Susan Jane Gilman is a storyteller with a lot to say—about life in our unequal and bewildering America, about refugees, about what happens to youthful ambition, about how you can live with your spouse and kids and not really know them (any more than they know you), about being a woman in our half-feminist era. And did I mention that it’s funny?
Long ago, Donna Koczynski was a free-spirited teenage punk rocker with the world’s hottest boyfriend, but somewhere along the way she morphed into a suburban dentist’s wife, mother of two annoying teenagers, and kitchen equipment saleswoman. Jolted out of her okay-but-not-really existence by a marital crisis that is both cringe-making and hilarious, she takes off to find old friends. What she discovers is a country full of people wondering how on earth they ended up where and who they are. A plot twist (one of many) takes her to a refugee camp in Greece, where that question—what will become of me?—is posed in its starkest form.
That sounds glum, but Gilman brings humor and heart and buoyancy to what is fundamentally a hopeful story about new beginnings. And don’t we all need them?
Katha Pollitt (KP): We’re talking about your new novel, Donna Has Left the Building, which came out in June. The heroine, Donna, lives outside Detroit, and she seems to be content enough calcifying in the suburb—that is, until a number of sudden events compel her to detonate her life and take off. She thinks she’s just driving off to calm her anger, but ultimately she winds up halfway around the world, knee-deep in a global crisis.
On a personal level, she is five years sober and very proud of that; she spends the entire book trying not to drink. Her family takes her emotional and domestic labor for granted. Both her teenaged children and her husband assume that she’s going to run the house, solve everybody’s problems, keep their schedules in her head. They also assume that now that she’s sober, she’s not going to make any real demands (when she was drunk she made a lot of demands). Instead, she ends up defying everyone’s expectations—including her own.
Susan Jane Gilman (SJG): Donna is in many ways an Everywoman. She’s flawed, overwhelmed, and—as she’s aging—feeling that she’s becoming more and more obsolete, even though she’s the true engine that makes her family function. Although women work outside the home all the time, we’re also responsible for the bulk of the housework. Loads of women complain, “I’m liberated, I’m working, I’m a career woman, and then I come home and I’m doing the laundry, and I’m the one who has all the mental work of thinking, ‘When is the kids’ dentist appointment?’ ‘Did somebody pick up the medicine from the vet?’ ‘We need to change the filter in the air conditioner.’” It’s women who carry this all in their heads.
KP: But in your novel Donna walks out on all this, after she discovers a secret her husband has been keeping—which we won’t talk about here. No spoilers!
SJG: My idea was to portray a woman in the throes of a midlife crisis similar to a man’s midlife crisis, where all of a sudden you feel slapped in the face by your own mortality and lost youth and failure. So you blow up your life: take a new lover, get a new car—
KP: A red one.
SJG: Well, Donna’s red car is actually a Subaru, and it’s not new. But her midlife crisis does involve a road trip, an extramarital affair, rock and roll, and behaving really badly. Usually when female characters take journeys in books, it’s to find ourselves, or to find peace, or to do yoga.
KP: Unlike the clichéd male midlife crisis, which involves trading up for a red sports car and trophy girlfriend, Donna’s midlife crisis takes her downscale.
SJG: I didn’t want to send her to the beach with a hot young lover or have a rekindled high school romance that resolves everything. Instead, I wanted to send her down the rabbit hole of America. The opioid crisis, racism, the economic underbelly of our country: Donna comes up against all of this.
When I write, I try to take classic stories and turn them inside out. There are plenty of men who take off and behave badly, and it’s glamorous and sexy and entertaining. Odysseus spends years shacked up with Calypso.
I wanted to do that with a female character, but also show that her escape is not glamorous. She starts out in Vegas, then finds herself first in New York City, then lost in Nashville and Memphis, spiraling ever downward. I wanted her to wake up—not just to herself but to a much wider world with all its beauty and injustices. I didn’t want her to “find herself” but, rather, her humanity.
KP: Donna is quite relatable in some ways, but she also makes bad decisions, something that many readers object to in their female protagonists.
SJG: Women often get upset when they read about other women behaving badly or being human or screwing up. But screwing up is human. Donna is in a rage, and it doesn’t help that she’s been dipping into her children’s Adderall and Ativan. She’s perimenopausal and feeling increasingly invisible. Even when she saves a man’s life, nobody notices.
