Elissa Schappell on writing, feminism, and her Hockessin childhood
Jun 16, 2018 10:26AM ● Published by J. Chambless
By John Chambless
Elissa Schappell, who spent her
formative years in Hockessin, is the author of Blueprints for
Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is a contributing
editor and the “Hot Type” book columnist at Vanity Fair, a
former senior editor of The Paris Review, and co-founder and
now editor-at-large of the literary magazine, Tin House. She
lives in Brooklyn with her family. She is married to Tin House
editor Rob Spillman, with whom she co-founded the magazine
She has been described as “a diva of the encapsulating phrase, capable of conveying a Pandora’s box of feeling in a single line” by The New York Times Book Review. Her provocative, darkly funny stories map America’s shifting cultural landscape from the late 1970s to the present day.
She teaches at schools including Columbia University, NYU, and Queens University. She began her professional writing career at Spy magazine in the 1980s, but she has gone on to write for a wide variety of magazines, including GQ, Vogue and Spin. She has written book reviews for The New York Times, Bookforum, and the London Daily Telegraph.
Q.: What are your earliest memories
of being read stories by your parents? Was reading a part of daily
life in your house?
A.: I don’t remember my parents reading to my sister and me that much, although I am sure they did. My sister and I far preferred my father telling us a story. The one I remember most was “Little Tiger and Little Pony,” in which the aforementioned wander away from their mothers while berry picking and get into all sorts of trouble – or rather high adventure – plunging over waterfalls, and they are finally rescued and returned to their mothers by a giant eagle. If only I’d inherited my father’s gift for plot.
Both of my parents were big readers, and given that my sister and I weren’t allowed too much television, we read a lot. I wasn’t very discriminating. Or, rather, let’s say I read very broadly. I read everything, comic books, sci-fi, horror, pop fiction, classic books, satire, poetry, joke books. A friend’s mom was heavily into romance novels, so I read those too.
A quick mental excavation of my bookshelves ages 10-17 turns up, Flowers in the Attic, Dune, Scruples, The Shining, Bullfinches Mythology, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, The Princess Bride, James and the Giant Peach, Alive!, Lord of the Rings, Franny and Zooey, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, The Sensuous Woman, Watership Down, Wuthering Heights, Helter Skelter, On the Banks of the Plum Creek, A Child’s Garden of Verses, 1001 Jokes, an anthology of Peanuts cartoons, some Archie comics, copies of Vogue, Seventeen, and Rolling Stone. There you go.
You've said your father was very supportive of you and your sister being “just as good as boys.” Do you remember ever thinking why shouldn't I be just as good as boys?
My father was a feminist. Both he and my mother always stressed gender equality (as well as racial equality), so of course, when I was a girl, I thought why shouldn’t I be just as a good as a boy? That said, very quickly I learned, as girls do, that being as good as a boy, even wanting to be as good as boy, is dangerous. It makes some people, female and male, very uncomfortable. Believing you’re as a good as a boy is one thing (and that’s difficult given all the evidence to the contrary) letting others know you think this is dangerous. Nothing is less attractive and more terrifying to our culture than a smart, young woman who doesn’t care what you think, and can change a tire. If she’s comfortable with her sexuality, forget about it.
How have you passed that lesson to your own daughter?
By talking about gender empowerment since the time she could make a fist, and trying to model that behavior. By encouraging her make noise and express herself – take up the space that every human being, regardless of gender, has a right to. Maybe exposing her to strong female role models in the arts and music world, like Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Kera Walker, Dorothy Allison, to name just a few, helped.
It helps that she’s grown up in a liberal community. In middle school and into high school she was in an all-girl punk band, which, because it’s Brooklyn, was signed to a record label (which incidentally paid for her college tuition). She was encouraged to start a feminism club in high school.
All that said, it doesn’t mean that the culture at large hasn’t done a number on her too. When I asked her if she remembered ever thinking that she shouldn’t be as good as a boy, she laughed and said, “Of course. I still feel that way sometimes. You know that Dorothy Parker quote, 'Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.'”
The message society sends girls is not only you shouldn’t be as a good as a boy because it’s threatening to them (which frankly is an insult to boys), you can’t be. You deserve to get 70 cents to the man’s dollar. If you’re a woman of color, it’s even less. As a female you aren’t entitled to make decisions about your own body. Or perhaps it’s that we’re not mentally or morally equipped. Society says it’s not necessary for women to be as good as men, because men are meant to be dominant sex, they are born to be leaders, and as such make decisions for women.
