A Conversation with Ellen Sussman and Amanda Eyre WardAmanda 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.
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.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. A Wedding in Provence starts by introducing a happy couple on the way to their idyllic wedding. How did this affect your expectations for the book? Were you nervous about how events would unravel?
2. Nell is clearly a loose cannon. What were your initial thoughts when she decided to bring Gavin to the wedding? Did you think he was dangerous, or just a fun-loving, spontaneous stranger?
3. Were you surprised when Carly took off with Gavin? Why or why not?
4. In many ways Carly is Nell’s opposite, but the two sisters end up attracted to the same man, however briefly. Is it possible that they aren’t actually as different as they seem? Do you think they share any other similarities?
5. At the beginning of Chapter Sixteen, Olivia and Emily are discussing Nell’s vulnerability. Was Emily’s advice to Olivia helpful? How would you have suggested that Olivia manage her daughters’ differences?
6. After learning that Sébastien cheated on Emily, Olivia is clearly rattled. She says “We’re brave old fools. . . . We still choose love when we know everything that can happen,” (page 19). Do you think a marriage can survive infidelity?
7. What did you think of Sam leaving Fanny after fifty-five years of marriage and refusing to come to Brody’s wedding? Were you surprised when you found out why?
8. Throughout the novel, Olivia and Brody are faced with numerous obstacles that threaten to ruin their low-key wedding weekend. From Nell’s surprise guest to Carly’s disappearance and Sébastien’s infidelity, which do you think caused the biggest stir? Why?
9. Of all the characters in the novel, which one did you most sympathize with?
10. Even though Olivia’s big day is the backbone of the plot, the narrative rotates among her perspective and each of her daughters’. Was there ever a time when you felt drawn to one of the three points of view more than the others? When and why?
11. As Olivia and Brody get ready to commit to marriage, they witness their friends and family struggling with relationships. Is their love tested by these struggles? Do you think it’s hard to say yes to love when we know everything that might go wrong in a marriage?
12. Of all the themes present in this novel—love, loss, starting fresh—which resonated with you the most? Why?