Elissa Sussman’s hilarious break out rom com, Funny You Should Ask, is a witty romance built around the whole question and dynamic of celebrity journalism. Ten years ago, Chani interviewed Hollywood star Gabe. He was at that time the next James Bond, and the story she wrote about him then has haunted her career ever since.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and in Binge Reading today Elissa talks about setting up her James Bond character in Funny You Should Ask, the particular challenges faced by women pursuing careers in Hollywood, and her own remarkable experiences managing big film animation projects including The Croods, Hotel Transylvania and Tangled for some of the top studios.
In our free giveaway a group of author friends have got together for another historical romance book offer. Take your pick from a wide choice in historical romance for summer.
Links in the Binge Reading show notes for this episode, as for all of the other content of this episode.
And don’t forget, for the cost of less than a cup of coffee a month, you can get exclusive bonus content – like hearing Elissa’s answers to the Five Quickfire Questions – by becoming a Binge Reading on Patreon supporter. We’ve got a new feature starting on Patreon this month, Encore, once a month short chats with authors who’ve already been on the show, talking about their latest exciting release.
First up in the second week of June is popular international author Gill Paul talking about The Collector’s Daughter, her new dual timeline novel about the fascinating life of Lady Evelyn Herbert. She was the English aristocrat who made history by being part of the first ever global media sensation – the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb – as well as enjoying the cachet having grown up at Highclere, the majestic manor house that is the location for the Downton Abbey TV series.
(Editor note: – Sorry Gill will be next month – next week it’s Deborah Challinor with The Leonard Sisters – a 1960 Vietnam War story about two sisters who both go to Vietnam – one of them a war protestor, the other a military nurse on active duty.)
Links for this episode
Kate Spencer: In A New York Minute: https://www.katespencerwrites.com/
Julie Ann Long: Historical romance author: http://julieannelong.com/
Bird of California by Katie Cotugno: https://www.amazon.com/Birds-California-Novel-Katie-Cotugno-ebook/dp/B09G6RJKH4
Alisha Rai: http://www.alisharai.com/
Where to find Elissa Sussman:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
But now, here’s Elissa.
Introducing author Elissa Sussman
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there, Elissa, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us today.
Elissa Sussman: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.
Jenny Wheeler: You wrote three teen novels, but then you got into what they are calling your breakout hit, your first adult novel, Funny You Should Ask. It’s a witty romance built around the whole dynamic of celebrity journalism. How did you make that leap from the earlier teen novels to this adult novel that’s being so widely acclaimed?
Elissa Sussman: Thank you. It’s funny because it feels like a very natural progression. In some ways I’m like, why did it take me so long to write a romance and an adult romance at that? I grew up reading romance, loving romance. Since middle school, I was a huge romance reader, getting books from the library constantly.
Then during a lull in work, when I was writing YA fiction, I got an opportunity to ghost write adult romance books, and it reminded me of how much fun I had reading it as a teenager and how much I missed it. It was like getting paid to go to romance writing boot camp. Once I got into that more and more, I was like, why don’t I write my own romance? Why don’t I try this on my own?
Jenny Wheeler: How many romance novels did you ghost write?
Elissa Sussman: About 15.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s a huge apprenticeship.
Elissa Sussman: It was. Over a five-year period it was about 15 books.
Jenny Wheeler: What kind of romance were those? Was it a wide range of heat levels?
Serving her author apprenticeship
Elissa Sussman: They were pretty spicy romances, all contemporary, all the kind of books you’re going to get on a Kindle unlimited type, e-book situation, but really fun. They would send me detailed outlines and I would go to town and have a great time writing them.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. The book we’re talking about today, Funny You Should Ask, is a dual timeline story. There is a 10-year gap between an initial interview Chani has with a Hollywood star. It’s an interview which is remarkably intimate and personal, and it goes viral.
After that, wherever she goes, she’s followed by the reputation of this viral interview and the hinted implication application that she must have done something over and above the normal odds to be able to get such a good interview, i.e., she must have slept with the Hollywood star. It’s very annoying for her that her whole future seems to be predicated on this one interview. I guess that does happen in Hollywood, doesn’t it?
