"Girls' Guide" rocks!

The author of "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" talks about single women's fiction, the trials of getting published and whether it's possible to be erotic and funny.


Cynthia Joyce
June 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

If there is truly such a thing as an inner child, I suspect that for many women she is about 14 years old -- the age at which we first meet Jane Rosenal, the star of "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," Melissa Bank's hilarious and poignant debut collection about growing up girl. In seven interrelated short stories, we watch Jane work her way from wary adolescence to weary adulthood, from boringly idyllic summer trips with the family to romantic getaways gone awry. And though almost every part of Jane's life (her jobs, her boyfriends, her family) changes along the way, her voice --- strong, sarcastic, suspicious, yet stubbornly hopeful -- remains constant throughout.

A lot of reviewers have been comparing "The Girls' Guide" to "Bridget Jones's Diary," as well as to a slew of other recently published single-women titles, and the comparison isn't entirely off the mark: Jane is definitely looking for Mr. Right. But what she wants is not just someone to walk down the aisle with but also someone to walk her dog with. From the very first story through to the end -- in which a 30-ish Jane follows a "Rules"-style guide and finds, to her horror, that it actually works -- it's clear that, for her, finding the man is just a piece of the puzzle, not the puzzle itself.

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While Jane's constant wisecracks may strike some as knee-jerk or facile, others will recognize them as a sign of strength of spirit. As Jane confesses in one story: "I was shy, so I talked too much." She is desperately -- though not self-deprecatingly -- funny, in a way that suggests a survival instinct that has outlived its adaptive qualities. But it's the helplessness hiding underneath, and Jane's awareness of it, that make her so hilarious and, ultimately, so touching.

Francis Ford Coppola commissioned Bank to write the anti-"Rules" story for his Zoetrope magazine, and he is now adapting the entire collection for a film. Bank, meanwhile, is working on her first full-length novel. She spoke with me in New York, where she lives with her dog, Maybelline.

There's a girl-next-door quality to Jane. There's nothing particularly extraordinary about her -- she doesn't fall into any extraordinary circumstances -- and yet you've managed to create such a memorable character.

I didn't set out to write an everywoman. I wanted a true character, but I didn't think, "Oh, here's somebody everyone can relate to"; I wasn't thinking about an audience. You get somebody right by getting all of the little tiny things right. Somehow that's how you wind up at anything universal.

Given the confessional nature of so much writing in recent years, it seems like a bold move to have Jane come from what is essentially a loving, functional family.

I think there is a tendency to blame one's parents or to look askance at where you come from. But I really wanted to write something that was realistic to me, and that other kind of voice just didn't belong. For a number of years, I felt a kind of disdain for who I was and what I came from and how I lived. There was a part of me that didn't believe that anything in my life was really worth writing about. I was trying to write about tragedy, poor people, prostitutes -- things I knew nothing about -- because they seemed closer to the bone, even if it wasn't my bones. There were years when I never wrote anything funny. None of my characters made any jokes.

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There does seem to be a low threshold for humor from straight women.

You know, for some reason the book was published in France first, and an interviewer faxed me some questions, and one of the questions was: "Of course people always say that a woman who is funny cannot be erotic or seductive. But that's not true in your book. Why isn't it?" Or something like that. And I thought, "Of course people always say this?" I had a boyfriend at the time, and I turned to him and read the question, and he said, "But you're not funny." And I actually wasn't funny with him. The mark of my being in the wrong relationship is that I stop being funny.

But I would argue that nobody can actually be funny and erotic at the same time. They don't really go together. I mean, I hope that I'm erotic. But when you're being erotic, you're creating a spell; when you're making a joke, you're breaking it.

It occurred to me when reading the story "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine" that I don't often read stories that deal specifically with women in the workplace.

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The women of my generation were brought up to think of themselves in terms of what they did rather than of being married or unmarried, and it took on this huge weight. Work was suddenly supposed to be a much bigger thing than work can ever be. You're supposed to give your soul to it -- and you're never supposed to not want to work at something. You're supposed to be as dedicated to your work as you would be to another person.

In that story, Jane's boss says, "It would be great if you could help out," and Jane says, "It was hard to turn down a chance to be great." You're defined by your willingness to do anything, which is something that [can also happen] in a relationship. And, well, that's not so healthy.

How do you feel about all the comparisons being made between "The Girls' Guide" and "Bridget Jones's Diary"?

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I think it's sort of ridiculous -- it just seems like it's a coincidence of timing. I thought "Bridget Jones" was a good book for what it was -- a kind of satire.

I didn't see "Girls' Guide" as being strictly about the pursuit of romance.

Me neither. Jane is hunting for a life. It's about her finding a career and figuring out her family and growing up. No one would call Jane boy-crazy or think that her life would be solved by being with a man. She's more complicated than that. With "Bridget Jones," there's no real change or evolution, really.

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Do you think its getting lumped together with these single-women books is pure marketing, or does this signal an emerging genre of young women's fiction?

I'm not sure. You wonder whether there were books like these that weren't published -- I know I had a tremendous amount of difficulty getting the stories into magazines. I tried everyone, everywhere. I thought it was because the stories aren't literary in a traditional way; they're not lyrical. And there's something about the small details of a woman's life that may not have been viewed previously as worth writing about, or worth reading about. They might have been too realistic or too complicated for a women's magazine. On the other hand, maybe they weren't literary enough for the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly or Harper's. "The Girls' Guide" fell somewhere between the literary and the commercial. And what's happened now is that somehow people are seeing it as both literary and commercial. That may have to do with people's paying more attention to what women's lives are like now.

With writers like Philip Roth or John Updike, there was never any of the "Well, this is just about a middle-aged man in the suburbs." It was fine. But Jane is a woman who is middle-class and, in some ways, ordinary. Maybe this is becoming a kind of genre, because people are recognizing that women are a major audience.

You once said that you were so intimidated by the literary titans that you finally decided not to bother with "serious" literature.

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I did feel like there was writing that I might really appreciate but that felt outside of me. I was intimidated by it all. I was a terrible student. I felt like there were things that other people -- everybody else except me -- understood, and that there were things I just wasn't smart enough to get. Remarkably, I felt really freed when I got to college. At a certain point I had this breakthrough -- I was really blocked, and I started saying this thing to myself: "You're the only person who can write this story." And that signaled more confidence in my voice. I stopped trying to write like other writers, all of whom were male, and just learned to be myself on the page.

Are there any women writers you admire?

I like Joan Didion -- I remember liking "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" a lot -- and some of Doris Lessing's early stories. In recent years, I've really liked Pam Houston, though I actually have trouble hearing women talk a lot about the difficulty of finding a man. Nothing on earth could compel me to start a conversation that way. Finding love is compelling, and connecting is compelling, and the difficulties of connecting to other people are compelling, but the idea that a man is going to save your life is cuckoo.

A lot of the women I know who are not involved with men are not involved for good reasons. They don't want to be involved. I know [being in a relationship] makes me crazy. And sometimes it makes me into somebody I don't want to be with; it brings every neurosis to the fore. "The Girls' Guide" ends with Jane sort of beginning with Robert, but it's not that simple. Someone asked me how the book might be described. I think it would be "Girl meets boy, girl loses self, girl gets self."

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Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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