Sunday, January 23, 2011

Susan Pohlman for Authors @ The Teague

Susan Pohlman, author of Halfway to Each Other: How a Year in Italy Brought Our Family Home, is one of the most inspirational authors I've ever heard.  Her program for Authors @ The Teague was a treat.

Pohlman said she didn't expect any of those experiences to happen to her, from the story in the book, to writing the book, so she was just going to speak from her heart.  She and her family were living in Los Angeles.  Her husband was in the radio business.  They had been married for sixteen years, together for five before that.  They had two kids, and their marriage had just run its course.  There comes a time in so many marriages when they've just run its course.  And, that hurt.  Susan was a teacher who devoted her life to supporting families.  So, she was heartbroken, but, without telling her husband, Tim, she went to a lawyer. 

Then her husband came home and asked if she wanted to go with him on an incentive trip to Italy.  Before the economy went bad, radio and TV stations offered incentive trips.  If you spent X amount of money, you'd be taken on a trip.  So, they would be entertaining clients on this trip.  Susan didn't think it was a good idea to go on the trip with things falling apart.  But, her husband kept pushing, and at the last minute she decided she could suffer through Italy and go on the last trip.  They were taking forty clients for six days.  They arrived in Florence, and it just knocked her sideways; it was so beautiful.  There was something spiritual about it with the ancient streets and building, and the artwork. 

Pohlman said she was overwhelmed at feeling so alive.  In LA, you can get caught up in all the nonsense, and lose your soul.  But, she was knocked off her axis in Florence.  Tim felt the same way.  On day four, they went to Liguria in northwestern Italy.  It's a tiny area, and they were in the town of Santa Margherita.  It was a free day, and Tim and Susan had to spend the day together.  They planned to rent Vespas, but when they arrived at the Vespa store, it never opened.  So, they walked back along the water, and Tim said, "I could live here," and, she agreed, and thought, but not together.  And, he repeated, "No, I could REALLY live here," with a look in his eyes that said let's move her.  Susan said that's not a good idea, but he wouldn't let up.  They had a conversation, asking what happened to us.  He said he would quit his job if she'd consider it.  She knew how serious he was because he was in his early 40s, in charge of six radio stations, what he'd worked for his entire life.  So, she said, if there's an American school, I'll consider it. 

They headed to Genoa, the largest city in the area, a very Italian city.  They found the American school, and the principal was even there that late in the day.  He said they were really crowded, but when he heard their children were 11 and 15 at the time, he said, what a coincidence.  Those were the only two classes with openings.  So Tim and Susan agreed they only had one day to find a place to live.  If they could do that, they would move there.  There's only one realtor for the area, and the realtor said there was one apartment, but they couldn't see it until 5 at night.  And, the whole time, Susan's mind was saying no, but her heart was saying yes.  It was a very spiritual moment.  When they arrived at the apartment, they found a seven-story building with a very tiny elevator.  And, Susan said, if it's a dump, we're not staying.  They agreed, if it wasn't a dump, they'd stay.  And, all along she thought it's going to be a dump.  The apartment was on the top floor, and when they stepped in, they were hit by a wall of glass overlooking the Ligurian Sea, just a beautiful place with wooden floors.  So, they agreed they'd have to do this.  Against all intelligence, Susan Pohlman signed her name to a lease in Italian that she couldn't read.  She was forty-four.  Her family was falling apart.  The stress of his job was killing her husband.  And, they decided to take a risk.

They went back to LA.  Susan's husband quit his job.  They sold their house (at a time when houses still sold), and sold other stuff.  That's what they lived on.  Within eight weeks, they had packed up their kids, Katie and Matt, and were living in Italy.  They decided to put their lives in God's hands, and see what happened.  They experienced adventure and the Italian culture.  Tim and Susan didn't work for a year, and when school started the kids were in school.  They saved their family, and renewed their marriage.

This was in 2003, the same year Elizabeth Gilbert was there working on Eat, Pray, Love.  That was the summer there was a heat wave, and thousands of people died in Europe.  They were all hot and sweat.  They had two kids with them.  They were all displaced and didn't speak the language.  They put all the pettiness aside, and built a home again.  They travelled extensively, but never took the kids out of school.  The kids blossomed there.  They had no car.  And, the kids developed a deep friendship, something that might not have happened in this country with the two of them in different schools, different sports, and going different directions. 

Pohlman said they had the emotional space there to start over, and they found each other.  Americans live exhausting lives.  But, the Pohlmans ran out of money eventually.  They couldn't work there, so they came back to LA.  It was a harder transition coming back to our culture than it was going there.  But, they started over, and did it peacefully, after seeing the downside of abundance.  In a nutshell, that's what the book, Halfway to Each Other, is about.  The book ends the day they leave Italy.

Asked how the book came about, Pohlman said before they went to Italy, she had been learning to write screenplays.  She studied it, and how to write scenes.  One girlfriend told her not to go, that it was a big mistake.  But, others asked her to write and tell them what it was like, with no holds barred.  So, Susan wrote to her friends, telling about moments, and writing them in scenes.  Soon she had a little following.  The family arrived in Italy in July.  In November, a friend who worked for the Washington Times wrote, saying he thought she should quit sending the scenes because she just might have a book.  So, she kept writing those series of moments.  When she finished writing, she tried to find an agent, which is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.  When she did, the agent tried to sell it, but it was hard to sell after Eat, Pray, Love

The book has finally started taking off a little because it's striking a chord.  People are struggling in this economy.  Families are struggling, and people are losing everything.  They are finding great hopefulness in this story.

