Susan Jane Gilman, the bestselling multigenre writer, talks about her latest novel, Donna Has Left the Building, and appreciating your gifts.
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This past fall I was once again in one of my favorite places, Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library, to hear an author speak about her new book. It was a night I went into with no real expectations—I hadn’t read any of Susan Jane Gilman’s books yet; I just always take any opportunity to hear writers talk about their work. When Gilman began, I was immediately struck by how warm and downright hilarious she was. She gave her audience wonderful advice on how to get better at this often brutal gig we call writing, and made us all laugh out loud.
So I started with her latest novel. Donna Has Left the Building (Grand Central, 2019) follows a woman in midlife and on the brink—she wakes up one day in a world she no longer recognizes and it sends her on a chaotic two-week journey from Detroit to a remote Greek island, with multiple stops in between. It’s a funny, touching, triumph of a book about the messes we get ourselves into and how love can save us from them. She recently talked to WD about her work.
There is a lot of chaos in this book. This novel is laugh–out–loud funny, but it also handles some really serious stuff: infidelity, a crisis with [the protagonist’s] daughter. How did this story and this unforgettable Donna come to you?
There’s rarely, when I write any of my books, one “aha” moment; I usually have a couple of impulses and they slowly merge, like a moon … eclipsing the sun so that they’re overlaid. There was the personal piece, and there was a global piece. I was looking around at all the women of our generation who are going through midlife crises. Men write about men’s midlife crises all the time. But where were the books about women who reached that moment of their mortality where they sit up and say, “My God, what have I done?!” Often, they’re written about in nonfiction and they go on hikes, or eat, pray, love and we’re off on journeys where we find ourselves and it’s understood by taking the journey, we’re going to get better.
And I thought, Where are the books about the women who go on journeys the way men do? And they just completely implode and they make loads of bad decisions, and they behave abominably? I wanted to do that…. I like taking classic stories, turning them inside out, and rewriting the ways that women [are] shown in fiction, and rewriting the ways we’re perceived. So I want to write a woman’s spiral down the rabbit hole. But when women have crises, we always come out wiser, and we know ourselves. I also wanted a character who gets a much bigger sense of herself, but she [also] comes to wake up to a greater world and to her humanity, and a real purpose in it. I didn’t want inner peace or yoga or new love at the end of her story.
So as I’m piecing all this together, I’m thinking about, what kind of woman would you want to go on this journey with? I chose the name Donna; it means “woman”; I wanted a kind of every woman. I go to places that seem like familiar territory and try to turn it inside out in an unfamiliar way. A New Yorker making bad decisions going down the rabbit hole, eh, that’s not that interesting. But a mother of two who’s living in the in the suburbs of Michigan—how to get her to leave her family and run off? That’s more interesting. I don’t see that as much. So that’s how I got Donna.
I think that’s why the book keeps you reading, because every time you think you know what’s going to happen, that doesn’t happen. I loved that you didn’t come to the end and she had magically fixed everything. Because that’s not real.
All of my books are very different…. But I don’t want to tie everything up in a nice, neat bow. I don’t think that that’s how life is, and I don’t want to insult the intelligence of the readers.
One of the things that I truly loved about this book was the last section where Donna’s in Greece. I know you are passionate about the refugee crisis there and do work with that yourself. So I’d like to share with our readers what you do in your volunteer work and what they might be able to do to help, because it’s still happening.
As we know, since I started working on the book, there’s a refugee crisis a lot closer to home here in the U.S. I’ve been living in Switzerland most recently. So we had a front row seat for the refugee crisis when it hit Europe in 2015 and ’16. We would see on the news every day pictures of families … in these rubber rafts; babies drowning, washing up on the shore, people warehoused at borders behind a barbed wire fence … begging, “Can you please give us some water?” There’s this idea that refugees are nothing but … unwashed masses of terrorists. But when you see them on the news and look, they could be us.
As a white American, I am always aware of that my family who came here were immigrants and refugees and they were fleeing violence and poverty. And me and a lot of my friends in Switzerland were like, “Why isn’t anybody doing anything?” The governments seem to be paralyzed or willfully indifferent. So a friend of mine and I found a project that we worked with because just showing up, you can be more of a hindrance than a help. We just started doing very, very glamorous work, like sitting on the floor of a shipping container and sorting through donated clothing or handing out premade meals or playing with kids. Any idiot can be a volunteer. There was this sense among friends, people were writing on Facebook, “Oh my God, you’re saints!” We’re not saints here, very much not so, and when you’re in the heart of the crisis, nobody feels like a savior. All you feel like is, “Wait a minute, I’m it?!? Where’s the help?” Everybody pitches in and you just do what you can. None of us who were there came in with a sense of, “Here I come to save the day!” I think that‘s really important to emphasize. I’ve seen some white saviorism in volunteer work that I’ve done around the world. This was just, you know, “Oh my God, people are drowning and nobody’s here quick, make a human chain.”
