Bucking convention and beating the odds
Three women will speak at the Kaplen JCC; we talk to two

Bucking convention and beating the odds

Writer urges readers to fulfill their potential

Susie Orman Schnall, left, and Alexandra Silber
Susie Orman Schnall, left, and Alexandra Silber

Susie Orman Schnall has loved writing all her life.

As she writes on her website, “Ever since I was a child, I have found true joy in writing. From my earliest notebooks filled with poems about loves lost to my essays documenting my journey through motherhood, I have chronicled my life in words. There’s something about an intense scrabble game, a challenging crossword puzzle, an impossible paragraph. It comes down to the words, and words are what I love.”

And she uses those words to deliver powerful messages in her books.

“We all have so much potential within us, whether we are 25 or 85, and it is up to us to follow our dreams and to buck convention and be authentic and passionate,” she said. Writing about people who do just that, she hopes that people who listen to her talks “can identify with the stories of my characters.”

Ms. Schnall grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania; now she lives in Purchase, N.Y., with her husband of 24 years and their three sons, 17, 15, and 14.

She did her first professional writing in the fields of marketing and communications.

“I had always written, but in a corporate way,” she said. After giving birth to her oldest son, however, “I stepped out of my job and started doing freelance writing,” mainly for magazines. Among other places, her writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Huffington Post.

Ms. Schnall is particularly interested in the work-life balance; she’s spoken and written extensively on that struggle. Her website, susieschnall.com, includes a section titled Work-Life Balance Interviews, where she includes interviews “with inspiring and accomplished women talking about balance,” she said. “I’ve always been curious about how women I admire manage the tragically glorified ‘doing it all’ craze. So I asked them.” What she suspected, and found, was that “no one really does it all. Everyone’s making sacrifices somewhere. And that should make us all feel a little better.”

She explored that issue in her second book, “The Balance Project,” published in 2015, inspired by the interviews she already had begun doing in 2014. She also published her first novel, “On Grace,” in 2015; it tells the story of a woman, soon to be 40, who is dealing with divorce, infidelity, re-entering the workforce after having children, and breast cancer.

Her latest book, “The Subway Girls,” is the one that she will explore during the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades Sunday of Strong Women, set for March 24. (See box.) “I met the coordinators at a Jewish Book Council event,” Ms. Schnall said. “I was talking about the book and its characters.” Something about that presentation hit a chord with the program planners.

The book is a work of historical fiction, set at the time when girls in New York could aspire to be Miss Subways, she said. “I love historical fiction. I heard the story on NPR and thought it would be a good premise for a book.

“I was fascinated by the women who entered,” she continued. “The contest ran for 35 years, but I was interested in the ‘40s and early ‘50s, in women whose ambition is interesting to look at through the lens of today.”

This contest, she said, unlike other such contests at the time, “was not based solely on beauty. John Robert Powers” — the founder of a modeling agency, who became the contest’s judge — “said he was not looking for hand-painted masterpieces but for an embodiment of the girl next door. Next to the winner’s photo ran several lines of copy about her dreams and ambitions.”

Through a modern lens, the contest appears “sexist and charming and quaint, a perpetuation of misogyny” she said, but it had another effect as well. The winners were chosen for their dreams and ambitions. “A woman on the train would look at it and say, ‘She’s a teacher. I can be that too.’” After World War II, Ms. Schnall noted, women who had been drafted into the workforce were expected to return to their homes and kitchens, having their newly developed interests and abilities “stripped from them.

“I wanted to celebrate those strong women.”

The book follows two story lines. The odd-numbered chapters, beginning in 1949, are about the women competing in the Miss Subways competitions, and “how society is working to hold them back” from achieving their dreams. The even-numbered chapters follow the life of a modern-day high-powered female advertising executive holding her own against other pressures and ultimately finding some connection to the Miss Subways contest, both personal and professional. Though a generation apart, “two strong women… find themselves up against the same eternal struggle to find an impossible balance between love, happiness, and ambition.”

While she clearly has had to make work-life choices herself, Ms. Schnall said the books are not in any way autobiographical, although “everything we write about is filtered through our own life experience. I like to explore it through fiction.”

In fact, she added, she has been lucky. “I have always been able to get the jobs I wanted, and never encountered overt sexual discrimination.” On the other hand, she said, we all face challenges with “what society expects and what we expect of ourselves. I feel really lucky to have a job now where I can be the type of professional and mother that works for me. But so many I know find it hard to have that flexibility.”

Ms. Schnall grew up in the Reform movement and now belongs to a Reform synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El in Rye, N.Y. “I value all the traditions and the heritage” of Judaism, she said. “And I love celebrating holidays with my family.” Right now, she is working on a new book, called “The Summer of Tomorrow.” It’s about the 1939 World’s Fair, which was in Flushing, Queens, and called “World of Tomorrow.” When she is not writing, according to her website, Ms. Schnall is passionate about family movie nights, Jane Austen and Jeffrey Archer, and kale shakes. And — as her books reflect — she is passionate about optimism.

Who: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades presents

What: A Sunday of Strong Women, featuring writers Angela Himsel, Susie Orman Schnall, and Alexandra Silber

When: March 24, 10:30 a.m. — 1:30 p.m.

Where: JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue, Tenafly

Cost: $38 JCC members; $46 non-members. Register at jccotp.org/ssw or call Kathy Graff at (201) 408.1454

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