Melissa Bank is the literary It Girl this summer. Her first collection of stories, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, has received the attention of the New York Times and a starred review in Publishers Weekly. A generous review from Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker made the obvious comparison to last summer's It Girl, Helen Fielding, the writer of Bridget Jones's Diary, then blithely, and accurately, disregarded the comparison as superficial. Vogue picked Girls' Guide from a refreshing group of recent short-fiction collections (including Annie Proulx's Close Range and Gish Jen's Who's Irish? better, and more appropriate, company for Bank to be keeping than Bridget Jones).
Besides the Bridget Jones analogies and a what-do-single-women-want? angle, the other theme that has followed Bank and Girls' Guide this summer has been "$275,000 advance" not a phenomenal sum in the larger scheme of entertainment dollars (imagine what the guys who concocted the handheld hijinks of The Blair Witch Project are being offered for their next film), but enough to raise eyebrows and court envy in literary circles. Fame is one thing, but money combined with sudden fame brings out the worst in others. For example, Vince Passaro, a contributing editor for Harper's, in an overview of recent American short fiction in the August issue, gives Bank a snide footnote, which she heard for the first time during the RFT interview in the bar of the St. Louis Ritz-Carlton on the final stop of her book tour: "Recently two writers, Nathan Englander and Melissa Bank, received substantial advances (Bank's was $275,000) and publicity for their first collections. They are moderately talented, good-looking, young, and Englander, at least, a former Orthodox Jew now gone secular, has an interesting life story to tell on his book tour. There is always room in the marketing machine for these kinds of writers."
"Moderately talented!" Bank exclaims with a combination of feigned, and real, anguish. "Good-looking," she then says perkily. She pauses, sighs, more than slightly nonplused. "I'm glad he didn't say we were moderately talented and very, very ugly." Then Bank vents, being both funny and caustic in just the way she was instructed not to be during her pre-tour "media training." "Well, Vince, fuck you. You just keep writing in the little fucking Harper's magazine. Take your little advances and run."
She feels better now, but only a little. "I don't know what to say except "Ouch.' One of the strange things about being a first-time author with a big advance and a lot of publicity is that you're not treated as a first-time author. You're treated in an unfair way. It hurts. It's a very strange thing, going from a private person to a public person."
Even after being served the Passaro dish, Bank looks as if she's handling the adjustment well. It's the end of a two-month tour, and after her reading and signing at Left Bank Books she's flying home to New York City that evening. A month's vacation in Sag Harbor is next on the itinerary. Isn't that where Spalding Gray lives? "I've seen him in the grocery store, disputing the change he was given," Bank says.
She a beach-lover, she says, and it shows. She's easy to spot in the Ritz lobby, the sun-kissed one amidst a small platoon of pale-faced Brits the orchestra accompanying the Three Irish Tenors has arrived. After a table of them ogle Bank's bronze thigh from afar, uttering base guttural sounds as they do, "Three Irish Pigs" seems more appropriate.
Bank, in the perfect little black dress, seems to have achieved the air of grace and sophistication that her alter ego and central protagonist in Girls' Guide, Jane Rosenal, longs to have. From the first story in the collection which introduces Jane as a too-smart-for-her-own-good 14-year-old, the kind of observant, wise and witty child Salinger might have created to the concluding title story, in which Jane is a mature woman attempting a The Rules-like prescription for courtship, Jane is enchanted, and overwhelmed, by beautiful people. In the opening story, there is Jane's brother's first serious girlfriend joining the family on the Jersey shore, looking as cool as "Audrey Hepburn relaxing after dance class." In the next story, Jane is an adult with a boyfriend of her own, who takes her for an awkward vacation in the Caribbean to visit his ex-girlfriend and her current love interest. She, Jane observes, is "turn-and-stare gorgeous big dark eyes, long dark hair, smooth dark skin." In one of the non-Jane stories in the book, "The Best Possible Light," a family holds an impromptu reunion. In Bank's prose, they seemed as charmed as the clan that includes Blythe and Gwyneth.
The "good-looking" Bank acknowledges that the beauty myth has been an influence on her life and art. "Most women grow up desperately wanting to be beautiful," she says. "It's not different now, I think, than it was 100 years ago. From the first story you read as a child, it's a beautiful princess it's not an interesting-looking princess. And there's an ugly witch that gets hers.