Elissa Sussman: Yes. I think women in particular are held to this impossible standard a lot of times, where your real life must be reflected in your work. There’s not this sense of, women can compartmentalize and do different things. It’s like, no, if we write about it, it must be real. We must have experience with it.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. The same standard doesn’t apply to the men. Even if she had so-called slept with Gabe, which she hadn’t, if a man slept with a female journalist, nobody would think anything of it, would they?
The double standards that still apply
Elissa Sussman: Probably not. Everywhere it’s double standards, especially with sex and relationships. What men can get away with is very, very different than what women can get away with, certainly.
Jenny Wheeler: Even in this time of Me Too.
Elissa Sussman: Yes, absolutely. Me Too has shined a light on it, but we’re still seeing these men who have been accused of these horrible things going on and winning awards and continuing on with their career. No one has been canceled. No one has lost their job. They just go away for a few years and then they come back and make jokes about it, and then everyone’s fine.
Jenny Wheeler: Your male hero in this, Gabe, was chosen as the latest James Bond but he was very much a second choice in a lot of people’s minds, and so he’s living with a heavy weight on his shoulders of having to prove himself.
There are very good reasons, which we’re not going to divulge, why the number one choice didn’t get the role, which once again is a commentary on the way Hollywood works. We won’t spoil the story.
Elissa Sussman: You have to read it to find out.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. There are certain things that Hollywood doesn’t shine the light on.
Elissa Sussman: Exactly.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you think there is still more difficulty for women in Hollywood, even with people like my fellow countrywoman, Jane Campion, recently getting the best director at the Oscars. Is it still harder for women?
Elissa Sussman: Absolutely. I think any progress is great progress, but it’s still very incremental. We are very happy to celebrate another woman getting an academy award, but she is, I think, the third female director to get it, and how many awards have been passed out?
The prospects for women in Hllywood
Unless it’s equal 50/50, then we’re not even, we’re not even close, or quite honestly, more women than men. Let’s reverse it. They have had their spotlight for so long. Let’s make more room for women.
Jenny Wheeler: I guess they could argue the other way – that there are still more male directors.
Elissa Sussman: Well yes, because that’s the way they’ve set up the system. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of men giving other men opportunities, men mentoring men, men supporting men, helping their friends out. Women are shut out of that. There are not those opportunities, there aren’t those mentors available to women necessarily.
Jenny Wheeler: When you were researching this book about Gabe and Chani, I had this feeling that you must have spent a lot of time online on celebrity websites. How did you go about researching it?
Elissa Sussman: I live in Los Angeles and I used to work in animation. My husband and a lot of his friends are filmmakers and work in the film industry, so I have always had a little bit of a window into that world.
Certainly I think most people read or have access to celebrity culture and gossip culture, and it’s fun to read and examine that. I don’t even think I would consider it research. It was reading for fun and then it would bleed into what I was writing.
Jenny Wheeler: Probably in your world, it would be hard to avoid such information.
Elissa Sussman: It’s true.
Elissa’s career in animation
Jenny Wheeler: I was fascinated about your earlier career in animation because you worked for many of the big studios – Disney, DreamWorks and Nickelodeon. Tell us a bit about that world and how you got into that world in the beginning.
Elissa Sussman: I have always loved animated movies. I’ve been a big animated movie fan since I was a kid. When I was in college, I remember thinking it would be so much fun to work on animated films, but I’m not a visual artist at all. I can’t draw.
When movies were still being released on DVD and Blu-ray, they would have all these special features and a lot of them were behind the scenes documentaries. I would watch those, and that’s how I learned that there are all these jobs that don’t require you to be an artist that you can have if you work in animation. That was a big jumping off point for me because, oh, okay, so I can manage artists. This is great. I’m a very organized person, so I think this would be a really fun job.
That’s how I got into it and I loved it. Because I spent so many years learning how to manage other artistic personalities, when it came time for me to focus on my own work, it was easier to manage myself. I had already learned how you write a schedule for an artist, how stuff feels like it should be organic and creative, but you still need schedules and you still need guidelines. It made it a lot easier to transition into a freelance mindset.
Learning from movie making for books
Jenny Wheeler: When you say you managed artists – some of the people you would have been managing were the big artists who were doing the voiceovers for those movies?
