RH: At what point did you realize the short stories in
Use Me were a series?
ES: I'd been writing these stories about these two women for a
while. But it wasn't until I had five or six of the stories that
somebody pointed out to me that they were all about the same
things--women and their fathers, women and men trying to
negotiate power through sex and intimacy. It was only then that I
realized that was true. I wrote the rest of the stories, and went back
to rewriting and editing them so that they felt cohesive, but I really
wasn't concerned with it seeming like a novel, or interconnected. I
wanted the stories to stand alone. I wanted them to be snapshots. If
you asked these women about the most important moments in their
lives, these are some of the things they'd be thinking about.
RH: So there's no point at which you decided to yourself,
"OK, I've got to switch back and forth between my two
ES: No. And you'll notice that doesn't happen. It really started
off with "Novice Bitch," with the Mary Beth character, a teenage girl
obsessed with her abortionist. Why is she obsessed with her
abortionist? Why would a young Catholic girl have three abortions,
and why would she be dating all these older men? I wonder what
her relationship with her father's like...Oh!
That's too simplistic, but...I started off being very interested in Mary
Beth, and I'd already written "Use Me," one of the Evie stories, so I
thought, "Let's see where these go." I really just rode the horse in the
direction it was going, and wrote more Evie stories. At one point, I
thought to myself that maybe I should make it more balanced, but
then I thought, "No, this really is Evie's book."
I didn't care about it being perfect. Life isn't perfect. These aren't
perfect stories, these aren't perfect women. I didn't have the impulse
to make it polished or perfect. It's about ambiguity, about the dark
stuff we don't like to talk about. I'm very interested in the politics of
abortion, for example. I think a lot about this. I was interested in
creating a character that people would feel sympathetic to in the
beginning. This poor girl, what's going on with her, she's a teenager,
we feel so bad for her...and then you come to find out that she's a
rather self-sufficient young woman--or so she thinks. This isn't her
first abortion, it's her third, and there's a reason for this. At that
point, some people would respond, "Oooh, now we don't like the fact
that she's allowed to have all these abortions." And to my mind--I
mean, it's not what I'd do in my own life, but she should be allowed
to do whatever she wants to do. It shouldn't matter if you're having
three abortions or one.
The Evie character, on the other hand, is more like me, so of course
she wasn't as interesting in the beginning to do, or as much fun.
RH: And with Evie, you have to face the inevitable
questions about whether she's an autobiographical
character or not.
ES: Oh, sure, everyone's going to ask that. I grew up in
Delaware, I had a father who died, I have a mother and sister who
are still alive... There are some parts of it that are autobiographical.
But for the most part, it's not.
People like to think things are autobiographical. I think it makes
them feel good, like they know something. But I also think it stops
readers from becoming completely engaged in the work. They don't
feel as implicated. They think, "Oh, this happened, and I can judge
this." That's not what I want. What I want is for the reader to say, "I
wonder, if I was presented with my parent's death, what I'd do.
Would I do that? What does it mean to do that?" As opposed to, "Did
she do that? Let me look at that picture again. Is she the kind of
woman who would do that?" I hate the idea of breaking the magic
that way. But in this day and age, it's increasingly the first question
that people ask.
RH: Those readers say to themselves, "Now I understand
Elissa Schappell," but they haven't really understood your
ES: Or themselves, for that matter. It's really naive, but I
guess it makes them feel good. Me, I read to be taken away. I don't
want to be thinking about the creator of the book. I want the
experience of disappearing. I want the magic. I don't want to be
wondering if Richard Ford screwed around with his wife that much,
or whatever. But I'm sure that I could be writing about giant stuffed
animals taking over the planet, and people would be like, "These
giant stuffed animals, these are your family, right?" Yeah, the koala
bear with the antenna, that one's Dad.
RH: Among the inventive ways you reimagined the bare
facts of your father's death is to write an entire story in
outline form ("Try An Outline").
ES: That was in some ways the easiest and the most difficult of
the stories to write. I knew that, in the book, I had to kill the
father...have the father die. (self-deprecating eye roll) "Kill the
father..." I didn't want it to be one of these weepy, Carrie Fisher,
Lifetime Channel moments where she holds his hand and he drifts
away. But it was still upsetting, because my father died. Even if I am
writing fiction, my father died, and I'm sad about that.
He said to me once, when I was young, "You gotta have an outline.
