Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Using Her

Talking with Elissa Schappell.

By Shelly Ridenour

JUNE 5, 2000:  There is a scene in Elissa Schappell's "Use Me" that rivals a similar, real-life happening in Dave Eggers' much-ballyhooed "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." "You lick your finger and stick it deep in the urn, then you stick that finger, coated with your father's ashes, into your mouth. You press that finger to your tongue and wait for it to kill you, but you don't even gag. You swoon. You plunge your hand back in, and hold him in your fist, you can't get enough of his ashes in you. You shouldn't be left alone with this urn. You cannot trust yourself not to eat the entire thing."

While Eggers' account of spilling his mother's ashes on his shoes is fantastically, horrifically, cry-until-you-laugh funny, Schappell's words detail the stuff of father-daughter relationships that could keep a shrink's couch warm for years. "I was thinking about how women really are affected by having a father in their life, or not. How women who have been fathered are less willing to put up with crap from men, the author says.

"Use Me" is a novel masquerading as a collection of short stories ("I'm terrified of writing a novel," Schappell admits), focusing on the lives of Evie, a smart, boho daddy's girl who becomes an adult but never quite grows up; and her friend Mary Beth, a self-contained Catholic school girl whose father is around only in the form of a credit card and for whom abortions are about as extraordinary as getting a cavity filled. Over the course of ten intertwined stories, the two experience flirtation, sex, first love and, for Evie, a frustrating cycle of needing and being needed too much--by a father dying of breathtakingly prolonged cancer, by a husband whose desire is more than she can return, by a young son who craves independence.

Schappell admits that parts of the book are autobiographical--"I was close to my own father, and he did die of cancer"--but that experience didn't make the writing process any easier. "I had to kill the father. I didn't want to write it, but I knew it had to happen, and I didn't want it to seem like something off Lifetime. I didn't want a standard tearjerker," she recalls. The result is "Try an Outline," a racing, boiling story that borrows the classic outline form as a literary device--allowing both Schappell and the narrator to trim the fat, opening up the heartwrenching horror of dealing with death like an exposed nerve. "I wrote it, then I got up and threw up. It's not nice and easy, or romantic. But, I figure, if it makes me sick, it's the truth."


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