The Ellen Sussman Interview

Thanks to Deadspin (and you wonderful loyal readers, all five of you) I have received some priceless ideas for my great mixtape of horrible team theme songs. I'll put it together for next week but let me know if you have other ideas.

Today's interviewee is the editor of the recently released Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, which features confessional tales by authors like Erica Jong, Joyce Menard, Daphne Merkin and M.J. Rose. She is also the author of the novel On a Night Like This, teaches writing in San Francisco and has been published in numerous other publications like Seventeen and Story Quarterly. Her next book, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, will be published by Bloomsbury in June 2008.

The Ellen Sussman Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

What's something 'bad' that you've done recently?

Hard to say what "bad" is - which is one of the reasons I put the book together. What was "bad" back then (speaking my mind, doing what I wanted to do) is "good" now. I don't break as many rules as I used to because I seem to have set up a life for myself where I don't bump up against those rules. But, put me at a dinner party with very conservative or boring people and I get kind of wild - I talk about sex and tell shocking stories and curse more than I normally would - it's kind of an immature rebellion against convention.

Who are some of your favorite famous bad girls?
I have a favorite not-famous bad girl - my mother! She was someone who didn't conform, in a time when it was difficult for women to stand apart from the crowd. I dedicated the book to her. I remember her dancing on a table at a wedding when I was small and I thought: I want to do that! My uncle yelled at her that she was misbehaving and I remember thinking, well, if she is, then I want to misbehave too!

Which of the stories in Bad Girls surprised you the most by redefining what you consider to be "bad"?

Jennifer Gilmore's essay about bulimia - and that the bulimics were the bad girls in the eating disorder clinic - really surprised me. But it makes sense that girls misbehave when the pressure to be perfect is so strong.
Also, Kaui Hart Hemming's essay about becoming a mom and suddenly asking "how do you bring your old bad self" into your new good life made me think about how bad girls grow up - or don't! We often find ourselves in grown-up lives and can't figure out how the rebellious parts of ourselves - or the non-conformists - fit into these new roles. Lolly Winston addresses that, too, in her essay.

Was it ever hard keeping an open mind when you were receiving the contributors' stories (or hearing stories from fans)?
It's hard to shock me. I've loved some of the stories that fans have told me - one woman had an affair with the chairman of the board of a prestigious university - and his son! - during the same summer. Another was a stripper during her 20's but no one knew - it was her secret life. I find all of it intriguing - when the rules of society don't fit, we find our own ways to make our own rules. I'm not big on judging people.

When, or what do you think is the difference between being 'bad' as a feminist act, and being 'bad' for more shallow means, ie to draw attention to oneself?
That's a great question. I chose not to address the issue of the Paris Hilton/Lindsey Lohan antics in Bad Girls - or the actions of Girls Gone Wild - because I don't think we know yet what that story will reveal. It may be empty attention-gathering - it may expose some deeper truth about our society. But it's too soon - we need some time and distance to look at that clearly, I think. My gut reaction is that most of it is silliness - but who knows? If I were 20 now I might feel differently. Being bad as a feminist act is about our rights to express ourselves and to gain freedom for women - but maybe those girls flashing their breasts on TV feel like theirs is a battle against a society that says girls can't be sexually wild. I'll be interested to look at that more closely in a couple of years.

But most of the essays in the book take on the question of being "bad" as a feminist act. Our society might not be comfortable with women who break the rules as my contributors have done - and for the most part, we're celebrating that. Consider Joyce Maynard, for instance. She has the right to tell her story about her affair with JD Salinger - it's her story as well as his. But the world wanted her silenced. Her "badness" is in breaking that silence and claiming the story as her own.

I'm curious to hear about what some of the other concepts were for the cover art for the book: were they all sexy in some way or another?
No! I had a very different idea of what the cover should look like - and I wasn't a big fan of the lips at first. Now I'm glad we've got a cover that seems to get the attention of readers. But I want readers to know that there are serious stories behind those lips. The book isn't all about sex - in fact, only a few of the essays explore sexual escapades as ways of acting out. I wanted an image on the cover of a woman who's bold, who's surprising us, who's challenging us in some way. But writers don't always get what they want in terms of cover art.

I read a question in your interview with Jewess blog: "Are Jewesses any badder than other women?" How do we Catholic schoolgirls measure up?

Oh, you get your day in the sun in Bad Girls! Both Mary Roach and Madeleine Blais write about the Catholic girls story. I think what we all share is the experience of being told about the role of women in the bible, in history, and in today's society and we've all said, no. I don't buy all that. There must be a different story that includes women, that gives women more say, that empowers us.

