Susan Winkler had the enviable job of writing, and updating, The Paris Shopping Companion: A Personal Guide to Shopping in Paris for Every Pocketbook. How great would that be?
Now, expanding on her Francophile sensibilities and drawing on a little family history, Susan has written a captivating novel about love and art and Paris and Nazis. With war-torn lovers, a family saga plot, and a stolen Matisse, Portrait of a Woman in White is a terrific historical novel. Each copy should come with a "Perfect for Book Club" sticker on the cover!
The is a busy week for Susan, with the official launch of Portrait today, at Powell's City of Books in Portland (see details below). But Susan was gracious enough to answer some questions for Rose City Reader.
What is your background? How did it lead you to write Portrait of a Woman in White?
I fell in love with France when I saw the movie Gigi as a young girl. I studied french literature in college and in grad school, and in Paris, then worked as a journalist in New York and for The Oregonian. I was very fortunate to be asked to write a guidebook to Paris (The Paris Shopping Companion) which required regular updates that allowed me to travel to and explore my favorite city ever since.
Years before writing this novel, I had read a groundbreaking expose about how the Nazi's looted art from French collections during WW2 (The Lost Museum by Hector Feliciano) and I wanted to illustrate that history as fiction . . . the story of a single made-up family and what could have happened to them. But I was busy with the Paris guidebooks. One day I heard a moving memoir told by an old woman about having to leave her first young love in Europe when her family escaped to America during WW2. These threads of tales I found intriguing wove together to become my story.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I had never written fiction, and I knew that I would have to come up with characters, dialogue and a lot more plot. So I started by reading all I could about Nazis and their art looting, figuring I would need very bit of that information to carry my story. What I didn't realize was that my fictional family would develop lives and relationships of their own and become even more interesting than those notorious Nazis. The fictional characters turned out to be the "real" characters who drive the book.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read? What are you reading now?
Most fiction I read is set in Europe, and I always look for something that will teach me about good writing. Currently I'm reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a great sensually descriptive book. I just read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, which has a special writerly interest in the way it plays with plot. I loved The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), mostly because of a character, and everything by Eric Maria Remarque, the German WW1 writer because he has a way with dialogue. The Great Gatsby, while set in America, is a fave because of point-of-view and simply great writing.
What kind of books do you like to read? Do you have a favorite genre? And guilty pleasures?
I don't read much genre fiction. I download "samples"of new books on my kindle to read for style, and keep up with short stories in The New Yorker.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
By far the most valuable advice was given to me at a New Year's Day party shortly after I got my first book contract (for The Paris Shopping Companion). It was simple: Get a daily writing schedule on your calendar a month in advance, and keep to it. That solves half the problem. It's been my New Year's resolution ever since.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Once you are far enough into your work, it can provide endless fascination. You are trying to solve a huge puzzle: to create an entire intricate world that works in the end, like the mechanism of an old clock.
What do you do to promote your books? Do you use social networking sites or other internet resources?
I have a publicist, Mary Bisbee-Beek, who works wonders. The book has a new Facebook page, and a presence on twitter and pinterest.
Do you have any events coming up to promote Portrait of a Woman in White?
I have a book talk at Powell's Books on Burnside, in Portland tonight, September 10, at 7:30 pm. This is the official book launch and author reading for Portrait of a Woman in White. The event is sponsored by Alliance Française de Portland.
Other events are in the works, including:
- Book talk at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA on Saturday, September 13, at 4:00 pm
- Reading at Beach Books in Seaside, OR on Thursday, October 30, at 11:30 am
- Signing at Annie Bloom's Books, Portland, OR on Tuesday, November 4, at 7:00 pm
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
Yes, I'm thinking about it. Hmmmm . . . it will take place in France . . .
THANKS SUSAN! PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN IN WHITE IS AVAILABLE AT POWELL'S, ON KINDLE, AND FROM OTHER BOOKSELLERS, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE TO ORDER IT!