I was born in Pasadena, California in 1959, a time when that part of the country was both one of the loveliest and smoggiest places you could imagine. I remember the arching branches of the oak tree in our front yard, the center of the patio that formed a private entrance to our lives; I remember leaning over a water faucet to run water across my eyes after a day spent playing outside. It’s never too early to learn that there is always more than one side to life.
I have always wanted to write, but when I read Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” in college, I finally knew what I wanted to write – books that took what many considered to be unimportant bits of life and gave them beauty, shone light upon their meaning. The only other thing I knew for certain back in college, however, was that I wasn’t grown up enough yet to write them.
So I moved to Seattle, got married, and got a PhD. at the University of Washington. Frustrated by the lack of women authors in the curriculum, I co-authored 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide with Holly Smith and Jesse Larsen and Let’s Hear It For the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14 with Holly Smith. In the process I read, literally, thousands of books, good and bad, which is probably one of the best educations a writer can have. I still wrote, but thankfully that material wasn’t published. I taught writing and literature. I had children.
Having children probably had the most dramatic effect upon how I write of anything in my life. As the care-taker of children, there was no time for plot lines that couldn’t be interrupted a million times in the course of creation. I learned to multi-task, and when the children’s demands were too many, we created something called the “mental hopper.” This is where all the suggestions went — “can we have ice cream tonight?” “can we take care of the school’s pet rat over the summer?” “can I have sex at 13?” The mental hopper was where things got sorted out, when I had time to think about them. What’s interesting about the mental hopper is that when something goes in there, I can usually figure out a way to make it happen (except sex at 13).
And that is how I write now. All those first details and amorphous ideas for a book, the voices of the characters, the fact that one of them loves garlic and another one flips through the pages of used books looking for clues to the past owner’s life, all those ideas go in the mental hopper and slowly but surely they form connections with each other. Stories start to take shape. It’s a very organic process, and it suits me. So when people say being a mother is death for writers, I disagree. Yes, in a logistical sense, children can make writing difficult. In fact, I don’t think it is at all coincidental that my first novel was published after both my children were in college. But I think differently, I create the work I do, because I have had children.
It’s been more than thirty years since I first read Tillie Olsen. My children are now grown. I’ve been married for more than three decades to the same man; I’ve lived in Italy; I’ve stood by friends as they faced death. I grew up a bit, and I returned, happily and naturally, to fiction.
The first result was The School of Essential Ingredients, a novel about eight cooking students and their teacher, set in the kitchen of Lillian’s restaurant. It’s about food and people and the relationships between them – about taking those “unimportant” bits of life and making them beautiful. The response to School has been a writer’s dream; the book is currently being published in 23 countries and I have received letters and emails from readers around the world.
My second novel, Joy For Beginners came out two years later (see how much more quickly you can write when the children are in college?). Joy For Beginners follows a year in the life of seven women who make a pact to each do one thing in the next twelve months that is new, or difficult, or scary – the twist is that they don’t get to choose their own challenges. It has been a marvelous experience to watch this book become a catalyst for readers and entire book clubs, and to read the letters of those who have decided to change their lives or who have simply gained insight through the characters.
My third novel, The Lost Art of Mixing, returns to some of the characters from The School of Essential Ingredients whose stories simply weren’t finished (although I have to say, even I was surprised to learn where those stories went). It begins one year after School ended, and throws four completely new characters into the mix, in an exploration of miscommunication, serendipity, ritual, and (well, of course) food.
What ideas am I playing with now? I’m at that creative point, where ideas are swirling. I am hip-deep in research into smell, and the subliminal influence of architecture, and fairy tales, and what the weather does off the coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. Don’t worry, it won’t all be in the same book. But it makes for a very active mental hopper these days, which makes me happy.