‘Great! A novel about women’s underwear,’ I thought to myself. Thankfully, I managed to cross that mental barrier and enjoyed Ilana Stanger-Ross’ debut novel, Sima’s Undergarments for Women.
With Entertainment Weekly and the New York Post having written positive reviews, Stanger-Ross’ career is off to a good start. Set in the Jewish community of a Brooklyn neighborhood, a women’s underwear shop is the novel’s hub. For a male reader, it’s rather like being invisible and silently standing in a women’s changing room as female customers come in and try on the clothing.
In reality, Sima’s Undergarments for Women is about Sima, the shop’s aging owner, and Tinna, her young new-in-town Israeli seamstress. Sima’s life has been at a standstill for decades while Timna – part of an Israeli generation with wanderlust – is just starting out. Their values are different, their relationships are different, but Timna makes a huge impact on Sima.
Originally from Brooklyn, Stanger-Ross now lives not far from AbeBooks’ headquarters in Victoria, BC, Canada. The promotional efforts for Sima’s Undergarments for Women have included readings in lingerie stores – probably a first in book marketing.
AbeBooks - What writers and books have influenced you?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "Oh lord - I am so trepidatious about that question, for fear of sounding as if I am comparing myself to my favorite novelists. But for Brooklyn-Jewish-women, Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. For careful attention to detail, Alice McDermott, John Updike, Alice Munro, Amy Bloom. For heartbreaking beauty, all of the above and Flaubert. And for plots that make you desperate to turn each page and read on and on, no one beats Dickens. There are many, many others, but I'll stop there, because now of course I'm terrified that even despite my caveat someone will read this and think: how dare she compare herself to Flaubert?! If I could type this while lying prostrate in worship, I would."
Abe - What books did you take to read on your debut booktour?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages. We know Jackson as the author of wonderfully-chillingly-creepy stories like The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in The Castle, but this is her hilarious account of the chaos of life with too many books and too many children in rural Vermont. I read a review of it in the New Haven Review and ordered it immediately - a gem of domestic comedy."
Abe - You have received good reviews already – you must have high hopes for Sima's Undergarments for Women?
Ilana Stanger-Ross –"I was completely prepared to be the bitter debut novelist - I'd worked as an editor at a small press and knew first-hand how brutal the book business can be. But Overlook has been the most wonderful publisher, and I have a terrific editor and publicist. So I do feel quite lucky. We've had great reviews from the New York Post, the Vancouver Sun, and Entertainment Weekly, and we've also just sold German rights. So far, so good."
Abe - So am I the only male reading Sima's Undergarments for Women?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "I hope not! True: it's set in a bra-shop and the main characters are women. And certainly it's being marketed in something of a chick-lit style: the coral cover (which I actually love) and the lingerie-store readings. But for me one of the joys of reading fiction is slipping into worlds that aren't my own, be it World War One trench warfare (I'm a closet Great War buff) or bra-shops. I hope that both male and female readers will find themselves drawn to the characters who inhabit Sima's shop, and will feel invested in what happens to them."
Abe - Why choose a bra shop for the main setting?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "My mother and I were leaving a shop much like Sima's when she said to me, ‘You know, you should set a story in a shop like that.’ And I thought, What a wonderful idea. It's a setting that allows characters to enter and quickly reveal something of themselves - literally, of course, but also in the stories they share with one another behind the safety of the dressing room curtain."
Abe - Are you a fan of saucy lingerie?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "No - much to my husband's dismay, I prefer men's style cotton pajamas. It's actually really funny to me that the book is being associated with upscale lingerie, because while Sima does sell a few sexy numbers in the book, most of her customers are harried housewives looking, as Sima says, ‘to contain rather than expose.’"
Abe - Are there really women who can look at a pair of breasts and correctly identify that lady's bra size?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "Sure. While most saleswomen wield measuring tape, I know a few who do it just by looking. Think about it: if all day every day you fit women for bras, after a few decades you'd develop a pretty knowing glance, too."
Abe – Readings and signings in lingerie stores sound interesting. How have they gone so far?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "I was definitely nervous about the lingerie-literature leap, but it's worked well. It's a festive setting, certainly less staid than the average bookstore. A few of the shops have even offered fittings and discounts after the readings, so that's been a lot of fun. (Though don't get me wrong: I love bookstores. Love them.)"
Abe - How did you end up in Victoria, BC? It's a long way from Brooklyn?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "Yes - straight across the continent, into the ocean, and then just a little bit further. I wish I had some terrific story, but the honest version is: I married a Canadian, and he joined the history faculty at the University of Victoria. That said: we love it here. It's a wonderful city, and it really feels like home now."
Abe - Any plans for a second novel?
Ilana Stanger-Ross – "I have good friends who recently moved into an apartment rife with bed bugs and discovered that Boro Park - where Sima's fictional shop is located - is THE place to go for delousing in Brooklyn. So they're encouraging me to write a sequel: delousing for women. Though I think I'll skip that one, I do have something brewing. And it may just be set far, far from Brooklyn, on a lovely island off the west coast of Canada."