Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Guest Post: Ellen Sussman

Leave Home and Learn

By Ellen Sussman

I’ve been a writer all my life. I write about contemporary life, about relationships and love and loss. I always push myself to go deeper as a writer, but it wasn’t until I pushed myself deeper as a person that I was able to make some real breakthroughs as a writer. How’d I manage that? I left the country.

When I was thirty-one, I moved to Paris for five years. It didn’t just change my life – it changed me. Some of those changes were small – I learned to dress better, I expanded my food horizons, I learned to love city living. Some of those changes were momentous. In my twenties I was conflicted about being an American – I had been part of the hippie culture and the anti-Vietnam war movement. In Paris, I became an American. Being a foreigner made me clear about who I was in a way that I couldn’t fathom when I was among my own kind. And I learned to see the world from a much broader perspective, instead of a small American perspective.

My writing flourished after that experience of living abroad. I felt as if I could write more deeply about my characters’ experiences – because I understood my own in a new way. My eyes were wide open – and I tried to capture that every day when I sat down to write.

When I started to write a novel that took place in Paris, I began with an idea: how could one day in Paris, one hot summer day, change the lives of three Americans? As I entered their world, I saw the ways in which a foreign culture challenged them, opened them up, and took them someplace new. I could use all my knowledge about how living abroad – or even traveling abroad – gets under our skin and makes us feel different. I’ve never had so much fun writing a novel.

FRENCH LESSONS tells the story of one American ex-pat and two American tourists. One loves Paris, one hates it, and one is seeing it for the first time. All three grow to love the city by the end of the day. But, more importantly, they all come to know themselves because they are in a new, unfamiliar world.

I still travel a great deal. I’d still like to live abroad again for some length of time. The experience of leaving home is remarkably valuable for a writer – when we leave home we begin to learn ourselves in a brand new way. And we use that knowledge to deepen our fiction.


  1. What a fabulous guest post! I love the idea that being abroad can help you see yourself better.

    Can't wait to dig in to FRENCH LESSONS!

  2. I was an expat in France for two years, so I'm really looking forward to your book.

  3. Welcome to the GBC! This one is definitely going on my list as I love Paris. I spent a month there as a college student--as much as I loved it, I was also horribly homesick. So I can imagine there's so much grist for the mill in the set-up you describe.

  4. What a lovely post, Ellen! I've been hearing a lot about FRENCH LESSONS. It sounds great! My sister is living in France right now for six months, and I hope it's giving her a new perspective on life.

  5. I'm all in favor of living abroad -- I've lived in Japan and it changed my life and eventually influenced my novels. Very much looking forward to reading "French Lessons!" Ellen, if you live abroad again where would you want to be?

  6. I picked up FRENCH LESSONS yesterday and can't wait to dive in. I've got my baguette, a little cheese and your book. What else (besides un peu de vin, peut-être) do I need? Lovely post, Ellen. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks, all! what a great blog you've got here -- it feels like a real community. we writers and readers (both such solitary activities) need community!

    Wendy, I'd go back to France in a heartbeat. But I also have my eye on Buenos Aires these days. who knows...

  8. Wow! I love the insight that being abroad actually made you feel MORE AMERICAN. I always joke, and I do mean joke, that when I'm abroad, I'm going to say "I'm Canadian." I LOVE my country, and this is a joke on the misconception that all United States Americans are mega consumers and fat from fast food, etc. "I'm proud to be an American..." but I think it's really good to see the world (if possible). Before I was thirty, I'd never been anywhere. Now that I've travelled abroad, I too have a different perspective. I'm excited that next year we are going to France. I also LOVE that I took my son, at two, to the UK. At seven, he'll be on the French coast. Great post! And I LOVE the cover of your novel!!!!!!!

  9. Great Post!!! Will have to pick up that book! Looking forward to reading it!