BANK NOTES

First-time author Melissa Bank offers wildlife tips from her Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

Bank wrote advertising copy to pay the bills after receiving an M.F.A. from Cornell, which also graduated Lorrie Moore (Self-Help, Birds of America), to whom Bank is sometimes compared because of their mutual finesse with one-liners within a narrative. Advertising copywriters are notorious for self-loathing, and Bank says the choice to accept the job "was pretty painful." It was a good job for a writer with other ambitions, though, says Bank. It was "a field that wouldn't ever threaten my writing. I didn't care about advertising."

She believes the experience helped her in her serious work: "There's no room for being inaccessible in advertising. When you become self-indulgent and obscure in writing ad copy, it's out on the table in a second. "That's really pretty, Melissa, but what's it really doing? We all know you're a good writer, but what's it at the service of?' It also teaches you a lot about cutting. You get used to writing for people who don't want to read what you're writing, so you'd better be respectful of their time. You're a Hoover salesman banging on the door. You better have something to say and say it pretty well and in a compelling way. I think that was good training for me. I wouldn't say my book is like ad copy, but I would say it made me very aware of not ever writing beautifully for the sake of writing beautifully.

"I don't like writing that takes you away from what you're reading about to say, "That is so beautiful.' I like writing that is so beautiful it takes you deeper into the story or deeper into the emotion, but it always has got to be at the service of that."

Girls' Guide isn't ad copy, and it is more than accessible prose. The title story is a comic gem, with Jane being visited, like guardian angels or harpies, by the authors of How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right, Faith and Bonnie. "I see them perfectly," Jane imagines. "Faith is reserved blown-dry blonde; Bonnie, a girly-girl, a giggler with deep dimples. I have known them my entire life: in gym class, playing volleyball, they were the ones clapping their hands and shouting, "Side out and rotate — our team is really great!' In college, Bonnie was my Secret Santa. In personnel offices, when I joked about my application phobia, Faith was the one who said, "Just do the best you can.'"

This isn't the kind of writing Bank aspired to when she was at Cornell. "Most of my time in graduate school, the first year-and-a-half I wrote very serious fiction. I really wanted to be a great writer. I was convinced that the only way you could be a great writer was to write about things that were very close to the bone, which happened to be things I knew nothing about. What I define as "close to the bone' now would be different, but I thought rural poverty, incest, prostitution. Things I knew nothing about. Really serious, terrible problems between people. They were really, really broad stories with dramatic endings of death. They were real bad.

"An editor I work with a lot at Zoetrope (the literary magazine founded by director Francis Ford Coppola) dug up my first published story. It was a story she still teases me about, because it was a story about incest: Poor people living on the Jersey shore. A waitress mother. A vengeful daughter. At one point the character comes out and says to her mother, "You owe me!' You know, just in case you didn't understand what was going on here, this is what that character feels.

"Harry Dean Stanton could have played a lot of the male roles. A lot about trashy families hashing it out, whereas I came from a really privileged family — my father was a doctor. Everything was very comfortable. There were things my mother did not want to be brought to anybody's attention. My father was different; he would address things, but it was the ethic of the suburbs. I knew nothing about arguments taking place in diners.

"It took me a long time to convince myself that I had anything of my own worth writing about. It was a process of growing up. I went to an M.F.A. program at 25, and I had the idea that real writers didn't write about the suburbs. I missed Cheever and Updike. I didn't see much that was really interesting in my own life. Then I grew into it.

"I wanted to write like a man. I had the idea that women were softer and more indistinct, emotional and pillowy. I wanted to write hard prose."

Instead Bank writes smart, agile, emotionally accurate — and successful — prose. She has completed a screenplay of the title story, with Coppola "overseeing it — I don't know what these terms are, but maybe he's a producer or something, but he's the leader. The next stage is to get a director involved."

When she rises in her perfect little black dress, the Three Irish Pigs want her to stay. On a book tour? Read here — we'll accompany you.

Bank laughs them off and turns away, as cool as Audrey Hepburn on her way to dance class.

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