One day I was browsing the new books shelf at the library when Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress jumped out at me. Something about the pouting little girl on the cover made me take it home. I loved every second of the book and immediately went out to get Kiss My Tiara. So I was thrilled when the opportunity to review Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven came along. I nearly fell out of my seat when Susan Jane Gilman agreed to answer some questions.
In the author’s note to Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, you state that you changed details to hide the identity of certain people like your travel partner Claire. There are some people, like your family, whose identities you can’t hide. How have they reacted to your books?
Once they’ve finished filing their Class Action Lawsuit against me, they’ve been fine with my work…
Actually, for the most part, the people I’ve named in my books have been thrilled – or, at least, in the case of my mother, relieved. “You could’ve written so much worse about us,” she’s said.
My father is my absolute Number One fan. He literary refuses to pay his medical bills until his doctors and dentists all buy copies of all my books and put them in their waiting rooms. “And you’ve got three dental hygienists, Artie,” he’ll say. “So you’re going to buy copies for each of them as well, right?” He practices “book publicity through extortion.” Bless him.
Even though I’ve sometimes depicted my father in less than stellar light, he understands that I’ve done so not to embarrass him, but to illuminate the quirks, heartaches, and human problems that plague everyone. He –like the rest of my family –appreciates the intention behind my work. None of us thinks we’re so exceptional that our pathologies are in any way different from anyone else’s. If people derive comfort, amusement, or a good laugh from reading about us, fine.
As for those people beyond my family I’ve written about, I have worried from time to time that they’d be upset to see themselves depicted in print -- even with a pseudonym. Yet more often than not, they’ve only been upset that I haven’t used their real name. “Why didn’t you immortalize me?” they say. “I could’ve been famous.” I guess they see my books as a rudimentary form of Reality Television.
In the first chapter, you note that your college goal was “to write the Great American Novel.” As you kept a journal of your trip, did you think you would write a memoir?
Not at all. Amazingly, I was under the impression that my 21-year-old’s creativity and imagination would be infinitely more fascinating to readers than whatever really happened to me in Communist China.
To this point, your books have all been nonfiction. Any plans to write a work of fiction?
Absolutely. I think I’m done with reality for a little while. It’s time to retreat into fantasy. My next book will be a novel – either the Great American One– or, more likely, a mediocre attempt at one.
What book (your own or someone else’s) has had the most impact on your life?
Not to be coy, but just about everything I have ever read in my entire life (and written myself) has shaped and impacted me: either in terms of inspiring me, being a learning experience, or being a cautionary tale in terms of What Not to Do. My brain is sort of a cement mixer. Everything that gets put into it becomes part of the greater gray mass; being influenced is a dynamic, ongoing process.
Certainly, there are standouts from different times in my life – everything from “Pat the Bunny” and “Eloise” right up through Plato’s “Republic,” “Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Goodbye,” “Suite Francaise” and “The Fortress of Solitude.”
Even that despicable book “The Rules” had a major impact on me: I was so infuriated by it that I felt compelled to write my first book, “Kiss My Tiara” in response to it.
Outrage, I suppose, has often had as much of an impact on me as great literature.
What’s up next for you?
A bath. A nap. Maybe a chocolate milkshake. And then it’s getting my ass back in the chair again. Time to start writing that next book. Ah, the glamour never ends.