But you already know as much, even if you haven't read her books. When you first heard about Jane Rosenal, the narrator of Bank's debut, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing
, you more likely imagined strains of Lisa Loeb: a fashionable (but not without effort), twenty-something single angling for love in Manhattan. Or maybe you couldn't get past the persistent Bridget Jones
comparisons. Blame the book industry. The two novels don't have much in common, except that The Girls' Guide
arrived in bookstores exactly when Helen Fielding
's sudden fan base needed something to read next.
If you've actually read either of Melissa Bank's books, you know that she shares as much with John Cheever. Chronicling families of northeastern suburbs and cities, documenting with precision everyday social exchanges—public, private, and internal—Bank draws humor and revelation from weighted observation. Accordingly, her women crave self-actualization more than marriage.
In The Wonder Spot, Bank returns to familiar territory: after college, a young woman from the suburbs of Philadelphia moves to New York City and finds a job in publishing. But where career advancement drove Jane, in The Wonder Spot Sophie Applebaum hasn't much interest in the workplace; instead, brothers and parents take center stage. Bank explains, "I was interested in how a family grows up, and how it reconfigures as each person's life changes."
But back to the White Stripes: the band's third album, White Blood Cells, rightly earned a ton of airplay and a loyal audience. Its follow-up, Elephant, hardly sounds different if you play it in bits and pieces. But listen side by side. Elephant gushes confidence—still the same noise, but now with a whole lot more nuance.
So it goes with Melissa Bank. Girls' Guide heralded the debut of a talent worth reading. The Wonder Spot, cut from the same mold, delves deeper, and exceeds all expectations.
Dave: In both Girls' Guide and The Wonder Spot, you weave around the idea of how we learn things—and it's not typically in school. Jane and Sophie come from somewhat insulated families; it's as if we watch them break out of a cocoon and meet the world.
Melissa Bank: It was conscious in the first book that there was a certain inadequacy in the information you're given, and that what you're told is really the opposite of what's going on.
What are you taught at home, and how is it going to play out in the world? In the first book, Jane's looking at her brother and thinks, It was scary to think of him failing at love. I had no idea myself how to do it. What works? Each person teaches her something else.
I was like Sophie. I definitely feel like I tumble through life that way. When she's trying to figure out why her boss doesn't like her, she wants to call her father. Her father always makes her feel better. She says something like, "Even wanting to call him made me feel like I was younger than I was supposed to be." And what he comes up with is never very surprising, which makes her think, I should have thought of that. So she does try. What would he say? And it's, "Work harder." It's never a big revelation.
Dave: Does this have something to do with growing up in the suburbs, do you think? My upbringing wasn't much different than yours, and I'm fascinated by the way I looked up to city kids when I was younger. They seemed so much better informed.
Bank: So much more sophisticated.
Dave: They knew what life was about, and I didn't. Or I thought they did. Does suburban life feed that?
Bank: I think it does. In the suburbs, there's this idea of shielding kids. No one ever talked about what was going on. I remember eavesdropping on my mother and her friends, and they didn't say a damn thing! There was always a sense that more was going on; you just didn't know what it was.
City kids seemed infinitely more sophisticated. I remember when we used to go to Nantucket in the summer, we had two friends, Sarah and Willy, and they were so smart about everything. They knew what was going on in a way that I just didn't.
Even just walking down the street in New York you're exposed to so much more than you ever are in the suburbs. It's one of the reasons I love living there: people are talking about everything. You walk down the street, and you overhear them. In the suburbs, that doesn't happen. I remember we had one neighbor whose parents fought. They would storm out at night. It was shocking.
In the first book, I say something like, "The suburbs were quiet in a way that had nothing to do with peace." And there is that. When I think about being in the suburbs and that kind of quiet, I think about a clock ticking or the sound of someone's lawn being mowed, and it is the unhappiest, lonely, droning sound.
Dave: In Girls' Guide, Jane's attention was very much focused on work, whereas Sophie is more concerned with her family.
