'It changed me briefly, when I became so well known," confides Melissa Bank. "And that was that I became a jerk."
She slaps that remark on the table like a cold plate of dinner, with an expression that's frank and blank at the same time, suggesting she doesn't care much how you choose to digest the offering.
Honesty is her territory. It's there in her books -- The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, her much-celebrated best-selling debut in 2000, and her recent release, The Wonder Spot -- and during a discussion in Toronto, while in town for the International Festival of Authors, she moves to it again and again, as if it's her favourite place to curl up.
"I wasn't a jerk outwardly," she continues thoughtfully. "But I was just really self-absorbed. It's almost impossible not to be. You go to these photo shoots and there's somebody there to move one strand of your hair away or you're always being interviewed. You begin to think that you're an important person. I would be out to dinner with my friends, and I'd say, 'What's new with you?' And I'd think, 'That's a really generous thing, to act like my friend is important.' That's being a jerk," she says emphatically. "That's what that [celebrity]shit does to you. Your head becomes carbonated with thoughts of yourself. What did he say about me? Did he like my book? I didn't act so different, but I was becoming a jerk inside. I would wake up in the middle of the night, hating my guts."
Again, Bank offers a look of indifference as she diagnoses her inner workings. She treats herself with the same brutal inspection that she gives to the characters in her books. She likes to untangle her inner life, separating all the emotions, strand by strand, holding them up to the light for closer examination. But there's no emotion attached to that dissection. She does it all like a doctor with a gruff bedside manner.
"Generally, I don't have a broad view of my writing any more than you sort of wake up in the morning, understanding your dreams. The process is like that, too," she observes, when asked if she is aware of being the voice of a generation of women. "You don't know exactly why you're writing what you're writing."
She may not know why or what she's writing, but everyone else seems to have her figured out, much to Bank's annoyance. She has been dubbed a chick-lit author. "It's demeaning," she says in her deep, flat voice. "When people talk about chick lit, they're really saying that this is a book by a chick about a chick for a chick, and that nobody else will want to read it."
She does acknowledge that her subject matter is often autobiographical and very similar in both books -- so similar, in fact, that many reviews of The Wonder Spot have pointed it out, and not always kindly. Both are written in the first person in the format of connected short stories. The protagonist is a New York girl in The Wonder Spot, the wry and angst-ridden Sophie Applebaum. Both books dwell on the search for love and relationships, although The Wonder Spot, Bank explains, moves beyond that to explore identity and family.
Bank's crisp, economical writing makes a welcome return. She pulls off lines that are funny, fast and memorable. Sophie observes women at a party who are so thin "they could fax themselves." Later, she sees them as "liquidy and sweet-looking; they are batter, and I am the sponge cake they don't know they'll become. I stand here, a lone loaf, stuck to the pan."
"I knew while I was writing it that people might say it was similar," Bank says. "I had an interviewer in Amsterdam who said, 'Melissa, in both books, your character works in publishing and advertising, you have a boyfriend who rides a motorcycle.' She was, like, 'Why, why do you repeat things?' The only answer is, 'I have a limited imagination! Is that what you want me to say?' "
Asked what makes fiction a good vehicle for the inner workings of contemporary women, she responds, "Because it's an interior struggle, or interior versus exterior -- the way you think you are supposed to be versus what you're actually thinking while you do it. The images of love and any kind of happiness or closeness are handed to us in the culture, and I don't feel they are true. They are so pat. I'm interested in how it really happens, and a lot of that is internal."
Writing has never been easy for Bank, now 45. The Wonder Spot took five years to complete, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing took 12. But she dresses the pain of the process with humour. "It's like giving a fetus the SATs [Scholastic Aptitude Test]in utero. It's not even born and you think, 'Let's see how it does on this test. Is this smart enough to be mine?' " she asks with mock horror.
Despite some newspaper stories that describe her ascendancy to the publishing world as a happy accident, Bank says she was always intense about her work. It's true that an editor at Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine, Zoetrope, asked Bank to write a story that became part of The Girls' Guide, but the struggle to be a published writer began in her early 20s.
The middle child of three -- her father, a neurologist, died at an early age from cancer -- she had graduated from Hobart William Smith in upstate New York with a degree in American studies. She worked in publishing in New York for two years, then headed to Cornell to complete a graduate degree in creative writing. She returned to New York City and worked for 12 years, nine of them at McCann Erickson, writing "junk advertising." Her after-hours routine was devoted to fiction writing.
"I would have one night during the week that I would take off to be with friends. If I had a boyfriend, I would see him after I wrote on some nights." In 1993, she won The Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction, and she thought her life would change. But it didn't. She still got rejections.
"I had to ask myself, 'What if there's no success measured? Are you going to think that your life is well spent?' " The answer was yes. "And I think it actually made me a better writer," Bank says. "There was an intensity about my writing before that. I was writing to save my life."
Writer's block and a feeling of being a fraud still plague her. (She once consulted a shrink about her tendency to rewrite and rewrite a paragraph until it doesn't make sense.) She wants to write a novel, but it seems daunting, she says. "There are things about novel-writing that other people know that I don't somehow know," she states. "And every idea I get sounds like a plot from a bad movie-of-the-week in the sixties." Still, she feels some of the connected stories in The Wonder Spot, in particular, the longest, The One After You, caused her to stretch as a writer.
But if the wonder spot is that fleeting moment of clarity, of happiness, then she has experienced that with writing. "There's this feeling that you get," she explains, "that you can write a sentence and create something. It made me feel better than I ever felt. There was a real chance for me to be more than I'd always been."
Ah, a bit like what love can do. On that front, she's had some wonder spots, too. "Many men I have been with have seen my work [as a writer]as some kind of weird rival," she says. But now she's found someone, her boyfriend of a year and a half, Todd, who lives in the same apartment block as she does in New York.
He gives her the time she needs to be alone. "I need to spend a lot of time wandering," she says, with a little laugh. "I spend a lot of time in a used bookstore, reading the first paragraph of 50 books. And I like looking for odd stuff in thrift stores," she says, indicating her funky chandelier earrings.