Susan Blumberg-Kason and Sonali Dev will discuss writing as mothers, setting their stories overseas, and why we need diverse books.
This weekend I attended my first big book convention. I didn’t get a ticket because I’m an author, but rather because I’m a trustee of my local public library. The American Library Association’s annual conference is a big one and authors and publishers and library software companies and anyone else associated with libraries occupy the hundreds of booths at the convention.
I thought I’d attend some of the many great lectures scheduled throughout the conference, but I ended up hanging out with a good friend and meeting her YA author friends. We went from booth to booth, collecting review copies or new books and getting most of them signed and personalized.
We walked away with a ton of books!
As a mom and a reader, I’m always looking for diverse voices for my kids and myself. So I was really excited to meet the author who started #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Ellen Oh! Rich Lo is one of my favorite picture book authors and illustrators and I’ve had this fantasy of him coming to my kids’ school to talk about his immigration experience and his family’s early years in the US and how that wasn’t always easy. His books are so beautiful, both in the illustrations and in the words he writes. I was so excited to meet him today and chatted with him a bit because I was first in line with my friend Gloria.
I also met writer Claribel Ortega, who reminded me that we’re Instagram friends. Duh. It took me a couple of meetings to put two and two together! We talked about Hong Kong and she recommended books I should get signed at ALA.
Maurene Goo’s book, I Believe in a Thing Called Love, looks soooooo good and she was super friendly, despite her huge signing line. I’m also here with author Lizzie Cooke, a fellow Chicagoan. I think this photo shows the magic of the conference and how fabulous it was to meet other authors and collect oh so many books!
Some authors I knew already, like the fabulous Sonali Dev! Sonali stopped me on the street three years ago after one of my book signings. She recognized me from Facebook. At that time, her first book hadn’t come out yet. And now she’s getting ready for her FOURTH book release! Sonali is huge and it’s been so great following her success! Even so, she is completely down to earth and treats every reader as if s/he is the only person in the room.
I didn’t know Samira Ahmed before this weekend, but now I feel like we’re old friends. Her debut YA novel, Love, Hate & Other Filters looks beyond amazing and I love the branding her publisher, Soho Teen, has created around her book! We both discovered our shared love for Badoit!
Suzanne Kamata and I are both represented by super-agent Carrie Pestritto. Although Suzanne wasn’t at ALA (she lives in Japan), one of her books was! I went to visit that booth and had a fantastic chat with her publisher. I asked for a copy of Suzanne’s book and was super excited when the publisher said yes!
I’d read Stacey Lee‘s debut novel, Under a Painted Sky, and was an instant fangirl for life. So meeting Stacey in real life was like meeting a movie star for most people. The first thing I asked when I met her was if I could take a photo with her. She has another book out now and a third coming out soon.
And here’s a bedraggled one of me (I’d just finished dragon boat racing) with Gloria Chao, the friend who took me around ALA and whose debut novel, American Panda, comes out in February, along with superstar author Cindy Pon!
I am so thankful I had an opportunity to attend ALA. And I feel so lucky it was in Chicago. Now to dig into the books I just picked up!
This morning I drove out to Glencoe, a Chicago suburb not far from where I grew up, to attend an author event held by the Women’s Library Club of Glencoe. It’s been a while since I’ve gone to a literary event in Chicago and thought this one sounded like fun. The event was held at the new Writers Theater.
But before I did, I met up with Kelly Q. Anderson, another local writer I’ve been social media friends with forever and who interviewed me for her Convos With Writers. So I was completely thrilled to meet her in real life. And it’s always fun to go to these events with friends, especially ones who love books and writing. We’re already talking about hanging out at other literary events in Chicago!
Stacey and Renee each spoke about their paths to publication, and both were as different as their genres. Stacey writes what she calls contemporary culinary-lit and got her first book deal and agent in one swoop, while Renee spent 17 years writing her first novel and changed agents after the publication of that first book. They also spoke about their latest books and what they’re working on now.
Even though they had different journeys, both were incredibly inspirational to a writer (moi!) who is working on her second book project. I was second in line when they signed books after their discussion and Q&A. It was fun chatting about some mutual friends, getting some of their books signed, and snapping this photo.
I also met author Trisha Daab, who writes Disney guidebooks for blended families. The event occurred right in the middle of the school day, so I had plenty of time to get there and enough time to drive home (it’s an hour each way) before my kids got out of school. Chicago really is a great literary city and I love supporting local authors.
A few weeks ago I saw an ad for a new book about New York Chinatown on a museum website. The author, Henry Chang, was going to have a book event there and while I wasn’t going to be in New York for the event, I suddenly felt desperate to read it. The cover totally got me.
You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t help doing that. This one was so gorgeous and the police story set in Chinatown seemed like a perfect book to take along on my recent trip to New York. When in Rome, right?
Lucky (Soho Crime, 2017) just came out in March and is part of Chang’s Detective Jack Yu series, which I hadn’t read before (and I’m now wondering why because Henry Chang is an amazing writer and his Detective Yu has a great voice). It’s a quick read and perfect for a weekend away or a couple short flights.
Jack Yu was born and raised in Chinatown like the author, and in this book Yu’s childhood friend, the gangster known as Lucky, is gearing up for a grand comeback after nearly dying in a coma. Lucky gathers a crew of misfit triad members to pull off some daring and violent robberies around New York’s Chinese community. Manhattan Chinatown, Flushing, you name it, they’re shaking it down.
Chang tells the story from Jack Yu’s point of view and from Lucky’s, which really works structure-wise. And he really brings Chinatown to life, taking the reader into the Ching Ming holiday to respect the deceased and to dim sum and cha chaan tengs (Cantonese tea houses) and to the underworld like massage parlors and karaoke bars.
He scatters Cantonese phrases in his dialogue, which is really fun. It’s not always translated, but the reader can get the gist just fine. Chang also subtly refers to racist instances in American pop culture in a way that shows the reader why these sayings are so wrong. Like some Amazon reviewers, I hadn’t read other books in Chang’s series, but now I’m eager to read more.
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