The Beatrice Interview

Elissa Schappell

"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?"

interviewed by Ron Hogan

I met with Elissa Schappell in a room on the second floor of the Portland offices of Tin House, the literary journal that she co-edits with her husband, Rob Spillman, from their home in New York City. Right now, she's explaining to me how she got one of the best jobs in magazine publishing, the "Hot Type" column in Vanity Fair, six years ago. "My first real job in publishing was working for Spy magazine in the '80s, when it was actually funny," she recalls, "and my boss was Graydon Carter. I was there three years, then went away to spend some time in Portugal and Berlin. I came back, Spy had folded, Graydon had moved on to the Observer. Then he went to Vanity Fair and they decided they were going to do a book column. He's a very loyal man, and he called me up, and I jumped at it--sunk my claws in and have not let go." Every month, she starts out with approximately 200 books around her desk, from novels to poetry collections and photography books, and decides which of them will get featured in her one-page column. "I'm always interested in putting in at least one person who could really use six million readers. So inevitably I always ignore one book I probably should write about, but doesn't interest me, the author doesn't need me. Updike doesn't need me to sell books, let's give the space to somebody who needs it instead. It's a great bully pulpit, and I'm grateful to have it as a job. Especially as somebody who likes to hang out around the house in her pajamas, staying out of the sun." But ultimately, I'm not here simply to talk about magazine work with Schappell, and the conversation turns to her first collection of short stories, Use Me, which has recently been published by William Morrow.

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 characters."

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 stories.

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 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 stance?

If I'd been worrying about that stuff, I'd have written a very different book.

RH: Are you going to go back to that novel you put on hold?

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 stuff.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Deborah Eisenberg | Complete Interview Index | Amanda Davis

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan