‘Sima’s Undergarments For Women’

I read this new novel straight through last Shabbat.

I loved its story about an old life redeemed by a beautiful girl.

I interviewed the author, Ilana Stanger-Ross, on March 19.

Luke: "When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Ilana: "In what point in childhood would that be? I remember wanting to be a secretary, pretty terrible career ambitions for the daughter of a feminist. At some point, I wanted to be a writer. So there you go."

Luke: "About what age?"

Ilana: "I remember being in sixth grade when I was eleven years old, and my teacher had a recorder and she just played a tape and the tape was the sound of falling rain. She had us write. I wrote a truly ridiculous piece looking back. I wrote from the perspective of an old homeless man. I was an eleven-year-old upper-middle-class kid. But I thought it was pretty fabulous. More than that, I was enchanted by writing. From that point on, I took that as part of my identity."

Luke: "Where were you in the social pecking order in high school?"

Ilana: "It’s funny. I saw that you had asked that to a few people. I was trying to think how I would describe myself. I wasn’t particularly cool. It’s pretty weird though. If you had asked me a year ago, I would’ve said, oh, I was totally uncool in high school. I kinda wanted to be a rebel. I didn’t do anything rebellious, but I just had the attitude, ‘I’m too smart for this. These people are all idiots. I’m really the cool one even though socially I feel totally awkward day to day.’

"But then the strange thing is Facebook, right? Now I have all these high school friends on Facebook and it makes me rethink who I was in high school. I feel like so many people remember me from high school that I seem to have way more friends in high school than I remembered. I kinda left high school and thought, ‘I’m never thinking about that period of my life every again.’ And really didn’t. Now all of a sudden, high school has a totally different feeling to me because all of these very friendly people are friends with me on Facebook. I don’t really know any more what I was like in high school. Trying to be the rebel but not really succeeding."

Luke: "Has your place in the social pecking order changed over time?"

Ilana: "I’m a lot more confident than I was back then. I went to a big public school in Brooklyn, Midwood. I’m surrounded by such different people now. It’s a whole different culture."

Luke: "I was the class clown, an anarchic influence. And that hasn’t changed. Are you more of an observer? A participant? An organizer? Do you put people together? I’m trying to picture you in a group of people."

Ilana: "In those ways, I’m similar. I’m an organizer. I take a lot on. I talk out of turn a fair bit. I’m pretty nerdy. I’ve always done my homework and couldn’t resist answering questions if I knew the answer."

Luke: "Has your happiness level been pretty constant over the span of your life?"

Ilana: "Yes. I’m a pretty stable, pretty happy, person. I’ve had it pretty easy. I haven’t had to face any kind of crisis situation. I was raised by parents who made me feel loved. Anyone who does art has that kind of darkness that they go to but my darkness is pretty tame."

Luke: "Where does the publication of your book rank among the things you are happiest and proudest of?"

Ilana: "I worked on that novel for years. I began it seven years ago. I am sure I am not along here — there’s ambivalence with publication. It can be almost difficult to return to it and to see it out there. I like looking at it in a book store but then opening it and reading it, I find quite difficult.

"You’re always looking up to the next level. I’m looking at your website at some of those writers and I don’t feel at all that I’ve arrived.

"The flip side of that is that I have two young daughters. For them I’m proud and happy every day. That’s much more tangible."

Luke: "I’ve been struck in my interviews how for those who’ve never married, publication of their book tends to be the greatest thing they’ve ever done. For those who have married, let alone have children, it ranks down there."

Ilana: "A book doesn’t hug you at the end of the day, right?

"I’m a fulltime student midwife. Some of the people who know me from that have no idea that I’ve written anything."

"I’m able to compartmentalize pretty well. I’m so busy, [a bad review] doesn’t ruin things. I don’t have the time to think about that."

"Every book has its weaknesses and authors are more aware of its weaknesses than anybody else."

Luke: "What have you found most interesting about the reactions you’ve received to the book?"

Ilana: "The whole time I was writing this novel, the whole time I felt I was writing a fairly depressing, fairly dark book. The one perspective we get is Sima. Most of it takes place in a basement bra shop, so it’s a bit claustrophobic. And sad. I thought it was this dark sad book about this woman who was quite alienated from her needs and desires. She’d experienced infertility. She had never forgiven herself. Then this very strange relationship with this young woman. It has aspects of mother-love and aspects of lust and desire and obsession. To me it is a strange sad book. For me, the strength of it was that it was very internal. For a reader who enjoys that, we don’t always get books that are so internal with the way our minds really work, with all the things we wouldn’t really admit.

"Certainly trying to get it published was difficult. I kept hearing from publishers, well, I loved it but I can’t sell it. It’s not enough of a page turner.

"What’s been interesting to me has been things like Entertainment Weekly. Getting a few of these reviews where I’ve written a page turner. People I’m not close to writing to me, ‘I loved your book! It was so fun! I zipped right through it! I couldn’t put it down!’

"It’s just so odd to me. Really, was it fun? It’s got the pink cover. Because of the bra shop, there’s been an attempt to market it as chick-lit. I’ve done a lot of radio where it is said, ‘It is a book about women’s friendships set in a bra shop.’

"To some extent, I’ve played into that. Certainly I have because you want your book to sell. You want readers. On the other hand, are you compromising yourself? Can women’s fiction not be taken seriously? What does this mean?

"Just that disconnect for me between what I thought I was writing and what has been received has been fascinating."

Luke: "What did happen to Timna? Did she have an abortion?"

Ilana: "I will honestly tell you that I don’t know."

Luke: "I love that theme about how people can come into your life and play a redemptive role but you can’t idealize them as redeemers. That’s not all they are."

Ilana: "That’s right."

Luke: "I’m sure the desire to be rescued or turned around or changed or reborn or reinvigorated is certainly one that I experience. How did that theme of redemption come to you?"

Ilana: "I had the setting of the bra shop before I had the characters. I pictured a couple both falling in love with this young assistant and then that changing their relationship."

"Casting Timna as an Israeli was interesting for me. I am an American Jew. I grew up in the Zionist youth movement (the left-wing socialist segment). I went to summer camp and learned all about Israel and did activities about when you make aliyah, where will you move to.

"When I was 18, I moved to Israel and lived on a kibbutz. Israel was the playground for American Jews. For right-wing American Jews, Israel is filled with machisimo, it’s where you get to fulfill aggressive fantasies through visions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For the 18-year old American Jew, they’re going there and they’re looking to have sex, right? Especially if you are a woman, the Israeli army guys.

"I was curious too about the way that Americans sexualize Israelis. For American Jews, Israel is our sexy other.

"Once Timna really became a character, I stopped thinking about that."

Luke: "What’s the story of you and God?"

Ilana: "I don’t know. That one’s still being written. For a long time, I said I didn’t believe in God and I don’t really believe in God, but I do think that there is something worth honoring beyond ourself. I’m at births all the time. Miracle is such a cliche, but you are the first hands touching a baby being born. It’s an incredible place to be.

"Now that I’m a mother… It’s one thing to grow up Jewish and to take that thing for granted, but when you have kids, you have to figure out what is Judaism going to look like for our family. We don’t live in a Jewish place. I live in Victoria, British Columbia. So it’s not like it is in the air here the way it would be if I were raising my kids in New York. I feel like I have to think quite consciously about it. If they are going to think of themselves as Jewish, then that has to come from my husband and I. So we’re still figuring all of this out."

"I was flying from Victoria to New York There are no direct flights of course. We landed in Toronto and then we got on the plane to go to New York. I got on the plane and I looked down the aisle of the airplane and I thought, ‘People on this plane look like me.’

"It was so strange. It was just one of these visceral things that come to you. I hadn’t realized I was missing that."

"I grew up in Flatbush. I grew up going to stores with my mom where she knew the owners. She cashed her checks at the grocery store where they would pinch my cheeks and they’d give me cookies. I miss having something like that. It’s quite anonymous where I am. I miss that culture. At the same time, I don’t want to live in New York City. I love where we live. It’s fun to feel exotic."

Luke: "How do you feel about the Orthodox? Did you feel like they were constantly judging your Jewishness?"

Ilana: "I didn’t grow up in Borough Park. I grew up in Flatbush. The street I grew up on was not at all Orthodox. There were a bunch of Jews on my street but also a bunch of African-American families. It was a block away from Ocean Avenue, which was mostly African-American. The first black family to move on to my family’s block was in the 1970s, shortly after we arrived. That was fine. It wasn’t like there any kind of neighborhood scene over that. But they moved away a few years ago and there was a rumor that a Hasidic family was moving in. My parents and other people on the street were really upset. ‘They’re going to put a shul in the basement! And then it is going to be crowded. And they’re going to be running businesses. There’s going to be no parking.’

"That was hilarious to see all these Jews, many non-Jews, getting upset because the black family was leaving and possibly Hasids were moving in.

"Growing up, I went to public school. I went to Hebrew school after school at a Conservative synagogue near us that had its own day school. Going to Hebrew school three days a week beginning when I was five and up until I got bat mitzvahed, it did feel like, here we were at their Hebrew school and yet always being made to feel that we weren’t quite with the righteous kids because we weren’t the day school kids.

