Intrepid traveller, ice cream connoisseur and rebel, best-selling author Susan Jane Gilman talks about her writing turret and her four books with Clare O’Dea, in this second in a series of profiles of English-language writers in Switzerland.
Susan Jane Gilman may be a long-term resident of Switzerland but when I spy the author outside Morges train station on Lake Geneva, sporting a red biker jacket, chunky black boots and shades, I know I have found my New Yorker.
In big sister mode, Gilman shoos away the street marketers who have gathered around me, and leads the way down through the pretty old town to the waterfront. For a moment, I feel like the other Claire from Gilman’s hair-raising travel memoir, setting off with Gilman on a perilous journey.
Morges is the half-way point between our two cities, Fribourg and Geneva, and home of the renowned international literary festival, Le Livre sur Les Quais, which featured Gilman on the bill last year.
We are irresistibly drawn towards an ice cream stand on the promenade. I choose strawberry, Gilman goes for chocolate, and we claim a bench looking out on the magnificent view of the lake and French Alps. It feels right to be sitting in the spring sunshine having a sweet treat with the author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Streetexternal link.
A rags-to-riches tale featuring a despicable old dame who has made it big in the ice cream industry, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is Gilman’s first novel and fourth book. The main character comes from humble beginnings in the tenements of New York, not unlike Gilman’s own ancestors.
A self-confessed geek in such matters, Gilman threw herself into the research for the story. She found poignant evidence of the precarious situation faced by new arrivals in the early twentieth century.
She launches into her pet subject with theatrical flair. “There’s a real hagiography around the immigrant experience: the idea that people come off the boat and work hard for a few years when they live in these ethnic neighbourhoods, and then they strike it rich and move to the suburbs.”
“The fact is 30 per cent of all the immigrants that passed through Ellis Island ended up returning to their homelands. The immigrant newspapers in the archives at the Orchard Street Tenement Museum and the New York Historical Society are full of advertisements searching for men who arrived in America with their families, then abandoned them. It was rough.”
Gilman is only too happy to remind people of the important role immigrants have played and continue to play in the US. “The times right now beg for immigrant stories to be reinforced and told.”
The writer’s interest in the plight of vulnerable migrants is not just confined to the pages of The Ice Cream Queen. Gilman has also spent time volunteering with Syrian refugees in Greece.
Similar to the lovable rogue at the centre of her novel, Gilman is a natural entertainer who has been telling her stories to the public for years. She made her breakthrough with the 2001 book Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smart-Mouthed Goddessexternal link, a sassy response to advice books like The Rules which peddled the idea that marriage was still the ultimate achievement for a young woman.
“The Rules told women: be diet soda, be artificially sweet and bubbly for the rest of your life and you can trick a man into marrying you. And I thought why aren’t there rules for catching a life instead of catching a husband? Where is the practical, funny, in-your-face feminism? I don’t see it.”
Gilman didn’t see it so she created it herself. After years trying to get a start as a novelist, and scraping by on writing-related work, the idea secured her a book deal in a flash. An appearance on The Today Show propelled Kiss My Tiara onto the top ten-ranked bestsellers on Amazon for much of the year.
At ease in front of a microphone, Gilman went on to be a regular radio commenter and reviewer on NPR in America, and co-hosted a book show on World Radio Switzerland in Geneva for several years.
Pleasure and pain
Ice cream tubs scraped clean, we set off in search of a café table outside. Gilman is coy about her current writing project, only willing to reveal that it is another novel. Writing fiction was always the goal and the dream. “I was surprised that my first three adult books were nonfiction, I’d never planned on it. I just kept reacting to things in my culture and I felt compelled to respond with a book.”
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Gilman’s travel memoir, tells the story of a naïve and disastrous backpacking trip she made to China in the 1980s. Written in the author’s trademark humorous style, it has the feel of a novel, as circumstances spin wildly and dangerously out of control.
Gilman’s books are eminently readable and entertaining but that doesn’t mean writing comes easy to her. “Writing nonfiction is like do-it-yourself root canal and writing fiction is like do-it-yourself root canal on your entire mouth,” she informs me, almost with a straight face.
What helps is having somewhere peaceful to write, without too many distractions. “There’s a myth that writers lead a very glamorous life, that we go to parties and openings and that we’re swanning about all the time. But the truth of the matter is, if you want to write, you really have to put your butt in a chair and be quiet and alone in a room for years at a time. And if you are going to be quiet and alone in a room, Switzerland is a great place to do it.”
Travel has always been Gilman’s drug of choice but the opportunity to move to Switzerland came up through her husband’s job as a scientist. She has lived in Geneva since 2002, with one year-long stint back in the US.
Gilman has some ties with the Geneva Writers’ Group and has also given talks at the Zurich Writers Workshop, with one teaching session coming up in May. “But mostly I spend my time alone in my turret. I find that if I work with other people who are writing and I’m reading their work and talking about the work I just don’t get enough done.”
Susan Jane Gilman
New York born and raised
MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan
Teaching at the Zurich Writers Workshopexternal link, May 12-14
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street (2014)
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (2009)
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress (2005)
Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smart-Mouthed Goddess (2001)
Gilman’s books have been translated into 12 languages.
The award-winning writer’s story is unusual in that she has been in control of her career from a relatively young age, since the timely Kiss My Tiara made such a big impact. “After that I could pretty much write my ticket.”
What she ended up writing next was a memoir about “growing up in all of its messiness and contradictions”, with the memorable title Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. The daughter of hippies living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, at a time when it was a rough area of New York, Gilman had some rich material to draw on. “I grew up in a very racially tense, very diverse neighbourhood and I was bullied at school.”
With Frank McCourt as her English teacher, Gilman struck it lucky at school in another way. The author of the legendary Angela’s Ashes became a lifelong mentor and friend.
Gilman’s Pouffy White Dress debuted at number eight in the New York Times bestseller list. “My publisher took out a full-page ad saying ‘overnight bestseller’. But I was 40 when that happened and I’d been writing professionally since I was 16 so it took 24 years to become an overnight sensation.”
Still under the protection of my ice cream buddy, who once aspired to be “an American Dostoyevsky with breasts”, we return to the station to catch trains going in opposite directions, and pledge to continue our discussion at a future date over something a little stronger.
An Irish-Swiss journalist based in the bilingual town of Fribourg, Clare O’Deaexternal link is the author of the 2016 non-fiction book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths. Nominated for the 2017 Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards, Clare also writes fiction and translates books from German and French. Her career as a journalist spans three countries and two decades. From 2005 to 2015 she worked for swissinfo.chexternal link.