Melissa Bank has struck again. Five years after the enormously successful Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing she has delivered her second book, The Miracle Spot.With the heart and humor that fans have grown to love, Bank brings us Sophie Applebaum, a young woman from Surrey, Pennsylvania whose misadventures in love, life, career and self treat readers to laughter and poignant insight. Readers follow the beloved Sophie for over 30 years from her early days in Hebrew school through adulthood as she navigates and stumbles through life, love, career, and self with a delightful medley of cynicism, optimism, and success.
During her recent book tour, I caught up with Bank for lunch. Over chicken Caesar salad, Bank’s self-declared staple for the tour, we discussed what she has been up to the last five years, her newest creation to hit the bookstores, and life before and after being a fixture on the New York Times Bestseller List.
LR: I know I am one of your many, many fans that has anxiously awaited the follow up to The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, what have you been up to?
MB: Mainly I had a long publicity tour. There were a lot of European countries and a lot more to do. Then I started writing again. I did a lot of writing for The Miracle Spot and I wrote a memoir for The Washington Post. I bought a log cabin. It is actually an anomaly because it is on Long Island, but I spend most of my time in my New York apartment.
LR: What, to you, is The Miracle Spot about?
MB: In a way, it is hard for me to answer that because it is not a novel. It is not about murders based on Dante’s Inferno. It does not have that kind of plot. The Wonder Spot is about creating your wonder spot.
In The Miracle Spot, it is referring to when Sophie understands herself, feels at home or feels close to someone. It is about an ordinary life. It is about finding love and a career and a way of dealing with your family. Then you have these moments where you advance a little bit, you understand something or you are that much closer to creating the kind of life that you want to have. There is so much difficulty that she goes through. I think it is similar to the difficulty that most people go through.
LR: What attracted you to a character like Sophie Applebaum?
MB: I have always been more interested in the ordinary life than the big glamorous life. I am interested in how most people get through life. I would not know how to write about big money, big action people.
LR: One of the things I thought was so beautiful about The Miracle Spot was how I felt that everyone could relate to Sophie. Do you think there is anyone out there that could not relate to her?
MB: I would hope that people would be able to relate to her. I feel like I have tried so hard to make it a true portrait of a character. Sophie is certainly a character that I have a lot of love for.
LR: Through Sophie, I think you absolutely nailed the inner dialogue of humanity. One of the things that I thought was amazing is that The Miracle Spot was a story told over 30 years of Sophie’s life, starting in her early teen years. How did you do research for this?
MB: I did not do research exactly. I am really in tune with adolescents. I love eavesdropping and talking to them because you can watch them forming themselves in some ways. Watching them posing themselves just fascinates me.Adolescents wear their hearts on their sleeves. Everything affects them so deeply at that age.
LR: You start both of your books with young girls around the age of 13 or 14 years old. Why is this?
MB: In some ways, I think this book is a family life cycle and I think there is something that begins at that age – where you are defining yourself against your family, you are in the family and you want to be both in it and out of it.
LR: With both of your books you use the approach of inter-related short stories that do not have clean transitions from one story to the next. Why do you choose this approach and do you think you will ever take a different approach to your writing?
MB: It is possible. I can get overwhelmed by the idea that I do not know enough to write. Other people have these ideas and they know intuitively how to make a story. Every single time I sit down to write I feel like I am more of a novice. Nothing, nothing that has ever helped me before helps me in that moment.
I can really psyche myself out. One of the ways of psyching myself out is knowing there are forms, structures and rules to storytelling that I just don’t know. And I think I feel that a bit more acutely about the idea of writing a novel. I am sure I am not alone in that. There is this great quote ‘There are three rules for writing a novel – unfortunately no one knows what they are.’ The way I get around that feeling is by telling myself it is just a form. That is what I tell students too. It is not a grandiose thing. It is just a way of freeing yourself and saying let the story dictate the form. It is not actually a new idea.
But with short stories, I can psyche myself out with those too. I have told myself, ‘You do not even know how the blood flows through your veins – how can you possibly write about human beings?’
It is funny because for me short stories let me feel like I can do whatever I want to do and I can do things that would be looked down on in a novel. You get a different sense of how life occurs than you would in chapters of a novel. Although, what I am reading in reviews is that I am being criticized for not following the rules of a novel. So I do not know.
