July 16, 2011
Ellen Sussman’s fourth book, FRENCH LESSONS, just came out to rave reviews. People magazine gave it four out of four stars, a ¾ page layout, and the title of People Pick. You may already know Ellen from her first novel, On a Night Like This. Or perhaps you’ve picked up the two anthologies she’s edited: Bad Girls:26 Writers Misbehave, or Dirty Words: A Literary Encylopedia of Sex. Ellen’s writing is witty, engaging, and always sexy.
Sex is the tension that keeps this book quickly buzzing along-every character is either doing it, thinking about doing it, or remembering when they were doing it. Do you think this is how life is? Or is this how it is in Paris?
Funny – I don’t think it’s all about the sex. I think it’s about searching for connection, for passion, and for love. Yes, sex is the way we often get there. But when my characters tumble into bed, they’re usually looking for more than a good time.
And Paris does that to us. It’s such a romantic city. We walk the streets and think about love. OK, we think about sex, too. Did you ever notice how many people kiss on the streets of Paris? They stand in front of Metro stations and make out for a few minutes before they say good-bye and leave for work. The city is hot! So if I let my Americans walk around Paris on a steamy summer day, well, I’m not surprised they’re all dreaming about a romp between the sheets.
According to your publicist, you once hired a sexy, alluring French tutor for your husband. Can you tell us more about this? And, what exactly were you thinking at the time?!
I was invited to teach at the Paris Writers Conference a few summers ago. It was my anniversary so I invited my husband to join me. And then I realized I’d be in class all day – not much fun for him. So, as a gift, I found a tutor on Craigslist. She had this great idea: they’d walk the streets of Paris and speak French. C’est bon! I hired her for a week and sent him off for the first day of lessons. We met at a café at the end of the day and he had a remarkable smile on his face. I realized in a nano-second what an idiot I was. “Was she gorgeous?” I asked. “Mais oui,” he said and that smile grew. I bought my husband a beautiful young French woman for an anniversary gift! We survived the week and I started playing with this idea: what happens when a happily married man feels the first stirring of lust for another woman? And so, French Lessons was born. P.S. We’re still happily married. Phew.
Everyone always wants to know how much of any novel is true. I do know that you lived in Paris for five years. And I know that you’re a hot, sexy American. So . . . what else about you and your time in Paris is in this novel?
I like the hot, sexy part. That just made my day.
I feel like every part of my experience of living in Paris went into the novel. For five years, I walked around with my eyes wide open. Part of that is what happens when you live abroad – it’s all new and surprising and keeps you on edge – and part is Paris, in all its glory. I had so much to say about the city – that’s one reason I created three Americans and three French tutors. There’s a little of me and a little of my experience in all of them! But like Riley, I had two babies while living in Paris. Unlike Riley, I loved Paris – she hates it. And unlike Riley, I never had a French tutor who whisked me off to bed.
Of the three Americans in Paris in French Lessons, one has a relationship with a married man, one is married and has sex with a French man, and one really, really wants to have sex with his French tutor but doesn’t act on it in the end. Strangely, although one of these scenarios seems like the highest ground, it doesn’t quite read that way in the book. The reader feels aligned with all three choices (or at least, I did). Any comment on this, or on adultery in general?
I set that as a challenge for myself, beginning with Josie. Can I make this young woman sympathetic to readers? She’s having an affair with her student’s father. He’s married. Everything about it is wrong. And she can’t stop.
I’ve heard from readers that they love Josie. I’m really pleased about that. I think love is really tough in this world and sometimes we fall in love with the wrong person. I don’t think adultery is a good thing. But it happens. And when we take a long hard look at it we might learn some things about marriage and about love. We will certainly learn about passion.
Do you think the French are better at sex than us?
Don’t know. They are certainly less prudish and less puritanical.
Please teach us one or two sexy phrases that every American should know before heading off to Paris.
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? Ce soir.
Thank you, Lady Marmalade!