An Interview with Elissa Schappell, by Maria Gagliano
August 25, 2014
I wouldn’t want to imagine the contemporary literary world without Elissa Schappell in it.
She is fiercely dedicated to celebrating new writing, and her generosity of spirit touches so many facets of our community. As an editor, she learned from mentors at the Paris Review and in the 1990s went on to cofound Tin House, one of our generation’s most revered literary magazines. These days, Schappell contributes to Tin House as editor-at-large while also penning book reviews in her “Hot Type” column in Vanity Fair—making her role as a reader just as influential as her editorial work.
Schappell is a fiction writer to the core. Her latest book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, was chosen as one of the best books of the year by outlets as varied as the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and O magazine. And perhaps not surprisingly given her obsession with new writing, Schappell also makes time to teach creative writing in the MFA programs at Columbia University and Queens University.
I’m equally inspired by Schappell’s ass-in-chair dedication to writing as I am by her literary hustle. Writing doesn’t come any easier because of her many lit jobs: the first drafts are still rough and rambling, the distractions always tempting, and the self-doubt raging. We talked about how she manages to get it all done; how writing, reading, and editing have shaped her; and why a discombobulated household is a sign that Schappell’s writing is right where she wants it to be.
You wear several hats in the literary world: you are a book reviewer at Vanity Fair, the editor-at-large of Tin House, and a writer. How do these three very different roles influence your work in each space?
I don’t think you can be much of a writer if you don’t read. I’m appalled by the number of writers and writing students I know who say, I don’t read because I don’t have time, or I don’t read because I don’t want to be influenced by other writers’ work, or My busy reality-TV-watching schedule doesn’t permit me time to read books, only blogs.
Because of my job at Vanity Fair, I am inundated by new books, which can be very inspiring and exciting. I feel particularly lucky that because of my position, I get books from indie publishers as well as mainstream publishers. Thus I am able to discover books that I’d otherwise likely have missed. That said, as a fiction writer and essayist, the sheer number of books, the tonnage, can be overwhelming. In dark hours I can’t help but think, Does the world really need another book from me?
My first job in the literary-magazine world was at the Paris Review. It was so cool to see the work of writers I admired, my heroes, before it was edited and published. From working there, I learned a great deal about the craft of writing, the writer’s life, what it takes to be a great writer. Whatever skills I have as an editor come largely from observing George Plimpton, who was a virtuoso editor, wield his red pencil. As a cofounder and the editor-at-large of Tin House, I feel particularly privileged whenever I have any small hand in publishing a new writer in the magazine, or finding an audience for a book that deserves to be read. I take my role as a literary citizen seriously.
You cofounded Tin House sixteen years ago. How have you seen the literary landscape change in that time? And how have those changes affected your work on Tin House today?
A lot has changed. Thanks to the online journals and the rise of independent small presses, there are a lot more places to publish—which is marvelous. What is less pleasing is the number of publishing houses that have been gobbled up by large corporations. This consolidation of power and influence, of taste, can only lead to a further homogenization of literature. The world would be better served if some of these houses just went into the toilet-paper business. Increasingly, writers who feel undervalued by their house, dissatisfied with the traditional publishing model, or simply slimed by the übercorporate, monolithic publishing complex are seeking to publish with smaller indie publishers. As a publisher of books as well as a literary magazine, Tin House has been more than happy to throw open our doors and welcome these writers into our home.
How do you write? Do you have a dedicated writing space and schedule, or do you take a more fluid approach?
When I was a girl, writing was as necessary to me as water. Writing was the one thing I was good at. It sustained me. It kept me from exploding into flames. When I got older, I wrote all the time because I was in love with the idea of being a writer. It was how I defined myself. I believed in the divine. It was easy then because I was little more than a psychic lightning rod. Of course, inspiration struck me, and did so over and over, and I valued each bolt equally. For me, writing was about feeling, an experience I was having in my body; it wasn’t about craft or storytelling, so I wrote easily and a lot. When I was in my mid-twenties, when I started really working, and writing for money, I became more self-conscious. Writing was still the way I figured out what I thought and how I felt; it was still the one place where I told the truth, the place I dumped my fear and anger, my fiction the place I was most myself, but it was much harder. I knew what I was writing wasn’t good or good enough. It was easier to not write. To beg off. I was too tired. I was too busy. It wasn’t like I was getting paid.
