"When I sit down to write," Melissa Bank has said, "I don't have any real goals except to follow one good sentence with another... I'm not the kind of writer who has a map." The author offers a fair impression of her work: It does not hinge on intricate plots or artistic conceits. Rather, it's founded on her female protagonists and their ability to distill emotional truths into spare, dryly witty comments.
Bank writes about women growing up and figuring it all out, and she writes it with humor and a wide lens. Her 1999 debut, a collection of linked short stories entitled The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing,, follows single New Yorker Jane Rosenal in her discoveries about love and dating. Structured as snapshots in Jane's life, the chapters follow her as she evolves from a teen studying her brother and his girlfriend to a young woman sifting through various relationships of her own.
There are lots of men in Bank's writing, and even more quips. At one point, Jane's older boyfriend tells her, ‘You're just like Nora, and I'm like Nick [Charles, of The Thin Man]. We're like Bogart and Bacall. Like Hepburn and Tracy.' Jane shoots back, ‘More like Mr. Wilson and Dennis the Menace.' Bank's main characters represent the funny girl's view of life, with all the attendant insecurity and puzzlement, making them notably different from those of a straightforwardly romantic or sentimental writer.
The author could easily train her eye on romantic travails and leave it at that; she is sensitive and clever enough for the job. But what's nice about Melissa Bank's books is how she includes the ways other people in women's lives teach them about themselves: brothers, fathers, girlfriends. In between the Sex and the City-style episodes, there are family complications and work challenges.
Those who found something to like in The Girls' Guide found more of it in her followup novel The Wonder Spot, published six years later. Like its predecessor, this book featured a young woman who moves to New York and works in publishing while navigating the intricacies of men, family and career. However, Bank seemed to develop her passages more substantially. "Pound for pound, line for line, story for story, The Wonder Spot is a better-honed and steadier volume," Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times.
Because of Bank's loose structural style, you won't likely find consensus on whether her books are novels or story collections -- they've been called both. Each chapter reads like a short story, and each chapter contains frequent breaks in the prose to capture a detail or a new moment. Bank doesn't offer a beginning-to-end account of each relationship she introduces; but even though it would probably be interesting if she did, she doesn't leave the reader unsatisfied. Instead, she relays the salient details and gives just enough information to set the stage for the next scene. It's a formula that more than satisfies her many fans.
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"Basically, all anyone has to do is ask me for fun details or tell me to be creative and my mind turns to mud. I am instantly the most boring person you've ever met."
"For example, what springs to mind is my love for public radio. I know this makes me sound like I belong in the 1940s (and maybe I do), but I think radio is truly a writer's medium."
"On the other hand, I don't have a TV; or, that is, I don't have cable. It's not because I'm high-minded or think I'm above TV -- the opposite. When I was writing ad copy during the day and fiction at night, I realized that I hadn't turned on the TV in over a year and, as I lived (and live) in a small apartment, decided the ugly box didn't deserve the space it took up. I live by Edith Wharton's rule to get rid of anything neither useful nor beautiful. So I put the TV out on the street."
"Now I'm like a girl from Mars. I'm mesmerized by TV. I can't tear myself away from it. I actually go to the gym to watch TV. I can stay on the treadmill or Stairmaster for an hour if there's a good program on.."
"I grew up in the suburbs, and when I was little I told my mother I'd seen rats in the woods behind our house and in the creek behind school and in the parking lot where the garbage trucks were parked. I'd never seen a rat -- I was naming the places where I was afraid rats might be. While I begged her to call the exterminator, she infuriated me with an irrelevant lecture about honesty. Is this a story about my early career as a liar foreshadowing my later career as a fiction writer? No. It's a story about rats -- which both terrify and fascinate me. When I see one, I'm as thrilled as I am scared."
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In the summer of 2005, Melissa Bank took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Before college, I hadn't voluntarily read anything that might be called literature; I didn't think I'd understand it; I never seemed to understand my English teacher's interpretations of what we read. Then in college, I read Lolita, and it knocked me out. I couldn't believe how much fun it was to read. And it made me want to write, too -- up until then I don't think it had occurred to me that you could play with language.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
My list changes all the time, and the truth is I've never been very good at talking about books (as you're about to see), but here goes, in no particular order:
Mr. Bridge (and Mrs. Bridge) by Evan Connell -- Both books chronicle the life of an upper-middle-class family in the Midwest, and what I love about them are that they're just a series of the small, revealing episodes that make up real life; nothing happens, and yet they're riveting.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro -- I love the voice of the narrator, an English butler.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- Basically, my own personal bible and deity. I can't think of a novelist who writes with a greater understanding of the human condition.
This Boy's Life (and everything else) by Tobias Wolff -- Wolff is one of the greatest storytellers of all time.
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway -- These give me juice to write.
Washington Square by Henry James -- A perfect novel.
Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger -- These made me want to be a writer.
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm -- This book drove journalists insane when it came out, but I think it's brilliantly written.
Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins -- These poems (that's right, poems) inspire me as much as any stories or novels have. They manage to be hilarious and sad at the same time -- and with the lightest touch to delve into the most serious and important matters.
Everything by David Sedaris, the funniest writer alive.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Celebration -- It's utterly real, and yet has incredible narrative momentum.
Spellbound -- The documentary; it's hilarious and moving.
Thelma and Louise -- I felt like I was in the car with them.
The Last Picture Show -- It's so beautiful.
The Shop Around the Corner -- For Lubitsch's sensibility
The Godfather -- Parts I and II -- thrilling.
All About Eve -- For the writing.
The Professional -- Featuring Natalie Portman as a child -- it's both gruesome and sweet.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I've been a Bob Dylan fan since I was 11. I love Bruce Springsteen. One of my favorite CDs is Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on Gravel Road. For some time, I've been on a Johnny Cash jag -- I especially love the CD Solitary Man. But I also walk around singing the songs from Fiddler on the Roof. I listen to Motown when I work out.
I generally don't have music on when I write -- never any music with words, or rather English words -- but I went through a Buena Vista Social Club phase. And sometimes I'll have opera or jazz or classical music on.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I tend to give audiobooks (I myself am an addict), and right now it's Alan Bennett's Complete Talking Heads, Billy Collins's CD The Best Cigarette and David Rakoff's Fraud. I also love giving Marion Ettlinger's beautiful photography book, Author Photo, which everyone is always thrilled to get.
Photography books -- though as I write this it occurs to me that I've never gotten one as a gift. I love looking at photographs of people.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
On my desk, I have a bunch of rocks, antique porcelain faucets with "Hot" on one and "Waste" on the other, and my Tivoli radio. I have pictures tacked above my desk -- Picasso in his shorts; a blindfolded rhino being airlifted out of a flooded zoo in Prague; Marianne Moore and Mohammed Ali at Toots Shor's, and a postcard of a man on George Washington's nose at Mt. Rushmore, which the playwright David Ives sent me in response to a fan letter I wrote him.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I spent over a decade working on my first book. My stories were rejected everywhere, from every journal and magazine. Failure is great preparation for success -- whereas success prepares you for nothing, except more success.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Just keep writing. Try not to think too much about publishing -- that is, try not to think about what's saleable or marketable -- just try to write your own way. It's your best shot -- never mind that it's the only one worth taking.
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