Q&A With Susie orman schnall, author of “the subway girls”

For our August Off The Rails Book Club, we read The Subway Girls, by Susie Orman Schnall.

We asked our followers on Instagram to send us questions for Susie to answer, and here are her answers.

** SPOILER ALERT **

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What made you want to write this book? It's such a unique concept that blends reality and fiction. 

I first heard about the Miss Subways contest on NPR and I was blown away. Everything about it fascinated me and I was especially curious about the women who entered the contest and won, and how winning affected the rest of their lives. Plus, there’s so much to unpack about the Miss Subways contest in the sense of women, ambition, opportunities, etc. I thought it would make a great topic for a novel 

In your acknowledgments, you mentioned that you met some of the Miss Subways. What do you think was the most interesting story they shared? Any piece of wisdom? 

When I was researching the book, I was lucky enough to speak to five of the winners and really enjoyed those conversations. It brought the whole book to life for me. And then for one of the launch events for the book, we held a Miss Subways reunion, and 15 winners came. The oldest woman had won in 1946 and the youngest was the very last winner of the contest in 1976. A couple interesting things: many women said they entered the contest as a way to springboard to a career as a singer or a model and it worked for so many of them. I also was interested by one woman’s story about how surprised she was that she got so much attention and adulation for being Miss Subways — something she felt she only won because of her looks, which she doesn’t think women should be rewarded for. 

Do you think Olivia's pitch idea of "Where Are They Now" will resonate well with New Yorkers now, if it were to be implemented in real life?

I think so and that’s why I came up with it. Whenever I ride the subway, my eyes scan the train. I love looking at the variety of people and I always imagine what each person’s story is. I think the appeal of an everyday person — over a model — is compelling for many people and where better to get those people than in NYC!

Both of us (Hollie and Rosy) work in advertising, so it was an interesting read for us: We are curious as to what made you focus on these particular ad agencies (JWT, Y&R)?

I worked in advertising too when I first started my career and had a stint in the new business department at one agency. I’ve always loved the advertising world and it was fun to set the novel there. Plus, I loved Mad Men so it was a bit of an homage to that energy. I chose JWT and Y&R because they are such legacy agencies and had presences in NYC during the time period I set my book. And JWT was actually the agency that created the Miss Subways contest for the MTA back in the early 40s.

Do you think Rose's intentions were ever bad? Was she trying to seduce Sam? Or was it just a drunken mistake?

I think Rose is striving. She didn’t have the best role models for parents and I think she made bad choices but I don’t think she is a bad person. I think things got a bit out of hand with Sam because, yes, there was alcohol involved, but I also think she saw Sam as an opportunity and Charlotte would never find out. I certainly don’t think she anticipated the consequences of her actions.

Charlotte's mom finally opened up and had this "mother daughter" relationship that Charlotte's been craving. What was the trigger for that? Why was she putting up this harsh appearance before?

It was the realization that Charlotte was this headstrong young woman who was going to go after what she wanted. I think it surprised her mother a bit but it also reignited past passions in her mother and she could no longer deny that the suppression of her own career didn’t ultimately have the best outcome. I think she didn’t want that to happen to her own daughter so she was eager to cheer her on and impart her own wisdom. I don’t think she was putting up a harsh appearance, I think she was grieving her son and was just depressed. Charlotte helped the clouds part for her and show her a bright future for the two of them.

Do you imagine Ben having a relationship with Rose his biological grandmother, now that he knows the truth?

I think they might exchange emails (Rose is an ace on the computer!) but I don’t think it’ll go much further than that. But you never know!