Pigeon Pages Interview with Elissa Schappell

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Do you have a bird story or favorite feathered friend?

It's very strange that I don’t have a favorite bird story as I collect bird feathers and skulls. I have a gorgeous taxidermed India Roller from 1881, a cast off from the Department of Orinthology at Princeton.

 When my son was eight we discovered, while on safari in Africa, that he is exceptionally good at spotting birds, even those hiding up in the canopy. The first was a Pop Starling. I on the other hand am lousy at spotting birds, so I am forever having to lie about seeing them. My daughter has a very uneasy relationship with large waterfowl. For whatever reason, she has been repeatedly attacked by geese, and once rather terrifyingly a swan.

 Chickadees were my favorite as a child. My father loved them too. So perhaps the chickadee. Though the nuthatch has that fabulous mohawk.

What is your most memorable reading experience?

Reading J.D. Salinger’s Frannie and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenter and 9 Stories in close succession. The realization that characters could live in each other’s stories--in one story a character could be dead, but in another, alive--was a revelation.

What makes you most excited about Blueprints for Building Better Girls? And Tin House?

I don’t know if excited is the right word, but I care about stories that tell the messy truth of women’s lives. Whether I am writing them, or privileged to have some small hand in publishing them at Tin House, or able, as a teacher, to give female writers permission to take their lives and experiences seriously.

To tweet or not to tweet?

To tweet. Unfortunately. A lot.

What books do you have in your bag right now?

Right now I am reading Sophie Calle’s The Address  Book, and Frail Sister by Karen Green. I had a book on CBT but I can’t find it, or recall the title.

Can you tell us your favorite rejection story?

I have blocked most of them out. I did have an opportunity to study with a writer who I had worshipped like a God. Who I imagined would, upon reading my work clasp me to her bosom, and proclaim my brilliance. Up until this workshop all my stories were insipid imitations of Margurite Duras and Virginia Woolf. The thing was, after a workshop with Amy Hempel, I had decided to “write what you know” and what I know was anathema to her. I’d say she hated me, but I didn’t even warrant that. I did warrant a lecture about how I had a moral obligation to write stories that would serve as blueprints for future generations of young women. While it set me back for a long time--I quickly reverted to my old ways--I did finally wake up, and I did get a great title out of the experience.

This isn’t what you’re expecting--and it’s very petty, but no one every talks about the delicious rejection, so here you go-- A few years ago I received a rejection letter from an editorial assistant Electric Literature. It was so condescending it was comical. He went on at some length explaining why the story wasn’t publishable. I greatly enjoyed telling him that the story was coming out in the next issue of One Story.

What literary journals do you love?

If I had to choose one, I really love the Columbia Journal, which is a literary magazine edited entirely by Columbia MFA students. For my money, it smokes a lot of the literary magazines out there. It has enormous energy, you can feel page, by page, how passionate the editors are, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

What shakes your tail feathers?

I assume this is a good thing?

Collecting moths, Victorian mourning jewelry, vintage Ouija boards, really good scissors, curiosity cabinets, the collages of Hannah Hoch, classic punk rock, embroidering leaves, the color red.

What advice do you have for fledgling writers?

Oh, I have lots of advice. The first thing would be, don’t give your power away. Only take to heart the advice that makes sense. Next, don’t wait for permission to become the writer you are meant to be. When you think, Oh I shouldn’t say that, nine times out of ten, it’s exactly what needs to be said. Oh, and as much as you possibly can, make your art your life, and your life your art.

What other eggs do you have in your basket right now?

(Discretely covers eggs, with a large napkin.)

My, look at the time. I must be going…


ELISSA SCHAPPELL is a co-founder and editor at large of Tin House, as well as the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and co-editor with Jenny Offill of the anthologies The Friend Who Got Away and Money Changes Everything. She is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her essays, articles, and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies such as the New York Times Book Review, The Bitch in the House, The KGB Bar Reader, and The Mrs. Dalloway Reader. She teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University.