Melissa Bank, a witty, wry writer whose first book, “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” became a worldwide publishing phenomenon in 1999, died Tuesday at her home in East Hampton, NY. She was 61.
Her sister, Margery Bank, said the cause was lung cancer.
Mrs. Bank’s success didn’t exactly happen overnight. She spent 12 years writing the book, a collection of stories, partly because she was temporarily unable to write due to a bicycle accident. A day job as a copywriter for a large advertising agency also kept her busy.
But after the title story was published in 1998 in Zoetrope: All Story, a literary magazine founded by director Francis Ford Coppola, Mrs. Bank suddenly became the most popular unpublished writer in America. She soon had an agent and a bidding war began, which Viking Press won, over eight other publishers, by paying an advance of $275,000 (the equivalent of about $475,000 today) — an amount rare for a budding fiction writer. and practically unheard of for a debut collection of short stories.
The build was right: ‘The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing’ almost immediately made it onto DailyExpertNews bestseller list, where it remained for months. mr. Coppola chose 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 14 to mid-30s, dealing with sex, death, money and friends. Jane is sharp, independent and bitingly funny – not unlike Mrs Bank herself.
In one story, after Jane tells her older lover, an editor, that she has lost her job, he proposes that she come and work for him.
“I can sue you for that,” she says.
“Work harassment on the sexual site.”
Despite critics comparing her sparse, 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 quickly became part of the growing herd of female-oriented fiction that is mockingly labeled as ‘chick lit’.
Given the moment, in the go-girl late 1990s, it may have been inevitable. “Ally McBeal” was a hit for Fox. “Sex and the City” debuted on HBO in 1998, the same year that Helen Fielding’s novel “Bridget Jones’ Diary” was published.
Reviewers and fans eagerly tied Mrs. Bank’s book to Mrs. Fielding’s; the two even appeared together on a panel in Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y entitled “What Single Women Want.”
Critical critics, however, saw more differences than similarities, especially in Mrs. Bank’s ability to convey generosity and sympathy.
“Fielding’s novel was a one-joke satirical stunt,” Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker in 1999. “Bank’s is a much more subtle piece of work, accomplishing even more than it sets out to.”
Mrs. Bank followed in 2005 ‘The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing’ with a similar series of stories, ‘The Wonder Spot’. It didn’t sell nearly as well as ‘The Girls’ Guide’, but many critics thought it was 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, chosen so casually, is perfect.”
Melissa Susan Bank was born on October 11, 1960 in Boston and grew up in Elkins Park, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Her father, Arnold Bank, was a neurologist and her mother, Joan (Levine) Bank, was a teacher.
She and her sister are survived by her brother, Andrew Bank, and her longtime partner, Todd Dimston.
Ms. Bank attended Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, graduating in 1982 with a degree in American Studies. She received an MFA from Cornell in 1987.
She started writing what became “The Girls’ Guide” shortly after she left Cornell. She wrote in the evenings and ran city promotions at work to save her time and creative energy. She showed early promise, winning the 1993 Nelson Algren Literary Award short story competition.
But her work was delayed when a car hit her bike in 1994, sending her flying forward. She landed on her head with enough force to break her helmet in half. The aftereffects of a concussion left her struggling for words, verbally and in writing, for about two years.
She managed to publish a few stories and soon caught the attention of Adrienne Brodeur, the editor of Zoetrope. Coppola had asked Ms. Brodeur to write a story detailing 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 Mrs. Bank story, in which her character Jane follows and then throws a thinly veiled version of “The Rules,” raised the profiles of both the young Zoetrope and the author. Editors and agents started calling and she rushed to put together a manuscript.
“I remember sitting down to read Melissa’s manuscript the same way I sat down to read all my submissions,” Carole DeSanti, the editor who bought the book for Viking, said in a telephone interview. “And I remember up to this moment where I was. The chair where 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.
Although explicitly a work of fiction, Ms. Bank admitted that ‘The Girls’ Guide’ was based on aspects of her own life: Like Jane, she grew up in an overbearingly perfect family, and both of their fathers died early from leukemia. The fame of the book was such that gossip columnists quickly made a sport of tracking down the real people behind its characters.
After the success of ‘The Girls’ Guide’, Mrs. Bank taught at the Southampton Writers Conference on Long Island, and later in the MFA program at Stony Brook University’s Southampton campus.
She continued to write after publishing ‘The Wonder Spot’. She had a contract to produce another book for Viking, which she worked on until shortly before her death.