In my twenties I realized that the muse is a bum. The muse only shows up when you bait her by putting your ass in the chair. She can only be lured to your side by the sound of pounding keys, the smell of paper and ink. At some point (I imagine it was when the telephone company cut off our service) I realized it was time for me to start taking my life and my writing seriously. People who are serious about their work show up to work, day or night. So I started setting myself little goals and deadlines. That helped. When I had a project I was excited about, I was manic. I worked mornings, afternoons, nights—whenever I could steal the time. I became infatuated with my writing, obsessed, in love. Perfection was writing all day in bed until I was spent. When it was going exceptionally well, any time I wasn’t writing I was thinking about writing. It was bliss. Until, of course, it burned out, or blew up sometimes with the same degree of passion with which it had begun. All it took was time and distance, some sleep and a few square meals, and suddenly I couldn’t stand it.
My writing was so tedious, so phony, so wrongheaded and stupid. I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with it. I wanted it gone. It was just a reminder of how tedious, phony and wrongheaded and stupid I was. And then I wouldn’t write for weeks and weeks. There is nothing like having a baby to enforce routine. It quickly became clear that the only way I could get time to write was to ask for it. The only way that worked was for other people—my husband, babysitters, friends—to know when I was going to work so there would be someone to care for the baby. I found that when I told people that I was going to write, and then actually did it, they made space for me to do it. (Here I must say that I am married to an extraordinarily generous, supportive man and blessed with great family, friends, and babysitters. Also it should be said that I am not particularly pleasant to live with when I’m not writing.) In order to get that time alone—which I craved and needed—I had to keep writing. So I got into a routine.
What works for me is to begin working as soon after waking as possible—before my hypercritical voice wakes up and starts in with the insults and whining. It’s also best if I leave my house. I don’t like working in cafés. I know it works for many, but it feels too performative for me. I feel self-conscious, like: Regardez, the artiste! The writer at work! Admire my beret! I focus best and am most productive when I’m working in a friend’s empty apartment, or ideally at the Brooklyn Writers Space, which is just a short distance from my home. I make myself tea, put in my earplugs, and sit down and work. I can easily go for six hours, longer if I am obsessed. It’s hard for me to work at home. Too easy to procrastinate online, too easy to be distracted by the state of perpetual domestic chaos that rules my home, too easy to convince myself that I really ought to tackle some of the household chores I’ve been putting off. Things I should have done ages ago, like regrout the tub and toss the mold-furred produce in the crisper, find my tax receipts for 2012. The truth is, when my work is going well, everything around me goes to hell. The quality of my housekeeping exists in inverse proportion to the quality of my work.
I’m not the first person to admire your writing for its honesty. When reading Blueprints for Building Better Girls, I stopped reading midway through “Monsters of the Deep” to google (and then find, and email) my eighth-grade math teacher, whom I hadn’t thought much about in twenty years, because the scene between Heather and Ms. Sandberg really resonated with me.
I think we all have a teacher, if we’re lucky, who saved us. For me it was two English teachers. In middle school there was Mrs. Dudkowski, and in high school, Ms. Kipp. I didn’t need what Ms. Sandberg gives Heather, but what I needed—encouragement to write, support, and praise for doing something that I felt just made me a weirdo—that mattered greatly. We don’t forget those teachers. And we shouldn’t.
*This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 15 of Slice. To purchase a copy and read the full interview, click here. Schappell will also take part in our upcoming conference as a panelist (details about registrations/tickets here).
Photo credit: Emily Tobey
Elissa Schappell is the author of two books of fiction: Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, which was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. She is a founding-editor and Editor-at-Large of Tin House.
Maria Gagliano is a writer and editor and the business director of Slice Literary. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, BUST, and Salon. When she’s not doing things with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at pomatorevival.com.