Author of three nonfiction books, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara, Susan has written for New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms., Real Simple, Washington City Paper, Us magazine and won a New York Press Association Award for features written on assignment in Poland. Her short stories have been published in Ploughshares, Story, Beloit Fiction Journal, Greensboro Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review and she was awarded VQR’s 1999 Literary Award for short fiction. Susan is also a commentator for National Public Radio and co-hosts “Bookmark”, a monthly book show on World Radio Switzerland.
Susan and I, as fellow Swiss-dwellers, have met at workshops, bookclubs and various literary occasions. She’s unfailingly entertaining and bursting with energy. If she were a drink, she’d be a Tequila Rapido.
Susan Jane Gilman
Which was your favourite childhood book?
Eloise by Kay Thompson. The protagonist is a smart-mouthed, rebellious, precocious firebrand who creates her own reality and takes over the Plaza Hotel. And she’s six. What’s not to love? My parents gave this book to me when I was six and have been regretting it ever since: I immediately took to Eloise as a kindred spirit and a role model. To this day, it’s one of my favourite books. And she’s still one of my role models.
Where do you write, what objects are on your desk, and why?
I have a home office with a big white laminate desk where I sit immobilized and plagued by insecurity for roughly nine hours a day. There are always little knick-knacks littering my work space for me to fiddle (procrastinate) with. The most interesting are tiny, antique pairs of shoes that were made for Chinese women who’d had their feet bound at the turn of the last century. I bought them at an antique market in Beijing when I returned to China in 2005 to research my latest book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. While the shoes might be replicas of the originals, they’re beautifully embroidered – and horrifying. The size is smaller than most toddlers wear. I keep them as a visual reminder of how constricted and crippled women have been throughout history – whether by society or our own desire to conform. I also have two huge, beautiful geodes that I bought in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco from a man desperate to sell me something – anything, really. It broke my heart. The majesty of nature and the pain of humanity are glistening right there in those rocks.
On a lighter note, I also have a hairy, magenta rubber yo-yo that lights up. I play with it constantly – whenever I’m stuck for inspiration, working through an idea, or stuck on-hold for 45-minutes on the telephone.
Who was the biggest influence on your writing life?
Frank McCourt. I had the great, good fortune to have him as my English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. His Creative Writing class inspired me to write non-stop and taught me crucial lessons about the craft. This was long before he was famous. He was, as we said, “just a teacher.” I was a teenager, which meant, of course, that even my hair was an opera. Yet he championed me and told me I had talent. One day, he told me to send a piece I’d written to The Village Voice newspaper. I did – and they published me. I was sixteen years old. This was huge professional validation. He also sent my work to national writing contests – and it won prizes. I adored him and worked out a way to take his class almost every single semester until I graduated.
When I headed off to college, he wrote at length in my yearbook: “Don’t, don’t, don’t ever let them still your voice…Go to your room and let your pen rip across the page…move over Jane Austen. Bow your head Mary McCarthy. Run for cover, Fran Leibowitz.” And in the darkest nights at college, when I was ravaged with insecurity and despair, I re-read it. (I still do). And I kept writing.
And we stayed in touch. Mr. McCourt, my teacher, became “Frank,” evolving into my mentor and friend. Whenever I had a professional triumph – an Op-Ed in the New York Times or a journalism award – I called him. He was as proud as any parent. And I, arrogant young upstart that I was, figured that one day, when I wrote my first book, I’d dedicate it to him so that, you know, he’d be remembered. He’d share a little bit of my glory.
Of course, the whole world got to participate in Frank McCourt’s happy ending, in his global, spectacular success with Angela’s Ashes. We watched the awards and accolades rain down on him like champagne. And my friends from high school and I were delirious with joy: He did it! He did it! The triumph and justice of it was monumental.
In 2005, when my second book, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress debuted on The New York Times’ Bestseller List, the first person I called wasn’t my husband, or my agent, or my parents, but Frank. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” I choked into the phone. “You made me what I am today.”
And he chuckled. “I did, didn’t I?”
I simply would not be a writer today if it wasn’t for Frank McCourt. I bow before him for all eternity. He died two years ago, and I miss him every goddamn day.
What makes you laugh?
Human stupidity, absurdity, and naivety –particularly my own.
Which book should every child read?
Eloise, of course. And all three of mine. Kiss My Tiara, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven are all completely inappropriate for anyone under age twelve, but so what? When I was eight, my mother read me the J.D. Salinger short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” about a war vet killing himself, and I turned out just fine.
Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?
Yes, three: “Wow,” “Cry me a fucking river,” and “The world should have my problems.”
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t?
Moby Dick. Ugh. I’ve heard two different and very brilliant professors refer to it as “the greatest American novel ever written.” But I found it tedious, phallocentric, and half of it barely readable – and I’ve plodded through it three times.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
I can’t even begin to imagine it – and for a writer, that’s saying something.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, although I haven’t read it since I was seventeen. But when I read the final paragraph, I burst into tears, I was so moved and overwhelmed and impressed, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wished I’d written it. Yet I haven’t gone back to re-read because I’m afraid it won’t hold up. The experience of reading it was so perfect and awe-inspiring and seminal for me as a young writer, that I don’t want to tarnish the memory and the impact by going back with a more critical eye.
I’d also have been thrilled to have written The Odyssey of course, simply because it’s The Odyssey. Ditto for The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Run, Rabbit, Run and Eloise, of course, would be great, too.
Has the recent ‘made-up memoir’ scandal damaged the market for true stories?
I don’t know how it’s affected the market, but it’s made life tough for those of us who have written memoirs without making stuff up. Now, when people read about my dinner with Mick Jagger, or how I was forced to follow a Maharishi as a kid, or my disastrous trip through China at age 21 where my friend and I fell apart, they ask me, “Did that really happen?” That drives me crazy: Of course it did. If I made that stuff up, I’d certainly make myself and my loved ones look a hellava lot better.
For Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, which is about a naïve and disastrous backpacking trip I took through China when it had just opened up to young travellers, my publisher had me track down some of the people who’d helped save my life two decades ago. They wanted me to have as much documentation and verification as possible before we went to press. While it was amazing to track down some of the people in my memoir, it was also extremely nerve-wracking and time-consuming. They were all over the globe.
I also feel very strongly that if you’re going to pen a memoir, then you have an obligation to tell the truth as best you remember it. The fact that a story is true gives it a particular power – and resonance with readers. After reading my books, a lot of people write me very confessional letters and emails. My books comfort them, make them feel less alone, less vulnerable, and less freakish because they feel a connection with my own experiences. Sometimes, they tell me they feel like I’m a close friend. They pour their hearts out to me at readings and dinner parties. If I were to turn around and say, “Oh, my family didn’t really implode,” or “I wasn’t really bullied like that – I just made it up to sell books,” they’d feel hideously betrayed and sort of violated.
If you’ve got a great story that didn’t really happen to you, just write it as a novel and call it a day.
What are you working on at the moment?
My three published books are non-fiction. Now, frankly I’ve had it with reality, so I’m working on a novel. I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as difficult to write as my other three books.
Which pizza topping best represents your personality?
Smoked salmon. And chocolate.