"I grew up captivated by beautiful women like they had something. Beautiful people and the idea that your life would be easier there's a point in the story where Jane says that her mother felt it was very important for them to look good while her father was dying. It was almost like a superstition. If you looked good enough, everything would turn out OK. It's some notion of being blessed."
Bank wrote advertising copy to pay the bills after receiving an M.F.A. from Cornell, which also graduated Lorrie Moore (Self-Help, Birds of America), to whom Bank is sometimes compared because of their mutual finesse with one-liners within a narrative. Advertising copywriters are notorious for self-loathing, and Bank says the choice to accept the job "was pretty painful." It was a good job for a writer with other ambitions, though, says Bank. It was "a field that wouldn't ever threaten my writing. I didn't care about advertising."
She believes the experience helped her in her serious work: "There's no room for being inaccessible in advertising. When you become self-indulgent and obscure in writing ad copy, it's out on the table in a second. "That's really pretty, Melissa, but what's it really doing? We all know you're a good writer, but what's it at the service of?' It also teaches you a lot about cutting. You get used to writing for people who don't want to read what you're writing, so you'd better be respectful of their time. You're a Hoover salesman banging on the door. You better have something to say and say it pretty well and in a compelling way. I think that was good training for me. I wouldn't say my book is like ad copy, but I would say it made me very aware of not ever writing beautifully for the sake of writing beautifully.
"I don't like writing that takes you away from what you're reading about to say, "That is so beautiful.' I like writing that is so beautiful it takes you deeper into the story or deeper into the emotion, but it always has got to be at the service of that."
Girls' Guide isn't ad copy, and it is more than accessible prose. The title story is a comic gem, with Jane being visited, like guardian angels or harpies, by the authors of How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right, Faith and Bonnie. "I see them perfectly," Jane imagines. "Faith is reserved blown-dry blonde; Bonnie, a girly-girl, a giggler with deep dimples. I have known them my entire life: in gym class, playing volleyball, they were the ones clapping their hands and shouting, "Side out and rotate our team is really great!' In college, Bonnie was my Secret Santa. In personnel offices, when I joked about my application phobia, Faith was the one who said, "Just do the best you can.'"
This isn't the kind of writing Bank aspired to when she was at Cornell. "Most of my time in graduate school, the first year-and-a-half I wrote very serious fiction. I really wanted to be a great writer. I was convinced that the only way you could be a great writer was to write about things that were very close to the bone, which happened to be things I knew nothing about. What I define as "close to the bone' now would be different, but I thought rural poverty, incest, prostitution. Things I knew nothing about. Really serious, terrible problems between people. They were really, really broad stories with dramatic endings of death. They were real bad.
"An editor I work with a lot at Zoetrope (the literary magazine founded by director Francis Ford Coppola) dug up my first published story. It was a story she still teases me about, because it was a story about incest: Poor people living on the Jersey shore. A waitress mother. A vengeful daughter. At one point the character comes out and says to her mother, "You owe me!' You know, just in case you didn't understand what was going on here, this is what that character feels.
"Harry Dean Stanton could have played a lot of the male roles. A lot about trashy families hashing it out, whereas I came from a really privileged family my father was a doctor. Everything was very comfortable. There were things my mother did not want to be brought to anybody's attention. My father was different; he would address things, but it was the ethic of the suburbs. I knew nothing about arguments taking place in diners.
"It took me a long time to convince myself that I had anything of my own worth writing about. It was a process of growing up. I went to an M.F.A. program at 25, and I had the idea that real writers didn't write about the suburbs. I missed Cheever and Updike. I didn't see much that was really interesting in my own life. Then I grew into it.
"I wanted to write like a man. I had the idea that women were softer and more indistinct, emotional and pillowy. I wanted to write hard prose."
Instead Bank writes smart, agile, emotionally accurate and successful prose. She has completed a screenplay of the title story, with Coppola "overseeing it I don't know what these terms are, but maybe he's a producer or something, but he's the leader. The next stage is to get a director involved."
When she rises in her perfect little black dress, the Three Irish Pigs want her to stay. On a book tour? Read here we'll accompany you.
Bank laughs them off and turns away, as cool as Audrey Hepburn on her way to dance class.