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Tell Me a Story: Ellen Talks About On a Night Like This

Bad Girls Book Club Reading Guide

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From Ellen —

I’ve just come home from my first book club meeting about BAD GIRLS: 26 WRITERS MISBEHAVE. At one point in the evening, the fine women who were gathered in someone’s living room began to recount their own bad girl stories. One woman had worked as a stripper while in her 20’s and never told a soul. Another had a summer affair with both a man and his son -- neither one knew of the other romance! A very refined woman used to break into her ex-husband’s house in the middle of the day and steal mementos from their marriage. Oh my god. The women howled with laughter. The discussion lasted far beyond 9 PM when all good girls go home. And once the shock of these confessions wore off, the real conversation began. Why do women act out? What does it take for us to break out of our role as dutiful wife, daughter, mother, working woman – and cut loose? What do we feel afterwards – celebration or regret?  This was far better than any book club meeting I’d ever attended!

At the beginning of the evening the host of the book club asked me why I had decided to put together an anthology of essays about bad girls. I told her that I had started writing personal essays three years ago, after a lifetime of writing fiction, and that I found the process very rewarding. And when I looked at the many essays I had written over a three year period I realized they all shared one common thread – they were about my bad girl escapades. Why, I wondered, did I keep coming back to that theme? Why, in fact, have I spent much of my life rebelling and acting out? The questions interested me – and I almost immediately thought: what would other writers have to say about this?

And so I asked them. I asked writers with reputations for being bad girls: Erica Jong, Pam Houston, Kim Addonizio, Maggie Estep, Kaui Hart Hemmings. I asked writers who were good girls but had a few secrets they might share: Roxana Robinson, Madeleine Blais, Elizabeth Rosner, Lolly Winston. I asked well-known writers like Joyce Maynard and Susan Cheever and emerging writers like Michelle Richmond and Tobin Levy.  They all shared my enthusiasm for the subject. And they were all willing to dig deep – what is it about women, our society’s rules and our wild defiance.

Then came the real fun. Once the book was published the readers began to respond. My email inbox is flooded with notes from readers who not only want to tell me how much they loved the book, but they want to add their own thoughts about this meaty topic. They sometimes even share their own tales.

Now the book has begun to appear on the book club circuit. Last night I got a first taste of what that experience is like. The woman began their discussion by talking about the essays that most moved them – sometimes they loved an essay and sometimes they were furious about an essay. All of it led to fascinating discussion about the questions I wanted to raise: what does it mean in our society for women to break the rules? And in the end, the political is personal. We ended the evening by sharing our own stories and sharing our own insights. And man, did we laugh.

~ Ellen

© Ellen Sussman, 2008. All rights reserved. Site by Shelly King.