June 17, 2013
Ellen Sussman’s last novel, French Lessons, was a national bestseller that charmed Francophiles and non-Francophiles alike. With Ellen’s new book, The Paradise Guest House, the reader is again taken away to an exotic locale. Only this book goes beyond a romantic travel story by plunging into the painful complexities of terrorism and its echoing aftermath.
Here are six questions for Ellen Sussman:
Unlike French Lessons, which dealt with the traumas of love, heartbreak, parenthood and marriage, this book takes a more serious turn by dealing with the subjects of terrorism, anxiety and panic disorder, and terrible loss. Was it harder and more painful to write The Paradise Guest House?
Yes! I really had to dig deep to write The Paradise Guest House. I spent some time in Bali with survivors of the terrorist attacks and with family members of victims. I listened to their stories, watched their faces, saw how they’ve coped with the effects of this trauma. I had to absorb their pain—and their strength—in order to give emotional depth to my characters. And there’s a less direct path for me to understanding and conveying the impact of violence on us: many years ago I was a victim of a violent act in a foreign country. I have never gone back to that country and probably never will. So I created a character who did go back. I lived through the fictional experience and struggled with all of the emotional repercussions along with my characters. Interestingly, I wasn’t aware that I was doing this until I had finished a first draft. Sometimes I need to trick myself into entering dark territory.
I’m especially proud of this novel because it took me to new places in my writing and in my understanding of the world.
Clearly you enjoy writing about foreign places. Can you explain how setting plays into story for you? Or how you’re inspired by particular settings?
I love to travel and do so as often as I can. I find that we learn about ourselves in brand new ways when we’re outside our comfort zone. New countries, new cultures, new experiences challenge us deeply. And so I love to explore that in my fiction. And yes, setting is hugely important to me. It’s not a backdrop for the story—instead, it has to matter greatly in the story. Paris transformed my characters in French Lessons as much as the French tutors did. And Bali, that lovely island, is as much Jamie’s catalyst for change as the people she meets.
I never know what will inspire me to write about a country. I’ve been dying to write about Buenos Aires but I haven’t found my story yet, my open door. I need to spend a good amount of time in a new place and let it perform its magic on me.
Hope and love shine brilliantly throughout this novel. Did you deliberately set out to make this a spiritually optimistic story? Or do ideas like that just push out on their own?
I had no idea what would happen when Jamie found Gabe. I don’t plan my novels in advance—I think that takes the juice out of the story. So it’s as much a mystery to me as it is for the reader. I think that if I’m dying to find out what happens to Jamie and Gabe, then my reader will share that energy.
I learned a good deal from my Balinese characters along the way. They helped me believe in hope. And that certainly guided Jamie’s journey.
How much time did you spend in Bali in preparation for this book? If we look at the stamps on your passport will we know where the next book will be set?
I had spent two weeks in Bali in 2005, right after the second set of terrorist attacks. (That’s when I developed the idea for the novel.) I went back in 2010 for one month to do research. (a tough gig!). Bali had changed a great deal in those five years—tourism is hugely successful again. (The Balinese call it the EPL effect. That’s Eat, Pray, Love.) It was a little harder for me to love the island in the same way, but I found the smaller villages and quieter corners to explore. And I talked to so many people—Balinese and ex-pats—which brought me much closer to understanding my material.
My next novel takes me back to France, though this time to Cassis, a town on the Mediterranean. There will be a wedding, a stranger, family chaos and danger. The novel is called A Stranger at the Wedding (working title for now) and will be out in August, 2014.
I learned from your book that the Balinese believe in reincarnation (an idea that is far more appealing to me than eternity). As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of the act of writing as a form of reincarnation—we leave ourselves behind and become our characters during the time we create them. Did you see Jamie as a version of yourself as you were writing this?
I love that theory! As I said earlier, Jamie was able to do what I couldn’t do in traveling to the “scene of the crime.” And she’s a gutsier, braver version of me in general—maybe she’s who I wish I were at that age. At 32, I was married with a kid and another on the way. She’s out conquering the world. I do love living in the skin of all my characters. It gives me access to so many experiences I would never have!
The final moment in The Paradise Guest House is wonderfully romantic and cinematic. I see a big, bright, open future there—please don’t tell me I’m reading it wrong!
I can’t tell you how many times I changed the last scene. I wanted to suggest that bright open future but I didn’t want to take the reader there quite yet. I wanted to leave the reader with the sense of great possibilities.
I’m a sucker for a happy ending.