SATURDAY TELEGRAPH MAGAZINE
THE COMPLETE ANGLER
After the Success of ‘The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing’, many assumed Melissa Bank to be an expert on relationships. Only six long years later has she finally got her man and finished her follow-up novel. By Lucie Young.
It is 11 am in the Hamptons and American author Melissa Bank is standing on her front porch in a dinky towelling bathrobe. ‘I was counting on you getting lost. I over slept,’ she says. Apparently she was up until 5am typing a short autobiographical piece for the Washington Post. ‘It is taking me forever,’ she groans. ‘The editor was smart enough to ask me 6 months ago and I am still struggling.’
Bank is not the sort of writer who can bash a story out in a few weeks. Her first book The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, took 12 years and her second, The Wonder Spot, has taken six. ‘I rewrite everything 300 times and still I don’t think its finished. I am usually on my 301st draft when the publisher sends someone over to my house to sit with me until I hand it over.’
But the endless polishing and fine-tuning has paid off abundantly: The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing sold 1.5 million copies and was translated into 29 languages. The Wonder Spot, follows the career of Sophie Applebaum, an endearingly upbeat and witty misfit who comes of age in New York and shambles through various unsatisfying publishing jobs, inappropriate apartments and a succession of Mr Wrongs. It reads like Jane Austen rescripted by Dorothy Parker and Woody Allen.
Navigating the screen door with her elbows, Bank takes two giant mugs of coffee and a plate of chocolate biscuits out onto the back porch. She bought this little Long Island getaway with some of the proceeds of her first book. The size of the house and the location are more a reflection of her personality than her wealth. ‘I like how single minded I can be out here. I don’t have the option of interruptions. I’ll be in the city and the phone rings and I’ll think, “I really need some quiet.” But then I come out here and think, “Where is everybody? Doesn’t anybody like me anymore?”.’
While most successful New Yorkers consider proximity to the sandy white beaches and a steroidally over-blown ‘cottage’ to be status symbols, Bank (who is probably a millionairess, judging by the success of her first book and the doubtless six-figure advance for the second) has opted for the reverse. She owns a tiny log cabin (made in the 1960s from a kit) in the middle of a dense wood, reached by a twisty unpaved road. And she is gleeful about the quirks of her home. ‘This is a great place for brain damage,’ she says, taking the stairs two at a time, pointing out the low-slung beams as she goes. Her black labrador Maybelline bounds along behind. At the back of the house there is a sunroom extension which Bank describes as a fine example of trailer park architecture.
To Bank, it is life’s oddities, the things which catch you by surprise or don’t work or fit, which fascinate her and which are the substance of her books. Her latest anti-heroine Sophie struggles with everything, and nothing comes out as expected. First she drops out of her Hebrew class to pursue smoking in the school lavatories, then she pounds away at a typewriter for months teaching herself to type to land a job in publishing, but almost immediately the wheels fall off her beautiful career. At one point, she winds up back home with mum (‘the good thing about being nowhere in your career is you can do it anywhere’) and briefly considers working for the local Jewish paper Shalom. Like many of the episodes in the book, this is woven out of Bank’s own experience. ‘I had a little identity crisis after college. It was about trying to hold onto childhood. I moved home for a bit’.
The disorientation and discontent that comes with growing up in the modern middle classes forms the essence of her stories. On the surface we live in a world of abundance, ease and endless possibility, but in fact nothing comes easily and there is a huge expectation lag. ‘Sophie is like a lot of somewhat spoilt kids,’ Bank says. ‘She doesn’t know quite what it means to work. You know. “This job isn’t quite as entertaining as I thought it would be!” And then – like me – she has to work five times as hard and come in on weekends just to do a passable job and not to get fired.’
The resulting books could have been downbeat and depressing, but Sophie (like her creator) is great company. She has an acid tongue, keen wit and boundless enthusiasm for life. Also, Bank binds everything together with back to back jokes and laugh out loud episodes like the time Sophie takes up life painting (after worrying that she has no skills to speak of) and confronted with an ageing male nude with a minute member, gets so obsessed with how to paint it, winds up making his penis ‘porn-long and log-wide’.
