As I walked into the spacious, sunlit kitchen/living room in Susie Morgenstern’s rustic villa Niçoise, just 5 minutes from me, she had just finished an hour and a half phone call in preparation to head to Paris next week to record the CD version of her latest manuscript “La Chemise d’une Femme Heureuse”, her take on the old fairy tale “The Shirt of a Happy Man”. This author of over 100 published children’s books is not slowing down. I had to wait a few weeks to do the interview because Susie was visiting French Lycées in the SF Bay area to do some author’s visits. She has a hard time saying no, commits one whole day a week to answering fan mail and says yes to all those 10 year olds who want to befriend her on Facebook. The more I ease my way into the international writing community, the more I discover what a wonderfully warm and giving group it is. Susie was no exception. Over coffee she not only answered my prepared questions, checking to make sure we hadn’t left any out, but shared so many encouragements with me for my personal and professional life. As I left she thrust a good couple of summer reads into my hands and reminded me to email her for the couple of contacts she had suggested. Thank you Susie, I shall be staying in touch.
When do you write?
I keep office hours – very disciplined. Straight after breakfast, the morning hours are my best time. I have always written. When I was a child I would lock my bedroom door and just write.
Do you have an agent?
Yes, I have had one from the beginning. As an American I thought all authors had agents, actually it isn’t necessary here in France. She deals with all the contracts and celebrates with me, but has never pitched any of my manuscripts to a publisher.
So what was your first book and how did you get your first publishing deal?
I had invited friends over to dinner and they rang to say could they bring a Parisian friend who was staying with them. So much has happened by chance. He was a publisher and published my first book, a book about Hebrew Alphabet – “l’Alphabet Hébreu” . (Susie speaks fluent Hebrew, keeps a kosher kitchen, if not stomach, and her Jewish heritage plays an important role in her life and creativity – I could tell this just from looking around the kitchen).
Have you stuck with the same Publisher?
Predominantly I have been with Ecole des Loisirs, which is really the crème de la crème of French publishers. We have very good conditions and are envied often by authors writing for other houses. It is really like a family and we authors enjoy getting together at book fairs etc.
But many of my books have come from editors ringing me up to ask me to take on a project. One time a publisher phoned saying “we want you to write the big Christmas publication”. I pointed out that I don’t do Christmas! “So what about a story about family?”. From this came “Trop de Filles dans la Famille” – “Too many girls in the family”, and I wrote a story for each of the seven girls.
Do you prefer writing in French or English?
French. I have been here over 40 years. My children and grandchildren have grown up here and so many of my stories are related to them and life here. Life in the Sixième Classe is not the same as 6th grade! Only 12 of my books are in English and published in the US. When I started my husband corrected everything, including the margin comment “Merde” (Shit) for more than three mistakes in a line! My children have also helped a lot in the correction. There is very little editing done by most publishers. The Emma series – one of my grandchildren is called Emma – came out of a phone call from a publisher begging for a book about the maternelle, and Emma had just started kindergarten.
Do your children or Grandchildren often feature in your books/inspiration.
Much of my work is autobiographical. “Tes Seins Tombent” (“Your Breasts are Sagging”) came out of this comment from one of my teenage granddaughters, whom I had taken on holiday to Corsica. It’s a book about old age, teaching kids to be indulgent and understanding.
Mac/PC or notebook?
I write everything by hand in a notebook. I have hundreds (sadly I don’t have the ones from when I was younger in the US as I really didn’t think I would be a writer). I love the physical pleasure of writing, of filling up a page and turning to the next page.
What do you read for pleasure? E.g. right now?
Whatever comes my way. Books people recommend. Books people send or give me. I am reading a very humorous crime story someone gave me in San Francisco at the moment.
What are the highlights of your long career?
One epiphany was when “Les Lettres d’Amour de 0 à 10” was made into a play. It won the Molière prize and that was the first time that the prize had been given to a children’s production. “Les Dons” – “The Gift”, was a story I loved and it has taken 20 years to find a publisher that really liked it and would publish it, and it is a beautiful album. Also when “La première fois que j’ai eu seize ans” was made into a film, though they made a mistake in changing the title to “The first time I was 20”.
Do you have any tips for aspiring children’s books writers?
Keep writing. Don’t feel bitter if your manuscripts are rejected. I have had more manuscripts rejected than published (remember she has had over 100 published!!). Write for pleasure. Don’t write to be published; I never thought I would be a writer it just happened.
Tea/coffee/wine? What do you do to keep you going?
Email. I just love hearing that beep *you’ve got mail* and reading and replying to mail while writing.
When you aren’t writing what do you do for pleasure?
Read! Reading and writing are really my life. I am a voracious reader. And making love – eating too, of course (Susie preceded to give me a great tip for Bistro Antoine in the Old Nice). Then there is my newest grandchild, Sasha, just 2.5 months old, he has been an injection of joy in my life.
Reading, Writing, Making Love and Eating sounds like a better title than “Eat, Pray, Love” to me!
Thank you so much, Susie.