The Reading Life: Elissa Schappell’s ‘Better Girls’


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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.

Heather’s sense of self is so informed by being labeled sexually promiscuous as a girl -- but she’s not, although she’s comfortable with her sexuality. It’s this defensiveness, this lack of trust, combined with her sexuality, that others find unsettling. She sees her power as being located in her sexuality, particularly in opposition to her boyfriend’s mother. It’s her Achille’s heel, in a way. This informs the kind of wife and, finally, mother she becomes. Her son is the first male she can trust completely, the first person she loves unconditionally. This is part of why she must tell him her story. The fact that she must reckon with her past, and her son’s intimate relationship with a girl who reminds her of herself, forces her to consider what power she possessed then, and possesses now.

Because her sexual identity goes through so many transitions, and covers the widest expanse of time, it was the natural choice to use as bookends.

As for the other women in the book, I didn’t want you to know how Bender ends up, because she is the kind of girl who disappears after college, or becomes far less interesting as she’s liable to end up a lawyer or a banker. Charlotte’s story, I felt, would make the book too much about how we survive the bad things that happen to us, which felt too much like “Use Me.” Paige’s story for me is just getting really interesting, I’m curious how she’ll reconcile her old identity with the new, how her feelings of loving her husband more than her daughter will evolve. I have a sense that will change.

JC: Heather isn’t the only character we see at different ages. It’s true of others also, especially Charlotte, who we first meet as a brittle college student, then see as a young mother, and also hear about as a “wannarexic” in “The Joy of Cooking” and through Bender’s eyes in “Out of the Blue and Into the Black.”

ES: I found this strategy enormously helpful in reflecting the different facets of each character’s life. How they exist outside their story, in the stories of others. The various points of view allow us to see the characters as others see them, even as we have our own intimate knowledge of their lives. We know their secrets, which is satisfying for a reader. As is puzzling together a world.

We see how these characters judge each other, and the cost of that. We see how what they want is at odds with what they’re asking for. Any time you meet someone they create a version of you that lives in their mind, that is real to them -- the truth of you to them. The fact is, that’s not really you. Sometimes you’re a very different person.

One of the challenges is that it can start to feel grasping -- are there really that many angles from which to look at one woman? Too many angles, and the reader doesn’t do enough work. I want the reader to fill in some blanks, make some assumptions, pass some judgments, as we are wont to do.

I didn’t want the book to start to feel like a game of Gotcha! Or, Where’s Waldo? You know, oh look there’s so and so.... That said, I did like having Evie, who is the main character in “Use Me,” make a cameo.

JC: Some of the connections here are very spare, very subtle -- the playground, for instance, that Douglas builds in “A Dog Story,” and where later, Charlotte and Paige’s kids play.

ES: I want them to be subtle. I didn’t want the book to feel too tightly knit together because part of what is interesting to me here is the space and distance, the invisible histories that link these characters.

Douglas built that playground believing his baby would grow up and play there. We may not think about that stuff, but everything -- objects, landscapes, people -- has a story. I like the idea too that Charlotte assumes that Kate, who works in her office, and is married to Douglas, doesn’t like or want children because she’s cold to her when she brings her baby pictures to the office, when in fact she’s suffering because she just had a miscarriage. There is a lot of love and loss in that playground.

JC: In “The Joy of Cooking,” you write from the perspective of a different generation. It’s the only time in the book that you pull out and look at the characters from what we might call an adult filter, in the sense that the adults are always those who are older than us.

ES: You’re right: The only time I’m really looking at a character that’s an “adult” in the way you’re talking about, through the entirety of a story, is in “The Joy of Cooking.” I considered telling the story from the daughter Emily’s point of view; she’s anorexic, and it would fit with the design of taking an archetypal female character (how many “Afterschool Specials” have been made about girls with eating disorders?) and subverting your expectation of who she is. But ultimately I didn’t find Emily that interesting. What was interesting to me was her mom. We never hear the mother of the anorexic’s side of the story. All these mothers cannot possibly be the same. Right? But when we think about these mothers, we immediately assume, Heartless, controlling....

Before I started writing that story, I had a dream about the mother (she is the only character in the book without a name): She was holding her teenage daughter in her arms and feeding her what I realized were pieces of her own liver. In the dream she’s so happy and relieved that her daughter is eating. She says, I had no idea she’d eat that.

It’s a love story in a way. The mother and Emily have been locked in this dance for so long -- at the expense of the younger daughter, Paige, who we see elsewhere in the collection -- it’s very complicated.

JC: Throughout the book, you’re comfortable inhabiting the perspectives of both girls and women, and particularly of characters on the cusp. I’m thinking of Bender, or of Charlotte -- both of whom seem trapped in their own personas, unable to stop playing a certain role.

ES: I am comfortable with that perspective, probably because I have a country house on that cusp, and spend a lot of time there.

Charlotte and Bender are both trapped in their personas. It’s like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.” They can’t stop dancing. Charlotte has to be the good girl, who pleases and protects everyone from her feelings, and Bender is the on-with-the-show good-time girl who feels nothing. Their personas, they believe, make them more likable and acceptable to other people, but ironically that’s what keeps them from ever really being known, and knowing themselves.

I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that a lot of women adopt personas to survive. Because it’s not acceptable for a woman just to be who she must be, the way it is for a man. It’s too scary. Society is happiest, and feels safest, when all the women have been properly costumed, labeled and put in their places. Women are dangerous. We adopt personas as a way to gain personal power, protect ourselves, guard our mystery. You know how important mystery is to a woman.

Although, come now, it’s not just women. It’s men too.

JC: You highlight a conundrum for our generation: We’re not grownups in the sense our parents were, and yet, we’re parents to our kids. It comes up here especially in regard to Heather, who has to wrestle with how to help her son Sam through some tricky territory even as she still remembers and is, in many ways, defined by similar experiences of her own.

ES: This is a conundrum I think about a lot. It is one of those “do as I say, not as I did” conundrums. There is also the disconnect of “you just don’t get it” between generations, with the young pretty certain that the older generations know nothing of value to them, when, in fact, the old could teach them how to roll a joint, make a fake I.D. and pick a lock. They think: We don’t need your stinking cautionary tales, because we’re not you. We are smarter and luckier and cooler than you. Certainly grownups can’t imagine what the young are experiencing. Can’t possibly understand what they are feeling because, as we know when we’re young -- we know everything, we are the only people who have ever felt anything, as it should be. To really live you have to be a little stupid. You need to be open to experiences both bad and good.

JC: There’s a sadness to a lot of these stories, a sense of limited horizons, even when the characters are young. It’s not a matter of opportunity, since they mostly come from a certain background, but something more existential.

ES: Yes, there is sadness. Life is full of sadness, and if you’re paying attention, if you feel things -- and these women do feel -- you’re going to be sad sometimes. There is also a lot of sweetness in life. However, I think you’re getting at the $64,000 question. On paper you can seem to have it all, but how can you possibly have it all -- a career, love, family, freedom? And how do you reconcile all the possibilities with the societal pressures and expectations? There’s no way to win, and no matter how brave your front, deep down, there is this knowledge that young women are in an existential vise out of which there is no easy escape.

JC: You end the book with Heather saying to her son, “Don’t be a fool, there is no such thing as just a girl.” It’s a vivid statement -- and yet it also seems to tell us that the stories we’ve just read are about something different than we might have thought, that your characters are complicit in their fates.

ES: Female archetypes and stereotypes don’t simply spring out of the ether or men’s imaginations. There is complicity among some women to play along, to play up or over their assigned roles. We live in a meta world of, “I know that you know that I am playing with the projection of power through embracing my label of slut ...” Oh, God, it is so complicated, so many layers. The whole book is about peeling away the façade of archetypes and stereotypes to reveal the complex forces that result in the public presentation. I’m glad you fixated on this line, because, not to be reductive, this really is what the book is about. When I wrote that line, I knew it was the last line of the book.

-- David L. Ulin