Elissa Sussman: Yes. For Tangled in particular, that was my job. I was in the editorial department, so it was a lot of interacting with the actors that were coming in to work on the film.
One of the weird perks of the job is that if they need someone to do scratch, which is temporary vocals, and you are a young woman who is the closest in age to the actress playing the main character, you’re going to get called in to provide vocals and embarrass yourself in front of your entire team. So I had lines in the movie Tangled for a while, until they could bring Mandy Moore in to replace me.
Jenny Wheeler: Did you also develop an understanding of plotting and storylines and things when you were associated with that job? I’m sure you’ve probably picked it up by osmosis, but did you work in any of the aspects where they were doing the plotting and the story development?
Elissa Sussman: Not so much. I was more on the side of management and less on the creative side of things, but just being in contact with all of these storytellers, you learn about storytelling. I’m very curious and I ask a lot of questions. I’m really interested, so I would talk to the directors, I would talk to some of the animators, to the editors, and would learn a lot from them, for sure.
The collaborative aspect to movie making
Jenny Wheeler: What would you say are the biggest lessons you took away from that world into your writing? What were the things that stayed with you after you left that world and went back into writing?
Elissa Sussman: The thing about animation that I love that I miss the most in writing is that it’s so collaborative and writing is so solitary. I miss the collaborative aspect of it, but it makes you realize it’s important when you get to a certain point in your work to reach out and get feedback from other people, and to embrace the collaborative aspect whenever you can, and get input from people you trust and then ignore the input that is not helpful and you don’t agree with.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s interesting because I was going to ask you if you’d had any important writing mentors. How do you find that sort of feedback? Do you rely on your editors in the publishing house, or do you have other ways of getting it?
Elissa Sussman: I have a lot of wonderful writing colleagues. The YA world was wonderful in introducing me to other writers. Finding them has been instrumental in not only sharing the work that you’re doing but commiserating about the process and about the heartaches and all the joys that happen with writing and being a professional writer. It has been great to have a community of colleagues that I can lean on.
Finding people you trust to work with
As far as mentors, I’m always on the lookout for mentors, certainly. I have a very close relationship with my agent Elizabeth Bewley. I love working with her. She used to be an editor before she became an agent, and her wealth of knowledge has been incredible to tap into. She is a dear friend and someone I trust completely, which is not always an easy thing to find in any kind of field like writing.
Jenny Wheeler: You have mentioned process. Tell us something about your writing process. Has it developed over this very long career, coming up to 20 books by now. Has it changed over that time?
Elissa Sussman: Yes. I’m learning more and more that I don’t have a process, because every time I start a new book, it feels like I’m doing it for the first time. Every time I think I have figured something out, I start a new project and that doesn’t work so I have to adjust and I have to change. Every single book has been different, has felt different, has evolved in a different way. It’s a constant learning experience.
Jenny Wheeler: Would that be the case even with the romance novels?
Elissa Sussman: Yes. When I was ghost writing, that was a little more consistent. It was about working to a schedule, getting the word count in, and following the guidelines. It wasn’t as creative on the page, but it was a good experience learning how to structure something and learning how to work to a deadline. That was so instrumental.
Elissa Sussman – a typical writing day
Jenny Wheeler: Give us an idea of what a typical writing day looks like. You sound like you are a very organized person. Do you have a word count or a certain number of hours? How do you structure a typical working day?
Elissa Sussman: I try to keep office hours. I have an office that I go to. I’m an early riser. I have two dogs, so they don’t give me a choice to not be an early riser. I’m up pretty early and I usually try to be at my desk for most of the day.
I am in Los Angeles. Most of the people I work with are in New York, so I try to keep New York hours. Three o’clock my time is when New York shuts down, so I try to be at my desk and available in case people have something they need from me or they have a question.
I have dual monitors – I think you have the dual monitor setup as well. I have my writing on one monitor and my email on the other and I’m constantly working and then I’m checking and then I’m working.
If I’m drafting, I usually have a word count schedule where I say, okay, I want to finish this book by this date, I want to have a first draft by this date. My first drafts are usually this amount of words and I have this many days, so it’s a little bit of math.
