Spanning the 20th century, Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is a rags-to-riches story about Lillian Dunkle, an indomitable Russian Jewish immigrant who builds an empire and becomes America's “Ice Cream Queen.” The story is narrated by Lillian, whose sharp wit and acerbic sense of humor are a stark contrast to her public image as kindly grandmother. Her personality is the heart of this character-driven story about the pursuit of the American dream.
Gilman recently answered some questions about her novel for Between the Covers readers. Grab a double scoop of your favorite ice cream, and read on to get to know Gilman and what inspired this fascinating new novel.
The ice cream business is an unusual starting point for a novel. What was it about that industry that caught your attention?
First of all, I love ice cream. And if you’re going to write a book, it better be about a topic that can sustain your passion and interest for years.
I initially got the idea for The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street when a friend and I were reminiscing about a local ice cream chain called Carvel. The owner, Tom Carvel, did his own tv commercials, in which he would rasp, “Please, buy my Carvel ice cream?” They were so hokey and homespun, they were sort of fabulous.
Googling “Tom Carvel” on a whim, I learned that he was a Greek immigrant, Tom Carvelas, who arrived in America penniless, only to build an enormous empire of ice cream franchises. Then I discovered that the Mattuses, the founders of Haagen-Daz, were two first-generation Jews who came from the tenements in the Bronx. These ice cream makers’ stories were classic American-immigrant-rags-to-riches sagas. This struck me as a wonderful basis for a novel.
You did an enormous amount of research while working on this novel. Did it included any taste-testing? (We hope so!) What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
By all means, I did taste-testing! As the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies, why, it was imperative! I even contacted my inspiration – the Carvel Ice Cream Company itself – and arranged to work at a Carvel ice cream franchise out in Massapequa, Long Island. For two days, the owner let me go behind the scenes, learn the ropes and work as an ice cream maker serving customers. I loved every minute of it – except the owner was no dummy. He wouldn’t let me near that soft ice cream machine unsupervised. He must have known that, given the chance, I’d place my head directly beneath the server and just let the ice cream pour directly into my mouth.
There is also the Carpigiani Gelato University located just outside of Italy. I live about five hours away, in Geneva, Switzerland, so of course I had to go there as well, tour its Gelato Museum and take a Gelato Masterclass. I learned the science and mathematics behind gelato-making, made my own batch of gelato, and then of course, tasted my own concoction. I was in such heaven, I thought the top of my head would explode.
As for my favorite flavor, if there’s no decent mint-chip to be had, I am always happy with chocolate.
Lillian is a force to be reckoned with in the novel, and she has a very distinct voice from the first page. Did you have any real life inspiration for this formidable character?
I have to say, Lillian’s voice came to me in the proverbial flash. As I sat down to write the beginning, I heard her speaking, and that was it – I just had her. There are parts of her way of speaking that are reminiscent of my paternal grandmother — particularly her word choices — but the voice was unique to me. I felt as if I channeled it. In terms of her overall character, there’s a dash of Scarlett O’Hara and Leona Helmsley, I suppose, but really, I saw her as far more than simply mean and imperious, or a caricature talking ethnic schtick, or a punchline. I wanted her to be phenomenally complex and contradictory and compelling — the way all of us really are.
This is your first novel. What made you want to take on this new challenge? How did the process differ from writing nonfiction?
Ever since I was 8 years old, when I fell in love with reading and started to write my own short stories in little notebooks, I dreamed of writing a novel. I always assumed that one day, I’d become the author of some sort of wonderful, fictional opus. Yet as I grew up, I kept getting sidetracked. Although I got an MFA in Creative Writing and published short stories and even won literary prizes, things in our culture kept pissing me off so much that I felt compelled to respond with books. Kiss My Tiara was in reaction to a dating guide that urged women to trick men into marrying them. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress was conceived as a smart, funny counter-point to women’s memoirs that focused on either miserable childhoods, or being single and going shopping. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, the true story of a disastrous trip to China, was an antidote to several popular books in which women got over divorces by going to ashrams or renovating villas in Tuscany. I suppose I had to get three nonfiction books off my chest before I could finally get around to writing that novel.
I never expected to be a nonfiction author at all. It was an accident! The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street may seem like a new direction, but it doesn’t feel like one to me at all. Finally, I’ve returned to my first love, to what I intended to do all along.
What is the best book you have read recently?
Let me give you three completely different ones: I loved Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son; it was epic, disturbing, rich and unlike anything I’ve ever read, particularly given its setting. On a recent vacation, I read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette; the first half made me laugh out loud from its smart, wicked wit. I was also profoundly moved by The Bosnia List, a new memoir co-written by Kenan Trebincevic and my friend Susan Shapiro. The story blew me away, and really enhanced my understanding of the Balkan conflict in an intimate way. I want everything when I read: humor, pain, transcendence, pleasure, education, enlightenment. Always, I want them to be intelligent. But I can never pick one favorite.