Ellen Sussman Tells How She Survived Rejection To Become a Bestselling Author
Mary: Welcome to my People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series, Ellen. You’re the author of four national bestselling novels: A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons and On a Night Like This. I think it’s hard for people to image anyone with your level of success ever got rejection letters. Yet, you’ve said that you received “piles” of them. I’d like to talk to you about how you persisted through rejection, how you kept going, and why you didn’t give up. Let’s start by going back to the earliest stages of your career. How old were you when you started writing?
Ellen: Believe it or not, I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old! And I never veered off course. I couldn’t support myself as a writer until many many years later, so I always had a day job, but writing was my passion and my purpose throughout my life.
Mary: What’s the first piece of fiction you wrote? Was it praised? Were you encouraged by your parents or teachers to continue writing? Or did you start out with rejection?
Ellen: I had great support for my writing through high school, college and grad school. I won prizes and fellowships and I guess I got a little cocky. I thought that when I sent out my first short stories they would all be accepted! Boy, was I wrong. I have a folder of rejection letters that’s a mile high (or it just seems that way) – and it took a good ten years before I started publishing stories in literary magazines.
Maybe that early praise helped me survive the rejection years. It’s so hard to keep going when every editor seems to be saying no no no. Somehow you have to believe in yourself when no one else does. Or you have to be remarkably stubborn. I must have some combination of both.
Mary: I assume you were an avid reader from a very early age, yes? If so, which authors inspired and influenced you to make the choices you made?
Ellen: I read all the time! In high school I was greatly influenced by Hemingway and Salinger – I wrote terrible imitations of them both. In college I expanded my horizons. I think almost everything I read influences me. I beg, borrow and steal. That makes it sound much worse than it is! In truth, I’m always learning from the masters. How do they do it? Can I try that technique? It keeps me growing as a writer.
Mary: Let’s talk about those “piles” of rejection letter you’ve received. Can you tell us roughly how many there’ve been?
EllenI couldn’t possibly count them all. Seriously. I submitted stories to magazines for years – sometimes a story would be accepted at one magazine after having been rejected at 40 other magazines! I’ve written a couple of novels that haven’t been published. Now that really hurt. But, in fact, they weren’t good enough – I can see that now.
Mary: What was the first thing you submitted that got rejected? Do you recall what the letter said?
Ellen: Right after graduate school I sent off my best story to the New Yorker. And so I began to collect form rejection letters from them. Eventually I did get personalized rejection letters from them, always encouraging me to try again. That meant a great deal to me.
Mary: Many writers give up when their work is rejected and never submit anything again. Have you ever decided to give up writing permanently?
Ellen: Yes – but that decision only lasted one day! About 15 years ago, I finally realized that I wasn’t going to be able to find a publisher for a novel that I had worked on for a few years. I announced to my family that I was quitting writing. They all ignored me. A day later I started a new novel.
Mary: What changed your mind? What gave you the strength to continue?
Ellen: I have to write. I’m pretty miserable when I’m not writing. And most of the time I can keep the noise of the publishing world out of my head. That’s when I most enjoy the process.
Mary: How does a writer know when the rejection is valid and when it isn’t? How do you decide if you should revise, rewrite, or abandon a piece of work; or leave it exactly as you wrote it and submit it somewhere else?
Ellen: Great question. If I received the same kind of comment from a few different editors, then I would start to pay attention. Also, if what they said rang true to me, then I would push myself to do another rewrite.
Mary: Do you still occasionally get rejection letters, or is all that behind you now that you are a famous, bestselling author?
Ellen: Oh, I still get rejection letters! I wrote a novel after On a Night Like This (my first novel – which was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller) and it was rejected everywhere! Now I realize that it wasn’t good enough but at the time so baffled. I thought I finally had success – wouldn’t more success follow? Not unless the work is good enough!
Mary: Before you go, is there any additional advice you can offer writers about surviving rejection and continuing to write?
Ellen: Surround yourself with a writers group that’s supportive or loving friends who boost you up when you need it. It’s tough to stand strong when the rejection letters accumulate. Believe in yourself and in your work.
She is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels altogether: A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons, and On a Night Like This. She is also the editor of two critically acclaimed anthologies, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave and Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. She teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. To learn more about Ellen Sussman and her work, visit her website at www.ellensussman.com
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