sisters, friends, and daughters. Your stories begin in the late ‘70s, span over twenty year’s time, and deal with multiple generations. What was it about depicting a community of women that intrigued you? Was Grace Paley an influence?

ES: I wanted the book to depict a broad population of American women. Showing the universal experiences this community of women share but don’t necessarily talk about because we feel ashamed, fear being judged, or simply can’t articulate. How the rules society has laid out about how a woman must behave in order to be accepted by the culture have shaped this group’s identity.

I chose to write the stories from a range of point-of-views — some younger women, some older — because I wanted to show how what was considered acceptable behavior for each generation influenced the way each of these women defined themselves, and how wittingly or unwittingly these messages are passed along like a gene through further generations. How we can inherit the prejudices, beliefs, politics of previous generations, just as you might inherit blue eyes.

I also wanted the book to get micro. To show the more intimate connections — sometimes tenuous, that join a cast of female characters, in order to show how whether connected by friendship, acquaintance, memory, gossip — we live in other people’s lives. I wanted the reader to get various perspectives on these women. To have the experience of meeting a character, and — as in life — form an opinion of them. Judge them. I wanted to give the reader access to the interior life of a character, as well as show them how she exists in the stories of other characters we know. The varied points of view allow the reader to see the characters as others see them, view their personas, even as we have our own intimate knowledge of their lives.

I didn’t want the connections to be too tight because my desire was to illustrate on a broad scale the connections between the women who occupy this level of society and how despite the ways they might perceive each other they share a lot — sometimes it’s a landscape, sometimes it’s a body issue, other times it’s as slight as digging the same music.

At the end of the day all of these women’s lives are at odds with the scripts the culture presents to define them, and all of them pay a price for not choosing, or being able to conform to that ideal.

I admire Grace Paley enormously. She’s been a role model for me on and off the page. The way she combined the personal with the political in her work, as well as in her life, is inspiring. She was very sane about her career.

I thought a lot about her when I had kids. As you know the prevailing idea has always been that a woman must choose between being a first-rate writer and a mother. Which is of course bullshit. But at the time my kids were born I feared that I might have screwed myself out of a career (as it were) and it killed me. Then I read that Grace Paley wrote with her kids in a playpen by her desk. She has this great quote, “The word career is a divisive word. It’s a word that divides the normal life from business or professional life.” She rewrote the rules. Which is what women need to do.

You can’t imagine the level of focus it takes to write where there is a child next to you doing god knows what — I’d like to see Philip Roth do that — but she was passionate, the work mattered, and so did being with her children, so she made it work.

And she was a boots-on-the-ground political activist! When she said, “Let’s go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world,” she wasn’t just talking about marching and protesting in the streets, she also meant on the page. That sort of fierce optimism sets me on fire.

TM: In “Elephant,” Paige asks how a woman could not want children — it’s “creepy” — and yet she’s ambivalent about whether motherhood is worth the sacrifices she’s made, including the toll on her marriage, the setbacks in her career, the lost sense of self. She gives voice to the verboten, a sentiment that Charlotte understands but also fears to admit. (The story’s title seems no coincidence.) Paige asks, “Is this what you planned on? Is this what you wanted?” She’s not the only female character left wondering. What is it about the contemporary blueprints for women’s lives that set these women up for something different than what they experience?

ES: For one thing there are only a handful of culturally approved blueprints distributed to young women. Not figuring in that each woman is an individual and each woman has different dreams and expectations for herself. “How to be a Good Girl” is the big one. It covers how to be good sport, how to remain chaste (and like it!), and how to be a good victim. There is also, “How to be a Good Friend.” This includes a list of acceptable friends (short) and unacceptable (long) friends, as well as appropriate topics for discussion, how to get rid of undesirable friends. The “Good Wife” includes ways to bolster your husband’s self-esteem, put his career first and 101 things to do with chicken thighs. Top of the “Good Mother” blueprint: Family First. Forget any aspirations you may have had beyond pleasing your husband and children, how to get your family to eat healthy, plus 100 ways to swallow your rage. The other blueprints: “How to be a Troublemaker/Revolutionary/Free Thinker/Artist or more simply, How to Be a Person — can be found in books, art, music.

For my generation, women who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, the blueprint had a rainbow on it. You’ve come along way baby, it said. And it said that a woman can, nay, should, have it all. To not have it all is to be a failure. It’s Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire does, but backwards in high heels, with a baby strapped to her chest, a Bluetooth in her ear, and a pot roast balanced on her head.

For a woman to admit that she can’t do it all, or doesn’t want to do it all is to invite criticism from both sides. “You’re the ones who wanted library cards in the first place!” Or, “We fought for your right to have a career so get in there and work!”

This is frustrating. Feminism was about giving women choices, and some women choose not to work outside the home. Not my choice, but it’s a valid choice.

Any woman who doesn’t cop to having had some second thoughts — felt the shadow of ambivalence or resentment pass over them is either brain dead or lying.

One thing all the women in my book have in common is the imperative to put the needs of others before their own. They all want at some point to please someone they love, but to please others requires them to betray themselves in some fundamental way. It’s reality.