Bank: That's true. In this book, the secondary characters are much more important. The brothers are more important, the mother is more important; the father, too, even in his absence. And how they change. I was interested in how a family grows up—partly because my own family has changed so much—and how it reconfigures as each person's life changes.
Dave: Sophie still recognizes the part of Robert that doesn't change when he marries Naomi. We see how Jack becomes a different man after he meets Mindy. That's part of the learning process, too: watching your siblings change and adapt, and yet always recognizing some kernel of their younger self. Maybe it takes a sibling to understand that. Friends fall away over time; they don't see the whole arc.
Bank: And friends change as you change.
Dave: In Girls' Guide, Archie cites Dante's definition of hell: proximity without intimacy. It's an idea that runs through both books: people not expressing themselves, not connecting fully.
Bank: I think about Robert and Naomi. Even Robert, who is so devoted and so loving—for Naomi, he doesn?t express himself enough. He expresses himself in everything he does; he just doesn't do it verbally.
You think about E.M. Forster's "Only Connect." Well, everybody is connected now. In New York, people are always on their cell phones, or they're on their computers. They're constantly connected, but you listen to what they say or how they say it: "I'm leaving the office now and I'm on my way home." The quality of the connection, or the depth of it, is so different from what it used to be.
For me, the most important thing is the authentic connection Sophie is able to feel toward the end of the book, learning her own mind and how to be in touch with what she actually thinks. To be on speaking terms with herself.
Dave: Which is the first revelation she has in the book, in the bathroom.
Bank: Yes. And to get back to that previous thought: The time people used spend figuring out what they thought, time for any kind of pondering or musing, was on their way to work, when they were walking, but now people are on the phone; or in your car, driving, but now they're on the phone; or after work at home, but now they're on the Internet or watching TV. The time for developing any idea about what you really think is gone.
Dave: In a Salon interview back in 1999, you talked about the fact that you're not a traditional, lyrical writer. I found myself comparing The Wonder Spot to The Corrections. You could cut a page out of each book and people wouldn't confuse them, but they're dealing with many of the same issues.
Bank: When you say lyrical, what do you mean?
Dave: It might be impossible to open either of your books and not find dialogue on a facing pair of pages. It's scene-based. We're not going to find six consecutive pages of narrative voice waxing poetic about setting or feelings.
People (particularly people who haven't read you) might dismiss your books because they're not hefty; you're not writing in a third-person, omniscient voice. But it's taken you a long time to write both books, and they're great. In terms of craft, where does the bulk of your attention go?
Bank: There isn't a density, in terms of the texture. I'm not writing heavily detailed narrative, as you say. I don't like anybody to study my sentences. That's my work.
When I'm reading, I don't like not knowing what something means. I feel like it's the writer's fault when I don't. Even if it's supposed to be really deep and that allows for more ambiguity in writing, I often feel that it's just lazy. What passes as literary is often a kind of pretension or inaccessibility. Sometimes it's really warranted; sometimes when a piece of writing isn't completely accessible, or there's a certain kind of mystery to it because the writer hasn't made everything clear, there is a really good reason—that's something else.
For me, a lot of the work comes in refining it. Even if I'm saying something that I think of as having real depth or substance, I don't want to say it in a way that bogs a reader down. I'm after something else. I think of Billy Collins, who I'm really insane about. When I first read him, I thought, He's succeeding in doing what I'm trying to do, which is to treat the weightiest matters of our lives with the lightest touch, with humor and grace and a kind of elegance. I really admire that.
I do think people dismiss my work as lightweight, but I'm trying for something. It may mean that I'm not succeeding, but whatever. I polish, edit, take thousands of pages out, to give it that. It's not an accident.
Dave: The Billy Collins comparison is a good one—enough people consider his poetry lightweight, or at least not as substantial as a "major" poet, but that's ridiculous. How do you get depth without density? It's a great challenge.
Bank: I also, by the way, love The Corrections. It's one of my favorite books.
Dave: I loved it, too. Franzen was here when the whole Oprah flap went down. Our interview was cited in the Times.
Bank: What did he actually say?
