We welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for her first “location, locution” column of the new year, in which she talks to current authors about their methods for portraying place in their works.
My guest this month is the precocious and prolific Susan Jane Gilman. She is the author of three acclaimed nonfiction works:
- A travel memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
- A memoir of her upbringing in New York City Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and
- An advice book, Kiss My Tiara.
And now she has a novel, a work of historical fiction called The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, which came out in February of last year.
Gilman has also contributed to numerous anthologies, worked as journalist, and written for many well-known publications including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Real Simple, and Us magazine. And she claims to have opened the Susan Jane Gilman Institute for Advanced Gelato Studies here in Geneva.
Oh, did I mention she is an expat?
Though made, born, and raised in New York City, and educated at Brown University and the University of Michigan (MFA in Creative Writing), Gilman currently divides her time between Switzerland and the United States.
Perhaps she developed her wanderlust through exposure to her high school English teacher (she went to Stuyvesant), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish-American memoirist Frank McCourt. In any event, she holds him accountable for her decision to become a writer.
Now let’s find out how Gilman perceives the connection between location and locution.
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Which comes first, story or location?
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Before I sit down to write, I need a sense of narrative, of a who-what-where, but so often, story and location are intertwined. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, for example, is the true story of a disastrous backpacking trip I made through the People’s Republic of China in 1986. To separate the story from the place is simply impossible; so much of what made the trip horrific was the poverty and totalitarianism of China itself; I can’t imagine that my travel companion and I would have disintegrated in the same way at, say, the Canyon Ranch Spa or a luxury resort in the Maldives. Similarly, my novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, is a rags-to-riches-to-indictment story that begins with a child immigrating to the USA in 1913. New York City was simply the logical place to have it begin. It is not only my hometown but, of course, the great immigrant gateway to America.
First, I usually describe vivid, visual details so that readers can see a place in their mind’s eye. Then I go for are the smells. Smell is the most evocative of all the senses. It brings a place to life more potently than anything else. Add sounds, and there you are. I’m afraid I’m sounding glib in the way that I’m saying this—”use all the senses”—it sounds easy, and it sounds like a recipe. But it’s not. I really struggle and strive to conjure a place, be it a roadside restaurant, a German city, an abandoned tenement, using incisive, significant details. I’m always on “cliche alert.”
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Background noises, cooking smells, shadow and light, voices, architecture…there are no given particulars. I try to find what is most unique and evocative and go with it.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Saul Bellow wrote a whole novel set in Africa, apparently without having set foot once on the continent. I find this presumptuous. That said, I have written about places that I’ve only been in briefly, or glimpsed, or created out as a composites of other places I’ve been. But I like to have a feel for a place; I need to be able imagine it throughly, to exist in it. Often, if a character needs to be in a place that I’ve never been to, I research it as much as possible. The Internet is a godsend; I find old photographs or use Google Earth. I try to travel there in whatever way I can.
Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
I don’t have any of my books in front of me because I’m on the road, but read the very first paragraph of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and you’ll immediately find yourself on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1913. Read the first page of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and you’re on board a plane plummeting into Hong Kong; the next six pages take you right into downtown Kowloon at night, with all its lurid traffic, neon, and squalor. I’ve been told by readers that these sections have utterly transported them…
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I love the way Richard Ford conjures up the American West, John Cheever the Connecticut suburbs, Junot Díaz the Dominican community in New York City and Dominica. That said, I usually don’t admire writers so much as specific books, eg:
And, in a different way, I have always admired Anne Tyler for the way she conjures up so well these cosy, fraught, detailed middle class American households. She is stunning in her ability to make you see rooms, houses, offices—small, intimate tableaux—in such a rich way.
Locations need not be exotic or epic, just alive and relevant.
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Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Susan Jane Gilman and her writings, I encourage you to visit her author site. You can also follow her on Twitter.
JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Anthony St. Clair, author of urban fantasies whose plots are globally sourced
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Clare Flynn, a well-traveled novelist who specializes in geographical displacement
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Fran Pickering, London-based crime writer and Japanophile
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Catriona Troth, novelist – from Scotland to Canada to a long stay in the Chilterns
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Jessica Bell – Australian contemporary fiction author in Ithaca, Greece