Author Interview: Ellen Sussman Says There’s More Than One Way To Write A Novel (Even For Her!)

cover  Fleur right side upYou know what they say, timing is everything! And what good timing it is for us to have Ellen Sussman on Women’s Fiction Writers today to celebrate the launch of her latest novel, A WEDDING IN PROVENCE. Ellen shares exceptional insight and advice with us, perhaps no words better suited to me than these: “Write the best damn book you can.” It seem obvious, but can become an oversight when we get wrapped up in other parts of being a writer and author. So, thanks, Ellen. Simple words are often the most meaningful. And the smartest.

Please welcome Ellen Sussman back to Women’s Fiction Writers.

Amy xo

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Author Ellen Sussman Goes To Bali In Her New Novel And Says Women’s Fiction Authors Should Go Big Or Go Home!

One of the best parts of hosting Women’s Fiction Writers is reading the awesome interview answers before I post them for everyone else. Is that bragging? Oops! Well, it’s true. And so many times the wise words and kind advice hits so close to home. As I’m entrenched in pre-pub craziness for THE GLASS WIVES, I’m reminded by author Ellen Sussman that writers of women’s fiction need to step out the quiet shadows and into the limelight, which many have. And one way to do that is to tackle big stories, whatever they may be. I’m taking that reminder with me every time I sit down to work on new novel!  

Ellen is celebrating the release of her third novel, THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE which is getting rave and starred reviews and I’m honored she’s here today! Please welcome Ellen Sussman back to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Author Ellen Sussman Goes To Bali In Her New Novel And Says Women’s Fiction Authors Should Go Big Or Go Home!

Amy: Congratulations on THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE! This is your third novel, but as a writer I know that our ideas and books don’t always happen chronologically. When did you first come up with the idea for this book?  And what sparked the idea? What were you working on at the time?

Ellen: My husband and I visited Bali in 2005, right after the second terrorist attack on that beautiful island. By the end of that vacation, I already had the idea for the novel. I’d create a young American who gets caught in the bombing in 2002 and returns to Bali a year later to find the man who saved her.

But I tucked the idea away, unsure if I wanted to tackle such an ambitious project. It’s funny – I know when a novel idea is good if it won’t let go. That story stayed with me and when I finished French Lessons, it screamed: Write me next!

Amy: THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE is set in Bali. What drew you to this setting as being the right one for this story?

Ellen: That first trip to Bali began my love affair with the island. I returned a couple of years ago to live there for a month so that I could do the research for Paradise Guest House. (tough research trip!) It’s the combination of paradise and terrorism that created so much dissonance for me. I wanted to understand how the Balinese and ex-pats healed after the bombings in 2002. In addition to learning about the Balinese culture and religion, I had the opportunity to meet with survivors of the attacks as well as family members of the victims. Those interviews were very difficult and so important to my research.

Amy: Do you have a writing schedule or a routine that you follow when you’re working on a novel?  What is your favorite place to write? (Mine happens to be sitting on the bed in my office that used to be my son’s bedroom!)

Ellen: I’m a very disciplined writer. I write from 9 til noon every day. When I’m writing a first draft of a novel, I try to produce 1,000 words a day. I’m a firm believer in writing as a “job” – we don’t get much done if we sit around and wait for the muse to whisper in our ear. And I’m lucky enough to have a home office with a beautiful view of our garden.

Amy: Obviously I embrace the term “women’s fiction” but we all know that it is often misconstrued. What is your definition of women’s fiction?

Ellen: The only problem that I have with the term is that novels written by men aren’t categorized as men’s novels! I think the term is generic enough that it doesn’t pigeonhole books as chick lit or beach reads. And yes, most readers of fiction are women.

Amy: What’s your most surprising or unusual advice be for aspiring authors?

Ellen: Go big or go home. Make your characters act – and push them as far as you can. I’m getting tired of quiet stories. I want to read about real drama.