KP: One of the themes in the novel is the quest for recognition. Recognition is what Donna doesn’t get. She doesn’t win the contest to be the best kitchen utensil salesperson; she saves this man’s life and nobody notices; her family doesn’t appreciate her. Everybody seeks recognition, but it can be harder for women, whose training is to put men and children first and to see women’s own drive to achieve (including their own drive) as a form of selfishness. Donna starts out as a performer, which is all about recognition.
SJG: But ultimately, all the things that she looked down upon in herself become the tools of her redemption.
KP: Yes. After many adventures, she ends up in Greece, on the island of Lesvos, where there’s a huge refugee crisis. Thanks to her unsung skills, Donna makes herself useful as a volunteer—more so than her social-justice warrior daughter, whose politics are mostly a way of guilt-tripping others. Not just Donna’s domestic skills but her exuberance and hyperemotionality all come together to make her a very useful person.
SJG: Yes, I wanted her quest to end with her experiencing what it means to become part of something bigger than herself.
KP: Claire Vaye Watkins wrote an essay called “On Pandering,” in which she discusses how our ideas of what a significant book should be are very much formed by books by and about men.
SJG: The irony is that women are the majority of book buyers and readers, especially of fiction. They say that even little boys will only be interested in books about little boys, whereas girls will read books about girls and about boys. Watkins points out that this masculine standard means that women worry a lot about what men will think, and often end up pandering to the ideas and values that please men, that men exalt and reward most. We dress, behave, and even craft our own stories to win men’s attention. Even if it’s unconscious, we adopt their values as our own.
The Watkins article came out in Tin House in 2015, when I was just starting to write Donna. Before that, as I wrote, I often did wonder what some of my male mentors or readers would think. I admire the work of Salman Rushdie and Richard Ford, and while writing each of my last three books, I thought sometimes: Would they like this?
This sort of thinking, though, is a fool’s errand, because I’m always labeled “funny” and “feminist,” and my voice is so clearly distinct from these male writers I admire; it’s a voice born in New York City, laced with absurdity and the humor of my own generation and experiences. It is crucial for writers to have our own unique voices, and pandering to the celebrated style of the men—or anyone I admire, really—is an act of creative masochism and sabotage.
In the past, when I gave readings, there were always a few men in the audience who would come up to me and say, “I don’t really read fiction, but my wife was reading your book. I didn’t think it was for me, but she was laughing. So I read it, and it was really good.” They’re surprised that I write about women characters that they can relate to. Until now, I’ve always worked to write books that in my mind were not “just for women.” But this time I said, “Screw it, this one’s for women.” I decided not to pander.
KP: Another form of pandering is having female characters avoid bad decisions and be perfectly likable. Yet some of the greatest books by women do not have likable women characters. Think of Jane Austen’s Emma.
SJG: She’s annoying.
KP: She’s annoying; she’s bossy; she’s superprivileged and takes full advantage of that.
SJG: And while we all love Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, she’s a little, you know, stroppy.
KP: It’s interesting, because in the book her sister Jane is the perfect woman: kind, modest, lovely, and good. Elizabeth is saucy and daring.
SJG: Everybody—except maybe some of my internet trolls—likes a bad girl. Think of Marcy Dermansky’s novel Bad Marie or Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It’s good to be bad. I don’t think we’re doing women a service by writing nice, likable, moral characters, because that’s not who we are.
The most interesting characters are the ones who refuse to sit still. Eloise of Eloise at the Plaza is my greatest hero in all of fiction: she’s running around; she’s talking back to her tutor; she’s inventive; she’s imaginative; she’s undisciplined. She doesn’t care about her looks, her underwear’s always hanging out, her hair is a mess, but she’s playing and alive.
KP: Jane Eyre is a predecessor for Eloise. We are told repeatedly that Jane is not beautiful. She’s rebellious, original, with a difficult personality. She sticks to her guns and eventually is rewarded for demanding the right to marry for love.
Jane Eyre has a much happier ending than Donna. Imagine if when Donna reunited with her former boyfriend, instead of him struggling to get by and having a very complicated life of his own, he was just a wonderful guy with plenty of money, and he was available and they still had the fantastic sex and emotional connection they’d had as teenagers. That would be a different book.
SJG: It wouldn’t be a book at all. There’s no conflict in “They lived happily ever after.” I don’t want to write about people living happily ever after, because that’s a lie. I want to see people live with hope. That’s the best I think we can do.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.