The central theme of your last book, and other works, has been how girls and women navigate the conflicting roles they're expected to play. I assume there is some autobiographical content in the characters you create.
Blueprints for Building Better Girls is not particularly autobiographical, although I am as a woman familiar with facets of all these women. The characters are female archetypes – the good girl, the bad mother, the slut, the anorexic …. My aim was to write an anti-etiquette book, which instead of telling women the proper way to behave – how to handle the perils of arranging flowers, knowing when to speak and not speak, what fork to use -- these stories would show readers what the real perils are of being female. To subvert the reader’s expectations of who these women are, who the culture says they are, or should be.
My first book, Use Me, is much more autobiographical. First books are often the book that a writer has been writing, in some way, their whole life. At the center of Use Me is a father-daughter relationship. Their power dynamic is more complicated and compelling than my relationship was with my own father, but the father gets cancer and dies, and the daughter is devastated and that is all true.
As with all writers, is there a catharsis for you in slipping into these characters?
I wouldn’t call it a catharsis. I would say that I feel like it’s my job to write about the things that everybody knows, but no one wants to talk about. I know that I’m on to something when I hear that voice in my head saying, 'You better not say that. Don’t say that.' There is something liberating in saying it. In being honest. Why not just say it? It’s always the thing that you think is so shameful, so terrible that people react to. When you write the thing you could never say, people respond. They feel less alone. Which seems to me to be a large part of this whole business of living, to feel less alone.
Have you been regarded by publishers as “that woman who writes about angry women”? And did that, in turn, make you angry?
I don’t know about publishers, but certainly critics. Initially, it did make me angry. It enraged me. Oh the irony. I felt it was reductive. And it’s condescending. Were I a man, my work would be a pointed critique of society. Which is what the work is.
Sometimes I’ll meet people who have read my work, and they’ll tell me, 'I thought you were going to be a bitch.' Then, 'I thought you’d be taller.' The truth is, I don’t mind people thinking I’m a bitch, and I’m quite comfortable being short.
Is your childhood home still there? When did you last visit?
Yes. The people who now live there are supposedly lovely, and they appreciate the house. Even though my father built the house, and it felt of us, it deserved a new family. And no, I haven’t gone back since we left. My mother and my sister have. I can’t. Not yet.
What was the area like when you were young – Not as many housing developments, I assume.
Ha! Very, very few housing developments. No McMansions. There were fields, and the woods were thick. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I played in the creek, we rode bikes where ever we wanted, and mini-bikes. We hitchhiked! The older I get, the more enchanted my childhood becomes in memory.
Which family members are still in the area?
My mom lives in Kennett Square. That’s it.
How are you regarded by your family – as the success you are, or do they have trouble envisioning that writing at the level you've achieved is actually “a real job”?
My family has always been supportive of me. Unflaggingly. I imagined doing any number of things with my life. My mother contends she always knew I was going to be a writer. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that I was any good at. I have no other wage-earning skills. And honestly, writing is the time when I feel most myself.
What changes need to be made to the educational system to ensure that the art of writing does not become something you can put into a tweet?
Don’t get me started on the sad state of the American educational system. We are living in an age of anti-intellectualism, and it’s just appalling. Not to mention scary, when you consider America’s place in the world order right now. It’s a reflection of our current values. Being smart, being intellectually curious, is no longer rewarded. Making money is the measure of success. Winning the lottery is an ambition. The people who are the most serious about education in this country, the kids who work the hardest, achieve the best grades, are the children of immigrants. These folks don’t have five generations in the ground.
It isn’t changing what I write, but it’s furthered my resolve.
How did you and Rob meet?
We met walking down the steps of Penn Station. We were both catching the train to D.C. I was going to see an old boyfriend, he was going to a party. He said the most romantic thing. He said, 'This is Hell, isn’t it?' How is that for an opening line?
Then he sat across the aisle from me, which I thought was cheeky. The train broke down, and it took us six hours to get to Baltimore. When I got off the train I called my ex-boyfriend and told him that I couldn’t see him, that I’d met someone. He laughed (I didn’t have a history of long-term relationships) and told me to call him when we broke up.
It’s been 30 years now. I hope he hasn’t been waiting by the phone.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.