Suzy Gershman, author of Frommer’s Born to Shop book series, has also been a travel-shopping columnist for Travel and Leisure as well as Travel Holiday. She has appeared on Oprah, CNN, the Today show, and Good Morning America and has been featured in People, USA Today, Family Circle, McCall’s, and the International Herald Tribune.
There is a rich tradition of the American abroad in nonfiction literature, reaching from Mark Twain to Peter Mayle. Did you have any of these authors in mind while working on C’est la Vie? Were there any works of fiction that influenced you?
I tried to write a novel about twenty years ago and realized at that time that I simply can’t do fiction. So as much as I adore fiction, I don’t think it influences me very much. Diane Johnson gave me a lot of support in this book and Stephen King told me things about keeping the narrative going, but these were boosts from personal connections, not from novels.
What I did that helped the most was keep a journal—not a “Dear Diary” kind of thing, but a series of notes on everything—every funny thing a French person said or did, every emotion I had no matter how light or dark, every subject I thought I’d like to write about at some time in the future. I didn’t use all these notes, but they formed the backbone of the story, just as an outline might have worked up a story for a novelist.
Born to Shop really taught me my voice in terms of my own personality and the marriage of information with confession, so C’est la Vie is much like Born to Shop—if we were seated at lunch this is what I’d tell you—but has more stuff from the heart, because of the subject matter.
I happen to be very sensitive on the Peter Mayle issue. While I admire Mr. Mayle enormously (and I know about those Wee Willy Winkle books!), I really don’t like comparisons with his work—I don’t like when people say I will be the next Martha Stewart or the next Peter Mayle or the next Erma Bombeck…I plan to be the next Suzy Gershman, or simply the best Suzy Gershman I can be.
As the author of the highly successful Born To Shop series, you have a lot of writing experience. But C’est la Vie is unlike your other work in that it is entirely about you. Why did you choose to write a memoir in the first place? Did you find the level of honesty involved difficult to maintain? How did your family and friends react to their depiction in the book?
The first book I ever wrote was called Instant Parent, and was my experiences as a stepmother to an eight-year-old girl. So I have done memoir before. When I turned in that manuscript, some twenty-five years ago, the editor said, “My God, there are things in here I don’t think you should say…you shouldn’t admit to!”
I insisted on keeping those parts in the book, because they were not only my truths, but I really believe that when I dare to say something important, it will be something you also thought, but were afraid to voice because it may be socially unacceptable.
I used the same principles with C’est la Vie. And in truth, I have a very confessional personality. Also, you have to remember that I worked for Time magazine—I am trained to tell you more details than you ever wanted to know.
My father is eighty-six-years-old—I was worried about him reading the book because of the parts about adultery and vibrators…but he told me he can’t remember if he read it or not. Isn’t that perfect?! His wife, Yvette, was upset about a comment that referred to her, but we’ve turned it into a small joke…furthermore, whether she’s upset or not, I stand by the truth of what I wrote. Sometimes truth is more important than someone’s superficial feelings, because it will reach out to many other people.
Your son Aaron’s reservations about France figure prominently in the book and affect you deeply. Has this difference of opinion been reconciled? What advice do you have for women who find themselves in a conflict between their children’s needs and their own?
I worked very hard—and spent a bit of money—to get Aaron to fall in love with France. It took a long time and a lot of airline tickets. He cannot feel the way I do about France because it simply doesn’t interest him in the same way; perhaps he will in time—maybe after I pass on and he inherits property here. But the point wasn’t to make him a Francophile; it was to make him comfortable with my being here.
We did hit a turning point after Aaron and his girlfriend Jenny lived in the house in Provence for six months once they graduated from college. They have also gone to work with me on Born to Shop, so that has made us closer and Aaron has come to accept Europe more. In our case, I was lucky. Aaron has relaxed, accepted the situation and come to embrace it.
Also, I think it’s important to remember that this particular triangle was me, Aaron, and France—not another man, which I think would have made things much harder.
As for advice for other women, I think that there are questions about the age of the child first and then the needs of both. The history of motherhood is written in sacrifice for our children. In my case, my son was twenty when his father died and I felt that I was in a personal life/death situation—a dead mother is no use to anyone. We were both old enough to start to cope on our own, so I pressed forward—perhaps selfishly.
Paris is a city “where older women were visually enjoyed—even by younger men.” The French not only have a respect for aging, they have a healthy appreciation for sex; together, these enlightened views are clearly a boost to your self-esteem. How do you think these attitudes developed? Why doesn’t the U.S. have a similar way of thinking?
One look at the Clinton mess with Miss Monica and you can only laugh—somehow the U.S. became puritanical in the case of sex—or never emerged from the 1630s when the Puritans arrived. While I adore the U.S. and have great pride in being an American, some things in American thinking just stump me. For the most part, it is a country that wastes much and often shows superficial values in a public face. People are reluctant to let their true selves show through. They talk about sex but don’t seem to approve of sex, or sexuality. Middle-aged women are invisible. It’s as if human nature has been wrapped up in a Tupperware container.
In setting up your new home, you encounter a number of colorful characters—landlords, repairmen, salesclerks, and more—with mixed results. Which personality stands out most clearly in your memory, and for what reason? Which interaction do you think best sums up your experience during that first year in Paris?
Now that I am out of my apartment on rue de Prony—the one I wrote about in the book—I realize how much freer I feel; that there were many negative interactions that happened to be bad luck. I couldn’t know it at the time, but I was really hindered by the team at Prony—my tyrannical landlord, the unhelpful concierge, etc. My new apartment—which I own—isn’t as large or glam, but the concierge is fabulous and I am not being cheated by a proprietor who is out for every Euro. I think I suffered from the slings and arrows that attack any “foreign fish” in a strange country and I am happy to have learned the system and grown up. On the other hand, the way I learned is that so many people were wonderful to me—from the boy at the corner news kiosk to the chimney sweep to my hairdresser and total strangers. The kindness gave me the strength to carry on and form a community here.
You have a diverse group of girlfriends in France and you credit them with helping you handle many practical and emotional issues. What role does each woman have in your life today? What is your contribution to the group?
Les Girls are still tight—things change as they always do—Sandrine is temporarily on assignment in Mexico; Karen h