Susan Jane Gilman is the author most recently of the novel The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. She also has written Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara, and Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. She lives in New York.
Q: How did you create your main character in The Ice Cream Queen, Lillian Dunkle?
A: There was an abstract impulse married to a very specific voice. The abstract impulse was that I wanted to write about a deliciously complicated female antihero. There weren’t many since Scarlett O’Hara…
Then I got the idea for the ice cream story, [and I thought] what if I had a difficult, unlikable, but compelling woman? I had the idea that she would be a Russian Jewish immigrant, and I heard her voice.
Q: Why ice cream?
A: I love ice cream! [I should start] the Susan Jane Gilman Institute for Advanced Gelato Studies! Tom Carvel [of Carvel Ice Cream] did his own commercials. I tried to explain them to my husband, and I Googled the old ads.
It turns out his name was Tom Carvelas; he had been a Greek [immigrant], and it was a rags-to-riches story. I thought, That’s kind of interesting! Ice cream was a natural fit.
Q: Lillian is involved in most of 20th century American history. How did you research this book and figure out which events she’d be a part of?
A: I paid several visits to the New York Historical Society. I walked around the Lower East Side. My paternal grandmother lived on the corner of Orchard Street, so I had my dad tell me about it. I went to the New York Tenement Museum. Then I just read.
When I started, I knew there had been an issue with ice cream and polio. That was it. Then the more I read about history and ice cream, it just gelled. Prohibition and ice cream. World War II.
Just the rags-to-riches story [that Lillian is a woman, is disabled, and is Jewish-Italian], that alone presents obstacles. But she’s completely tied up in American history. It got even more interesting.
Q: Did you know how the book would end when you started writing, or did it change a lot as you worked on it?
A: I knew I wanted to do her rise and spectacular fall. Like Leona Helmsley or Martha Stewart. They were reviled; there was not the [same] hatred toward Ivan Boesky or Donald Trump as there was to Martha Stewart…The actual ending came to me as I was writing.
Q: How did the writing process compare between this novel and your previous nonfiction books?
A: It was harder by the power of ten, easily! But it was also more fun. Writing nonfiction, you know how the story will end, the question is what do you tell? What do you show? How do you show it? What do you leave out? Each book gets exponentially harder.
With fiction, all bets are off. There’s a range of possibilities in how [the story] could go. A couple of times, I wrote 60-70 pages and cut it all. The first draft was vastly different from the second and third.
It’s a process of decision-making. Who are the characters, how do you make them come alive. Pacing. Timing. My husband would come home and say would you like spinach or mushroom ravioli, and I’d say, I can’t decide!
A: Because I’m an idiot and a masochist! I could have written Kiss My Tiara 2. But that doesn’t interest me. It would probably be commercially viable, but it’s not why I wanted to write. With each book, I want to do something new.
Q: Which writers have inspired you?
A: Probably every single person I read. That sounds like a cop-out. When I was little I was influenced by the books I read and by the books my mother read to me.
When I was 7 or 8, I was reading Judy Blume, Little House on the Prairie, All-of-a-Kind Family. My mom was reading me J.D. Salinger, Charles Dickens, Katherine Mansfield. I was falling in love with telling stories, with the young adult novels [I was reading] but also with literature, language, poetry.
As a teenager, probably the people most [responsible] for making me write were John Cheever, John Steinbeck, and John Updike, the three Johns. Dorothy Parker. Truman Capote. Those people seemed obvious; I heard them talked about.
Even a crappy writer [can show me what to] try to avoid!
A: I’m working on selling the Ice Cream Queen. I’m on the second leg of a book tour, thanks to the Jewish Book Council Network. I still haven’t gotten the book out of my system. I’m published by Hachette, which is embargoed by Amazon, so I feel anything I can do to get the book into the hands of readers, I will do….I have to completely get the book out of my system, and then I will get inspired.
Q: Anything else we should know about the book?
A: That it’s 500 pages and it reads quickly….It’s a fantastic read—that’s what every writer wants people to know! It’s dedicated to two people close to me, both of whom have died….
I want people to be moved by it, to learn things, to feel less alone, and to be comforted and inspired.
Writers work alone, so if you read the book and like it, contact me, e-mail me! I like to Skype, and I love meeting with book clubs. It’s a lonely profession. Readers are often afraid to approach writers because they’re feeling that we’re iconic. No!
If [readers] know of any great ice cream in their areas, let me know!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Susan Jane Gilman will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from November 6-16, 2014.