Thursday, February 12, 2009

Interview with Erica Bauermeister, author of The School of Essential Ingredients

The School of Essential Ingredients is a gem of a book and one I know I will read again in the future. (Read my review here) I'm thrilled to welcome author Erica Bauermeister to Diary of an Eccentric today to answer a few questions.

The School of Essential Ingredients gives new meaning to the term "comfort food." What is your favorite comfort food?

I think comfort food is different for each person. For my son, Annie's boxed macaroni and cheese meant home when he was a child. When we moved to Italy in 1997, we actually took the flavor packets out of the boxes and packed them in our suitcases. We felt a little silly, but it eased the transition for a homesick seven year old.

As for me, comfort food will always be part-preparation, part-eating. In Seattle, it gets dark early in the evenings in the winter, and at the end of a hectic day one of my favorite things to do is to make risotto, standing at the stove, stirring the chicken broth into the rice, smelling the salt and starch and butter and sauteed onions, listening to my family talking at the kitchen table. Lillian's experience with the mashed potatoes in The School of Essential Ingredients comes from that feeling.

Lillian prepares numerous dishes with the class throughout the book. Are these dishes you created?

Some of the dishes – the roasted crab, the pasta sauce, Antonia's Thanksgiving dinner – are variations on dishes I learned in two different cooking classes, one in Seattle and the other in the Napa Valley of California. Others were ideas I picked up from friends, magazines, and cookbooks and then played with. There was a lot of kitchen experimenting, though, because I wanted to feel that in the end the dishes were Lillian's and that I had been true to her approach to cooking.

How did the characters in The School of Essential Ingredients come about? Do you have a favorite? There is much diversity in the characters and their experiences, and by the time I finished the book, I loved each of them--flaws and all!

Ahhh.... favorites. You know, something I promised myself when I was writing this book was that I would never write a character I couldn't feel compassion for. Part of what made the writing so interesting was putting myself into the shoes of all these different people – trying to see a marriage from both sides, trying to understand what it's like to be a foreigner in the United States, or to lose your spouse, or to need precision in order to feel safe. But if I had to choose a favorite it would be Isabelle. Perhaps because I feel protective of her, perhaps because one of the reasons I wrote her was to understand better what my father was going through as his own brilliant mind faded.

Something I have found intriguing since the book was published, however, is how people respond to the characters. So many have a favorite and it's almost always different from person to person. But at this point every character has been someone's favorite - and I know that would make them all happy.

How long did it take to write the book?

I started the book when we returned from Italy in 1999; I took a cooking class and got the inspiration. So, off and on, it has taken almost ten years. But that time included raising children, renovating a house (filled with six and a half tons of trash), writing about the house (no, that wasn't published), doing real estate for five years to build up the kids' college funds – and all the etc that makes up a mother's life. I like to think that the detours created a better book – at the very least, I know the book was radically different in the end than when I started writing it at the age of 40.

Do you have a special place where you write?

I'm writing from there right now. It's the house we renovated, in a Victorian seaport called Port Townsend about two hours outside of Seattle. It's an old four-square-style house, up on a hill, looking out over the town to the water. In the winter, the winds come blasting right at you and it feels as if you are in the crow's nest of a ship. When I am out here, my job is to write.

But it's not the house that's important, it's the mind-set. This house had renters in it during the time I was writing The School of Essential Ingredients. That book was written in Seattle, in coffee shops and in bed, at the kitchen table on weekend mornings while everyone else was still asleep. What was important was that in those places, during those times, I thought of myself as a writer first.

Are you working on another book right now?

Yup. Unless I am stalling by answering more interesting questions. :-)

Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists with regard to the craft itself and publication?

For a while there, I wrote for money and renovated houses for free. And I realized that writing for money was changing how I wrote, and not in a good way. At one point I thought – what if I do houses for money and write for free? How would I write then? So I did real estate. In the process, I learned an amazing amount about people and took all the restrictions off my writing. That was a good choice for me, even if it took me longer to get the book finished.