Themes of women finding their voice
It’s usually somewhere between 1,000-2,000 words a day. That is my average. I try to work first thing in the morning but sometimes it happens much later and I’m working late into the evening, but I do try to hit those goals whenever I put them out there for myself.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you make a lot of rewrites when you go to the second draft?
Elissa Sussman: It depends. With my last two books, Funny You Should Ask and Drawn That Way – the YA that came out before that – they were very clean, those first drafts, in a way I don’t think will happen again, so I didn’t have a lot of revisions.
But the book I’m working on right now, which is the next book in my contract with Random House, is probably going to be a lot messier. I’m probably going to have to do much more extensive revisions once I get into it.
Jenny Wheeler: You mentioned your last book, Drawn That Way. It has similarities with the themes in Funny You Should Ask, doesn’t it? It’s about a young woman trying to realize her identity and her purpose in life, perhaps at a slightly younger age group than the adult novel, but similar themes.
Elissa Sussman: Yes. I consider them sister books in a lot of ways. I wrote them very close together. I edited them almost simultaneously, and exactly like you said, they are very similar themes. They are both stories about women trying to find their voice, find their place in an industry that’s maybe not as welcoming.
There are themes of love and themes of partnership and what you look for in partnership, what women look for in the men in their lives. They were me working out the same sort of themes in two different stories.
The ‘secret’ of success – Elissa Sussman
Jenny Wheeler: Turning away from the specific books to your wider career, is there a one thing you would see as the secret of your success in your creative side of life, and if so, what would that be?
Elissa Sussman: I don’t know if I have a secret. I think it’s just stubbornness. I am a very stubborn person. There have been a lot of instances in my career where there has been a great opportunity to just leave, where you see those doors in front of you and five out of six of them are – here’s your exit, you could take this door. Then one door is like, this could lead you somewhere interesting maybe, but it’s locked so good luck. That’s the door I’m going to go for.
The thing that’s been the most life changing or career changing for me is my agent Elizabeth. She is my third agent. I signed with her in January 2020 and working with her has been amazing. I would say for any writers at that stage, find the agent that gets your work on a really fundamental level. Your agent should be your champion.
My agents I had before Elizabeth were wonderful. I have no complaints about them. They were delightful to work, wonderful, kind, smart women, but the chemistry wasn’t the same. With Elizabeth, it feels magical. I completely trust her. I feel like she is in my corner. I can throw anything at her and she will be honest but kind about what she thinks about it. When you have someone like that, you feel like you can do anything.
Asking yourself – is it worth pushing on?
Jenny Wheeler: It’s very nice to hear someone who has had the degree of books published that you have for starters, and who acknowledges that you’ve had lots of knock-backs.
For people who are coming up the track a little bit behind you, who may be at book two or three and are still not finding they’re getting a lot of traction, that’s probably about the point in a career where they start to ask themselves, is it worth pushing on?
Am I either not meant to do this, or is it just too hard? It’s really encouraging for others to get that feeling that you have had those doors shut in your face along the way.
Elissa Sussman: Yes, certainly. It has been rough for several years and Funny You Should Ask in particular is the first book where I feel like I’m being seen by the writing community and acknowledged for the work I’ve been doing. Just being seen in general. Before that it was years of feeling like I was putting the work in and not being seen or acknowledged.
But that is sometimes what happens. It’s timing and it’s persistence and it goes up, it goes down. Who knows what will happen with the next book?
Jenny Wheeler: I guess that’s one of the pitfalls of being a ghost writer too. In a way, you have to stay in the shadows.
Elissa Sussman: Yes. I really enjoyed it. You do have to stay in the shadows but then you get a look at publishing from the sidelines. You get to observe a lot of how the world works and walk away from it.
What Elissa learned from ghost writing
I have only had great experiences. All of my experiences with ghost writing were positive, but there is that freedom of, if it’s not perfect, my name’s not on it. So it’s okay. There is a little freedom there, which is nice.
Jenny Wheeler: When you started out writing, what was your main goal in those first, early years, and have you reached it yet?
Elissa Sussman: I just wanted to publish a book. That was as far as I thought, and I feel really lucky that not only have I accomplished that, but now four books later I’m still doing it. For now, my goal is to continue to write and to continue to work on books and to produce material that allows me to keep going and keep going.