LR: Many books that are written by a woman or where the readers are primarily female, a self-deprecating approach is taken. Is this a way of making the reader feel more comfortable or is it a way for a female writer to not take herself too seriously?
MB: I often wonder because very few writers write from the omniscient point of view anymore. I have wondered a lot about that and I think it probably has something to do with a decline in religion. There is no longer a sense of authority. I would say the opposite of omniscient is the first person self-deprecating way that is saying, ‘I do not even know what I am doing, much less what anyone else is doing.’ I think it is possible to read it as an apology for writing or a lack of not feeling comfortable with the authority of a first person narrative.
Another way to look at it is that less is known than there ever was, especially for women. Now, there is a real sense of women trying to chart their own course. The relationship between men and women is shifting. You have women living on their own and not getting married and it is not necessarily radical women that are doing this. There are pretty extreme changes I feel I am watching in my own life. Women are making it up as they go along and possibly a lack of certainty about this is reflected in their tone of voice.
LR: Maybe the uncertainty is a new honesty that is emerging. With my mother’s generation it does not seem that discomfort and insecurity were discussed. Maybe this is the emergence of women learning to talk to each other.
MB: In The Wonder Spot I havea woman who actually speaks honestly about life.So many women and men have you believe that having a family or whatever they have done is the right decision. It is like they try to socialize it. It is part of their PR campaign.
When my mother feels uncomfortable her way of handling it is to become haughty and kind of snobby seeming. My way of handling it is to say to the bartender, ‘I feel really uncomfortable.’ It is the opposite.
LR: Can you talk a little about your challenges in writing The Miracle Spot?
MB: I was so lucky with the first book in so many ways. It was such a shock to everybody. It is very disorienting to go from a totally private person to a public person. What it takes to write a book is to be alone for many, many, many hours. To go from that to being interviewed and having your picture taken is very different.
An actor always knows that he or she is preparing for the bright lights. They are always rehearsing for that performance. As a writer you are in your head and then there is your performance and that is a very strange thing.
A lot of the reason I think I wrote is I did not really feel like anyone was listening to me. I think it was my way of discussing what I had to say. Then everybody was listening and I think the second time around it is like, ‘What do I have to say?’ The tension that comes from writing again and not being paid attention to is gone, but I think that is partly because once you are published you see how public an act writing can be. That is something that you can never expect to know until you know it.
You always hope that people will read your work, but then when you see how public it is and to go back and be private and try to forget that makes it hard. You are suddenly aware of what your writing says about you. It is really the enemy, for me, of all good writing. You have to not be self-conscious or think in those terms to write anything worth reading, at least for me to do it.
LR: The Miracle Spot elicited a tremendous amount of emotion, but did not overtly write about it. Is it difficult to not be hurried in your writing?
MB: I really like the quiet moments in writing. I think in advertising for example, there is always a breathless quality where you do not want to pause. You do not want to lose anyone’s attention. But, with writing what I try to do is have a real hush where you stop. The drama is in the revelations not so much in what happens. It is in the moment that a character recognizes something about herself.
LR: With The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing a lot of critics put it up against other books that fall firmly in the chick lit category. Do you agree with this and how would you categorize The Miracle Spot as far as genre?
MB: I would not put The Miracle Spot in the chick lit genre. I feel like chick lit is a code word for limited. I do not know that much about the genre. I see it and I have been told about it, but I have not really read it. I tried to listen to one on tape and I could not get past the first page. I thought to myself, ‘I would never touch that.’ It had all of these name brands Prada pants, Gucci something, Range Rover.
The Miracle Spot was so hard to write. I worked so hard on it. I never think of writing for women or men. I just try to get something down right. I would never put myself in the chick lit genre and at the same time I felt really stung by it.
LR: When The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing came out you were often asked about The Bridget Jones Diary. I wonder if that is more because the world did not know what to do with this emergence of new women writers, so they felt the need to clump you both in the same category.
MB: Yeah. I read recently that in the Victorian Age they categorized women writers as writing ladies books. I feel like this is the same thing.
LR: So how and when did you decide that you were meant to be an author?
MB: I wanted to be an author before I had any idea what to write and that probably started in college. I would write furiously in a journal – ‘What should I write?’ ‘I do not know what to write.’ ‘I really want to write.’
