Susan Jane Gilman set "Donna Has Left the Building" partly in Michigan "as a valentine to being here"
Being a culinary ambassador for cookware. Acting as a dominatrix. Facing search and seizure laws in Tennessee. Helping the refugee crisis in Greece.
These are all things that author Susan Jane Gilman had to have known or learned about to include in her new novel, Donna Has Left the Building, said fellow author Polly Rosenwaike in conversation with her at Literati Bookstore on Thursday, June 6. There, Gilman shared stories from her life and research that led to writing about these situations in her book. Within these experiences, Gilman’s characters may be flawed and behave badly, but they also display tenderness and sympathy, added Rosenwaike.
As a writer, “You want to have empathy for all characters,” Gilman said. “I’m all of them.”
This novel has strong ties to Michigan. Gilman wrote Donna Has Left the Building “as a valentine to being here” in southeastern Michigan at the University of Michigan for her MFA and then teaching at U-M and Eastern Michigan University. Gilman, who grew up in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, found the Midwest to be a big contrast to the way she observed that people seemed to be constantly performing in New York.
“When I came to the Midwest, people here are quieter and deeper,” she said.
After Gilman read the first few pages of her book at Literati, Rosenwaike asked questions about Gilman’s writing process and the plot of Donna Has Left the Building, which Rosenwaike described as “smart, moving, and utterly absorbing.” In it, protagonist Donna Koczynski abruptly and unexpectedly -- both to herself and others -- leaves her home in Troy, Michigan after a disappointment in her job and discovery about her husband. She sets out on a journey that includes New York, Tennessee, and Greece.
Dialogue is plentiful in the novel, Rosenwaike noted, and she described the conversations as “punchy, never boring, and over the top” in a realistic way. Gilman said that when she was writing Donna Has Left the Building, she aimed to make the dialogue convincing. This meant writing a lot of conversations and taking out what did not sound believable.
“I write a lot that I don’t use,” said Gilman.
People can be quite indirect, she added. They talk with each other, not to each other.
Another characteristic of Gilman’s dialogue is the humor. She conveys both the hilarity and emotion of the situations in which Donna finds herself.
However, Gilman said, “I don’t mean to be funny. I see the world as absurd.”
It took Gilman a year and a half to write the first 100 pages of Donna Has Left the Building, and then, having gotten a book contract, she wrote the rest of the 398-page novel in a quick 10 months.
After her visit to Ann Arbor, Gilman answered some questions from Pulp about her time in Michigan, her novel, and her writing.
Q: Describe your time in Michigan. What did you love about it?
A: I grew up in New York City, which is one of the world’s most fabulous lunatic asylums. All you have to do is walk down the street -- and boom! You have ready-made characters: A guy in a tinfoil hat and a singlet made out of old socialist newspapers, standing in the middle of an intersection shouting, “Who’s your Daddy? Who’s your Daddy?” Or a woman with her Pekinese tucked into a handbag, walking into a nail salon and announcing that her dog needs a pedicure because “Ruffles is very stressed. It’s her birthday, you know, and she’s a Taurus.” The city is performative and hyperbolic. By just describing things as a writer, you can entertain without really writing.
In Michigan, life is quieter, less neurotic, more focused on the loam of actual, daily living, which is crucial. To write well, you have to clear away all the glitter and bombast and really observe and feel and watch people picking up their kids from school, eating lunch alone in their cars, attending church, worrying about a plant closure or a sick mother-in-law, tending their gardens, setting up barbeques with their neighbors. People reveal their real moods, hopes, and fears slowly. Living in Michigan, I could actually see and focus and listen -- and I could sit and just think. It deepened my perception and patience. I learned to plumb the depths of characters. It made me, I believe, more human.
Q: You also wrote for The Ann Arbor News and Ann Arbor Observer. What did you cover? What did you learn?
A: For the Ann Arbor News, I was assigned everything from profiles of local business owners to such glamorous and ground-breaking stories as “The Gypsy Moths Are Coming!” and “Local Construction Companies Experiment With Steel Framing.” I did a couple of longer pieces for the Ann Arbor Observer about psychics, tattoo artists, and dry cleaners -- which were easier to sink my teeth into. But I loved every assignment, in the end, because if I was given a topic like “steel framing,” it compelled me to figure out a way to make it interesting to readers. How do you tell a story like that? If I was assigned something with more intrigue and ready-made appeal, like psychics, I still needed to go beyond the obvious. After all, “Psychics: Wow! Freaky!” is not, in and of itself, a story. So with everything, I learned how to approach topics from different angles, figure out whatever was gripping and fresh about them, and then write on deadline.
Q: You went on to write for the Washington City Paper, among other publications. What compels you about reporting? What do you think about when putting together articles?
A: Reporting forces you, as a writer, to deal with the immediate world in front of you instead of the one you’re inventing and filigreeing in your head as a fiction writer. I was less lonely as a reporter than I am now as an author and novelist. I loved the way journalism catapulted me out into the wider world, interacting with all sorts of different people and communities. I’m extremely curious, so having constant exposure to new and unknown topics was a joy. Plus, journalism is superb training for not making the Perfect the enemy of the Good. You have to get the facts 100% right, but you cannot spend 15 days obsessing over whether to use the word “lambent” instead of “luminous.” Just write the damn story!
Q: Turning to your fiction writing, you strike a balance between the humor and the emotion of Donna’s experiences in Donna Has Left the Building. For example, Donna finds her husband, Joey, in a compromising position that is both funny in the situational humor and personally challenging for both of them. She also gets to reconnect with a former love. How do you balance the hilarity and the raw feelings of your characters and plot when writing?