Asked about her daughter, who didn't want to leave Italy at the end of the book, Susan reminded us that Katie was fifteen when they got there in July.  By the end of October, she was settled in with friends.  She just blossomed, turning into a woman.  With the buses and trains, she could travel without her mother driving.  She had friends from all over.  For the first time, she had relationships not based on social pressure.  There was no materialism in those friendships, just young people having fun. 

It was hard for Katie when they got back.  They immediately put her into school, and it was the same culture as when they left.  She was in a school with kids with lots of money.  And, they were mean girls.  Katie was now a junior, and everyone was mean to her.  So, they moved her to a larger school, with a more diverse population, and it clicked.  She's twenty-two now, living in San Francisco.  She's going to be a teacher, and she minored in Italian.  She's going to bring a global view to her classroom. 

Matthew was the easygoing one, so he was happy to be anywhere.  He's going to be attending Ohio State. 

They had returned home, and neither Tim nor Susan had jobs.  Tim said he'd like to start his own business.  It would take the last of their savings, but Susan said she'd learned the secret to surrendering.  Within six months, he had a partner, and bought two radio stations in Phoenix, and two in Las Vegas.  She got a job as an assistant principal.  And, then it started all over again.  Tim was never home, since he had to travel.  So, she said, they needed to honor their family, and move to one of the markets.  They moved to this area, but he eventually lost the business as the economy went to hell.  So, here they were in Arizona, and neither of them had jobs.  But, now Tim runs the three CBS radio stations here.  She said she wouldn't have changed it all all.  They like it here in Arizona.

Asked if they've been back, Susan said they can't stay away.  They've been back to Italy three times.  They took clients.  Katie went to school in Florence, and they went then.  They still know people there.  Facebook and Skype has helped, and they remain friends.

When she was asked if they picked up the language, Pohlman said somewhat by the time they left.  She found it hard.  It took a while to pick up enough to understand.  The kids had it in school, so it was easier for them.  Susan still couldn't really learn it.  She said she could understand and use nouns.  It's a tough language.

One question was about health care.  She said they have socialized health care, so you can go right to the hospital and they'll take care of you.  Her daughter got sick, and they took care of her.  But, there are private clinics, too, where they speak English.  And, doctors still make housecalls.  When Matt ran a high fever, the doctor came to the house with his little black bag. 

One couple was particularly interested in going to Italy, so Pohlman recommended, a company her parents use.  It covers the hidden infrastructure.  It finds you a place to live, a car, the what happens if.  It's a safety net while you stay in another country.

Asked what next, Pohlman said they're going to be empty nesters with their son going to college.  She's writing another book.  She's developed her voice.  And, she thinks she's more savvy about the marketplace.  Marketing her book is the hardest thing she's ever done.  And, she knows she has to look at evergreen topics.  So, she's found a topic that people want.  Pohlman just turned fifty.  It's a transition.  So, she's writing about it.  It's a topic that should be attractive to book buyers. 

Susan said they stay the same place everytime they go back to Italy.  They learned to relax about life.  Here, we worry about wasting time.  There, she learned not to mind about wasting time.  It was important just to be there, and live that life. 

She admitted the only thing she would have done differently was probably learn the language a little earlier before going, but they only had eight weeks to get ready, so there really wasn't time.

Susan Pohlman had an important message for closing.  "If you have an adventure in your heart, DO IT!"

Susan Pohlman's website is

Halfway to Each Other: How a Year in Italy Brought Our Family Home by Susan Pohlman. Guideposts, ©2009. ISBN 9780824947804 (hardcover), 272p.


Book Bird Dog said...

A year away in another country is a break I could use! I can tell you were taken by the book because of your in depth review. Sounds like a book worth reading for travelers and women's fiction lovers.

Book Surprises

Kay said...

I'm going to read this book. I'm not sure I could do what they did, but I know I would enjoy reading about their adventure. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Lesa.

Ingrid King said...

This is already on my list from after I read your review, but after reading this, I'm bumping it to the top. Wish I could have been there for Susan's talk!

Lesa said...

Book Bird Dog,

Susan doesn't sugarcoat it either. She's honest about the relationship problems in the book, and the difficulty in learning the language. You're right. I really liked this book.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Kay. I think I could do it, but I admire them doing it without knowing the language. My niece is spending a year in South Korea right now. She went over as an English teacher, knowing very little Korean. But, she manages to get all over the country, and she and another teacher are in Cambodia and Laos on vacation right now. Then, she's off to England. I really admire her for doing this.

Lesa said...


I wish you could have been there, too. It was very inspiring.

Kaye Barley said...

Well, this just happened to post this at such a great time for me! Guess what book I just ordered? Thank you, Lesa. I think Susan Pohlman might just be one of my newest heroes.

Lesa said...

Oh, Kaye, and you're going to have so much time to read and aprpeciate the Pohlmans' adventures soon. And, then maybe you'll be off on your own. Hugs, Kaye!