What happens in the book, it’s very different from the way that I have volunteered. It felt very much like a metaphor for things that I wanted to have happen to the protagonist of my novel. We all have something to contribute and can do something. Action is the antidote to hopelessness, anxiety, and injustice.
This was one of those books that I was still thinking about days later, and I miss Donna now.
That’s the highest compliment you can pay, because as a writer I’m never really sure what I’ve written. One of my relatives says to me, “Oh, do you love your book? Do you love what you’ve written?” And my response is always, “I don’t know!” I write in a fever and I rewrite and I rewrite and I tear my hair out and try to craft something. And when it’s done, I’m just spent, I don’t have perspective on any of my work for years often.
This novel timewise is really compact. It takes place in a very short span of time, but your first novel takes place over like 70 years. So that’s a saga.
I’ve published five books, three nonfiction, and the last two were novels. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is epic, or at least by American standards, and covers 70 years. So the pacing of that was a very different thing. The emotional conflicts that drive [that] story are tied into history. With Donna, her own epic internal and external journey takes place over two weeks in 2015. I mapped it out on the calendar, when the events happen, but it is super compressed … it’s very intense and a much more internal story.
What are the advantages and challenges of writing a novel that takes place over a compressed time versus writing a novel that takes place over decades?
In the end the focus is still the same, in that it’s a matter of what is absolutely necessary to the story. What drives the character forward? I think very much in terms of beginning, middle, defining crisis, and resolution. That’s a sort of old-fashioned way of looking at storytelling. And I do think in that way, although I’m always trying to break the mold and push the boundaries and write classic themes in a very fresh and unexpected way, I’m not an experimental storyteller. I like stories where you could almost be like, “Come around the campfire. Let me tell you….” They have an urgency to them. And in doing that, you have to take out everything that’s not germane to the story. So The Ice Cream Queen had about 120 pages that got cut. With Donna, because it’s a very short period of time, I wanted to give backstory, I didn’t know how deep to go emotionally, so that we had to pare back. So the process was ultimately the same: “How does this serve? How is this important? Is this organic? Is this germane? Does this keep the story moving? Does it not?”
With The Ice Cream Queen I got to do a lot more research. I could procrastinate a lot more writing a historical novel because you decide you absolutely have to get all the names right of the brands of clothing they’re going to wear, or look at old pictures of historic New York. Whereas with Donna it was pedal to the metal.
You’ve written two novels and you’ve written nonfiction books. You’ve said that you thought you would begin by writing a novel, but you wrote three nonfiction books first. So how did that happen?
I always assumed that … I would start off writing novels and let’s be clear: I assumed I’d write the great American novel by the time I was 24, then live on an island being served by various cabana boys and write for the rest of my life in luxury in a maribou-feathered robe ala Barbara Cartland. I’m sort of exaggerating, but I really thought that I would always write novels. But as I started out writing books, I kept reacting to the world around me. I worked as a journalist when I was in college, and out of school, so I was always writing fiction and nonfiction. My first book was Kiss My Tiara, which was in reaction to a book called The Rules that was for single women on how to basically trick a man into marrying you. And I was like, Why aren’t there rules for catching a life, not a husband? I need practical advice. How do you negotiate a salary? How do you talk back to relatives who are pressuring you to get married and have kids? How do you treat other women? I wanted it to be fast and funny because I found feminism humorless and impractical. So somebody said, “Well, you write it.”
Then the next book also came out of the fact that the only memoirs I saw women writing were about their miserable childhoods or being single and going shopping. I thought there’s more to our lives than this. Then my third book, which was going to be a novel, was in reaction to the culture at the time, which seemed to regard travel and overseas exploits as being mostly just for American enrichment or personal gain. And so I’m always aware as a writer of the world around me. The word zeitgeist is pretentious, but I‘m just very [aware of] what’s happening in the greater world. Some writers have a gift of being very internal; they can just draw away and create works of poetry and a kind of quiet elegance and depth. Not me. I’m knocked around by the external elements. So the first three books were very much in reaction to things I saw in the world. Even though … I get asked all the time [about my nonfiction], “Did that really happen?” People think that the first is a book of short stories, and the second is a novel, because it reads that way—you can bring the same skills to it, the same skillset, but they were true stories.
The nonfiction that I love is written in the style of fiction. That’s how creative nonfiction can grab people.
I hold him up all the time because of his influence in my life, but Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes, it’s a true story, but it reads like the best fiction. It is just great storytelling. I find fiction writing … my standard line is, “Writing a memoir is like do–it–yourself root canal. Writing a novel is like do–it–yourself root canal on your entire mouth.” Even harder, but the skillset is the same. Every detail needs to be significant and do the work for you. This is my advice to writers: I rewrite like a mofo. You know, writing is rewriting. You go back, you get a draft down and then rework it. The idea that you sit down and it flows out of you perfectly the first time—that sweet spot happens once in a great while, but more often than not it’s a struggle. If I find that something isn’t flowing … I think, should this not be in the story? Or, is it overwritten? Does it need this paragraph? A lot of the times I write a few sentences that I love…. And then as I write more and more, I’m like, “That’s got to go” because everything is in service. This scene. This line. This phrase. And that’s a hard thing to do, but you know, cut it. The kicker is if you do [revision] well enough, the writing looks effortless. Then you get people who come up to you and say, “Now that I’ve read your work, I realized that I too could be a writer.”
