Melissa Bank, Author Whose ‘Girls’ Guide’ Was a Phenomenon, Dies at 61
Melissa Bank, a witty, acerbic writer whose first book, “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” became a global publishing phenomenon in 1999, died on Tuesday at her home in East Hampton, N.Y. She was 61.
Her sister, Margery Bank, said the cause was lung cancer.
Ms. Bank’s success was not exactly an overnight one. She spent 12 years writing the book, a collection of stories, in part because a bicycle accident had left her temporarily unable to write. A day job as a copywriter for a big advertising firm kept her busy as well.
But after the title story was published in 1998 in Zoetrope: All Story, a literary magazine started by the director Francis Ford Coppola, Ms. Bank was suddenly the buzziest unpublished writer in America. She soon had an agent, and a bidding war began, which Viking Press won, over eight other publishers, paying a $275,000 advance (the equivalent of about $475,000 today) — a sum rare for a first-time fiction writer and practically unheard-of for a debut collection of short stories.
The buildup was justified: “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” almost immediately made The New York Times’s best-seller list, where it stayed for months. Mr. Coppola optioned it for a movie. It was translated into dozens of languages and sold more than 1.5 million copies.
The seven linked stories in “The Girls’ Guide” revolve around a girl named Jane Rosenal and her coming-of-age over two decades, from age 14 until her mid-30s, during which she navigates sex, death, money and friends. Jane is sharp, independent and bitingly funny — not unlike Ms. Bank herself.
In one story, after Jane tells her older lover, an editor, that she has lost her job, he suggests that she come work for him.
“I could bring you up on charges for that,” she says.
“Work harassment in the sexual place.”
Despite the fact that critics compared her spare, exacting language to that of any number of male writers, including Hemingway and Salinger — The Los Angeles Times called it “like John Cheever, only funnier” — her book was quickly corralled into the growing herd of woman-centered fiction derisively labeled “chick lit.”
Given the moment, in the go-girl late 1990s, perhaps it was inevitable. “Ally McBeal” was a hit for Fox. “Sex and the City” debuted on HBO in 1998, the same year Helen Fielding’s novel “Bridget Jones’ Diary” was published.
Reviewers and fans eagerly tied Ms. Bank’s book to Ms. Fielding’s; the two even appeared on a panel together at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, entitled “What Single Women Want.”
Discerning critics, though, saw more difference than similarity, especially in Ms. Bank’s ability to convey generosity and sympathy.
“Fielding’s novel was a satirical, one-joke stunt,” Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker in 1999. “Bank’s is a far more subtle piece of work, which achieves even more than it aims to.”
Ms. Bank followed “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” with a similarly linked set of stories, “The Wonder Spot,” in 2005. It did not sell nearly as well as “The Girls’ Guide,” but many critics considered it a much better book.
“‘The Wonder Spot’ is my perfect book,” Hadley Freeman wrote in The Guardian in 2020. “The tone is perfect, the stories are perfect, the characters are perfect and every word, seemingly so casually chosen, is perfect.”
Melissa Susan Bank was born on Oct. 11, 1960, in Boston and raised in Elkins Park, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Her father, Arnold Bank, was a neurologist, and her mother, Joan (Levine) Bank, was a teacher.
Along with her sister, she is survived by her brother, Andrew Bank, and her longtime partner, Todd Dimston.
Ms. Bank attended Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., graduating with a degree in American studies in 1982. She received an M.F.A. from Cornell in 1987.
She started writing what became “The Girls’ Guide” soon after leaving Cornell. She wrote in the evenings, turning town promotions at work to conserve her time and creative energy. She showed early promise, winning the Nelson Algren Literary Award short-story competition in 1993.
But her work was slowed when a car hit her bicycle in 1994, sending her flying forward. She landed on her head with sufficient force to crack her helmet in half. The aftereffects of a concussion left her struggling for words, in speech and writing, for about two years.
She managed to publish a few stories, and soon caught the eye of Adrienne Brodeur, the editor of Zoetrope. Mr. Coppola had asked Ms. Brodeur to commission a story playing off the success of “The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right,” by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, a popular self-help book published in 1995.
The resulting story by Ms. Bank, in which her character Jane follows and then discards a thinly veiled version of “The Rules,” raised the profiles of both the fledgling Zoetrope and the author. Editors and agents started calling, and she scrambled to assemble a manuscript.
“I just remember sitting down to read Melissa’s manuscript in the same way that I sat down to read out all of my submissions,” Carole DeSanti, the editor who acquired the book for Viking, said in a phone interview. “And I, to this moment, remember where I was sitting. The chair I was sitting in my apartment at the time, and the fact that I didn’t get up because I just felt like I was in the presence of a voice that was doing something so different and so arresting and had done it so carefully.”
Two of the stories from the book were adapted into the 2007 film “Suburban Girl,” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin.
Though it was explicitly a work of fiction, Ms. Bank admitted that “The Girls’ Guide” drew on aspects of her own life: Like Jane, she grew up with an overbearingly perfect family, and both their fathers died early, from leukemia. The book’s fame was such that gossip columnists made a quick sport of trying to hunt down the real people behind her characters.
Following the success of “The Girls’ Guide,” Ms. Bank began teaching at the Southampton Writers Conference on Long Island, and later in the M.F.A. program at the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University.
She continued to write after publishing “The Wonder Spot.” She had a contract to produce another book for Viking, which she was working on until shortly before her death.