In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Ellen Sussman’s The Paradise Guest House drew me in right away with its story of Jamie, a woman bravely traveling to Bali to confront her past, and to maybe find her future. Here is what Ellen had to say about reading, writing, and Balinese culture.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I made the crazy decision to be a writer at age six. Really. My big sister put together a scrapbook of my stories and illustrations. It’s a good thing that I gave up the idea of being an illustrator! But I never gave up on being a writer, despite years of rejection letters. It takes a very thick skin, a lot of stubborn persistence, and a day job to make it in this field. Wait – it takes something else to make it as a writer: you have to love what you do. I love to write.
I’ve now published three novels and two anthologies. I write the kinds of books I love to read: contemporary novels about interesting characters in tough situations. And I enjoy an exotic setting. My last novel was set in Paris (where I lived for five years). And this new one, The Paradise Guest House, is set in Bali.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I write for three hours every morning. No matter what. If I feel lousy, I still put my butt in the chair and get those pages written. It’s sacred time for me. Nothing gets in the way of my writing morning. And when I’m done I need exercise. Today I went for a long hike with my dog. If I hike alone, then I’m still thinking through problems in the novel. My characters stay in my mind. If I hike with a friend (which I love to do) we start to gab about everything else in the world and I let my characters drift away. Today was great. I came back and put in an extra hour of writing time because the story didn’t leave me.
So it’s yoga or a hike at the end of the writing hours. That’s my treat for myself. I have to earn it though!
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
My husband and I traveled to Bali for a vacation. A few weeks before our trip, terrorists bombed three tourist destinations on the island. Everyone said we should cancel the trip but we wanted to go. Bali had suffered a terrible terrorist attack just a few years before when bombs ripped through two nightclubs, killing more than 200 people. Our vacation was both wonderful and difficult. The island is spectacularly gorgeous and the Balinese people are warm and lovely. But they were suffering greatly – their island paradise was reeling from the attacks. By the time our vacation was over I had this idea for a novel: what if a young American woman gets caught in the bombing in Bali and returns a year later to find the man who saved her?
Writing that novel dropped me into a world I knew little about. I studied Bali, Balinese culture, Balinese Hinduism, terrorism, post-traumatic stress syndrome. I learned a great deal about a world very far from my own. I met with survivors of the terrorist attacks and with family members of the victims. All of this has shaped my world view.
Interestingly, I still wanted to tell a love story. But the context for that story was a brand new world for me.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
I never stop reading! I beg/borrow/steal from every book I read! It’s true and I’m not ashamed of it. Reading inspires me. When I’m reading a novel I’m always asking myself: how did the writer do that? Then of course I try to figure out if I can do that, too. So I’m always learning from the wonderful writers around me.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
I’ve learned a lot about plot over the years. My training was very literary but I found that I was often bored reading very literary novels. The writing was gorgeous, but why the hell didn’t anything happen? Now what I look for in both my own writing and in the books I choose is this: a good story, well told. Story is essential. As is fine writing. You need both to make a really good book.
My next novel, A Wedding in Cassis, takes me back to France. This time my characters meet at an inn in the South of France. There’s a wedding, there’s family and there’s trouble. It’s a good combination.
This interview is a scheduled stop on Ellen Sussman’s TLC Book Tour. Check out the web page to view other reviews and interviews from this tour.