Q & A: Susan Jane Gilman (UNDRESS Me in the Temple of Heaven)
1. What was your inspiration for writing a memoir on your trip to China and how long did it take to complete?
What gets me started on a new book is usually a sense of outrage. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven came about largely in reaction to what was going on in the world around me.
First, I’ll back up: In 1986, when I was fresh out of college, a classmate and I planned this epic journey around the globe based on a placemat at the International House of Pancakes.
Since we wanted to boldly go where no one we knew had gone before, we decided to kick off this trip in the People’s Republic of China. In 1986, China might as well have been North Korea: it was a nation in lockdown, removed from the world, with almost no tourist infrastructure. My friend and I spoke no Mandarin and knew nothing about Asia, but we figured Hey: we were bright, bold, and American – so how hard could it be?
Well, of course, we found out. As soon as we arrived in China, we quickly we began to unravel.
What began as an ambitious lark became a fairly harrowing, traumatic, and embarrassing story. I was reticent about ever writing it -- at least as nonfiction.
But then, 20 years later, things began happening in our culture that compelled me to react.
In 2003, I heard President Bush describe our impending invasion of Iraq as “a cakewalk,” I turned to my husband and said, “’Cakewalk’? Is he kidding? That sounds like something stupid I would’ve said as a 21-year-old at the IHOP.” As the war escalated, I also heard more and more about soldiers – 19, 20 years old – coming home with mental problems after being thrust into a completely alien environment.
At the very same time, a spate of bestselling books began coming out with plots along the lines of:
“After my heartbreak, I decided to heal myself by renovating a villa in the Mediterranean. To recuperate from my divorce, I thought, why not eat a lot of pasta, then go to an ashram?”
We Americans seemed to regard whole nations and cultures as little more than venues for personal makeovers or national enrichment.
And so, I felt compelled to debunk our romantic myths of swaggering Americans who simply tromp into a foreign country and prevail.
I felt a responsibility to tell the other side of travel. I knew first-hand that being a stranger in a strange land can be achingly lonely, unnerving, and ridiculously difficult. I wanted to write not about the soldiers, cowboys, and adventurers who triumph, but of the naïve, ignorant, freaked-out Westerners like me -- who bungle into a place, make a mess, offend people, have their egos handed to them on a platter, and are lucky to get out alive.
Although the book took about three years to write from start-to-finish, it was actually two decades in the making, seeing as it was a true story that happened to me back in 1986. It took a while for me to summon both the courage and the proper perspective to tell it. In order to recount the story, I not only used the journals I’d kept during my travels, but I returned to China 19 years after I had had to flee with my friend. There, I retraced my steps. I returned to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Guilin, and Yangshou.
I also tracked down several of the people who were also instrumental in saving our lives in China.
2. What was your writing process and schedule?
The process was simple: stick my ass in the chair. Stay there. Then open a vein. I wrote from 10-6 p.m., five days a week. Before a draft was due, I’d rent an apartment in the mountains for a couple of weeks, hole up all alone – no Internet, no sweet husband, no phone – and work around the clock. I’d read the manuscript start-to-finish, then revise it methodically. I’d tend to get up at 8, be writing by 9, take a break at 3, continue writing 4-7 p.m, eat dinner, then work until 1-2 a.m. I need concentrated intensity for a project.
3. Can you share some details as to why you decided to pursue writing as a craft?
When I was eight years old, after my parents had tucked me in to bed, I’d hop up, run over to my window, and stare out at all the other housing developments in our neighborhood. I’d dream up stories about the other kids who lived in them. When I was ten, I started writing these stories down in “books.” I’d get these little notebooks from Woolworth’s and draw a line across the page. On the top half, I’d write stores, and on the bottom, I’d illustrate them. These tales were designed to rock the very foundations of modern American literature. They had titles like “Bunny House,” “The Picnic” and “The First Day of School.”
I loved to draw, too, and for a while I thought I’d be an artist. But by the time I reached junior high school, I’d grown wise and shrewd. I realized that I’d have an easier time making a living as a writer than an artist – though that’s not saying much.
Then in high school, I had an amazing Creative Writing teacher – and he really sealed my fate. He told me, “Miss Gilman, you’ve got a gift. Send your work to the Village Voice.” And so I did. And they published me! I was sixteen years old. I made $200 – more money than I’d make from a piece of my writing until I was 30. This teacher sent my poetry to national contests. I won prizes. I was off, I was running. My amazing teacher and I stayed friends for the rest of his days. Every time I had a success, I shared it with him. When I first made the New York Times’ Bestseller list, he was the first person I called. He was hugely instrumental in my becoming a writer. You might have heard of him. He had a bit of literary success himself later on (wink). His name was Frank McCourt.
4. On your journey to China, did you keep a detailed journal that helped you recall events and details?
Yes. That’s the beauty of knowing you want to be a writer early. You keep copious notes. Unfortunately, I was 21, 22 at the time that I traveled through China, so a ridiculous amount of ink was spent not on the country, but on obsessing about boys back home. Good God. Some of the entries go on for pages about some guy I’d slept with before I left – Oh, is he still thinking about me? Will he write? – and then, almost as an afterthought: by the way, I’m writing this by the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Reading the journal now, I could bang my head against the wall. So much for epic literature. But that’s what preoccupied me then: sex, love, longing. It’s a wonder I managed to record anything insightful about China at all. But I did. Eventually I got around to it.