When I was a kid the boys all thought the girls at the Catholic school were the fast girls - the ones with whom they could score. Maybe after a full day of learning all that brain-numbing male-centric material, the girls needed their rebellion and found it through sex. What do you think?

Would a "Bad Girls" reading be a good place for men to meet women?

I've loved the crowds who have gathered for the Bad Girls readings - both men and women! We seem to attract folks who are non-conformists, rebels, free-thinkers. We've had great discussions after the readings. Yes - that's the kind of crowd where you'd find some interesting people to meet!

Imagine a world where the Britneys and Lindsays and Parises have made us immune to such 'bad girl' behavior as flashing vaginas, drug use, promiscuous sex and whatnot. What then will be considered "bad"?
That's scary. But there's always something new. I saw a teenage boy walking through Safeway yesterday with his grandmother. His t-shirt read Fuck You. Grandma didn't blink an eye. Man, when I was a kid, grandma would have ripped that shirt off the boy's back. (well, I do live in California now.) I just hope that whatever bad behavior happens next comes from something real - it has meaning in some way. Each generation is meant to shake things up. I hope that when the shaking stops, real change happens.

Do you find that readers (or journalists) now make assumptions about you, as a self-proclaimed 'bad girl'?

Yes! Suddenly I find complete strangers telling me the most outrageous stories! And of course, as queen of the bad girls, I'm supposed to think it's all cool. So I nod my head and smile and then when I walk away I think, did she really do that?! I'm getting an education on a daily basis. I love it.

So...why DID you run naked into the ocean?

I felt like I was being pushed into the small space of a very conventional world. There was no room for me in that world. I imagined an entire weekend of talking business and showing off and I wanted to scream. Instead I threw off my clothes and ran into the ocean. It was childish, of course - a kind of "look at me" act - but it worked! It completely changed the tone of the weekend. Turned out the owners of the house were very cool and we had a great time. Though I don't think my then-husband was pleased.

What's the process, once you've conceived it, of pitching and editing an anthology?

First I found a couple of writer friends who loved the idea - one of them - Caroline Leavitt - even wrote her essay immediately so I could include it in the proposal. My agent, Sally Wofford-Girand, shared my enthusiasm for the project. I gathered more names, wrote up a proposal, and Sally sold the proposal in a 14 minute pre-empt to Norton!

What would you advise a first-time writing teacher?
I love teaching writing. I treat all my students, from beginners to the most advanced, as if writing is the most important thing in the world to them. When they're taken seriously, they take themselves seriously. And there are real skills to be taught in a writing class - about character development, plot, dialogue, etc. It's important to talk about those skills and help the students develop a strong foundation for writing.

What are some keys to a productive writers workshop?

Support and constructive criticism. Have to have both. The students have to feel safe - and real work has to get done. The role of the teacher is really important then - you've got to make sure that everyone knows how to treat each other with respect and sensitivity. At the same time, you've got to be willing to dig deep.

What's your advice to writers on how to write sex scenes if they're feeling awkward about it?

Pretend no one will ever read it.

You mention in another interview that you were inspired to create this anthology after discovering that being a bad girl was one of the recurrent themes in the essays you've written. What are some other themes that pop up in your writing?

It's interesting to look for recurring themes - I've published about a dozen short stories and two novels and lots of personal essays. I can finally say, what are my obsessions? Loss is a big one. My father died when I was fifteen - I seem to write out of that loss in almost everything I write. Also violence - I was raped at 18 and though I didn't write about it until I wrote my novel, ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS, it's under the surface of everything else. And love of course. I'm a love junkie.

The idea for "On a Night Like This" came to you in real life. What's your advice to authors considering whether to use someone or someone else's story as inspiration? How do you know whether it's a good story that other people would enjoy as opposed to exploiting a real life situation?

First I think the story (if it's someone else's story) has to really matter to you. Deeply. Something in that story has to touch your obsessions. Otherwise, you won't put your heart in it. And I wouldn't worry about it being someone else's story - by the time you get done with it, it will have become something else entirely. They'll never even recognize it.

What's been your favorite entry so far in the Unabridged Encyclopedia of Sex?

Hard to say - there are 100 entries! I love monogamy and vaginal ejaculation and pheromones and virginity and fetish and exhibitionist and I could go on and on. It's an amazing book. It will be out in June 2008, with Bloomsbury. New title: DIRTY WORDS: A LITERARY ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SEX.

How does it feel to be the 191st person interviewed for

You're a great interviewer! Terrific questions!

More interviews here! (with an updated list forthcoming)

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