Susan Jane Gilman always planned to be a novelist, but took a detour to the nonfiction bestseller lists with Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara. Her fiction debut, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street (Grand Central, June), is off to a rousing start, named one of the “Best Summer Books 2014” by Publishers Weekly.

While the business of ice cream may seem an unlikely topic for a novel, it made perfect sense to Gilman, who is passionate consumer of the world’s favorite frozen dessert. Fascinated by the lives of immigrants who founded some of American’s classic ice cream brands, Gilman was certain their stories had all the makings for a novel. “The only problem was all of them were such nice people. So I decided to write about someone who hated kids and would rather have a stiff drink than eat ice cream—Leona Helmsley running an ice cream store.” Gilman’s “complicated female antihero” is Lillian Dunkle, an immigrant who rises from the squalor of the Lower East Side tenements to become the greatest ice cream maker in America. The novel spans 70 years and traces Lillian’s rise to fame and fortune from Prohibition to WWII and, finally, the disco days of Studio 54.

Gilman dedicated the book to Frank McCourt, who was her high school creative writing teacher. “When I was 16, he told me that my work was great and I should submit something to the Village Voice.” Gilman did and received a check for the astonishing sum of $200. “Frank enabled me to see myself as a writer, encouraged me through college, and we always kept in touch. He was the first person I called when I made the New York Times bestseller list. I cried into his answering machine.”

An eight-city book tour during June will include stops at both bookstores and ice cream shops.... for Gilman’s favorite “chocolate or mint chip. Two scoops in a cup.”

The author has three events scheduled during BEA. Today, noon–12:30, she’ll be signing at Library Journal’s Librarian Lounge. Tomorrow at noon in the Hachette/GCP booth (2917), Gilman will be signing books and scooping three flavors of Häagan-Dazs ice cream, and from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. she’ll be on the Women of Contemporary Fiction Panel at the Downtown Stage.