Made, born, and raised in New York City, Susan received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Before that, she attended Brown University and Stuyvesant High School, where her English teacher, Frank McCourt, became her mentor and is largely to blame for her becoming a writer. She currently divides her time between Geneva and NYC. In addition to being the author of three nonfiction books, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara, and her 2014 novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, she has contributed to numerous anthologies, worked as journalist, and written for New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms., The Daily Beast, Real Simple, Washington City Paper, Us magazine, and others.
JJ Marsh asks Susan about the implications of plundering your own life in the name of humour and fiction.
You fell into writing humorous non-fiction while trying to do something else, right?
It has always been my intention to be a novelist and fiction writer—I earned an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at the University of Michigan—and literature has always been my first love. But things in American culture kept pissing me off so much that I felt compelled to respond with books.
My first book, Kiss My Tiara, is essentially a guide to power and attitude for women. It’s funny, in-your-face, practical advice that I was craving myself. I wrote it in response to this hideous dating guide which instructed women to catch a husband by subverting our personalities and playing games—for the rest of our lives. Egad! Where was a good guide to catching a life, I wondered, not just a man?
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, a series of true tales about ‘growing up groovy and clueless’, was a reaction to ‘misery memoirs’ and a spate of books in which single women are shown largely obsessed with only dating, shopping, and shoes. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven was my alternative true travel story, in which I did not go to a foreign country to recover from a heartbreak, but in which I was humbled and nearly incarcerated in China.
Someone once said that all humor is a complaint. Well, if so, it seems I’ve finally gotten enough off my chest in order to write fiction. That said, although The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is an epic historical novel covering most of the 20th century—with a complicated female anti-hero—rumor has it that it’s also funny. What can you do?
When starting to use your own life and the people in it as material, were you concerned about how family and friends might react? Have you had any extreme reactions at either end of the spectrum?
Not really. I just had to assume that if I wrote the truth in a compassionate way—with an eye to illuminating larger, universal truths and NOT humiliating or indicting anyone or being self-aggrandizing—my family and friends would be wise enough and generous enough to get what I was doing and be cool with it. And largely, they were. A few people were actually annoyed that I used pseudonyms for them, in fact. They’d wanted to be immortalized!
if you’re too worried about exposing or hurting people in your work, than maybe you shouldn’t be writing a particular story …
Only one person, my friend and former colleague, whom I wrote about in Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, was a little hurt—and this just about killed me. I’d thought I was writing about him with great affection—and slowly revealing through the chapter how shallow, immature, and judgmental I was in my regard for him. I’d meant it to be a homage of sorts to his patience and decency. But some of his colleagues saw the picture I painted of him in the opening, which I’d meant as an indictment of myself, as cruel. That’s probably the only thing I’ve written which I now second-guess; perhaps I didn’t make it clear enough that my initial impression of him was a parody, an exaggeration, and meant to be read clearly as the perception of a dismissive and callow 23-year-old. My colleague himself did realize that he is actually the hero and the wise man of the chapter—and we are still great friends—but I do think it stung him at first, and for that I feel terrible.
Both humor and truth can be tricky things, but I try not to shy away from either. My general sense is that if you’re too worried about exposing or hurting people in your work, than maybe you shouldn’t be writing a particular story. And I don’t say this arrogantly or dismissively—but earnestly. It’s important to appreciate the power of the pen. And if a story is really going to do serious damage, either you are too close to it to tell it in a constructive, insightful way, or more time needs to pass before you share it. But if you write a true story and mitigate it so much so as not to offend, don’t bother. You’ll leach it of all its power and waste your material.
Handling a true story must have been still more complex with Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Not only protecting real people’s identities, but being brave enough to portray yourself in a less than flattering light.
Frankly, I have no desire to misrepresent myself in order to look better than I am. That is not interesting to me. When I went to China, I was astonishingly naive. I behaved badly, and bad things happened to me. What purpose would be served by pretending otherwise? Why write a book in which I am a false hero? How could that possibly benefit anyone? I wasn’t being brave, I was being truthful, which is so essential in writing a memoir. Yes, you will invariably mis-remember certain details and episodes. But there’s a difference between small inconsistencies and making shit up.
I am not courageous. Rather, I accept that I am fairly average; my weaknesses and shortcomings, I assume, are probably somewhat universal. And so I trust that by ‘baring my soul’, I am actually simply admitting to what most people think and feel anyway. And if not, so what? People are usually far more compelled and comforted to discover that someone else is an even greater fuck-up than they are. They actually like you better for not looking good or behaving nobly. They may criticize you or act shocked or judgmental, but who are they kidding? No one enjoys a book about the virtuous.
It’s one thing to strip yourself in public; it’s quite another to undress someone else.
What did concern me with Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, however, was protecting other people’s identities. It’s one thing to strip yourself in public; it’s quite another to undress someone else. And so I went to great lengths to protect them without compromising the truth of what happened. The only people I named by name were those whom I managed to contact beforehand and obtain their explicit permission.
Writers are humanity’s magpies, grabbing sparkly snatches of dialogue, pocketing plot twists or hoarding extraordinary characters. Are you the kind of ‘carry-a-notebook-and-get-it-on-paper’ kind of observer or is your absorption more on a subconscious level?
A little of both. Sometimes, I grab a napkin—or my cell phone—and record sudden notes. Otherwise, I just try to absorb.
With your first novel, you span an extraordinary breadth: the flight of a family of Russian Jews, New York in 1913, the ice-cream trade, the political and economic history of the US—did you enjoy the research process?
Oh, I’m a schoolgirl at heart. I love homework, research. Reading, going through archives, exploring all sorts of pop culture trivia on the internet, digging up historical photos—I loved every minute of this process. And doing research for The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street was the best, because I not only had to recreate whole, delicious periods of American history—from the Lower East Side in NYC at the turn of the last century—to the factories or World War Two—to the candy-colored 1950s and ’60s—but I had to research the evolution of ice cream making as well. This required me to work at a Carvel ice cream store for a couple of days and take a ‘master class’ at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Italy—plus eat a lot of ice cream. Really, it could not have been better.
You said you intended your main character, Lillian Dunkle, to be morally dubious and mentioned Leona Helmsley and Scarlett O’Hara as two of the inspirations. But where does Lillian get her distinctive voice?
It came to me in a flash. I simply conjured her, heard her in my head. There was a little bit of my grandmother in her—but she was different, distinct, possibly an amalgam of all the older Jewish and Italian women I hear talking in New York all the time. Her voice was the easiest part of the whole book to write.
I can see New York as a fertile soil in which to plant ideas. As you divide your time between New York and Geneva, could you image using Switzerland as a backdrop?
Not at the moment. It seems too impossibly beautiful, austere, and antiseptic. It would be like setting a novel in a country club. But then again, I could end up eating my words. After all, there are all the Swiss chocolate factories to contend with … and there’s nothing like a pristine setting to really highlight some sort of great depravity …