A conversation with Melissa Bank.
What inspired the title, The Wonder Spot?What inspired the title was a photograph from the forties of a bench or maybe a glider with the sign “The Wonder Spot” above it.
Did you write the book chronologically or did some sections of the book develop before others? What do you like most and least about the process of writing?I didn’t write the book at all chronologically. I was all over the place, Sophie at 38 and then 21 and back to 12, like that.
What I like most about writing is when I’m in the middle of a story and seeing everything and hearing everything and the story is more real to me than my real life; I’ve become my narrator and am barely conscious of myself at all. What I like least is when I’m completely, cripplingly self-conscious, which usually happens when I’m trying to start a story and can’t: I’m on the outside, and all I can do is write studied, dead sentences and all I can see are my own limitations, your basic writer’s block, which is my one field of expertise.
Love is not a happy-ever-after affair in your books but a trial-and-error process. Despite the fact that Hollywood continues to churn out the Prince Charming stories, why do you think your realistic portrayal of the decidedly non-fairy tale modern romance has struck a chord with so many readers?I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around this question. I guess what I think is that love is a great mystery, and there are a million different versions, and all of them unique, and we all just try to figure it out as we go. Maybe everyone has Hollywood or Hallmark ideas about love-but also we want something authentic. Practically everyone I know struggles.
Why did you set your two novels in and around New York? How important is setting to your work?Really important. In both books, the suburbs represent the comfort and limitations of home – the family of origin, as the shrinks say–whereas New York, however hard it can be, represents possibility.
Can you describe your experience of being a young woman in New York?That first year, when I was working as an editorial assistant in publishing, I lived with Amy, my best friend from college, in a sublet in midtown. The apartment was tiny – there wasn’t even enough room to walk around the bed – and Amy went to sleep early. I didn’t mind. I was just beginning to write seriously, and I’d go into the bathroom, which was big compared to the rest of the apartment, and write in the tub. After a while, though, we both began to feel kind of trapped. We didn’t really like our jobs, and we could barely live on what we made. Amy waited tables on weekends in upstate New York, where she’d grown up and her boyfriend still lived. One night, we got this idea – I don’t remember whose it was – of renting a house in the country and commuting to work. We envisioned a primitive cottage, maybe without electricity, maybe in the woods. The idea sustained us for months. “We’re going to the country,” we’d say, as a kind of rallying cry. We didn’t, though–or I didn’t. When our sublet was up, I moved into another one. Amy quit her job, moved upstate and wound up marrying her boyfriend.
Do you think modern romance is more or less difficult than it was for your parents’ generation? What kind of example did your parents set for you?I don’t know if it’s more or less difficult. What I think of is how pressured women must have felt to get married. I felt that pressure earlier in my life and it was crushing. Even thinking about it makes me feel like I have a plastic bag over my head.
My parents seemed to love each other very much; I think they were devoted to each other. But I never saw anything there I could emulate. My mother was very traditional – is very conventional–and deferring to my father seemed to come naturally to her.
You’ve been compared to J.D. Salinger and John Cheever among others. Would you say that those are fair comparisons? What writers do you draw inspiration from?What a beautiful, beautiful question. What if I said, “Yes, I think it’s fair to compare me to Salinger and Cheever”? I met someone recently who said, “Like Bob Dylan, I…” and, “I write like Doestoevsky,” and I thought, Of course you do.
I’m most inspired by writers who make writing look easy and natural – Tobias Wolff, Nick Hornby, Matt Klam. I’m really inspired by the poet Billy Collins. Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors made me want to write, and so has Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, which I’ve just started.
What are you working on now?This.