I got to know Samantha Verant a few years ago after my editor gave me a review copy of her memoir, Seven Letters from Paris (Sourcebooks, 2014). I read the book in one setting and was completely hooked. We connected online and learned we had a lot in common: we both grew up in the Chicago area, we both remarried, have been expats, and studied abroad. Her sister was living in Hong Kong when we first started corresponding, so when I went there for some book events, I met Samantha’s sister, Jessica.
Fast forward a couple years and I was planning a trip to Paris with my husband. Samantha lives in southwestern France, about 7-8 hours from Paris. So we decided to meet halfway between the two in Bordeaux. It was so much fun. She and her husband, Jean-Luc, showed us around Bordeaux, where we ate lunch, and then drove us to a vineyard for a tour and tasting. Definitely a highlight of our trip!
And now she has a new memoir: How to Make a French Family: A Memoir of Love, Food, and Faux Pas (Sourcebooks, 2017). Here’s the dazzling summary:
Say bonjour to a whole new way of life!
Take one French widower, his two young children, and drop a former city girl from Chicago into a small town in southwestern France. Shake vigorously… and voilà: a blended Franco-American family whose lives will all drastically change.
Floating on a cloud of newlywed bliss, Samantha couldn’t wait to move to France to begin her life with her new husband, Jean-Luc, and his kids. But almost from the moment the plane touches down, Samantha realizes that there are a lot of things about her new home―including flea-ridden cats, grumpy teenagers, and language barriers―that she hadn’t counted on.
Struggling to feel at home and wondering when exactly her French fairy tale is going to start, Samantha isn’t sure if she really has what it takes to make it in la belle France. But when a second chance at life and love is on the line, giving up isn’t an option. How to Make a French Family is the heartwarming and sometimes hilarious story of the culture clashes and faux pas that , in the end, add up to one happy family.
I recently interviewed her about her new memoir, path to publication, and of course the duo of family and food.
Susan Blumberg-Kason: I loved your first memoir, “Seven Letters from Paris” and found it so dreamy and romantic. “How to Make a French Family” is so different, yet just as moving. When you wrote “Seven Letters”, did you know you had another memoir in you, or did that come to you after the publication of your first book?
Samantha Verant: When I first wrote Seven Letters, the draft was 105,000 words. Most publishers don’t accept manuscripts over 75k – especially from a first time author. So I cut a good chunk of it out when I submitted– the ending when I was living in France. By doing this, what I realized was that I had two stories, one the romantic fairy tale romance, and the other – life after the fairy tale romance as an instant immigrant stepmom. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it.
SBK: Blended families are not so unusual these days, but your situation is still rare: an American woman who moves overseas to become an instant stepmother to non-English speaking stepchildren. You write with honesty and humor–and sometimes tears–about the painful realities of parenting children who don’t speak your language and who don’t understand your culture beyond what they see in American movies and television shows. If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you would have done differently when it came to bonding with Elvire and Max, your stepchildren?
SV: I wouldn’t change a thing. Becoming stepmom two French kids was similar to my skills with the French language. I knew enough to get by, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to become fluent with either overnight. Relationships need to grow on their own, without being forced or pushed. And that’s what happened. I’m one lucky instant immigrant stepmom! And I’m probably more fluent in “mom” than my French. At the very least, people like my “cute” American accent, which with twinges of Chicago and California girl is impossible to get rid of.
SBK: Your husband, Jean-Luc, is such a great sport. He’s a main character in not just one but two memoirs. Sometimes I think it’s easier to write memoir if the other central characters are not in the picture anymore. What’s the most challenging thing about writing about your husband, the closest person in your life?
SV: Like most French, Jean-Luc is very reserved when it comes to his private life. Things are just done differently here. When you have people over for dinner, unless they are family or really good friends, there are no house tours, no bringing out photos from your trip. On that, I’ve been prohibited from posting recent pictures of him on my web site! The poor guy! A serious rocket scientist, when you Google his name, my site and photos come up– complete with goofy posts. In the end, though, he’s proud of my accomplishments and because he’s the brightest star in my world, he comes off in a positive way in both books– the way I see him. He trusts me with that.
SBK: Living overseas is not always the glitz and glamour that’s portrayed in the movies and now in social media. Is there something that was unexpectedly difficult about living in southwestern France that you didn’t have time to write about in your book?
SV: Well, in How to Make A French Family, I touch upon a lot of the difficulties of living in a foreign country. But it’s funny. Every time somebody learns that I live in France they always say, “OMG! You are so lucky. I love Paris.” When I tell them I live in southwestern France, in a small town called Cugnaux, where the glitz and glamour is limited to cute old ladies with shocking shades of hair (eggplant or chili pepper red) wearing housecoats and ballerina flats, confusion ensues! I do love my life here now. It’s simple and filled with love…and good food.
SBK: Food is an integral part of French living and you certainly bring that alive in these pages. I love that you include recipes of the dishes you write about during your adjustment in Cugnaux. Do you think it would have been more difficult to adjust to life in southern France if food weren’t important to the culture and if there were no great recipes to learn? I’m thinking about 1960s London or other places or times when food only served as nourishment and nothing else!
SV: No, the adjustments would have been the same. Food and family meals were a huge part of my American culture, too, thanks to my grandmother, Nanny, and my mother. I guess we had more European eating habits- home cooked meals with fresh ingredients. But this isn’t to say I didn’t have the occasional TV dinner as a kid. I loved those TV dinners, the ones with the cartoon of a pirate, I think?
SBK: One of my favorite parts of book publishing is the cover design process. And once again you have a beautiful cover! Were you involved in the design process or did Sourcebooks’ fabulous art department come up with this design before you got involved in the process? Can you talk a little about your initial impressions when you saw your cover for the first time?
SV: I loved the initial cover when I first saw it– the graphic of the cookies and the color. But, being a graphic designer, I wasn’t a fan of the first title treatment. The font, to me, looked unfinished. I expressed my concerns to Anna. Asked for a bit more pizzazz. She listened to me. And, voilà, the design team came back with a new treatment, including those cute white scrolls. When I saw what they did, I was thrilled!!!
SBK: You’ve written two memoirs and a middle grades novel. What’s next?
SV: Fiction! Yes! Finally, I can make things up! Wheeee! The books will be written about things I’m passionate about- like food and wine. There will always be a Franco-American theme. Write what you know, right? I’ve also taken a deep interest in screen writing. It’s so much fun and very different from writing a book. I’m hooked. But on more on that later…
SBK: Thank you so much, Samantha! If you’d like a sneak peak of the delicious recipes in her book, check out this link: http://www.samanthaverant.com/p/les-recettes-from-book.html