Dave: What he said on NPR was more dismissive of her book club, but at Powell's he said, "The problem is some of Oprah's picks. She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe."
That line was pulled out of a much longer conversation about the street cred an author loses when he starts to sell a lot of books. The very next words out of his mouth were, "But she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight. And she's an easy target." The Times didn't print that part.
Bank: It's maybe even more true for women that commercial success makes people doubt the value of your books. You can't really come back from that, in a way. It's a funny thing.
But I think Oprah is amazing. She's done more for reading in this country than anybody in the last fifty years. When you travel around and you go into a place to have your nails done, which I'm sure you do all the time, there are people who say, "I hadn't picked up a book since high school. I just read magazines until Oprah." And her choices are great.
I'm interested in what you're saying about the narrative style. It's a painful thing to be dismissed. It never really occurred to me that it would happen because I never thought of my work as commercial. It's been a shock. But you can't write for that. I'd be much happier if I weren't dismissed or if I were taken more seriously, but the failing would be trying to prove you're different from what critics or "serious" readers think you are.
Dave: You're never going to satisfy everyone. But I could point to any number of instances where you don't take the commercial way out. In The Wonder Spot, you could have played the father's death for all it was worth, a whole chapter drawing out Sophie's emotions. Instead, you skip it entirely and deal with the fallout. That's a literary maneuver, and it's really well done.
Bank: Thank you.
But about the way I write and what I value: I want people to understand what I mean and not get lost in anything. That doesn't mean dumbing-down; it means being as lucid as I can. It could be something I'm criticized for, but it was something I learned from working in advertising. It was the one thing I really loved about advertising. I came from an MFA program, from Cornell, where somebody had once referred to "a sentimental attachment to clarity." It was the age of deconstruction; and also writers were much more oriented to being a little obtuse.
I loved that in advertising you were so busted if you were trying to prove to everybody what a good writer you were instead of actually doing your job. I learned to respect a reader's time. You were trained to believe that no one wants to read what you're going to write. Nobody ever said, "Write a longer headline, Melissa," or, "Could you make this body copy a little longer?" They're all saying, "Nobody wants to read." It makes you work harder to make everything that you say worth reading.
Dave: Have you read The Year of Magical Thinking?
Bank: I just bought it, but no, I haven't read it yet. I love Joan Didion, though. I love her early work. I'm a real fan of Slouching toward Bethlehem. That was a really important book for me.
What did you think of it?
Dave: It's amazing. And in that way of clarity—it's so in your face, and honest. Again, depth without density. The book could easily be taught in high school, in terms of reading comprehension, but I'm sure many of its readers are fifty and sixty and seventy-years-old.
Do you have any favorite New York novels?
Bank: I was a big fan of Bright Lights, Big City. I haven't read his new book. But what else? I love the Cheever stories. The Salinger stories, I loved. E.B. White wrote some great stuff; I loved Here is New York, the long essay. But these aren't novels.
Dave: I thought to ask because you make a passing reference to The Great Gatsby in Girls' Guide.
Bank: I love The Great Gatsby.
Dave: In talking to authors, that's been the book most often cited as an inspiration.
Bank: I think of so much of it taking place on Long Island.
Dave: To people outside Manhattan, that counts.
There's definitely a whole New York feel to it. There is something about that book. It's just perfect. That's so rare. And it's little.
Dave: I've seen you compared to Pam Houston, another author that has spent a lot of time on the Jersey shore.
Bank: I like her writing. We've read together. We're a good combo.
I like Pam a lot. When I was starting, she really helped me figure out what to write and how to write. She was one of those writers that gave me permission. I remember reading her and realizing, Oh my God, you can do this? Which was so great.
Dave: When I was in grad school, every woman in the program was fawning over Cowboys Are My Weakness.
Bank: That was a really good book. I often remember lines of hers, particularly in "How to Talk to a Hunter." But there's a line that I always loved in Waltzing the Cat, too, which was about women's obsession with weight. She says, "For the last several minutes, I keep a mental list of the women I pass, and who's fatter and who's thinner than I am. Did I say the last several minutes? I meant the past several years." She's great.