I had the impulse and I think what that means is that I liked the idea of being a writer. Writing relieves the need to be like other people. It allows you to be different without being weird. I always liked the idea of being an artist or being something that let me off the hook. Writing made whatever I was doing sound more special or cool instead of dorky.
I started writing really seriously after college. I would stay late after work to write. What makes me feel as if I am meant to write is only those nights when it goes really, really well and I can not believe how lucky I am for being able to do it.
I used to ride my bike to the office. I would just feel like I was the happiest person in Manhattan. In the winter I would have layers and layers and layers on, two layers of gloves and then socks over them, my Walkman and a hood where only my eyes would show and then my helmet. I was 35-years old riding my bike through midtown in the middle of the night listening to Motown. I was cold and I felt like I had the best life. It should be everyone’s definition of a great life – riding around midtown with socks on your hands.
There was something so clear about it. At that point I did not think I was necessarily going to make it as a writer. I was really fine with not making a lot of money. I just wanted to keep on doing it. That was going to be ok.
LR: So, what today is like riding your bike in midtown with socks on your hand?
MB: Not that long ago, I was walking my dog, Maybelline, around the block. It was really late and I was struggling with a story. I heard someone trying to compose a song on a guitar. They were singing and trying out different things. They were playing the same riff over and over. It was so great to feel like people did what I did. That they did what they had to do during the day and then at night people were trying to do something else.
But, that is not quite as simple as the socks on the hands. You kind of need socks on the hands for the hardship simplicity.
LR: What does a day in the life of Melissa Bank look like?
MB: If I am working on something and I am happy with it, I am writing all the time. I will take a break to walk the dog or have cup of coffee with a friend.If I am working really well that is all I really want to be doing.
On the other hand, if it is not working well and I am on the outside of a story and I have no idea what to do and all I am doing is feeling like an idiot and the self-hatred is seeping in…
LR: You have a lot of coffee with friends?
MB: Exactly. I do not have a schedule exactly.I like writing at night. I think of the night as is when the magic happens. I am superstitious. I am really superstitious.
LR: Is that why you always eat chicken Caesar salad on the tour?
MB: No, but I will show you my new good luck charm. I got a terrible review. I have received snarky reviews before but I will never have thick enough skin for it.
I was in St. Louis and this blushing high school girl came up to me and she gave me a letter. First of all, I loved the letter. It said that she had fallen for a really good friend and they had even kissed, but he told her he did not like her that way. Her sister consoled her by reading her The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing and it made her feel better. She then went on to read The Wonder Spot in front of her high school debating team, where they read aloud prose and short stories. She won 4th prize, which she gave to me.
[Bank digs the circular bronze-ish medal from her purse and shows it to me, she continues with…]
Now when you win 4th prize they do not even spell out 4th place. It is just 4th plth.
[Bank flips over the medal to show me the inscription. It reads “4th pl”.]
Isn’t that the sweetest thing you have ever heard? After that I just felt like, reviews are about my ego and about wanting to be taken seriously as a writer. But, this girl was cheered up by hearing my work. That means something. That felt really great. My readers do not write the book reviews but they win 4th plth. This is my audience 4th plth.
LR: In past interviews you have discussed how hard it was, early on, to get your stories published.
MB: Yes, no one wanted to publish my stories.
LR: What do you think it was that finally changed and what do you think you did to enable that change?
MB: I think it is just really hard to get stories published. I think there are very few magazines that publish stories. They have specific ideas of whatever it was that they wanted and my stories did not have it. In some ways it might be easier to get a book published than a story published. There are 195,000 books published a year. I do not know how many stories are published.
LR: Was it your perseverance in the end?
MB: All of writing, especially as it concerns publishing needs a little bit of talent, a big stomach for failure, and endurance.
LR: I read that it took you about 10 years to perfect The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing. How do you know when your writing is done?
MB: I just get a feeling. I get that feeling with individual stories. I do not know if I will ever have that feeling for a book. I just felt that is as good as it is going to be. I did not used to know that because I wanted my work to be so much better than it was. And I still want it to be better than it is, but I know when I have fulfilled the requirements of a story.
LR: What is next?
MB: I have no idea. I have never been a planner. I was born without the foresight gene. I think I will just settle down and try to forget everything that I have read about myself and about this book and try not to write another one because if I sat down and said, ‘I am writing my next book.’ I would never write it.