Ellen Sussman is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel, French Lessons, published by Ballantine in 2011. Her first novel, On a Night Like This, was a San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller. It has been translated into six languages. Her newest novel, The Paradise Guest House, will be published in March, 2013. She is also the editor of two anthologies, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia Of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, which was a New York Times Editors Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller. 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. She has been awarded fellowships from The Napoule Art Foundation, Atlantic Center for the Arts, 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. She 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 find Ellen on her website (where you can find links to buy THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE), on Facebook, and on Twitter: @ellensussman.

Interview with French Lessons author, Ellen Sussman

When I heard Ellen Sussman on SheWrites Radio with Meg Waite Clayton and Carleen Brice, talking about the “feminine tosh” debacle and her novel, French Lessons, I knew she was “perfect” for Women’s Fiction Writers.

I think you’ll agree! 

Interview with author Ellen Sussman

ASN: How did you come up with the premise for French Lessons, your latest novel?

ES: I was asked to teach at the Paris Writers Workshop one summer. I invited my husband along because it was our anniversary, but then realized I wouldn’t have much time to spend with him. So I bought him a gift of a week of French lessons with a tutor I found on Craigslist. She suggested walking lessons — they could wander the streets of Paris and speak French. Great idea! Until he met her — she was gorgeous! I had bought my husband a beautiful young Frenchwoman for an anniversary gift! Luckily we survived the week, and I had an idea for a novel — what might happen if a happily-married man falls in love (or lust) with his French tutor. I invented two more characters so that I’d have a chance to tell a bigger story about Americans in Paris.

ASN: French Lessons, is set in Paris.  I read in your bio that you’ve lived in Paris — among other places.  I was also a bit of a nomad until about a dozen years ago. How have the places you’ve lived impacted the settings for your novels?

ES: I could not have written FRENCH LESSONS without having had the experience of living in Paris. For the five years that I lived there I was constantly taking notes — some mental, some real — about my observations, more experiences, my impressions. When I started writing FRENCH LESSONS, years after I’d left Paris, it all poured into the novel. And I’m very interested in what happens to us when we travel. We’re outside of our comfort zone — we’re challenged to see things differently, to experience the world in a new way. I’m always exploring that in my fiction.

ASN: What is your process for getting a first draft out of your head and into your computer (or where ever you type it)?  Are you a pantser or a plotter — or as I like to call it — a combo platter?

ES: I write a fast and furious first draft — discovering my characters and plot as I go. I have some vague notion about story, but I don’t decide what will happen until my characters start to lead the way. That makes for a messy first draft — so I have to do many rewrites. But I like to work that way — it helps me find a truer story.

ASN: Are you working on a new novel?  Can you (will you?) share with us what it’s about?

ES: Yes, I’m almost finished with the new novel. It’s called THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE. the story: a woman is caught in the 2002 terrorist attacks in Bali and returns to the island five years later to find the man who saved her. Yes, it’s another exotic location!

ASN: There’s a lot of talk about women’s fiction – what it is and what it’s not. How do you define women’s fiction?

ES: That’s a tough one. It’s such an odd name for a genre. I like to read books that have good stories which are well-told. That’s my ideal blend of commercial fiction and literary fiction. In commercial fiction, the writing is often lacking. In literary fiction, the story is often lacking. I want both in a book — and I write that way as well. Is that women’s fiction? Maybe.

ASN: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

ES: Two things: 1. Find a good writing schedule for yourself and stick to it. Daily writing is best, but not everyone can make that happen. Even if you can only write one day a week, make that your weekly habit. 2. Find a writers group or a writing class. Writing is solitary and crazy-making work — we need to find support and friendship along the way.

Ellen Sussman is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel, French Lessons, published by Ballantine in 2011. Her first novel,On a Night Like This, was a San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller. It has been translated into six languages. She is also the editor of two anthologies, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia Of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, which was a New York Times Editors Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller. Her website is