Dave: What's the first book you remember affecting you deeply?
Bank: I remember really liking the Beverly Cleary books when I was little, but I was not a big reader growing up. I never read anything for school. I wasn't that verbal; I used to draw and paint. I was never a good student. I remember going insane for Nine Stories, but there must have been something before that.
When I was in college, I read Lolita, and a major transformation happened. I just loved Lolita. It was a revelation. I had real problems early in college, writing papers, partly because I had no idea how to write in my own voice. My idea of good writing was the encyclopedia, writing like an elderly white man with a slight British accent. Like most kids, actually. I also had a big authority problem, and I thought of literature in that realm, things that I wouldn't understand and that would prove I was not smart or just plain wrong. Lolita made a big impact.
Dave: How did you end up putting "The Wonder Spot" in Speaking with the Angel?
Bank: Nick Hornby asked me to give him a story.
That was the first story I wrote for The Wonder Spot, the book. I wrote it originally for the Guardian. They'd asked me to come up with stories for a book that a Swiss photographer was making. It was going to be a book of photographs about relationships, like a family tree of relationships. They would photograph you with your girlfriend. If you were still with her five years later, they would take your picture again. If you'd broken up, they'd take a picture of you with whoever you were with now. And then those people, five years later, and the broken-off people with their current partners, until it became like branches on a tree. So I did a few of them, and I really liked "The Wonder Spot." I thought it was the end of a book.
I was glad to get to know Nick and his son and that whole community.
Dave: I love his writing. His nonfiction, especially.
Bank: He's also such a dear person. And I love his partner. I don't even know why I feel this way, but I would do anything for Nick. I just adore him. He's a great guy.
Dave: He was here last summer. I forced a book on him, and he wound up raving about it in the Believer. He references Powell's in the essay. I emailed the author immediately. "That was me! And Kevin, too, but I told Hornby first!"
Bank: You're kidding. What book?
Dave: A Complicated Kindness.
Bank: That's so interesting. I've been wanting to read that. When I was in Frankfurt, she was sort of the big star. I went to her book party. After hearing so much about it, I got people I knew to buy it, but I haven't read it yet. It sounds great.
I love that book of Believer columns. It's fantastic.
I really admire Nick's work. He says in one of those columns, "Here's why I could never be a literary writer." It's some book in which the character comes home to her house, which has been completely wrecked, robbed, and ransacked, and she has a meditation on something that a friend of hers likes and goes on and on about it for two pages before you find out that her house has been broken into. Nick is like, "This is why I could never be a literary writer and I could never be a character in a literary novel. I would just think, 'What the fuck?! I've been robbed!'"
Dave: Before I leave you alone, spill some piece of information that people probably don't ask you about.
Bank: I care a lot about boots.
I'm kidding, but it is true. And people never ask me.
Dave: We send a Q&A to authors, and we ask them to answer any seven questions of the twenty-five we give. The most popular question, by far, is "Describe your favorite pair of your shoes and what makes them better than the rest."
Bank: It's a good question. Even though it's not a question.
Dave: And your answer is?
Bank: A pair of black, satin, Channel pumps. Platform. I guess they're from the sixties, maybe the seventies. I just bought them at a designer resale store, a consignment store, which is my new obsession in shopping because I love old things, and things that are made really well. What I love about them is they just couldn't be more elegant; they're the embodiment of elegance. And also, they were less than a hundred dollars.
Melissa Bank visited Powell's City of Books on February 21, 2006. Before her reading, she recorded a bumper for the Bookcast we published that evening. The following day, we met at the Heathman Hotel for this conversation.
*I'm sure that otherwise reasonable people prefer White Blood Cells to Elephant. They're certainly welcome to the opinion. Probably they heard WBC first, though, didn't they? It's situational, the attachment—at least that's my argument, and I'm sticking to it.
And for the record, if Girls' Guide were a pop album, it would sound more like Shawn Colvin than Lisa Loeb. ("Polaroids" and "Another Long One" come to mind.)