TM: Your wit dazzles me. The stories in Blueprints are not “happy” stories. There’s  a wealth of sadness dealt out in the form of rape, eating disorders, ambivalence, loneliness, abandonment, and death, and yet the quick wit and levity make the stories so pleasurable to consume sentence to sentence. What role does humor play for you in writing? In life? What comic writers do you channel?

ES: You’re very kind.

Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” That’s all I want to do. Tell the truth and not die.

My characters use humor for protection — to deflect pain, diffuse awkwardness, beat back their demons. They use it like a shield and a sword. It’s no different for me as a writer. I use the humor to protect and expose both my characters and the reader. I use it to disarm the reader into letting down their guard. The laughing reader doesn’t feel the knife until it’s in his chest. The reader who is laughing at something they don’t think they should be laughing at, but wants to, needs to laugh about, experiences a catharsis. I’d argue that’s more valuable than providing someone with an orgasm. It’s much harder to provide a catharsis for the reader. The ability to laugh in the face of terrible trauma and pain is empowering, and you know what, it’s human. We all do it. I want readers to feel like they’re not alone in that.

As to channeling, I love Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel’s work. The way they spin humor and tragedy — and the economy of language. I’m in awe. And I love to read P.G. Wodehouse because he’s so witty, but clearly I’m not channeling him, just enjoying him.

coverTM:  Last winter you wrote about the abundance of recent genre-bending novels in your Vanity Fair Hot Type column, and specifically, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon. It’s such a curious book — part biography, part fiction, part memoir, part writer’s manual. It seems like the internet may also contribute to the growing plasticity of forms and mash-ups of genres. Do you think the ways that we read and write fiction is changing due to the internet, and/or a cultural obsession with nonfiction? In that sense, what are some of the biggest challenges facing contemporary fiction? And, to counter the inherent pessimism of the previous question, also what are the most enticing developments?

ES: Good questions.

First, to my mind, anything that is pushing the form, reinventing the way we tell stories, use language, process information, is fantastic, and should be encouraged.

As to how it might be influencing the way we write, judging from the stories I see teaching workshops and coming into Tin House, I’d say that the internet is definitely informing the sensibilities of new writers, in relation to subject matter. They seem to find their lives less interesting than what they see on their screens, and that’s unfortunate because the tendency then is to take someone else’s experience and in my experience, in the hands of someone who can’t make the material their own, the result is always flat and phony. You can smell the shit on their shoes. It’s unfortunate too because too often the writer is not as engaged with this story they found on the internet, as they are when they’re tapping into their own life. For as narcissistic as writers are, too many of them aren’t willing, or maybe it’s confident enough, to dive down deep enough in themselves to pull up the truly original and authentic material lurking on the bottom.

I know that the obsession with nonfiction and memoir has certainly had an adverse effect on readers of fiction. Many readers seem unwilling or incapable of imagining a writer is capable of creating a fictional world. It’s really sad because the pleasures of reading fiction and the pleasures of reading non-fiction are very different. In non-fiction the writer creates a world that already existed, there is safety in that. The reader is not the subject of the book, and thus there is a wall between them and the story.

Fiction is dark magic requiring a willing suspension of disbelief. The author casts a spell and vanishes. The reader forgets themselves, they enter this world the writer has conjured and become part of the story, they identify with the characters, experience what the characters experience. There is some risk in that. You don’t know what will happen. You don’t know what your reaction may be. Maybe worst of all, the fact that memoirs make more money than fiction has lead some good writers to publish lousy books.

TM:  You, like the women in your stories, juggle many roles. You’re not only a fiction writer, but also the editor-at-large for Tin House, a  teacher, a mother, and you pen the monthly Hot Type column for Vanity Fair. How do you juggle it all, and do you ever have time to read merely for pleasure?

ES: Not very skillfully. If I were juggling torches, my hair would be on fire. I find that the only way I can succeed at all is to compartmentalize as much as possible. Meaning, on days when I teach I only teach, on days when I have Vanity Fair work to do, I only do that. And, no, I am not able to read — at least at much length — for pleasure as much as I’d like. Although I try.

TM: And last, but definitely not least: Tom Wolfe once wrote an essay, “Tom Wolfe’s New Book of Etiquette,” that provides a tongue-in-cheek etiquette “update” for New York society that included instructions on topics of import (circa 1968), such as The Cocktail Party, The Social Kiss, and The Etiquette of Pot. If you were to write your own Elissa Schappell book of etiquette, what would make your list of critical updates, and also, worst contemporary faux-pas?

ES: Off the top of my head:

The Google. Is it appropriate to google a person before you meet them? Are you obliged to tell them you googled them? Is it acceptable to ask someone if they googled you? Should you be offended if someone didn’t google you?

Children’s Birthday Parties. Under what circumstances is it appropriate to drop your child off at a birthday party when other parents are staying. Is it wrong to ask if the host is serving booze and could you please have some. At parties where alcohol is provided for the parents, how drunk can you get?

is the author of the novel, The Enhancers, forthcoming in fall 2022 from Meekling Press. She’s published two poetry chapbooks, and her stories and essays have appeared in Fence, New York Tyrant, Tin House, and Make Lit, among other publications. Read more of her work here: