Eat your heart out, Mick Jagger

“I live in fear of a reporter asking me, ‘Who do you think you are?'” jokes Susan Jane Gilman, author of the newly released Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless.

A former journalist herself, Gilman can easily imagine the sorts of questions she’ll have to field — but with Hypocrite (Warner Books, 2005) now firmly ensconced on the New York Times bestseller list, it’s unlikely anyone will challenge her credentials.

The kiss off

Now, don’t get me wrong — bestseller status is nothing to sniff at. But what this reporter is really interested in is Gilman’s possible effect on the fashion market. Her first book, Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess (Warner Books, 2001), seems to have spawned an actual line of girlie panties emblazoned with the cheeky title.

And then there’s the current tiara phase sweeping mall accessories shops.

“Are you implying I’m personally responsible?” Gilman laughs during our phone interview.

Maybe. Unfortunately, though, she says she’s not getting a cut of the action. But no matter: “Bejewel the country,” she suggests grandly.

This from the woman who begins Hypocrite admitting, “When I was little, I was so girlie and ambitious, I was practically a drag queen.”

All baubles aside, the author is more about her own brand of sassy feminism than costume accouterments. Her latest book is a memoir of sorts — tales from a not-so-ordinary life that, on some level, most of us can relate to — that depends more on swashbuckling humor than tear-jerking sentiment.

At the same time, Gilman doesn’t shy away from her own girliness, sexuality or bad behavior — but not in a How Stella Got Her Groove Back kind of way. Take the North Carolina-based tale (Hypocrite comprises a series of essays that chronicle the author’s life) in which Gilman — a native New Yorker — and a college friend from Texas decided to visit their respective love interests at Duke University. Finding herself in a Virginia truck stop, the typically brash narrator gets a serious dose of reality.

“With my fingerless gloves and one enormous rhinestone earring, I’d felt pretty proud of myself fourteen hours earlier, preening in the mirror back at college, convinced that I looked like a star in my own MTV video,” Gilman writes. “Now, standing in the middle of what was, essentially, the National Trucker Convention, it suddenly occurred to me what a mother lode of bad judgment this had been.”

Gilman doesn’t have to get her groove back: She never loses it in the first place.

Guy approved

“I wrote Hypocrite as an antidote to Chick Lit,” she explains. “It’s tricky, because I hate the fact that anything in our society for women is immediately discredited.”

And though much-lauded author Frank McCourt, in an endorsement on the book’s jacket, gushes that “this is a memoir men should read,” Gilman weighs in noting that with 75% of book buyers being female, why should a stamp of male approval be sought in the first place?

“I want to give women something that’s smart, funny and doesn’t insult our intelligence,” she professes. “You can have a plot and at the same time not be John Grisham and blow things up — or be in the estrogen fest. I consider it a badge of honor that my book is incredibly popular.”

And don’t even imply that Gilman is a man-hater. First, there’s her lusty essay, titled “Mick Jagger Wants Me,” in which she reveals (and I’m not giving away the punch line here), ” … through some twisted fifteen-year-old logic, we equated losing our virginity with losing our virginity to Mick Jagger.” It gets even better — but you’ve got to read the book.

Then, in an interview with her alma mater — Brown University — she panned, “I’m an equal-opportunity offender.”

Least likely to join a cult

And, truly, no group, experience or stereotype escapes Gilman’s razor wit. From Hypocrite‘s opening pages, set in a 1960s haze of hippie-dom, to her stint working for a Congresswoman, the author tells it like it is. Delightfully un-PC, Gilman fesses up to lapsed Judaism, a mistaken lesbian identity and cracking inappropriate jokes at Auschwitz.

“You know how some people use humor to make themselves more attractive to the world?” Gilman muses. “I don’t do that. I use humor to make the world more attractive to me.”

Luckily, the author’s form of comedy is more self-effacing than slapstick, and her stories are as literary, descriptive and engrossing as they are funny — due largely to Gilman’s talent for recalling intricate detail and poignant emotion.

Then again, sometimes the book is just about Gilman thumbing her nose at so-called authority. And even supposedly enlightened beings aren’t let off the hook.

“John and I had been told that in order to ‘show our dedication to the Maharishi,’ the TM Center required us to donate a week’s allowance to him,” she writes in a chapter about her forced introduction to once-trendy Transcendental Meditation.

Gilman goes on to write: “[It] only confirmed our suspicions that his holiness wasn’t a guru but a panhandler.”

“If you’re going to take somebody’s time and kill a bunch of trees, you’ve got to have something that pulls somebody in and is interesting,” the author notes in our talk. Then she takes one last shot — at herself: “There is this strange disbelief that anyone would actually read this book.”

Susan Jane Gilman reads from Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe on Wednesday, Feb. 9. Free. 7 p.m. 254-6734.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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