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A Conversation with Ellen Sussman and Amanda Eyre Ward

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Wedding in Provence_Sussman

When Olivia and Brody drive up to their friend’s idyllic inn—nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis—they know they’ve chosen the perfect spot for their wedding. The ceremony will be held in the lush garden, and the reception will be a small party of only their closest family and friends. But when Olivia and Brody’s guests check in, their peaceful wedding weekend is quickly thrown off balance.

The first to arrive is Nell, Olivia’s oldest daughter from her first marriage. Impulsive and reckless, she invites a complete stranger—an enigmatic man who is both alluring and a bit dangerous—to be her guest at the wedding. The next is Carly, Olivia’s youngest daughter, the responsible and pragmatic one. Away from her demanding job and a strained relationship, she feels an urgent need to cut loose—and for once do something brash and unpredictable. Then there is Jake, Brody’s playboy best man, and Fanny, Brody’s mother, who is coping with the fallout of her own marriage. And in the middle of it all is Olivia, navigating the dramas, joys, and pitfalls of planning a wedding and starting a new life.

A delicious, compelling, and utterly enchanting novel, A Wedding in Provencecaptures the complex and enduring bonds of family, and our boundless faith in love.

Amanda Eyre Ward: Ellen, I love how A Wedding in Provence transported me to France. Can you talk about how the setting of Cassis inspired the story?

Ellen Sussman: I lived in Paris for five years when my daughters were babies. We’d vacation every summer in Provence. (I know—­lucky me!) When I thought about writing a novel about a fiftysomething-­year-­old couple getting hitched, I knew immediately that the wedding would take place in Provence. I wanted a setting that was rich in sensory stimulation: The heat! The food! The smells! The light! That blue blue sea! Mix all that with love, and you’ve got a heady combination.

I had not visited Cassis until a few years ago. It’s a charming town on the coast, less touristy than many of the towns along the Côte d’Azur. I fell for Cassis in a big way—­in fact, I now dream of living there one day. When I walked in the mountains, when I kayaked in the calanques, when I feasted in one of the cafés along the sea, I could imagine my characters at my side, already coming to life in this fabulous setting.

AEW: I have started spending time choosing where each of my characters lives, even down to finding their house, where they buy their coffee, etc.

Did you visit Cassis for research, and if so, can you talk about how you research a setting? Do you walk around taking notes on the sky, or locate where each character will have a drink?

ES: On my first visit to Cassis, I just soaked it all up. I don’t think I even took notes. But my senses were on high alert—­I seemed suddenly able to see things, smell things, taste things with remarkable clarity. Then I wrote the first draft of the novel, pouring all of those observations and sensations into my story.

I went back to Cassis for a weeklong visit between draft one and two of A Wedding in Provence. (Yes, this kind of research is the most fun part of my job!) This time I knew what I was looking for. What did it sound like when it rained? What did it feel like to swim in that delicious sea? What might Carly have seen while sitting at the beach café in Cassis? (In fact, I did see a man surreptitiously taking photos of a lovely young topless woman on the beach—­while his much older wife prepared a picnic for the two of them. And that went right into the novel!)

So some of what happens in that research week is planned and some is dumb luck. I hadn’t thought of using the stormy weather in the novel until we experienced the wild winds of the mistral and I realized it was a perfect backdrop for the drama of my characters.

AEW: How does a novel come to you: fully formed, or in snippets? Does the character come first? Does this change for each novel?

ES: I never know very much about my novel when I’m first starting out. Sometimes it’s a scene that gets me going—­sometimes it’s a character. But I never know what’s going to happen at the end of the novel. I like working that way—­it keeps me curious and interested. I’m on a quest; I need to find out what’s going to happen. And I think that energy goes into the writing. I want my reader turning pages—­and if I’m writing to discover, then they’ll be reading to discover.

That makes for a wonderful first-­draft experience. I give myself free rein to follow my characters anywhere. They dictate what happens—­and I let them fumble their way through complicated situations. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts where the hard work takes place. Then I have to take a look at the world I’ve created and determine if I’ve shaped the novel well, if I’ve given the characters their full journeys, if I’ve explored this fictional world with depth and passion.

AEW: Any words of wisdom about plotting a book with love and relationships at its center?

ES: In A Wedding in Provence, I knew that I wanted to write a novel about a second chance at love. And I wanted to write about fifty-­year-­olds grappling with love and commitment and family. So I had one driving question that propelled me through the novel: How do you commit to love and marriage when you know so much about all the ways in which love fails?

I don’t start writing a novel with answers—­just questions. Again, I’m on a quest—­I want to learn and discover rather than to report on what I already know.

