Ellen Sussman pays homage to the beloved City of Lights in her second novel French Lessons, a literary tour through the arrondissements that explores how traveling and learning a language can change both our selves and our lives.
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Spanning the course of a single day in Paris, the book follows a trio of Americans as they traverse the streets—each with a French tutor in tow. Sussman brilliantly evokes the melancholy of Josie, a high school French teacher mourning the loss of her lover; the chaos that encompasses Riley, an ex-pat with two kids and a crumbling marriage; and the temptation of Jeremy, who is killing time while his wife, an international movie star, logs long days on set. Much is discovered in Sussman’s pages—not just the overlooked corners of Paris itself but her characters’ unexplored inner lives.
Here, the creative-writing teacher weighs in on her time in Paris, her lackluster French skills and why she loves writing sex scenes.
Tell us about French Lessons.
Even though this is my second novel, I feel in so many ways that this is the novel I’ve been waiting to write for a long time. I moved to Paris when I was pregnant with my youngest child, who’s now 22 years old. I spent five years there, and I really absorbed it into my soul. I dream of living there again. I moved away in 1993, but I’ve never written about it. It’s always held a special place in my heart.
Three years ago, I was invited to teach at a writer’s conference in Paris. I said yes immediately. It was my 10th wedding anniversary, so I’d invited my husband along. My anniversary gift for him was French lessons with a tutor—I’d found one on Craigslist who offered to escort her pupils around the city while teaching them.
I met him at a café at the end of the day, and he’d had on this fabulous smile so I knew she was good. But then it dawned on me—was she gorgeous? I’d gone and bought my husband a gorgeous young French woman for our anniversary. Which made me start thinking, what would happen to a happily married man faced with his first temptation. How would it affect his marriage?
It eventually became a novel about three different Americans and three different French tutors, but that was how it started.
Paris is as much of a character in this story as the people. There’s a long history of romanticizing Paris in literature, as well as life. Why do you think that is?
Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Hot, cold, rainy or sunny—it wakes up our senses, makes us pay attention to every way we can see, appreciate, take in the beauty. When I lived there, I was way more aware of my senses.
There’s a fabulous literary history, romantic history of Paris. So many people arrive with such high expectations because of that myth. They think that people are tap dancing down the streets in the rain. Visitors have such big expectations and a sense of what Paris means. I knew that I wanted to explore that, I was interested in the idea of what happens to us when we travel or live abroad.
You mentioned that you used to live there—did you work as a French tutor or hire one? Was your experience similar to that of your characters?
During my earlier marriage, my then-husband was offered a job in Paris. We’d been trying to create a reason to move there for a while. I was five months pregnant with my second child and had a 1-year-old at the time. It was a fabulous time, and it was real life too. There was no flitting around as a tourist. I was raising babies and meeting French moms and dads, consumed with doctors and markets. I spent a couple of years teaching writing at a cultural institute—that’s when I started teaching adults, and I love that. I’ve continued it since.
I did not speak French when I moved. I was pretty horrendous for the first couple of years. I took lessons with a couple of other women for a while. When I created Riley’s section, it was definitely tied to my memory of miserable French lessons with the children screaming in the background. I have the vocabulary of a 5-year-old. I can say “I have to go pee-pee” very well. Dinner conversation gets a little more challenging.
In this book, as well as many of your others, including Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, you write fairly candidly about sex. Many authors tend to shy away from sex—why not you?
I feel really strongly about including sex in fiction. What happens when two people make love taps into something so honest and true about people and their relationships. And to cut those scenes is a cop out. I learn something about my characters through sex that I don’t learn in any other way. Writing sex scenes can lead the story in a completely different direction. I don’t shy away from it because there’s an opportunity to learn a lot of new and important things when your characters get under the sheets and tear them up!