Author Talk: April 3, 2009
April 3, 2009
In this interview, Ilana Stanger-Ross, author of SIMA'S UNDERGARMENTS FOR WOMEN, traces her debut novel's roots as a short story written in graduate school and recalls memories of a neighborhood shop from her childhood that inspired the book's titular setting. She also touches on the story's themes --- such as the complexities of friendship, marital relationships and desire --- shares her hesitation to categorize literary fiction into niche markets, and reveals what she hopes her readers will gain from reading the book.
Question: Where did the idea for Sima and her basement undergarment shop come from?
Ilana Stanger-Ross: I’ll confess: it was my mother’s idea. She grew up in Boro Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Sima’s shop is located, and has remained loyal to it. When I was a child, we’d go to Boro Park whenever I needed new clothes, so I grew up thinking that everyone shopped in clothing stores where the owner squeezed your cheeks and gossiped with your mother while deftly navigating narrow passages between rows of discount clothes.
When it came time to buy my first bra I imagined shopping at some anonymous, well-lit department store, but, alas, back to my mother’s own childhood we went. She took me to Miss Pauline’s, an old-fashioned shop wedged into a tiny space on Coney Island Avenue, where I was promptly felt-up by Miss Pauline herself, a zaftig woman undeterred by pre-pubescent squeamishness.
In high school I ditched Miss Pauline for Victoria’s Secret, but in my twenties I returned, usually with my mother in tow. A bra-fitting makes a huge difference, so I became, if not a regular, at least an occasional but devoted visitor to Miss Pauline’s shop. Just around the time I began my MA in Fiction at Temple University, I returned to the store only to find it was closing. Miss Pauline was retiring, and there was no one to replace her. My mother suggested I write about her shop, and the idea intrigued me. In a one-on-one seminar with Dr. Alan Singer at Temple I began to write a short story set in a bra-shop. After a few drafts he asked, “Why isn’t this a novel?” I told him it had to be a short story, because I was too terrified to embark on a novel. He didn’t buy that excuse, and it began from there.
Q: Do you think this book is only for women readers?
ISR: I imagine it’ll appeal to women more, in part because it’s such a woman-centered novel, and then again because women read more fiction than men. It’s also an interesting time to be debuting as a female author…chick-lit has emerged as a bestseller category, and there’s definitely the temptation to promote SIMA as chick-lit because of the bra-shop setting. But chick-lit is a limiting, and perhaps degrading category. Fiction centered on women’s lives can be both entertaining and profound, and I hope that SIMA'S UNDERGARMENTS FOR WOMEN reaches a wider audience than that category implies. Also, I hate to see literary fiction cordoned off into niche markets: women’s fiction, Jewish fiction, African-American fiction --- books often gain power by breaking-down boundaries and by opening readers to worlds that they don’t already know.
All of which is to say: I do envision women as my primary buyers, but hopefully at least some of those women will lend the novel to their husbands, sons, or friends, the way we always press fiction we love into the hands of people we love.
Q: What would you say is the central theme of your novel?
ISR: That’s a tough one. I began this novel thinking about desire, and Sima’s desire for Timna is still at the heart of it for me. Sima does desire Timna physically, though she’d never openly acknowledge that, but she also desires her as a surrogate daughter, and she also wishes she could be her. It’s a complex and messy desire, one that is, to me, true to life. Lev and Sima’s story also drives the novel, and there I was drawn to the way in which couples can remain isolated from one another even while engaged in daily acts of incredible intimacy. And then: women’s friendship, infertility, Brooklyn-basement-shops…get me started and I won’t be able to stop.
Q: Clients enter Sima’s shop with a wide variety of expectations, concerns, and needs, arriving to fit themselves for a first bra, for their weddings, to conceal an unwanted pregnancy, and to maintain their figures as they age. Was it important for you to include a lifetime of female experiences?
ISR: It wasn’t so much that it was important for me as it would be important to Sima. That’s what a good neighborhood store does --- it becomes a touchstone in our lives. Where I live now, I’m one block from a mall. I shop there constantly, but no one knows me. Before moving here I lived in a Portuguese & Italian neighborhood in Toronto. I was pregnant there, and then I had a newborn daughter, and that transition was celebrated by the local shops --- the bakery, the green grocer, the fishmonger; they knew my name, they knew my daughter’s name, and they were genuinely excited for us. I wanted to convey that sense of neighborhood. And, while we don’t go to a bra shop as often as we go to the grocery store, it is a place that gets us through some key life transitions. So of course, Sima would bear witness to those moments.
Q: Is it significant that this novel is set in a Jewish community?
ISR: Yes and no. I don’t think this story has to be Jewish. Sima and her neighbors could have had other backgrounds, although it may take an ethnic enclave --- be it ultra-Orthodox Jewish, East Indian, Carribean, Polish, Italian, whatever --- to create the kind of intimate neighborhood depicted here. I won’t say more than that, only because my husband, Jordan Stanger-Ross, is a historian who studies ethnicity in contemporary North American cities, and I’ve read enough of his work to fear that if I say too much on this topic I’ll suddenly start writing footnotes.
That said, I’m Jewish, and I was raised in a very Jewish, yiddishkeit kind of a home. So for me, Sima had to be Jewish. That’s the voice in my head, the stories overhead as a child that have stuck.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
ISR: Well, I certainly didn’t write it with any take-home message in mind. I hope readers see people who they recognize in Sima’s shop --- that it feels real and true. And that readers care about Sima, and what happens to her and those whom she loves. As a reader, I love that feeling when I’ve grown so attached to a character that I don’t want to leave her, and don’t want the book to end. I hope my readers experience that, and that Sima gets them thinking about the tangled, confounding relationships in their own lives. And I hope that they laugh, too.
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