"My father grew up Orthodox. He had left that. He sometimes would despair over how little we knew at the same time he had made that choice not to raise us Orthodox."

Luke: "How did college, particularly the MFA, affect your writing?"

Ilana: "I went to Barnard. I studied History. I assumed I’d be an English major and do all sorts of creative writing and it didn’t happen. I think I purposefully didn’t want to be in a creative writing class with a lot of other young women who I felt would be a lot like me. Looking back, I was probably wrong to feel that way. But that’s where I was coming from at that time. I took one writing class and I took it at the School of General Studies. It was a much more diverse group of people.

"The MFA I did at Temple University. It was the time to write. It was pretty huge. I was fully funded there. I didn’t want to go into debt for an MFA. I didn’t trust that that was a responsible position.

"I started working one-on-one with a professor there. I was developing this as a short story. He was the one who said to me, ‘Why isn’t this a novel?’ I’m not convinced that I would’ve written this as a novel if I hadn’t had that support. Having a deadline. Handing in work every week. Having someone challenge you. That was wonderful.

"It was a very subpar program however."

"I’m really removed from a writer community right now."

"I knew, I can’t work in a coffee shop and make writing the center of my world. That goes back to the nerd I was in high school. I didn’t trust enough in my writing. I needed to feel that I had something else. I just couldn’t do it. I know that [poverty] is one way to be an artist and probably the truest way today. If you are going to be begin, you are going to put everything you can into your art and you will support yourself however you can. But no, I’m too much of a nerd. I can’t do that. I need a real job. I did the publishing, writing, editing thing and that wasn’t for me. When I was at Temple, I thought, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to teach writing.’

"Before that, I felt the goal was to teach writing. And all the professors seemed so miserable so I thought, I don’t want to do that. I realized I wanted something quite removed from that. Also, I wanted to feel that I was really making a difference. I wanted to know at the end of the day that my work had value. There’s absolute value in working in writing but there are so many people doing it and I guess I wanted something more concrete."

Luke: In the social group you have known, is it embarrassing for a woman to want a man to come along to marry her and take care of the finances?

Ilana: "Very embarrassing, sure, and unrealistic too, right? Just look at the divorce rate. Maybe that would work, but longterm it might not work for you. Lots of men are also looking to pursue their art. The majority of my old friends aren’t married. Now that I’m married and I have kids, everyone I know has kids. That’s what happens when you have kids.

"When I grew up, my friends were hardcore feminists and would never say something like that.

"I had the opposite embarrassment where I struggled with not making a living… It’s incredibly indulgent to take hours to write a novel that you don’t know will be published. And even if it is published, does that ever translate into earning money for those hours? It takes a lot of chutzpah to do that. It wasn’t always easy for me. That’s why I couldn’t work in a coffee shop. I do feel a need to make a living and to prove myself. At times, I’ve really struggled with the fact that I haven’t made money. Right now I’m a student. Even though I’m working fulltime hardcore hours, I’m not making money and I’m paying money to my university. I pay money for childcare. It’s hard to carve out that time to do art because it is very difficult. Realistically and in terms of identity, it’s hard for smart young women to say, this matters even though I can’t show that it matters in terms of income."

"When I was in high school, I started a ‘Women’s Issues club.’ It’s an awkward word but I didn’t know what to call it when I was 16. The idea was that we get together and talk about healthcare for women, talked about abortion rights, went to the abortion rally in D.C. I remember my sister who’s seven years older than me said, ‘You shouldn’t do that because guys aren’t going to like it.’ I was raging. Of course I wasn’t doing it to meet guys.

"I depend upon my husband in every way, including as a writer because he’s an amazing reader and because through these times when I’m struggling and thinking, what’s the point? This is indulgent, he never said that. He said, ‘You’re writing this novel. This novel’s good. You need to give time to this novel.’

"Somebody else might’ve said, ‘You want me to watch the kids while you write this damn novel of yours? Are you crazy?’"

Luke: "Could you have written this book without the wisdom that comes from marriage and motherhood?"

Ilana: "Yeah. These things happened as I was writing the book. I don’t know that wisdom necessarily comes from marriage. I do think wisdom comes from motherhood but I don’t think you need to have motherhood to have wisdom. I’m sure those experiences impacted me and therefore the book in all sorts of ways but I guess your question makes me nervous, makes me worried that women need that, that classic this is the environment in which women thrive. It is the environment in which I thrive but I certainly don’t think it is necessary."

About Luke Ford

I’ve written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).

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