Bank is an expert at spinning comedy out of tragedy. One of the funniest incidents in The Wonder Spot is when Sophie’s grandmother, a tart character who gets most of her exercise by putting her foot down and complaining bitterly that no-one is doing anything correctly, suffers a stroke and wakes up with a personality bypass. She has now become the sweet little old lady everyone always wished she was. ‘A version of that really happened,’ says Bank with a hearty guffaw. However, her own grandmother’s transformation proved a nightmare for her mother. ‘If you spend your whole life defending yourself against someone and feeling she is your enemy, then she becomes nice, you are still left with your bad feelings and that makes you the bad person.’
Bank grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her father was a neurosurgeon who died young (like both the fictional fathers in her books), of chronic lymphatic leukaemia and she is the middle of three children. The Wonder Spot is dedicated to her younger sister Margery (‘because I am crazy about her,’ Bank explains) and her older brother Andrew, who hasn’t yet finished reading her latest book, but says he already likes it more than The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. ‘He definitely thought there were things in the first book that were like him,’ Bank says, taking a long drag on a cigarette (she may be the last enthusiastically committed smoker in New York).
She and her brother Andrew are close: they live in the same apartment building in Chelsea and walk their dogs together at night. It was in this building, on her own doorstep, that she recently found her new boyfriend Todd, who works in property, and the man she hopes is ‘the one’. Apparently he had been living there for years unnoticed. ‘I’ve never felt like this before and I am thinking “you are not dating ever again!”,’ she brags. Up till now the kind of men she has been dating she dismisses as a bunch of preening narcissists. The kind who would be only too delighted to appear thinly disguised in one of her books. ‘It would be another little pocket mirror for them,’ she chuckles.
It is a source of constant amazement to Bank that anyone would think she is an expert on relationships or a fountainhead of wisdom about what single women want, but she is constantly asked for advice by fans and the press. The misconception comes from The Girls’ Guide, in which her character Jane Rosenal lurches through a slew of disastrous dates and then finds herself and lands her ideal man. Readers assumed Jane was Bank, whereas in reality her own social life was severely curtailed by her dedication to writing. Every night for eight years, she stayed late at the advertising agency where she worked and wrote until 1 or 2 am, then cycled home and fell into bed. ‘The people I met were the cleaning staff, the security guard and the guy at the Korean deli,’ she laments.
Her social life did, however, take off dramatically after the launch of The Girls’ Guide. ‘ I met more people than anyone should meet in a lifetime. But I didn’t meet a lot of people I wanted to be with.’ Now, she has she found ‘the one’, is she any happier? Her doorman thinks so, but Bank (like Sophie Applebaum) still believes that ‘love, the world’s most coveted state, is characterized by unrelieved insecurity and almost constant pain.’ Taking another drag on her cigarette, she frowns and says, ‘People talk about being in love as walking on air. I just realised what that means. It’s about being insecure. It’s not going to last. There are those moments that are just horrifying.. When he hasn’t called for 15 minutes.’
Insecurity is Bank’s resting state. Just as her new love hasn’t laid to rest her fears that it could implode at any second, nor has writing an international best-seller stopped her agonising over whether she can actually write. ‘There is a part of me that feels like I don’t know enough to be a writer, that says “You are a fraud”. I’ll say, “You don’t even know how blood goes through the circulatory system! And you think you can write about people!”’ Her confidence hit rock bottom while writing The Wonder Spot. ‘I felt very uncomfortable and unhappy with how long these stories or chapters – or novellas, or whatever the hell they are – were getting. I felt, “Oh great! None of the drive of a short story and yet, not the canvas of a novel.” What I said to get myself out of worrying was, invent the form.’
Bank’s books have both been described as collections of short stories rather than novels (this is how she thinks of them ). It is largely because they are not neatly linked narratives, but episodes in a character’s life. Many of the major events happen offstage, not on the page: Sophie’s father dies, she grows up, boyfriends come and go before the reader has time to memorize their names. But the overall arc follows Sophie for more than 25 years (from 12 until her late thirties) and the result feels more representative of how we actually remember and talk about life than a conventional novel.
