Hook, Line and SINKER

Author Melissa Bank captures the sweetness and pain of the single woman's pursuit of love in her responce to 'The Rules,' a paean to dating gamesmanship. Readers are smitten.

June 22, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Melissa Bank finishes reading an excerpt from her new book, "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," and looks out at the small-but-rapt audience hanging onto her every word despite the lunch-time din of Olsson's Books. It's time to take questions, she knows. But she also knows no one ever wants to ask the first question.

So she starts. "Am I Jane?" she says of her main character, who links most of the stories in this collection. "I'm not."

Yes, she is a witty, 30-ish, single New Yorker who has worked in advertising and Jane Rosenal is a witty, 30-ish etc., etc., etc. But what begins in truth and autobiography will take on its own reality, especially if you work and re-work the material. Bank became Jane while writing, she had to. But she's not Jane, and Jane's not her.

Her audience nods and smiles fondly at her. They still have no questions. This is not typical of Bank's book tour to date, where audience members have pressed close and shared confidences, sure they know her in the flesh because they know her on the page. In Madison, Wis., a woman mentioned she was recently divorced. "How's it going?" Bank asked. "Well, you know," the woman replied, as if Bank was the authority on being single.

But this audience is so quiet, so shy. Well, Bank asks herself, which authors does she read? Nick Hornby, Pam Houston and, most recently, Edmund White. Who were her influences? F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Unusual, she thinks, for a woman.

Finally, someone has a question. You, sir, there, in the third row.

"Why did you write this book?" the man asks.

She is nonplussed, and one does not have to know Bank well to realize she is seldom at a loss for words. The last part threw her. Why did you write this book?

"Why? Why?" she says at last. "I have no idea. I just sat down night after night and this is what came out."

It seems a rather self-deprecating description of "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," given what has happened to Bank over the past 18 months. "What came out" was Jane Rosenal, a character who has critics sounding like lovesick swains. "What came out" was a series of related short stories that sold for $275,000, an extraordinary sum for a first work of fiction. "What came out" was a book now in its seventh printing, for a total of 145,000 copies in a month. "What came out" was a book that hit the New York Times best seller list Sunday, and will be on it next week as well.

Later, as Bank settles down in the cigarette-friendly lobby of the Willard Hotel, she ponders why the question stopped her. She wears a short, becoming sun dress that exposes her arms and legs, very tanned and very cut from weight workouts. A bellboy passing through the lobby can barely conceal his admiration. "Look at those gastros," he says, referring to the gastrocnemius, calves to the rest of us. "She must do some workout, huh?"

Bank, 38, already fatigued by the demands of her tour, seems oblivious to his attention, to say nothing of his gastros. She's still thinking about the soft-spoken man at the bookstore, whose question caught her off-guard.

"I loved it, because it was a different question, and I'm already at the point where no one asks an unexpected question," she says. "But I have no idea how this book came out."

Inspiration

But there is, in fact, another, simpler way to answer the question. Bank wrote "The Girls' Guide" because Francis Ford Coppola asked her to.

Three years ago, the director started Zoetrope: All-Story, a literary quarterly designed as an outlet for new writers. The magazine also serves as a proving ground for short fiction that could be adapted to film.

Most of the stories are original, explains editor Adrienne Brodeur. But each issue also features a commissioned piece, in which a chosen writer develops a story based on one of Coppola's ideas.

In 1997, Coppola was intrigued by the buzz surrounding "The Rules," a best-selling dating guide that resurrected the kind of mind games that most women had abandoned. Brodeur, familiar with Bank's work from small literary journals, asked her to try writing a story about a woman who is using a similar guide. Only this woman falls in love with her prey.

Coppola, via e-mail, says of the process: "Normally, when you give a writer a commission, you hope that they will run with it and make it their own, with only a slight basis in what you originally suggested. You expect that. I provided the original concept and Adrienne worked closely with Melissa, but ultimately it is the writer who brings the idea to life and creates the magic."

Brodeur worried the story might be cynical, but "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" turned out to be a sweet and cautiously optimistic piece. Bank also proved to be someone Brodeur wanted for a friend.

"I fell in love with her as well as her writing," she says. "She walks on water in my book."

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