Interview: Ellen Sussman

I recently picked up Ellen Sussman‘s latest book, French Lessons, and loved the book and the concept. She has published numerous essays in anthologies, including The Other Woman, and a dozen of her short stories have appeared in literary and commercial magazines. Ellen was named a San Francisco Library Laureate in 2004 and 2009.

Enjoy this interview.

I just finished French Lessons: A Novel, and I have to say I really enjoyed it! What a great concept for the book. I understand you came up with the idea after hiring a French tutor for husband?

Yes! I was invited to teach in Paris and asked my husband to join me because it was our anniversary. As a gift I bought him a week of french lessons with a tutor I found on craigslist. She suggested that they walk the streets of Paris instead of sitting in a classroom. What a great idea! And when I met my husband for a drink after his first day of french lessons, I found out that not only was she a very good tutor, she also happens to be a gorgeous. What a dope — for a gift, I bought my husband a beautiful French woman! At the end of the week, our marriage was just fine, and I had an idea of a new novel.

I could really relate to this note on your website, “She has given up her writing career many times, but only for a day or two, and her family has now learned to ignore her new career choices. She is a writer, an almost daily writer, a writer who actually loves to write.”

It sounds like your family is very supportive. What are some of the “new career choices” you’ve pondered (for a day or two) when you’re in one those moods?

Oh, I start dreaming up all kinds of careers! I want to open a restaurant, I want to join the Peace Corps, I want to start a travel company. Anything other than write! That happens when I get too many rejection letters or when I’m stuck in a novel and can’t find my way out. I think: this is crazy! Who asked for this career?! But the mood passes and I realize that this is who I am, through and through. And I sit myself down in front of my computer and I get back to work.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you regarding writing?

I had a fabulous writing teacher in college — Jonathan Strong. He had published a couple of great books and then he went through a long period of time when he couldn’t get published. He kept writing. He wrote because he loved to write. That made a huge impression on me. He told me to focus on the writing and not on the goal of publishing.

Your books have done very well and most of that is due to great writing, obviously. How important do you think marketing is and do you also take part in the marketing plan for your books?

Marketing is very important. I’ve been so lucky with Ballantine — they have done a fabulous job of getting French Lessons: A Novel out in the world. Yes, I take part in every way that I can. But they make the plan, they lead the way.

Since we love books here, please tell us what is the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

I read three books in the past year that knocked me out: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Room: A Novelby Emma Donnaghue, and Let the Great World Spin: A Novel by Colum McCann. All three break so many “rules” of fiction — and create something wonderfully new.

Where can we learn more about you?

There’s a ton on my website: Take a look, wander around the site.

More books by Ellen Sussman:


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