‘One day, as I was headed to a reading for someone else’s anthology, I thought about the many essays I had written and realized they all had one theme in common — they were all about my bad girl experiences,” says Ellen Sussman, a Trenton native and the author of the new book “Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave” (W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $24.95). Sussman will speak and give a signing at Borders in Nassau Park, West Windsor, on Wednesday, July 11.
Sussman says she started to wonder what that said about her and “about women in general, and within a few days I had rounded up an amazing list of writers to help me explore the issue.” Some of he contributors are Erica Jong, Pam Houston, Susan Cheever, Ann Hood, Joyce Maynard, Lolly Winston, Daphne Merkin, and many other famous bad girls.
Kaui Hart Hemmings’s essay, in the form of a faux author’s questionnaire, looks at how hard it is for a bad girl to adjust to motherhood. Michelle Richmond turns her essay into an open letter to a TV producer begging to get a part on reality show by proving she really is “that bad.” Daphne Merkin bumps up against a barrier in trying to write about the penises she has known.
Mary Roach recalls her days as a “hormone-beset pubescent,” obsessed with the suggestive elements of the confession box. Roxanna Robinson writes about signing a parental permission slip for a friend at boarding school and hoping her strict Quaker headmaster father doesn’t find out.
Joyce Maynard’s first act of badness was embarking on a relationship with J.D. Salinger, her next was writing about it after many painful years of silence. Susan Straight deals with the pain of losing her brother and unleashes her inner bad girl when she hits the open road, her “car curving near out of control on desert roads.”
Jennifer Gilmore reveals her heartbreaking battle with an eating disorder: “For me, sadly, being bad turned in on itself; it was never fun and carefree, it always went alone, did damage.” Erica Jong’s essay admits that “my dirty secret was that I was really good. My purgatory is to be identified forever with the bad girl I invented in my youth for the purpose of being noticed. She haunts me still.”
Sussman was born in Trenton. Her father started Starr Tours, a bus company that is still going strong and is now run by her brother and brother in law; her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She graduated from Princeton Day School in 1972, which she says was “an extraordinary experience.” She had attended Trenton public schools until seventh grade and says PDS was “an entree to a new world. Some of it was tough — a busload of Jews and blacks and Italians crossed over into then-lily white Princeton — but the education gave me a chance to explore my passions, which was writing, even back then, with the guidance of remarkable teachers.”
She graduated from Tufts with a bachelors in English in 1976, where was awarded the Mabel Daniel Prize for the most distinguished student in the arts. She earned a masters in Writing at Johns Hopkins University, studying with John Barth, and writing a collection of short stories as her thesis.
Sussman’s first novel, “On a Night Like This,” was published by Warner Books in 2004 and has been translated into several languages. After publishing her first personal essay in Newsweek’s “My Turn” column, she was asked to contribute to several anthologies. Her short stories have appeared in commercial and literary magazines, including Redbook, Seventeen, Paris Transcontinental (she lived in Paris for five years and taught fiction writing at a cultural center for adults), Bennington Review, the Literary Review, Cimarron Review, and Story Quarterly.
She now lives in the Bay Area with her husband, a former tax lawyer, and two daughters. She has taught writing and literature as an adjunct faculty member at Pepperdine University, UCLA, and Rutgers University. She lectures regularly on writing and the creative process at conferences and seminars.
Sussman’s “dirty” work is, apparently, not done yet. Her next book, “Dirty Words: The Unabridged Encyclopedia of Sex,” will be published by Bloomsbury in late 2008. And an interview with Sussman about being a bad girl appears in the July/August issue of More magazine.
“Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave,” Wednesday, July 11, 7 p.m. Borders Books, 601 Nassau Park. Ellen Sussman, Trenton native and editor of “Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave,” an anthology of essays by women writers, gives a reading and book signing. 609-514-0040.