But really, I think every writer needs to do what feels right for them. You don't HAVE to get up every morning at 5 a.m. and not leave your seat until you have 2,000 words (lord knows I don't). There are many days when I know my writing will be much better served by running errands, or cooking, or getting my hands in dirt. I write a lot when I am walking (my new favorite toy is a dictaphone, which saves me from stopping in the middle of the street to write down a thought). But if you ARE one of those writers who thrives on structure, then claim it. Tell your husband to walk the dog. Let the kids do the dishes. Shut the door (of the closet, if that's what it takes – that's where Sara Gruen wrote Water for Elephants) and write.

Thanks, Erica, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions. I wish you much success, and I can't wait for your next book to be published!


Julie P. said...

I loved this book! Terrific interview.

Anonymous said...

Great interview. I can't wait to read her next book!

Serena said...

Wonderful interview questions. I love that these writers took many years to write their first books and that inspires me to keep plugging away!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I love her line about making risotto a way to relax. It's like meditation for me. I finally heard enough of you glowing about this book, and now is on order from the library on audio!

Anonymous said...

Great questions, Anna! What a wonderful interview! Oh, I loved this book. Her house sounds amazing, doesn't it? I loved reading about that.

Erica graciously guest posted for me and gave me a recipe too! We're giving away 3 copies of her book if anyone would like to check it out:

Staci said...

Your interview couldn't have been timed more perfectly as I just finished this book last night!! I absolutely loved it and almost feel the need to read it again except it is due back on Saturday!!!

Jeannie said...

Awesome interview, Anna! I must say that this sounds like a fantastic book. I'm glad that you enjoyed it a whole bunch. :D

S. Krishna said...

I just finished this book and LOVED it - thanks for the interview!

The Bookworm said...

I have heard great things about this book! Great interview :o) Wonderful questions and interesting answers.

Staci said...

I just finished posting my thoughts on this fabulous book and linked your interview!!

Iliana said...

Great interview! I read your review too and I know this is one book I look forward to reading. It sounds like a perfect, comfort read :)

Anna said...

Julie: Seems as though everyone who reads it loves it.

Bermudaonion: I'm sure it will be great!

Serena: I hear you!

Sandy: Great! I hope you love it, too!

Lisa: Thanks for letting me know! I'll post the giveaway in my sidebar.

Staci: This definitely is a book I can see myself reading again. I'll have to check out your review. Thanks for the link!

Jeannie: Thanks! I can't recommend this book enough.

S. Krishna: I'll have to check out your review!

Naida: Thanks! I hope you get a chance to read it.

Iliana: Definitely a comfort read. Hope you get a chance to read it.

Lenore Appelhans said...

I can totally relate with the comfort food. I sometimes find myself craving the weirdest American food that I would never eat if I actually lived there. Like Vienna Sausages! (I know, gross!)

April said...

Great interview! I sooooo want to read this one! It has had such great reviews and the story just sounds so wonderful!

Ti said...

Everytime I hear or read anything about this book I become ravenous! It just makes my mouth water :)

avisannschild said...

Ditto what April said! Great interview and I really want to read this book. (I'm mad at myself for missing the deadline for Lisa's giveaway!)

Anna said...

Lenore: Ew! I've craved a lot of weird things but never Vienna sausages! I recently had a hummus craving. I never really ate that stuff, but for some reason, I HAD to have it!

April: I hope you get to read this one! It's sooooo worth it!

Ti: Yeah, you don't want to read the book on an empty stomach. That's for sure!

avisannschild: I hope you get your hands on a copy soon!!

Wendi said...

This is one of the books I've been really interested in! Great interview . . . as always! Isn't it fun??

Your interview has been added to About the Author - An Author Interview Index! ~ Wendi

Anna said...

Thanks, Wendi. Hope you get a chance to read this one.