Taking a break from ‘pruning in the sun’ (we have been sitting outside for nearly two hours with no sunscreen, sunglasses or umbrellas; Bank is one of the rare Americans not obsessed with health issues. When I mention this she says, ‘Another cigarette dear?’). Bank pops inside to make more coffee and show off the speakers she bought for her computer. She is an avid fan of Radio 4, which she listens to over the internet, and British writers such as Alan Bennett are among her favorites. She has his Talking Heads monologues on CD. ‘I may have listened all the sound off of them by now. I practically have them memorised,’ she says. VS Pritchett’s collected works are by her desk. ‘I need books – especially when I am writing – that make writing look easy, like Raymond Carver and Bennett’. She has no patience with plots that don’t swing along at a fair clip and is no fan, for instance, of Virginia Woolf. ‘I don’t like the kind of book where the main density of action is a drop of milk coming out of a pitcher.’
Frank McCourt, who is obliquely referenced in The Wonder Spot (as the Irish school teacher in the chapter Teen Romance), has been a friend for years. ‘We are mooring mates,’ she says, going on to explain that Frank, his brother Malachy and a group of men, all of whom are well over 60, have formed a club to contribute to the upkeep of a boat mooring in Manhattan. As none of them has a boat, it is a slightly surreal concept. ‘It represents possibility,’ Bank says, before adding, ‘we do occasionally talk about getting one. We have these meetings and give a moment’s silence for people who have boats and are struggling to get them out of the water. Mostly it’s an excuse to have a regular get together, swap stories, recite poetry, sing songs and eat seafood. Frank is always singing. I always wish I had something to do in those times. I can’t even recite a poem. I am an appreciative audience.’
Bank has met many of her favorite authors on the festival circuit, but often the encounters are disappointing. ‘Generally you can love someone’s work but not like the writer at all and not have anything to say to each other.’ Among the writers she has become close friends with are Peter Carey and Nick Hornby. She contacted Hornby after completing her first book, on the off chance he would write a blurb for her. He refused (excusing himself on the grounds he had recently been called a blurb slut) but he wrote her a sweet note and the two have become good friends.
Talking about Hornby, it occurs to Bank that perhaps she ought to ask him for advice on working in Hollywood. ‘High Fidelity and About a Boy were both terrific movies,’ she says, her mind obviously ticking over. Her own experience, writing the screenplay for The Girls’ Guide, put her off Tinseltown forever. ‘I kept on meeting these film people who talk about you to your face. It’s all so hyper and crazy. They say, “I really love writers.” “You are the voice of your generation.” “I love what you writers do.” “We all have so much respect for writers.” I realised the way they were saying it was just the same as if you had substituted the word negro for writer. “I just love what you negroes do.” It was so patronizing.’
In short, the film of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is no longer in her hands. It is being written and directed by Marc Klein (who directed Serendipity) and the lead character Jane, is going to be played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. ‘It does bother me,’ she says about having no say in what happens. ‘But it is not as bad as getting involved and having the illusion of having some control and not having any.’
Bank is now 44, a fact which should provide her with a wealth of new material. To date she has written mostly about the dilemma of being a plucky modern woman in her teens, twenties and thirties. Forty is a whole other landscape. ‘The upside of 40,’ she says, ‘is if you are lucky, you come into your own. At a certain point you realise, this is actually who I am. I’ve stopped trying to fit in.’ When I ask when this happened, she pauses and whispers ‘Last week,’ and then adds, ‘But I am going to stick to it!’ ‘
The downside of 40 is the culture makes it really hard for women to age’. All around, women are succumbing to plastic surgery in a vain effort to stave off the years. It’s not something she would ever contemplate, she says. ‘First of all, everything on earth gets older and looks older. Why shouldn’t you? It would be like wearing my bad character on my face – the vanity, the hatred of getting older. Secondly, you really don’t look younger, you just look stranger.’
With her new love and giving up on trying to fit in, has Bank found her own Wonder Spot? And if so, what exactly is it? In the book, it is not only a place but a metaphor. ‘The Wonder Spot is like a moment of revelation or clarity, or recognizing something about yourself. It’s the little moments that change are made up of,’ she says earnestly, and then a cheeky grin comes across her face. ‘You know, I get asked that so often that one of these days I am going to say “The Wonder Spot? It’s inside my vagina!”’