Once I created Olivia and Brody as the central couple, with their questions about love, I thought, Let’s shake up this world even more. So both of Olivia’s daughters struggle with love. Brody’s mother has just found out that her husband of fifty years has walked away from their marriage. Brody’s best man is de­termined to never fall in love. Olivia’s best friend discovers on the first night of this supposedly idyllic wedding weekend that her own husband has cheated on her. Can anyone get it right?

I gave myself a lot to work with. That’s when the fun begins. I didn’t know what would happen during this wedding weekend, but with so much conflict brewing, I was never at a loss to create drama on the page.

In the end, what did I learn about love? Maybe there is no real way to know that this time we’ll get it right. In the end, we close our eyes and dive in. I’m a love junkie—­I think we just go for it.

AEW: Do you write every day?

ES: Yes! I’m a very disciplined writer. I think it’s crazy to wait for the muse to sit on my shoulder—­I may be waiting a long time. Instead I show up and demand that she shows up too. So I work from nine till noon every day. And I write one thousand words a day. I treat it like a real job—­I get dressed (changing from my yoga pajamas to my yoga clothes), plant my butt on my chair, don’t answer the phone, disable the Internet. (There’s a software program, Freedom, that enables me to do that. And I need it!) I’m a tough boss—­if I haven’t finished my word count by noon, then I march back into my office after lunch. But most days I’ve managed to hit one thousand words, and then I head to the hills for a hike with my dogs.

Some of the best writing gets done during my nonoffice hours. I’ll take notes during that hike, or while waiting at the dentist’s office, or in the middle of the night. Since I write daily, the fictional world swirls in my brain at all times. You might say my characters are my constant companions.

AEW: Now, you have two lovely daughters, and so does ­Olivia. Is the book at all autobiographical?

ES: No! Yes! No! Yes! Here are some of the similarities between A Wedding in Provence and my personal life. I got married for the second time—­in France (though not in Cassis). I have two daughters, twenty-­six and twenty-­eight, the same ages as Nell and Carly. But that’s about it—­the rest is truly fiction. Nothing that happened in the novel happened at my wedding in France. (My girls were twelve and fourteen then. I’m quite sure there were none of the Nell/Carly sexual shenanigans at my wedding!)

My daughters are very different from each other—­though not in the bad girl/good girl roles that Nell and Carly assume. I’ve been fascinated by how siblings can be so strikingly ­different—­as if they don’t come from the same parents or the same set of familial experiences. I wanted to explore the sister bond, sibling rivalry, how kids define themselves in opposition to each other. In the end, I’ve created very different characters from my own daughters. But yes, my own very personal exploration fueled that quest.

And yes, the novel is peppered with tiny autobiographical moments. I really did turn the invisible key on my older daughter’s forehead so that she could turn off her thoughts and go to sleep when she was a child. And yes, my husband and I once stayed at an inn in Provence where the owner’s white retriever, Ulysse, became our lovable Rent-­a-­Dog for daily hikes.

AEW: What are you working on next?

ES: I’m a little superstitious about this—­I don’t talk about a new project until I’ve at least written a first draft. It’s too ­fragile—­or maybe I’m too fragile! If someone were to say: That’s a lousy idea, I might trash the file and never look back. So I keep my characters in a tiny protective bubble—­no one else knows them or what they’re up to.

But I can say this: I’m trying to strike out in a new direction. The new novel takes place in San Francisco. And it’s told in first person—­I haven’t done that before. I’m loving my characters—­they’re not like anyone I know. And so this journey—­for them and for me—­will take us places we’ve never been.

Thanks, Amanda, for taking the time to interview me. Great questions!

I’d love to recommend Amanda’s books to all my readers. She’s one of my favorite writers—­if you don’t already know her work, you’re in for a great reading experience. Check out her latest: The Same Sky. You’ll be wowed.

Enter for your chance to win a copy of CLOSE YOUR EYES by Amanda Eyre Ward

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Ward_Close Your Eyes“I absolutely loved this beautiful, haunting story of a woman who learns to come to terms with a dark, deep family secret.”—Tatiana de Rosnay, New York Times bestselling author of Sarah’s Key

For most of her life, Lauren Mahdian has been certain of two things: that her mother is dead, and that her father is a murderer. Before the horrific tragedy, Lauren led a sheltered life on the banks of Long Island Sound, a haven of luxurious homes and seemingly perfect families. But one morning, eight-year-old Lauren and her older brother awoke to discover their mother’s body and their beloved father arrested for the murder.

Years later, Lauren is surrounded by uncertainty. Startling revelations force her to peek under the floorboards of her carefully constructed memories, put aside the version of history that she has clung to so fiercely, and search for the truth of what really happened that fateful night long ago.

Enter below for your chance to win!

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