Friday, March 29, 2013

Ellen Sussman talks about The Paradise Guest House, Bali, why where we live matters so much, and so much more

I first met Ellen Sussman on, this wonderful online watering hole for writers, and we quickly became friends. She's the author of On A Night Like this, a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave (Hey, I wrote about cheating in my first marriage), and her new novel, The Paradise Guest House is just out and racking up the raves, with a starred Publisher's Weekly leading the avalanche. She's a San Francisco Library Laureate and she teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes out of her home. I'm thrilled to have her here, and only wish she was really HERE--so we could go grab tea and cake. Thanks, Ellen! 

What sparked this particular book? What was the research like and did anything surprise you with it?

My husband and I planned a vacation in Bali in 2005 and a few weeks before we left terrorists set off bombs in restaurants and cafes on the island. We didn’t cancel our trip as most people suggested. In fact, we saw almost no tourists during our two weeks there. But we fell in love with the island and the Balinese people. The idea of terrorism on that peaceful island made no sense to me (or to the Balinese) and so I began to imagine a novel about a young woman who gets caught in the 2002 bombings (which killed 200 people, mostly young tourists) and returns to the island a year later to find the man who saved her. 

I find that I write in order to learn and understand the things that puzzle me. And so this book became my way of learning about Bali, the people, the culture and religion and also about the effects of terrorism on our psyches.

I returned to Bali to spend a month researching the novel. (what a gig!) I was surprised by how quickly the tourists forgot about the terrorist attacks. But the Balinese had not forgotten. I interviewed survivors of the bombings and families of victims. Their lives have been very much altered by those events in 2002. And yet they’re so strong and so loving. I learned a great deal from hearing their stories.

I love the idea of a woman searching for home--why do you think where we live matters so much? 

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t feel at home in any of the places I lived in my life until I moved to Paris! And now I have a real home in northern California. The easy answer is that home is the people around us – but I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think place matters a great deal. We want to feel as if we belong to a place, that we fit in and find our true selves in that place. It’s a hard thing to do. And yet, it’s crucial to our happiness.

What's your writing life like now? How have things changed for you in ways you didn't expect?

It’s amazing to feel like I’m living the writer’s dream right now! I struggled for so many years and almost lost faith that it would ever happen. But I kept writing through it all. Now, with French Lessons still selling so well, Paradise Guest House just hitting the shelves, and my next novel already sold (and mostly written) I feel extraordinarily blessed. And lucky! What hasn’t changed is my focus on the writing. Every day I sit at my desk and write for three hours. Publishing can be a very distracting business. The  important part (for us writers) is to sit our butt in the chair and write. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m writing a novel about marriage – how can we commit to love and marriage knowing all that we know about divorce and love gone bad? I’m in a wonderful marriage but I think love is a very complex subject, especially over time. I’m also looking at sibling relationships and trust. Whenever I enter new writing territory my characters and their problems become my newest obsessions.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

I’ve got one for you: how do you write your wonderful books and still have time to support other writers in the way you do? You’re fabulous, Caroline. We all love you.

1 comment: said...

5835Great interview. I love the part about what makes a place a home. Thank you.