interview with Melissa Bank
Conducted via email by Megan Ross Rodriguez and Julia Fox
Why did you choose to write Girls’ Guide as a collection of short stories as opposed to a novel?
It didn’t even really occur to me to try to write a novel. Mainly I felt like writing a novel required some large and overarching vision or idea, to say nothing of structure—all of which felt beyond me. I don’t feel this way anymore, partly as a result of the books I have written. What made a novel seem impossible before was the idea that I needed a plan—I needed to know what I was doing at the outset. And I don’t think that anymore. I think a larger vision and overall structure can arise word by word, without necessarily knowing what you’re doing.
How did you envision the book as you began writing it? What was the point of genesis? Did you set out trying to write about the same character, or did the character keep appearing in your stories until you realized that you might have a book?
With Girls’ Guide, I just kept writing stories, hoping that one day I’d have enough for a book. I was pretty deep in when I realized that I was writing about the same character over and over. Then, when I wrote the last story, the title story, I saw the collection not just as a bunch of stories but as a book. I began to see the larger story. I recognized an arc. Then I wrote the long story from the middle of the book, “The Worst Thing A SuburbanGirl Could Imagine,” and then the first story—I wrote the first story last.
The Wonder Spot was totally different because I was under contract to write a book—I saw it as a book from the very start. I think I did sort of have an overall idea of what the book was going to look like. I wrote the last story first—I had the ending. And as I worked on each story I saw how it affected the other stories and had the larger composition in mind.
Each of the stories has a quotation paired with it from a diverse range of sources. When did the quotes come into the writing process—did you find the quotes after completing the stories or sometime during the writing?
The quotes came at the end of the process—after I finished the book.
The first three stories in the book all maintain a consistent perspective—first person from Jane’s point of view—but the fourth story, “The Best Possible Light,” seems to depart pretty radically from the preceding stories by stepping out of Jane’s mind and even out of her family circle. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your decision to include that story in this book and how you see it fitting in with the others.
Lots of reasons. First, I wanted a break between the two Archie stories. I sort of hoped “Light” would function the way an addition to a house does—I hoped another point of view would enlarge the book a little. And I think I myself wanted an intermission from Jane’s point of view.
As a bit of a follow-up to our last question, did you write other episodes in Jane’s life that did not make it into Girls’ Guide?
Yes, I did.
When you visited Susquehanna, you spoke about the pressure of writing your second book, The Wonder Spot, after the immense success of Girls’ Guide. Do those feelings still complicate your writing process even after two successful books?
Yes. Writing is fraught for me. I was never a fluent or prolific writer—I’ve always been dogged by writer’s block—and it hasn’t gotten easier. I’m always struggling.
How does one learn to pay attention to details in her daily life and then channel those into a work of fiction?
Sometimes I’ll be sitting next to someone in a restaurant and I’ll think, She’s mean. Then I’ll ask myself what made me feel that way. I’ll make myself think in words. That’s just an exercise, though. I pay attention because I’m trying to be as alive as I can be. As a writer, I’m insanely curious about human beings. I want to know how everyone else is making it through life. Or I might just be really nosy.
And, finally, what do you say to aspiring writers whose work has only been met, so far, with rejection?
I’m so glad you asked this—because it’s probably the most important thing I have to say: Getting rejected is as inevitable a part of the process of writing as getting hit is to boxing. It is true of every writer I admire. It’s especially true in the early years but it’s true even once you’re established and even famous. Which is why I think writing is more of a test of endurance than talent.
One of my favorite books 28 Artists and 2 Saints, by Joan Acocella, is all about how artists survive the corrosive effect of rejection. Learning to recover from rejection is one of the only parts of this process you can control. Get really good at it, if you can. What helps me recover is sitting down to write right away.
It’s important to know that rejection usually doesn’t mean anything—and it most especially does not mean you are not a real writer. In fact, when you get rejected, try to remember that you are having the experience of a real writer. You might even think, I am like the greatest writers of all time, and you would be right.