Once you have a plan..." A very fatherly thing to say, I guess, not
much of a surprise. So when I sat down to write this, I was thinking,
"Fuck you, Daddy, you've left me and now I've got to figure out how
to write this story where the father dies and what am I going to do?"
Well, try an outline.When I set out to do it, I wasn't thinking
necessarily that it would really be written this way. It was just notes.
But as I sat there, I realized this was it. And I sat there and wrote
the whole thing. It probably took three hours. And then I got up
from the table, went to the bathroom, and threw up.
You know how it is when something's getting into your stomach and
making you agitated, when you've touched something? And I felt,
okay, maybe I did it there, maybe that's a good one. If it makes me
sick, maybe there's something there that really feels truthful, and
maybe it'll make somebody else feel something. (pause)
Hopefully it won't make them throw up.
RH: How long had it been since your father's death when
you wrote that?
ES: Some of these stories had been written before my father
was sick. And once he was diagnosed, he didn't live very long. So
probably...it may have been a year, a year and a half. Right after he
died, I didn't work very much. It must have been at least a year; I
don't think I could have done it before then. It's still unpleasant for
me, four years later.
RH: So the whole experience of going around the country
and having people ask you about it must be just wonderful.
ES: But you know what? I wrote this book because I had to
write it. I was working on another book before this, and I thought, I
don't care if anybody reads this or not. When your parents or
someone you love dies, you perhaps become a bit morbid. Well, I was
pretty morbid anyway. My father died, he was 57, I'm in my early
30s, it's very possible my life is more than half over. And I said to
myself, why don't you write what feels true to you? If you could
only write one book--if you're diagnosed with cancer in two years
and you're about to die--why don't you write the book you
absolutely need to write?
That's why I didn't think about some of the things I think writers
think about when they're writing a book, like who the audience is,
and how you'll manipulate them in this way or that way. What do I
care about? What am I passionate about? What do I want down on
paper if I don't have a lot of time? I care a lot about abortion rights.
I'm very interested in how parents and children can have very
erotically charged relationships. I'm interested how, at some points,
we become parents to our parents, or a spouse can become more like
a friend than a lover. Or a frienshio like Evie and Mary Beth's, can
have an erotic charge. All this weird gray ambiguity and eroticism
that exists between people. Some people think you shouldn't be
writing about women nursing their children until they're nearly four.
Why would you do that? It's icky. Why would you write about a
woman having a threeway without taking any kind of moral
If I'd been worrying about that stuff, I'd have written a very
RH: Are you going to go back to that novel you put on
ES: I'm supposed to. I've got a two-book deal, so I'm supposed
to be working on it right now...but I'm not as interested in it now. I
think I'll do something else. I mean, I still owe them a novel, but I
don't think it'll be that one.
RH: You've got a dream situation. In order to support
yourself so you can writer creatively, you still get to work
with books and literature.
ES: I'm really lucky. I've had a lot of shitty jobs. And I've
worked for a long, long time. I also write a lot of articles for women's
magazines, and a bunch of other stuff, that I really don't want to do,
but I'll have to do even more of it now that I'm going to write this
second book and we'll need the money. But I'm lucky to have the
Vanity Fair job, and to have published the book I wanted to
publish without a lot of meddling.
I edit maniacally. The Amsterdam story ("The Garden of Eden")
literally took me three years to fix. I wrote it, rewrote it, fixed it,
pulled it apart--I feel like a mechanic. It's too bad stories aren't like
leaky tires, where you can just submerge them and then see where
the holes are.
Even reading now, from the finished book, I'm editing it. I've put
together a list of things I want changed for the paperback edition. I
was at one reading, and was using a new part of the book that I
haven't read a lot. I got to one sentence that was just so wrong, so
bad, I just froze. I looked up, and everybody was smiling, so I read it,
I choked over it, but I knew that I had to fix it before I read it again.
Otherwise it throws me completely off.
RH: What have you read recently that you've liked?
ES: I liked Donald Antrim's The Verificationist. He's so smart, and
he writes such beautiful sentences. I'm also reading David Sedaris's new
collection, one of the funniest things I've ever read. I'm reading the Ellen
Gilchrist short stories, the Dawn Powell diaries...I'm very into Dawn Powell.
She never got much acclaim when she was around, but she just got her ass in
front of the typewriter and wrote beautiful, wicked, funny novels. In our third
issue, we printed the last interview she did, about her involvement with the
Group Theater. And Flannery O'Connor... There's great stuff all the time.
There's also a lot of crap--you weep for the trees--but there's always great