For a first-time novelist, tackling a book that traces the intertwined stories of several generations of Jewish immigrants is ambitious, to say the least. Wouldn’t it be simpler to ease in with a breezy novel about bad boyfriends or career troubles? But Jennifer Gilmore doesn’t shy away from a challenge. As publicity director for Harcourt, she knows just how much work is involved in transforming a good idea into a finished book, yet she went for it anyway.
Golden Country is the sweeping, luminous story of 20th-century New York City immigrants with pasts marred by tragedy and futures filled with promise. Traveling salesman Joseph Brodsky is sure he is on the verge of inventing a product that will revolutionize the way America cleans. Seymour Bloom yearns to trade in a life of organized crime for one as a Broadway producer. Frances Gold wants to be a star.
Gilmore recently answered some questions about the immigrant experience and her leap-of-faith in taking on a new role in the publishing industry.
You’ve said that your novel is inspired by your own family’s American experience. Who is the most colorful member of your real-life family?
The most colorful member of my family was probably my grandmother. She told dirty jokes, did crosswords while smoking on the toilet, and used to sneak Dove Bars from the deep freeze in her garage in Portland, Maine. My great-grandmother Grandma G was also quite something. She came from Montmartre in Paris, was a Lane Bryant model for a while, and used to shake me and tell me she loved me to pieces!
So many of the characters in Golden Country struggle to realize their American dreams. What’s one of your lifelong dreams? Have you achieved it yet?
I am interested a lot in failure, the flip side of the American Dream, and my dreams always felt suffused with this. It’s part of life, but our dreams get so curtailed. Mine, truly, was to write a book and have it published. I think it was my only dream. When I was a little girl, I had no idea how difficult that would be.
Your very vivid portrait of New York City from the 1920s to the 1960s reveals your affection for the city. What’s your favorite thing about New York?
There are so many lovely things about New York, it’s difficult to pick only one. I think the wonderful things about living here are small and everyday: Prospect Park before 9 a.m., walking down Fifth Avenue, rooftops. And then there is going to the theater, which I have been lucky enough to do since I was a kid visiting the city heading into Times Square, or Lincoln Center or BAM, waiting in the velvet seats for the curtain to swing open.
As Harcourt’s publicity director, you’ve spent much of your career on the business side of publishing. How is it being on the author side of the experience?
Being on both sides is actually quite difficult. You know everything that can go wrong, and you know all a publisher can do to help a book. The surprise is that everything is still so surprising to me: getting the cover, the first reviews, seeing it bound up in book form. And I’m also surprised by my disappointment. Sometimes it feels like: all this work six years! for this? A book is a very strange thing. . . .
You’ve read a lot of books in your line of work. Which authors inspire you?
The authors who inspire me are the same ones that have since before I even came to New York. Philip Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Grace Paley, Carson McCullers. I have since added Zadie Smith to my list. Through my job I have worked with some wonderful writers Umberto Eco, Michel Faber, Amos Oz, to name a few but the authors I read from the beginning are the ones my mind returns to time and again.
In Golden Country, Joseph Brodsky developed his cleaning product in the basement. Another character, Vladimir Zworykin, worked at the office late into the night on his invention. What was your process for writing this book?
I wish I wrote at night! My life would be a lot easier. But I am one of those people who needs to get up at the crack of dawn and write before work. I’m a morning writer the impurities of the day get to me.
So, are you treating the publicity folks for this book extra nicely?
Most people turn this question around and ask if I am being horrid to publicity! I am trying to treat my publicist with respect and be aware of her time, which sometimes authors forget to do. Publicity is the end of the line in the very long process in a book’s life and it causes incredible anxiety for authors. I admit, I feel that part too.