Melissa Bank, an accomplished writer whose first book, A Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing became a worldwide publishing phenomenon in 1999, died Tuesday at her home in East Hampton, New York at the age of 61.
Her sister, Marjorie Bank, said the cause was lung cancer.
Mrs. Punk’s success was not an overnight success. She spent 12 years writing the book, a collection of stories, in part because a bicycle accident rendered her temporarily unable to write. A day’s work as a copywriter at a large advertising firm also kept her busy.
But after the title story was published in 1998 in Zoetrope: All Story, a literary magazine started by director Francis Ford Coppola, Miss Punk suddenly became America’s most unpublished writer. She soon had an agent, and began a bidding war, which Viking Press won, over eight other publishers, paying an upfront sum of $275,000 (equivalent to about $475,000 today)—a rare sum for a first-time novelist unheard of . A debut collection of short stories.
The increase was justified: “A Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” almost immediately made the New York Times bestseller list, staying for months. Mr. Coppola chose her for a movie. It has been translated into dozens of languages and has sold more than 1.5 million copies.
The seven linked stories in The Girls’ Guide revolve around a girl named Jane Rosnal who has come of age over two decades, from the age of 14 through her mid-30s, navigating between sex, death, money, and friends. Jane is sharp, independent and very funny – not unlike Mrs. Punk herself.
In one story, after Jane told her older lover, an editor, that she had lost her job, he suggested that she come to work for him.
“I can make accusations about that,” she says.
“What or what?”
Sexual harassment in the workplace.
Despite the fact that critics compared her stern reserve language to that of any number of male writers, including Hemingway and Salinger — described by the Los Angeles Times as “like John Schaeffer, only more hilarious” — her book was quickly incorporated into the growing flock of fiction It focuses on women and is ironically called a “lit chick”.
Given the moment, in the late ’90s, that was probably 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’s Memoirs” was published.
Reviewers and fans have associated Mrs. Punk’s book with great fondness for Mrs. Fielding; They even appeared on a panel together at 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, titled What Single Women Want.
Even so, distinguished critics saw more of a difference than a similarity, particularly in Ms. Bank’s ability to express generosity and sympathy.
“Fielding’s novel was a one-joke satire,” Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker in 1999.
Ms. Punk followed The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing with a similarly interconnected story line, “The Wonder Spot,” in 2005. It didn’t sell nearly as well as The Girls’ Guide, but many critics considered it a much better book.
Hadley Freeman wrote in The Guardian in 2020: “The Wonder Spot is my perfect book. The tone is perfect, the stories are perfect, the characters are perfect and every word, seemingly accidentally chosen, is perfect.”
Melissa Susan Bank was born on October 11, 1960 in Boston and raised in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her father, Arnold Bank, was a neurologist, and her mother, Joan (Levine) Bank, was a teacher.
With her sister, she is survived by her brother, Andrew Bank, and longtime partner, Todd Dimston.
Ms. Punk attended Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, graduating with a BA in American Studies in 1982. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cornell University in 1987.
She began writing what became “The Girls’ Guide” shortly after leaving Cornell University. She would write in the evenings, turning down promotions at work to conserve her time and creative energy. She showed promise early on, winning the short story competition for the Nelson Allgren Literary Prize in 1993.
But her work slowed when a car crashed into her bike in 1994, sending her flying forward. She landed on her head hard enough to break her helmet in half. The effects of a concussion left her struggling with words, in speech and writing, for nearly two years.
I managed to post a few stories, and it quickly caught the attention of Adrienne Brodeur, Zoetrope’s editor. Mr. Coppola had asked Mrs. Browdor to commission a story outlining the success of “Rules: Time-Tested Secrets to Capturing Mr. Right’s Heart” by Elaine Finn and Sherry Schneider, a popular self-help book published in 1995.
The resulting story of Mrs. Punk, in which her character Jane follows through, and then disregards a thinly veiled version of “The Rules,” brings out the features of both the emerging Zoetrope and the author. Editors and agents began calling, and I scrambled to assemble a manuscript.
“I just remember sitting down to read Melissa’s manuscript the same way I sat down to read all of her submissions,” Carol DeSanti, the editor who acquired the book for Viking, said in a phone interview. “And I, up to this point, 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 felt like I was in the presence of a voice who was doing something very different and striking and I did it very carefully.”
Two stories from the book were adapted into the 2007 movie “Suburban Girl,” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin.
Although it was clearly a work of fiction, Ms. Punk admitted that “The Girls’ Guide” was based on aspects of her private life: Like Jane, she grew up with an arrogant idealistic family, and their parents died early from leukemia. The book’s fame was so great that gossip columnists made a quick sport of trying to track down the real people behind its characters.
Following the success of The Girls’ Guide, Mrs. Bank began teaching at the Writers’ Conference in Southampton on Long Island, and later on the Master of Fine Arts program at the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University.
She continued writing after “The Wonder Spot” was published. She had a contract to produce another Viking book, which she was working on until shortly before her death.