I’m absolutely delighted to day to be hosting my friend Ellen Sussman on 1st Books for her second novel, French Lessons. “Touching, thoughtful, hilarious, and exquisite in its observations, Ellen Sussman’s day in Paris with the wonderful collection of characters that make up French Lessons is a treat. . . . Tres charmante!” – that was my reaction when I read it, even before it was acquired by Ballantine. But don’t take my word for it. People Magazine just gave it four stars! – Meg
On a Night Like This, my first published novel, has a fairly conventional structure. I teach writing classes – I know all about plot lines, conflicts, climaxes, and character arcs. But when I started to write French Lessons I thought to myself: I want to tell three stories – about three Americans in Paris. Does this story have a beginning, middle and end? It has three beginnings, three middles and three ends! And once I put that all in place I decided that it needed a preface and an epilogue – about three other characters!
I was breaking all the rules. I love breaking rules! But suddenly I was in such new, unexplored territory and I didn’t have a map. Was the novel any good? Would anyone like this strange concoction?
I am not sure what mix of self-confidence and delusion we writers must have to do what we do. If I thought about my structural rule-breaking, I would break into a sweat. So I stopped thinking about it. I wrote the novel the best way I knew how, by learning my characters. I fell into their world and let them tell their stories the way they wanted to. I learned a whole new way of novel-writing.
I didn’t show the novel to anyone while I was writing it. I’ve already learned from experience that I work best if I don’t hear other people’s voices while I write. In this case, especially, I could imagine the advice: tie these three stories into one! Pick one main character! Drop the stories of the French tutors!
A few years ago I wrote a novel that didn’t get published – which is a heart-breaking experience. While writing and rewriting that novel, I took everyone’s advice. Change points of view! Make it only one point of view! Give it more back story! Make it more immediate! I took each person’s suggestion to heart – and somewhere along the way, I lost my story. I have put that novel away for awhile. If I ever come back to it, I will try to find the true story at the heart of the novel.
With French Lessons, I protected my fragile characters and my story. I needed to trust myself as a writer – something I had lost in the process of writing the unpublished novel. When I finally sent my manuscript off to my agent, I was terrified. Had I turned this crazy idea into a real novel?
My agent loved it, though she had a hard time explaining it to editors. Just read it, she told them. Nine publishers bid on the novel and I had the amazing experience of my first publishing auction.
French Lessons hit the shelves yesterday. I remember back to those first weeks, three years ago, when I sat at my desk and grappled with this new idea. I heard a reasonable voice in my head, a voice that said: the publishing world is so competitive right now. Don’t take chances! Don’t write a risky novel! Don’t break the rules! And I silenced that voice. Better yet, my characters silenced that voice. And now they get a chance to tell their story. – Ellen