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After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2001 with a degree in English, Michelle Jellen traveled through Europe. One of her favorite cities was San Sebastian, Spain. She lives in Northern California with her husband. This is her first novel.
Name: Michelle Jellen
Hometown: San Jose, CA
Countries you have visited: England, Ireland, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, The Netherlands, and Mexico.
Country you wrote about: Spain
Destination you would most like to visit: Japan
Why did you choose to write about Spain?
I fell in love with Spain immediately. It’s laid back, the beaches are gorgeous and the nightlife is lively. It’s also such a romantic setting, so I felt it would be the perfect place for a dreamer like my main character, Elena, to fall in love. I found Spain to be a very welcoming country. When I fumbled terribly with my Spanish I encountered many a patient soul who just appreciated my effort, and made me feel comfortable even as I was butchering their beautiful language. My first night in San Sebastian I made friends while standing at the tapas bars sampling muscles, stuffed mushrooms, and sangria. I knew the warm, welcoming attitude of the Spanish people would be the perfect environment for Elena’s first journey away from her family. And I knew the beauty and history of the country would be inspiring to her as a budding playwright.
What was your favorite place to visit in Spain? What was your favorite food? What was your favorite souvenir?
The trip that brought me to Spain was a six-week tour through Europe with my friend, Marina. We chose to stop in San Sebastian simply to break up a long train ride between Paris and Madrid. On the morning we were to leave town, we overslept and missed our train. When we went to the station to buy a ticket for a later train, we were informed that there wasn’t a single ticket available for another four days! We had unknowingly arrived in town during the running of the bulls in Pamplona, which is only about 40 miles from San Sebastian. Apparently, many people use San Sebastian as a stop-over on the way to the running of the bulls. Those people had all planned ahead and bought train and bus tickets. So we were “trapped” in paradise for five days. San Sebastian is one of my favorite cities in the world and if we hadn’t slept through that train we wouldn’t have been able to fully enjoy it.
The best part of San Sebastian is its famous beach, Playa de la Concha, but a close second is the old quarter, or parte viaje, which is packed with tapas bars. It was in the parte viaje that I first tried tapas and sangria. Tapas are appetizer-sized plates of food, usually arranged across the top of a bar so you can just pick and choose what you would like try. You eat right there at the bar, sometimes standing up. And when you’ve had enough at one place, you move on to another. The food is delicious and the people are friendly.
What was the most surprising/memorable cultural difference you noticed?
The Spanish people have a wonderful appreciation for food. They devote time to really enjoying it. In America we get so used to grabbing something—anything—to eat on the run. It was refreshing to be in a place where it was common to linger over food and truly savor it.
Have you traveled anywhere “off the beaten path”? If so, what brought you there?
I tend to stay on the beaten path as much as possible. Luckily, during my travels I’ve been diverted off my carefully plotted path. I say “luckily” because those diversions have been some of my best experiences while traveling. When my friend, Marina, and I were traveling through Europe after college, we had some problems with the trains. Once, we ended up in a charming Italian Riviera town called Santa Margarita while trying to get to Florence. The little seaside town was so lovely; we decided to stay the night. There was little a harbor and all the buildings were painted pink and burnt orange with green and yellow trim. On a different trip, we were our way through Switzerland at night when we realized we wouldn’t get into the town where we had reserved a hotel room in advance. We’d underestimated the time it would take to get to our destination by about five hours! We had to find a place to stay late at night on the fly. Oh, it was also raining. A little hotel in Lugano gave us the only room in town. They were about to lock the front door when we came knocking. The next morning we woke to find that our room had a priceless view of the town’s main attraction, a sparkling blue lake surrounded by mountains. We would have missed the unexpected view were it not for our poor navigation skills.
It was scary not knowing where I was going, or at times, where I would sleep for the night. I like to have a plan, to know what to expect when I travel. But you can learn the most about a place in the surprise moments when you veer away from the path, or are steered away by outside forces. Those are the memories that are fun to look back on.
Is your main character like you in any way? Are your characters based on anyone in your “real” life?
Most of the details of my character’s family background—her many overachieving siblings, her Spanish heritage, and her feelings of being overshadowed by a beautiful older sister—are not a part of my background. However, I do share some of Elena’s personality traits. I am reserved and a bit of a romantic, like Elena. I also tend to shy away from the spotlight. I don’t slip into daydreams quite as often as Elena, but I think to be a writer you have to a bit of a dreamer. Most of the other characters aren’t based on anyone in particular, but are bits and pieces assembled from friends and family members.
What made you want to become a writer?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I love stories. I love hearing them, reading them, and watching them unfold. It’s my love of stories that led me to want to create some of my own. My favorite books have inspired me, and I love the thought that I might inspire someone else.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
The best thing about traveling to other countries and experiencing different cultures—other than having a blast—is that it gives you a new perspective on your own culture. When you can’t travel, keep reading. It’s the quickest way to go anywhere.
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