5. How did you decide on such a creative title for the book?
The title was initially inspired by the sailor I had a brief fling with in China, who told me he’d like to take my clothes off in the Temple of Heaven (Note: the Temple of Heaven is China’s most famous, landmark temple – Beijing’s equivalent of Notre Dame.)
I liked the suggestiveness of “undressing in the Temple of Heaven.” On one hand, it promises a wild, rebellious fantasy,on the other, a dressing-down full of danger, nakedness, desecration, and vulnerability. This pretty much sums up the thematic conflict in my book:
My friend and I went to the People’s Republic on a romantic impulse, hoping to impress the world with our derring-do. Instead, we found ourselves in a foreign land, completely stripped of everything: language, cultural understanding, our status in the world, our physical health, our sense of self, our sense of direction, and even the most rudimentary ability to communicate. All our weakness were laid bare.
“Undressing in the Temple of Heaven” was good, but it didn’t roll off the tongue. I went out dinner with some editors, and one of them said, “I love your declarative titles. Make this one declarative, too.” So “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” it was
6. Are there any key scenes that you feel most contribute to the overall character of the memoir?
I’m too close to it to tell, frankly. But readers write me all the time saying how moved they were by both our arrival in Hong Kong, and then by entire second half of the book, starting with our visit to Johnnie’s hometown in rural China. After that, they say, they couldn’t put the book down. Some have been terrified for us. Some have been angry at our naïve behavior. Some have felt enormous compassion. Many tell me that even at the book’s harrowing climax, they’ve laughed out loud. This is all good. I wanted to make China come alive for everybody and evoke emotional responses. If you have a laugh at my expense, so much the better.
7. What was the aftermath of the trip? Can you offer any advice to novice travelers looking for an adventure overseas?
I can’t tell you the aftermath of the trip because I don’t want to ruin the ending of the book for readers. But I will offer advice to travel virgins.
First: By all means, go! Travel the world! Barring war zones and places for which the State Department has issued serious travel warnings, figure out what your comfort zone is, then step outside of it a mile or two.
That said, do some homework beforehand. Read about the culture, history, and current political system of wherever you’re going. If you’re female, be aware of how women are treated and how women travelers may be regarded (Generally, it’s a good idea to leave the shorts at home and get some gauzy cotton blouses to throw over the tank tops).
Above all else, learn a few words of the local language. I’ve found “thank you” to be the single most important phrase to know, with “hello” and “please” running a tie for close second. Just by making an effort, you’ll be treated infinitely better as a foreigner anywhere.
You do not need to be fluent. I’m talking about absolute basics. Carrying a phrasebook is fine. You will not risk looking like an idiot (you already do) – you will look like you are trying to communicate, and this will be enormously appreciated. It is a sign of respect.
It is crucially important for anyone when traveling – but particularly us Americans – to be humble and polite when interacting with the locals. This sounds so simple and obvious, but so many Western travelers ignore it, it’s staggering. They don’t say “hello,” or “do you speak English?” or “please.” They either bark at people gruffly, or start pantomiming insultingly, and they get annoyed when the concessionary “hamburger” or “apple pie” on the tourist menu isn’t on par with those back home. They act boorish, then wonder why the locals treat them with contempt.
I’ve even seen “uber-cool” backpackers do this, and it’s hideous. Avoid ignorant arrogance at all costs. And if you want mostly hamburgers (or, conversely, to stick to your vegan diet) above all else, stay home.
Always remember that you are guest in someone else’s country, and that how you interact with them will likely color the way they view Americans in general. Be flexible and polite. Always err on the side of your most straitlaced, moral inner self. And don’t get freaked out if you feel freaked out and anxious. That’s par for the course. Travel is about relinquishing control. It’s much harder than it looks!
8. How did this event change you as a person?
I am not naturally adventurous. As I write in the beginning of “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven,” my immediate impulse upon arriving in a foreign country is usually to freak out, curl up in a fetal position, and go home. But since I didn’t back then in Hong Kong, I’ve gotten more adept at overcoming my fears. I travel the world regularly now. I am still always anxious – but I override my own internal programming.
9. You are currently living abroad. Can you comment on your experience as an American living in a foreign country?
I write a blog, “A View from A Broad” in which I document all sorts of experiences, insights, cultural faux pas, and spectacularly humorous stupidities (on my part) as an American living and traveling overseas. I cover everything from offending the British to going to sex museums in Prague to trekking through Morocco to the glories of the American Weather Channel. Please check it out via http://www.susanjanegilman.com or www.susanjanegilman.blogspot.com
10. What projects are you working on at this time and who are some of your favorite authors? My three published books are nonfiction. Now, frankly, I think I’ve had it with reality. It’s time to try a novel. I’ve started sketching out two different stories, one comic, one serious. I oscillate between the two depending on my mood: it’s probably manic-depression-as-applied-to-literature. But neither will be titled “Bunny House” or “The First Day of School.”
As for favorite authors, there are too many to name. But the writers who initially inspired me as a teenager were the three John's: Cheever, Updike, and Steinbeck, along with Dorothy Parker, Toni Morrison, and Truman Capote. Those six were seminal. And Frank McCourt, of course.