You’re a funny writer and you’re a funny speaker. I was doing my research for this interview and found that you had said that you never set out to be funny in your writing and that you always thought you would be more serious. A lot of writers feel pressured to be a certain way, do this, do that, be this way, don’t be that way, or you won’t be taken seriously, et cetera. How did you finally embrace your humor as the gift that it is?
I don’t think of myself as a funny writer. I think I embraced it because I was taking a writer’s workshop in Washington DC to keep my skills up, and I wrote two short stories. One was about a man struggling with his relationship with his son and his addiction, and the class was like, “Wow, that’s pretty deep.” Then the other was this farce … that involved dental hygienists, Jewish mothers, and lesbians, and it was very raucous. I had to hand something in and I had this idea and I just let it go, and the class went nuts. They were like, “Oh my God, you’re so funny. This is so great.” This guy came up to me afterward and said, “My wife’s been battling breast cancer for two years. I gave her your story to read. That was the first time she’s laughed since the day she got diagnosed. You have a gift.” My high school English teacher, Frank McCourt, said to me, “Cherish the chuckle. Hold onto who you are. Don’t let them steal your voice.”
The stuff I write comes out funny because I see the world as ridiculous. I don’t sit down and be like, “This is going to slay them!” Or, “Does this joke have power?” I’m not a stand-up comedian. I’m not floating jokes and seeing what works. I’ve been told all of my books to a degree are laugh–out–loud funny. It’s not what I set out to do. I try to write what is the truth for the story. Truth is ridiculous most of the time. I also find that my impulse is to write about the serious and painful things about the world. It’s like I have an instinct that kicks in, that the deeper and darker something is, the more I have to see the humor in it. And when something is funny and I’m seeing something, I’m like, “That’s really funny,” and my impulse kicks in again and I see what is sad or tragic underneath it. It’s an impulse. It’s an instinct. It’s a way of seeing things. I don’t know if I’m taken seriously. As a woman, it’s a lot harder. I’ve seen men who are funny writers like … Jonathan Lethem, people I admire, and, they’ll win a Wodehouse Prize and they’re so “insightful”…. and my books are [described] like, “Oh, laugh out loud funny. What a romp! A wacky read” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s wacky! I write about going to a concentration camp, yeah, this is a laugh riot!” “Oh, this book is really funny, it’s about a crippled woman who’s under indictment, ha ha ha!” “Or, here’s a woman whose life is coming apart, who ends up in Greece in a refugee crisis…that’s a real knee-slapper!”
You have to have comic relief when you’re dealing with some of this serious stuff, or it can just become a dirge. That’s the thing that is so phenomenal about Donna Has Left the Building—it is laugh out loud funny in parts (Donna ends up in a wing-eating contest? What?!?), but also, there’s such deep stuff going on here and it’s so touching I cried. I would never describe it as just, “Oh, it’s a funny book. You should read it.” I would describe it as, “It’s a funny book that’s also about really serious stuff like alcoholism and infidelity and a refugee crisis and parent-child relationships, and also women‘s relationships with ourselves—What we give up in our lives; how can we reclaim our own identities?” In my opinion, it’s a perfect book because it’s so real.
Wow! A “perfect book!” Thank you. All writers sit down, and part of it’s like, “Oh my God, what I’m writing, this is genius!” And then you look at the next day and you’re like, “This is garbage. Who am I kidding? I have no talent. I’m never going to write again!”
That is why when I appreciate a writer’s book, I always tell them, because it is a lonely struggle. A lot of writing is sitting alone in a room in your own head.
I say it, “I’m a writer, which means I spend most of my time alone, staring catatonically at a blinking cursor.” I didn’t know when I was a little girl and I wanted to be a writer, I [thought] I like books and I can write books and tell stories, and people will read the books and like the stories. That’s all I thought it was, and you didn’t think it’s going to be people writing on Amazon: “This book was stupid and boring. After the first three sentences, I put it down.”
It’s a brutal profession. But when someone like you or any of the other authors I’ve talked to who are great, successful writers who like you say, “make it look effortless,” when you say, “It’s not effortless. It’s really hard work,” I think that encourages people to understand that they’re not alone with this. It is a struggle. It is hard work. But keep going.
Writers, we all need cheerleaders, and unfortunately they’re rarely in our own heads. You need a support system. Somebody who believes in you, but you know who’s not going to blow smoke up your ass. Can I say that in an interview? Can I say ass? [laughs]
Yes, you absolutely can. You can say whatever you’d like.
I gotta clean up my language! [laughs]
What are you working on now?
Taking a nap. That is the truth. I usually don’t talk about what I’m working on. I’m not one of these geniuses who can be on book tour and writing their next novel in the airport lounge. I need to let the fields by fallow and replenish, and then, I’ll start work in the new year.