Author Susan Jane Gillman, "Kiss My Tiara"
Who she is: Self-proclaimed feminist and author of several books including the bestselling classic, “Kiss My Tiara”
What she does: A native New Yorker, Gilman knew she was destined to be a writer by the time she was eight years old. “My best friend and I would hole up in my bedroom and write and illustrate books, one after the other,” she recalls. “Honestly, though, I hate the whole process of writing. If I didn’t have to write, I wouldn’t. But I do, so I do.”
Why she does it: “Thirty years ago, we could get fired for being pregnant. In comparison, I’d say we chicks today have it pretty easy. We’re in the best position ever to conquer the world, to flourish and prevail. We have the guts, the tools, and the vision. We have the brains and the attitude. Some of us even have the clothes. So why look backward or give in to our fears?”
WHAT WOMEN WANT — AND WHY
By Hope Katz Gibbs
When asked what women want, author Susan Jane Gilman says with her typical wry sense of humor, “Two things. One: some smart, no-nonsense advice about how to navigate the world, and two: to laugh. Ideally, we want both these things at the same time.”
That truism was part of the introduction to Susan’s 2002 paperback hit, “Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smart Mouth Goddess, (Time Warner, $12.95).
Since then, she has gone on to write to other books: “Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless,” in 2005, and “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven,” in 2010.
The madness is in the message
“Face it,” she continues, “today’s world is full of contradictory messages and expectations for women. Why else would platform sneakers have been such a hit with us?”
And so goes the book, acclaimed by fans and reviewers as, “a hip and irreverent guide to power and attitude.” Indeed, with topics ranging from “PMS is a Power Tool,” to “Every Idiot We Date is One Less Idiot we Risk Marrying,” Gilman serves up a hearty helping of advice for contemporary women that is likely to inspire many—and infuriate a few.
“I have had a lot of powerful reactions to the book,” Gilman explains over lunch at a busy downtown D.C. deli. “I have been told I’ve offended a few people.”
For the most part, though, women love it. Many have sent letters of appreciation or sought Gilman out after her standing-room-only book signings to report “Kiss My Tiara” has touched them, changed their lives even. Many, in fact, have bought the book in bulk.
“When I was on tour promoting the first book, there were several women who brought up two to eight copies for me to sign,” Gilman recalls. “They said they picked it up in the bookstore for themselves, then felt compelled to buy copies for their friends, their sisters, their mothers. Men also seemed to respond very well to it, and several have come up to me to say they want all the women in their lives to read it. It has been a thrill.”
On writing, lipstick, and more
Interestingly, Gilman says that when she sat down to write the book, she never thought it would become a counter-culture hit. She figured it would tickle her family and three best friends, folks who share her particular point of view. With 93,000 copies in print so far, “Kiss My Tiara,” is in its seventh printing—and has found a much broader audience.
“Susan Gilman is absolutely hilarious,” offers Tracey Freel of Seattle, WA, on the amazon.com website, where readers can critique a book. “Her crazy analogies and metaphors absolutely hit the nail on the head. While careful not to stereotype, Gilman has us all pegged and gives us awake-up call. There is truly a lesson to be learned in this book for every woman, even those of us who thought we were goddesses before buying our copy.”
Amy Einhorn, editorial director of trade paperbacks at Warner Books in New York, had a feeling that “Kiss My Tiara” would hit a nerve with many young women when she read Gilman’s book proposal.
“Susie calls herself a feminist who wears lipstick, something typical of many women in America today,” notes Einhorn. “[She] makes insightful liberal arguments in a very entertaining and funny way. She is smart and articulate, but not strident. People read her book and come away saying, ‘I want to be friends with her.’ I really think that is the secret to the book’s success.”
The woman behind the tiara
A native New Yorker, Gilman knew she was destined to be a writer by the time she was eight years old. “My best friend and I would hole up in my bedroom and write and illustrate books, one after the other,” she recalls. “Honestly, though, I hate the whole process of writing. If I didn’t have to write, I wouldn’t. But I do, so I do.”
Nonetheless, Gilman is prolific. To pay the bills, she works as a staff writer at a trade organization in D.C. In her spare time, she writes articles that have been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Ms., US, The Village Voice, The New York Observer, Lilith and Washington City Paper, among others.
More of her nonfiction work has appeared in the anthologies Adios, Barbie Body Outlaws: Young Women Write About Body image and Identity, and Sex & Single Girls.
Gilman has also tried her hand a fiction and has had stories published in Story, Ploughshares, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Greensboro Review, which awarded her its 1997 Literary Award. Her nonfiction work has won additional accolades.
While working toward an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, she received three Avery Hopwood Awards for fiction and nonfiction.
Gilman’s grandmother, Elizabeth Gilman, to whom Kiss My Tiara is dedicated, would no doubt be proud of her progeny’s accomplishments. But then, it is Grandma’s influence that Gilman credits with helping shape her wise and impudent outlook on the world.
“My grandma never said, ‘Let him take the lead,”’ Gilman writes in the book. “My grandma said, ‘Have another piece of cake and wash it down with a gin and tonic.”’
Despite her sassy ideas, Gilman explains that her grandmother was an unlikely candidate to be so brash. Born in Poland during the pogroms, she fled with her family to New York City in the 1920s. “It was a tremendously anti-Semitic, sexist time,” Gilman explains. “A time when Jewish women, especially, weren’t given much respect. “ To make matters even more difficult, Gilman adds, her grandmother was born with a clubfoot.
“But my grandmother was fierce. She went to college, something unheard of in those days, and she even traveled back to Poland in 1933 by herself, because she wanted to see where she had come from.”
When she got back to the U.S., Elizabeth met Gilman’s grandfather, and in the next decade, they had three sons.
“Grandma was truly amazing,” says Gilman. “Although she didn’t come out and tell me what to think, she spoke her mind and taught by example.”
Susan’s parents and her husband, scientist Bob Stefanski, have also been big influences.
“My mom is so creative, intelligent, and truly the smartest person I know,” she says. “And my dad, a lawyer (but not the bloodsucking kind), was always supportive and funny.”
It was the desire to offer the world a good laugh that made Gilman sit down to write Kiss My Tiara. Why does she think it has caught on with so many people?
“I think I say in the book exactly the things that most people are thinking—only they have the good sense to keep their mouths shut,” Gilman offers. “Essentially, I have put down on paper what many people already feel and believe.”
The future is looking bright
Gilman is optimistic, though, about herself and the future of women in general.
“Five hundred years ago, most women were peasants or slaves,” she writes in the final paragraphs of the 203-page book. “Forty years ago, women could be discriminated against in the workforce and raped by their husbands without recourse…
“Thirty years ago, we could get fired for being pregnant. In comparison, I’d say we chicks today have it pretty easy. We’re in the best position ever to conquer the world, to flourish and prevail. We have the guts, the tools, and the vision. We have the brains and the attitude. Some of us even have the clothes. So why look backward or give in to our fears?”