- Published: 06 September 2013 06 September 2013
Susan: Jo, tell us a little bit about the experience you had that inspired your novel, Opposites Attack.
Jo: In the summer of 2001, I had just lost a big job as an announcer. I had also been dating a French-Canadian who would talk to his mother on the phone in French. It irritated me that I didn’t know what he was saying. I had long felt pathetic that I couldn’t speak another language. A flyer arrived in the mail for a total-immersion language school in the South of France and I took the plunge. It was a fantastic experience, though only lasting two weeks I was almost as bad at French when I left as when I started. While there, I began to imagine delicious scenarios of the students and the hosts who gave them a place to stay. It was like a cruise ship for smart people.
Susan: In the beginning of this book, your main character, Alyce, takes one misstep after another, some quite unwittingly. Did any of these come from your own experiences? ( I particularly loved the moped through the wall incident! )
Jo: Though I’ve done many stupid and clumsy things, none of Alyce’s gaffes were mine. At some point in writing this, the book Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg floated up into my brain from my tweens. It was the naughty book everyone read in secret back then. Re-reading it as an adult was hilarious. I hadn’t realized what a send-up it was. So some of Candy Christian was channeled through Alyce. I thought, what kind of trouble would an older Candy get into?
Susan: You’ve written both a memoir and a novel. What made you choose to present Opposites Attack as a novel inspired by true events, as opposed to a memoir?
Jo: My trip there was exceedingly boring in comparison. For example, my hosts had a single man in mind for me but he wasn’t interested when he heard I was leaving. At least that’s what he said. Blind dates were not common there. There are other elements of Opposites Attack that grew out of real-life situations far from France that I reveal at the end of the book. A lot of things were puzzling me in real life that were woven into this story. Fiction can provide an interesting and safe way to explore them.
Susan: Fiction and non-fiction require different skill sets. Do you prefer writing one over the other? What do you like about each?
Jo: With non-fiction I’m often worrying about offending someone but the subject will be about something that goes so close to my marrow—and more importantly, to the marrow of the reader—and is so cathartic to write about I can’t let that stop me. Fiction can be more fun because I’m not constrained by reality. That can also be a problem—too much freedom. I enjoy the balance of the two but in the end both are about what you leave out.
Susan: After reading your book and its beautiful descriptions, I’d love to visit a vineyard in the South of France. Is Jean-Luc’s vineyard an actual place?
Jo: No, completely fabricated. The small city where I stayed, Hyères, is located where Provence and the Côte d’Azur meet. There were vineyards inland and beaches close by. Perfect variation. Avenue Gambetta is the main drag in my book and in Hyères.
Susan: You’ve chosen to give your American audience a taste of France and did it so very well. As a writer, do you feel that you need to experience a place personally to paint an accurate picture for your readers? If so, can you elaborate on the types of things you discovered that you would have missed had you not been there?
Jo: The Internet has been a phenomenal aid to writers but I do feel I need to go to a place to write about it. I don’t have to stay long but there’s nothing like being there. I wouldn’t have known what it’s like to be a student in a total-immersion situation. I wouldn’t have known about the squished dates covering the sidewalks, the light summer rains that appear and quickly disappear, and I heard about Super-Mecs while there. It’s their version of Chippendale dancers. Also, imagining Hyères and having the feeling of being there inside me when I wrote this book was like being on vacation myself. I loved revisiting it. Maybe that’s why I’ve worked on it so dang long. (12 years.) I never wanted to leave.
Susan: You’ve used humor to diffuse difficult life situations in this book, tell us a little about why you made that decision and how it affects your story.
Jo: I wanted to write a story that had a lot of grist for conflict, but was also an escapist, fun read. Ideally, when someone finishes the book they head straight to their computer and start researching cooking or language classes, or how much a ticket to their dream destination costs. The complex, deeply wounded Jean-Luc makes sure it doesn’t go too far in the ha-ha direction. Jean-Luc and Alyce both ground the story for different reasons, and lighten it as well.
Susan: You say you are now a true “Southerner,” after living in New York for years. Can you highlight some of the differences in lifestyles and how it was to adapt between them?
Jo: To a Southerner I will always be a Damn Yankee—one who visits the South, spends their money and stays, versus a regular Yankee who leaves. When I started returning to New York and cringing when I heard so much swearing, I knew something was changing. Then I started saying dang instead of damn. It just…happened! Little by little Southern charm and the lower cost of living here has worked on me to the point that I doubt I’ll leave. But life is full of surprises, as I’ve found out.
Susan: Where do you feel most at home?
Jo: That’s a tough question to answer. When I’m back in New York I feel at home instantly. I feel that way in South Florida, too, where I used to live. Home is where my friends are. And my cat.
Susan: What is next for you, writing wise?
Jo: I’m working on a new memoir that’s a prequel to When I Married My Mother, an essay about the Bee Gees, and I have a novel loosely based on my life in radio that I need to revisit.
Susan: I enjoyed Alyce’s adventure in France and admire you for being brave enough to take yourself into such an adventure in real life!
Jo: Thank you, but it was nothing compared to moving to the South to take care of Mama Jo!