A: Oddly, I rarely ever set out to be “hilarious.” I never even think of myself as a funny writer, but almost everything I write has been described as “laugh out loud.” My antenna is just acutely tuned to the absurdities of the world, I suppose, and I have this innate impulse to balance humor and pain. Whenever I’m writing about something that’s deep, painful, or tragic, I also somehow glimpse a shard of something funny within it -- and whenever I’m writing about something silly, ridiculous, or lighthearted, I become increasingly aware of the pain or desperation lurking below. It’s almost impossible for me to write about one reality without the other.
Q: Your life has included a range of experiences, too, and now you live in Switzerland. How do you relate to Donna and her midlife adventure?
A: Well, I’m in the middle of my life -- with all the wonderful hormonal redux that that entails -- an eye roll, please. So Donna was born very much from my own experience of going through “puberty in reverse.” Like Donna, I, too, assumed that I would be exempt from aging. No joke. I’m astounded to find that my badass, strutting New Yorker self is now weeping over puppies on YouTube and experiencing waves of extreme horniness and temperature. And whenever I realize that an album I listened to obsessively at U-M -- like U2’s Achtung Baby -- came out almost 30 years ago, I am absolutely dumbstruck. How is that even possible? Last time I checked, I thought was 24!
However, I also wanted Donna’s midlife adventure to lead her to discover more than herself. So many books about women “on a journey” culminate in a hot new love and/or self-knowledge. I wanted her to wake up to the bigger world -- to global realities, in fact.
Since I’ve traveled a lot and been a journalist, I’ve always tried to broaden my perspectives. Living in Geneva, Switzerland right now has certainly accelerated this. It’s home to the UN, UNICEF, the Red Cross -- a whole host of humanitarian agencies and international charities. I like to joke that people come to Geneva to either own the world -- through banking -- or to save it -- through these agencies. In Switzerland, I’m surrounded by people from over a hundred nations trying to do things like reduce malaria, ameliorate drought, vaccinate children. So if I send a fictional character on an odyssey, I want her to be enlightened by more than a yoga mat or the scenic Mediterranean or some Fabio on a motorcycle. Those are fine for starters, but ultimately, I want her to grasp more, please. There’s even more love and beauty to be had.
Q: You have a clear vision for Donna. How has your writing evolved since getting your MFA? Has moving to Europe changed your writing?
A: Until I studied in Ann Arbor, I’d thought writing simply meant you told a story using beautiful, poetic language. But once I started the MFA program at U-M, I quickly learned that there’s a craft to writing with skills to master: plot, perspective, voice, character transformation, showing and not telling, etc. To learn these, I tried emulating the contemporary writers of the time whose short fiction I loved: Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolf, Ellen Gilchrist, Rosellen Brown, John Cheever.
Since then, however, I’ve developed my own writer’s voice, which was once described as a “literary, big-hearted, and smart-assed.” I’ve learned to embrace this and write from my own perspective and experience, to put my own “stamp” on things. I’ve also moved away from short stories and written two creative nonfiction memoirs and two novels. My writing is less precise now, but bigger in scope.
Moving to Europe hasn’t changed my writing, except that it’s easier to write someplace like Geneva, which is moribund and francophone, and therefore less distracting. If I have to sit in a chair for three years staring at nothing but my computer screen, so what?
I have never been able to write a book in New York City. There’s too much going on. It’s like trying to write with someone’s hands down your pants.
Q: Geneva sounds like a better writing environment! Could you also talk about your involvement with the refugee crisis in Europe and how it connects with Donna Has Left the Building?
A: In 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis really hit Europe, it was in the news 24/7. The images of families begging for food at the borders and children drowning at sea were heartbreaking -- it was right on our doorstep -- and so many of us “regular folk” wanted to do something. It felt similar to Hurricane Katrina here in 2005: we saw families stranded and no one coming to their aid at all. As a white American, I’m also acutely aware that my own ancestors were once immigrants and refugees. So I felt particularly compelled to do something: I’m certainly indebted to the world for the kindnesses it once showed my own. In 2016, I began volunteering at a refugee camp in Athens, Greece. I had already started writing Donna Has Left the Building; unsurprisingly, my own experiences colored hers in the book, though where she ends up -- and what she ends up doing -- are different.
When people back home heard that I was volunteering in a refugee camp, they started messaging me that I was a “saint” and telling me how impressed they were. I hated this: it simply wasn’t true. There’s this myth that it takes a special kind of person to do this type of volunteering, but trust me: it doesn’t. Any idiot can sit on the floor of a shipping container and sort and fold donated t-shirts into piles according to size. Anybody can stand in the window of a “food distribution” center and hand out pre-made meals. There’s this myth that volunteers are saviors and that refugees are either a) great unwashed masses coming to take over our way of life or b) terrorists. None of these are true. I’ve been to the camp regularly since 2016, and we’re all just schmucky people. We all whine, laugh, worry, get on each other’s nerves. We’re all anxious and wanting for our children to thrive and to maybe have fun ourselves from time to time.
Donna, and all the people around her, are just human in the end, too. It sounds obvious, but this is such an important takeaway.
Q: I certainly took that away from the book. What about other books? You state on your website, “[M]y main love has always been literary fiction.” What books do you love? What recommendations do you have?
A: Instead of listing the books that I’ve loved for years, let me give shout-outs to those I’ve read in the past four months and am newly excited about: Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk; Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie; Marlon James’ The Book of the Night Women; Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead; Rachel Cusk’s Transit; and Amy Bloom’s White Houses. Since meeting writer Polly Rosenwaike, I’ve started Look How Happy I’m Making You and am loving that, too.
Q: It sounds like writing Donna Has Left the Building was a whirlwind experience once you had your contract. Now you are on tour with it. It might be too early to ask, but do you have another novel in mind or something else?
A: Right now, the only thing I have on my mind for after my tour is a nap!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.