By Roz Kay
As Ellen Sussman’s second “French” novel, A Wedding in Provence, comes out in paperback, we talked about the attraction of France as the setting for two of her four published novels.
“I knew that I wanted to write about an older couple getting married for the second time, and the complications of choosing love when we know everything we know about why love doesn’t work,” Ellen says.
But even as a self-confessed Francophile who lived in Paris for five years and still visits Provence often, Ellen picks France as a location for more complex reasons than knowing it and loving it.
“When I think about Provence, I think about it as the epitome of romance and love,” she says.
“I thought it would be a perfect backdrop because of those high expectations that what happens in Provence has to be dreamy and romantic, full of love and possibility.
“And yet real love is full of complications and challenges and conflict. So I liked the push-pull of that.”
In A Wedding in Provence, Ellen brings the region to life through deft descriptions of its countryside, its towns, and of course the charming inn at which the family and their friends stay for the wedding weekend. She lulls us into thinking of Provence as a fairytale land of lavender and love, a place synonymous with romantic perfection.
But in Ellen’s hands, Provence becomes a catalyst for change: almost another character. The romantic setting she conjures up is as unyielding as it is beautiful. And because of that, flawed love has nowhere to hide. Under Provence’s gentle yet immovable gaze, the novel’s human characters are forced to peel away their layers of denial and face up to what is really going on in their lives and relationships.
From love to loss
Ellen writes without planning out where her novels will go.
“I write to discover, so I set out to create characters who are going to be challenged by this decision to commit to love,” she says.
“I really write to figure something out. So I had no idea that the novel was going to be as much an exploration of the sisters’ story as it was, or the mother-daughter story as it was, but clearly that was very much on my mind.
“I’m writing with this great, burning curiosity. By the time I reach the end I feel I have learned so much. Not just about those burning issues, but about me, because I’ve put myself on the page in different ways.”
Because she doesn’t write autobiographically, Ellen feels that, somewhat paradoxically, she’s able to explore her themes more authentically.
“I’m hiding behind fiction,” she says. “I’m much more willing to go deeper and be more honest in fiction than I am in non-fiction. And something else I’ve discovered in the last few novels is I tend to write a lot about loss.
“I’ve had a lot of loss in my life, especially at an early age, and I never know when I set out that I’m going to be writing about loss. That just seeps into the novels that I’m writing.
“When I’m done I think, oh here it is again, that big black hole in me. And in the writing, maybe I’m shining a flashlight into that dark hole to try to figure out why it’s there, what do I do with it, and how do I live in the world with that?
“And that seems to be a never-ending quest.”
Magic happens when you stop thinking so much
As well as being a successful author, with six books published in the past 10 years, Ellen teaches writing classes. Her philosophy is to leave much of the planning to your subconscious.
“I always tell my students that the last thing you should know when writing a novel is what it’s about,” she says.
“You should be setting out to tell a wonderful story and if you tell that story honestly, deeply, truly, it will be filled with meaning.”
She feels—and it’s evident in the way she approaches her own writing—that if a writer starts out by thinking they have something to say, they’re going to manipulate their story.
“There won’t be the same quest to discover,” Ellen says.
“So I think the best way to write about something is to sneak in the back door. Something I heard a couple of years ago, and has now become a mantra in my classes, is ‘Your subconscious is smarter than you are’ and I so firmly believe that, because magic happens when you stop thinking so much.
“When I’m writing from some deeper place, some subconscious level, I’m making connections and twisting and turning to discover things. If it’s conscious, it seems to be shallower. I’m not allowing myself to go to those dark places.
“So I don’t think it’s that much of a surprise that we have to kind of get ourselves out of the way to find out what we have to say.”
Ellen is now at work on her next novel: something deliberately darker, she says, a shift in tone from her previous works. And, as always, she doesn’t know how the story will end.
Because it’s a different direction, she’s not sure how it will be received. But she doesn’t allow that to stop her.
“I don’t want to think about whether I’m going to be able to sell this book, or whether this book is going to have a huge market or three readers, or no readers because no publisher will buy it,” she says.
“I just ignore all of that and write the best novel that I can write.”
© Roz DeKett
About Ellen Sussman
Ellen Sussman is the author of four national bestselling novels: A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons and On a Night Like This. All four books have been translated into many languages and French Lessons has been optioned by Unique Features to be made into a movie. Ellen is also the editor of two critically acclaimed anthologies, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia Of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave. She was named a San Francisco Library Laureate in 2004 and in 2009. Ellen has been awarded fellowships from The Sewanee Writers Conference, The Napoule Art Foundation, Hedgebrook, Brush Creek, Ledig House, Ucross, Ragdale Foundation, Writers at Work, Wesleyan Writers Conference and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has taught at Pepperdine, UCLA and Rutgers University. Ellen now teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes out of her home. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.
You can learn more about Ellen and her books at her web site.