On Memoirs, First Novels, and Anthropomorphic Rabbits by Susan Jane Gilman
I first announced I was going to be a novelist when I was nine. I’d been home from school for weeks with pneumonia, reading all the great literature: Nancy Drew, Little House on the Prairie, and Judy Blume’s seminal Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. These books enraptured me, except for one thing: I had not written them. As soon as I was well, I bought several small spiral notebooks at Woolworth’s. My first opus? A novel called Bunny House, whose twin protagonists, Bonnie and Bobby Fluffyears, try to finagle their mother into buying them chocolate-covered carrot sticks. I even created my own publishing imprint: “Susan Starmade Books.”
My literary ambitions endeared me to my parents and fourth grade teacher, but not to anyone else. What kind of a nine-year-old uses the words “novelist” and “imprint”? Everybody hates a prodigy.
Luckily, I turned out not to be one.
Although I have an MFA in fiction writing, my first novel is only just now being published. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street debuts June 10, 2014.
I am happy to report that it has nothing to do with anthropomorphized rabbits.
To be fair, I have published three successful books already. But they’re nonfiction. Kiss My Tiara, is a smart-mouthed guide to power and attitude. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, is humorous accounts of growing up in 1970’s New York. Undress in Me in the Temple of Heaven is the true story of how I backpacked through Communist China and almost didn’t make it out of the country.
I am immensely proud of these books. But they are not what I ever intended to write. I sort of stumbled into them — conceiving of them in reaction to things in the world that were driving me crazy.
Making the transition between nonfiction and fiction, I am happy to report, has been glorious and satisfying. But above all else, it has taught me this:
While writing nonfiction is a bitch, writing a novel is even fucking worse.
Of course, I’ve always known writing is difficult (though who are we kidding? Easier to be a writer than a factory worker, toll booth attendant, coal miner, etc…) Still, a huge pet peeve of mine is when people say cavalierly, “You know, I was thinking of taking a few months off and writing a book myself.”
Most of us who have ever written seriously know: You do not sit down at a computer, get hit with a bolt of inspiration, and have a book pour out of you like liquid gold. Instead, usually, you chew your cuticles and stare bleakly at a half-finished paragraph while trying desperately not to go on Facebook. Writing is arduous, lonely, and insecure. Most of all, it’s re-writing.
Yet with my memoirs, the challenge was simply twofold. First, I had to stick to the truth. This seems like “du-uh” — but many writers don’t heed it. To me, it’s a fundamental ethic: If You Are Going to Recount What Really Happened to The Best of Your Recollection, Don’t Make Shit Up.
The second challenge was figuring out how to tell the story. I struggled mightily deciding what was essential to include, then obsessed over scenes, word choices, pacing, the balance between pathos and humor, making the characters come alive — all the same things that I obsess over when I write fiction.
Yet with nonfiction, of course, you already know how the story will play out. With fiction, you’re flying blind.
Sitting down to write The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, I knew it was going to be the tale of a poor immigrant child who is crippled and abandoned on the streets of New York — only to become “The Ice Cream Queen of America.” I also knew I wanted her to be this terrific anti-hero — a motherly, celebrated ice cream lady in public, who in private hates children and prefers Bourbon to ice cream. But that was it. Everything else — the entire 70-year arc of her spectacular rise and fall — I had yet to invent. The voice, the plot, the micro-conflicts, the characters, the scenes, the details.
Sometimes, I wrote sixty pages before realizing they were drivel. Other times, I saw four different ways a scene could play out; I drove myself crazy writing out each one. I made endless decisions: Should Spreckles the Clown be a drunk, too? What was a better adjective: “demented” or “idiotic”? By the time my husband asked me what I wanted for dinner each night — mushroom or spinach ravioli — I was apoplectic: I don’t know! I don’t know the difference anymore! Which one improves my plot?
It’s good I never knew how hard writing a novel was until I actually did it — otherwise, my nine-year-old self might never have had the delusional confidence to buy those little notebooks.
When ideas are flowing, and you’re making a whole other world come alive, painting and sculpting with words, fiction writing — it is rapturous. Penning my nonfiction books, I’d missed this gorgeous, particular ecstasy of literary fiction.
All that wholesale imagining: It is like a chocolate-covered carrot stick.
Masochist that I am, I’ll continue.
Susan Jane Gilman, a native New York writer known for combining sharp wit with lyrical pathos, is the bestselling author of three nonfiction books: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara. Her first novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street debuts on June 10, 2014. Its story — of a crippled young immigrant’s struggle to become a titan in the American ice cream industry over the course of the 20th century — required extensive research into both history and ice cream. This included a stint working at a Carvel ice Cream store on Long Island. (“How I suffered for my art,” Gilman says wryly).
Susan has written for the New York Times, the L.A. Times, Real Simple, and Ms. magazine among others, been a contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and won literary awards for her journalism and short fiction.
Although she currently resides primarily in Switzerland with her husband, the Amazing Bob, her heart and her feet are never far from her homeland.
Learn more and order your copy of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street here.
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