Jenny Wheeler: We are The Joys of Binge Reading and we always like to ask our guests about their reading habits and if they’ve got any books they’d like to recommend to listeners, particularly in the popular fiction area, which is where we specialize.
What do you like to read? Are you a binge reader and what would you recommend for other people? I think the binge reading thing comes from extended binge watching. Once people got into binge watching, they thought binge reading was a pretty good idea, too.
What Elissa is reading now
Elissa Sussman: I have been a romance reader forever, and I feel like romance readers are the binge readers of the literary world. If you are a romance reader and you find an author that you like, you are going online, you are buying their entire backlist. The great joy of finding a new book and then finding out that author has written 25 others is the best feeling ever.
As far as books I would recommend, I’m really excited for Birds of California by Katie Cotugno which comes out at the end of April. Katie is a friend of mine. She is also a YA writer who is moving into the adult space, but she is an incredible writer. It is also a Hollywood romance so if you like my book, I think you’ll love hers.
Jenny Wheeler: I love books which are into the journalism space because I used to work in journalism myself so I enjoy that whole field.
Elissa Sussman: I highly recommend her book. My friend Kate Spencer had a book come out recently called In A New York Minute, which is a very sweet Nora Ephron-like New York love story. One of my go-to writers with a really large backlist – I love Julie Anne Long. She has multiple series. She mostly writes historical romance, but there’s something about her style of writing that is especially appealing to me. It feels very elevated in exactly the way I want it to be. It feels very romantic and fun and she has a sense of humor that I really like.
Authors who are ‘automatic buys’
Those are some authors that are my automatic buys. Alisha Rai is also an author who has a new book coming out. I don’t remember the title, but she has a wonderful backlist as well, so I highly recommend checking her out.
Jenny Wheeler: Thank you. That’s lovely. Looking down the tunnel of time, if there was one thing about your creative career that you would change, what would it be?
Elissa Sussman: I don’t know if I would change anything. If you had asked me maybe two years ago I would have been like, this and this and this, but now I look at my career and things didn’t maybe work out the way I wanted to with my first few books but that experience got me to the place where I am now. I’m really happy where I am now.
If I had done it differently, I don’t think I would have ended up with the agent I ended up with. I don’t know if I would have ended up with the editor I ended up with. The timing has worked out in such a way that I guess everything that happened before had to have happened in order to get me here.
Jenny Wheeler: What is next for you as a writer over the next 12 months? Looking ahead, what are people going to see from you and what are you working on now?
Elissa Sussman: I’m working on my next adult novel, which I’m very excited about. Hopefully, I’m going to be turning my first draft in very soon. It will be brand new to my editor, to my agent. We are moving ahead on that. I think the idea is that it’s going to come out in Spring 2023.
What Elissa Sussman is working on now
Jenny Wheeler: Is that another romance?
Elissa Sussman: It’s another romance dealing with similar themes of our obsession with celebrity and there are social relationships with celebrities. There is going to be some fun timeline stuff and interstitial stuff as well so for people who like funny, it will be a good companion book. Even though it will not have the same characters, it will feel written in the same style.
That’s my focus, and continuing to try to get everyone I know to read Funny You Should Ask.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you enjoy interacting with readers and where can they find you online?
Elissa Sussman: I love interacting with readers. I am sporadically online. I’m on Twitter very rarely. I’m on Instagram more than I’m on Twitter. Both are Elissa Sussman, but if you look me up I think I’m the only one. And please, if you are reading and enjoying the book, I love to hear from readers. It’s always nice to talk about books with people.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic Elissa. Thank you so much for your time today.
Elissa Sussman: Thank you.
If you liked Elissa you might also enjoy… Roselle Lim’s Fabulist Foodie Romcoms This episode was in the “Top Ten” for 2021….
Next week on The Joys of Binge Reading
We have Erika Robuck and her international bestselling World War II drama about two very different women, both working behind enemy lines in Nazi occupied France. Sisters of Night and Fog, featured next week on The Joys of Binge Reading podcast.
That’s it for today. Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast so you can be sure not to miss Erika Robuck next week. Happy reading.
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