Michelle Berry Answers the HN Questionnaire

Writer: Michelle Berry is the author of three books of stories and four novels. Her recent collection, I Still Don’t Even Know You, won the Mary Scorer Award at the 2011 Manitoba book awards. Her most recent novel, This Book Will Not Save Your Life, won the 2010 Colophon award.

Currently residing in: Peterborough, Ontario

Website: I don’t have one. Technically illiterate. No blog or twitter either.

What’s going on in your writing life right now? I’m working on a new novel that might be a story collection, I’m not sure. Each chapter can be published as a story, and three have, so far (Editor’s note: See one of the stories at the online magazine Joyland here and another at The Winnipeg Review site here), but it has the arc and plot of a novel. I’m also teaching a lot this year. A joint University of Toronto/New York Times online novel writing course and a Humber college correspondence/mentorship course.

What’s your writing routine? Routine? It’s summer. What’s that? What I try to do is answer emails and get through any “administrative” stuff. Then I try to write. Hopefully a couple of hours a day but sometimes less, sometimes much more. When I’m in the editing phase I tend to sit at my desk for 4 or 5 hours a day.

What do you usually eat for breakfast? This changes too. I go through stages. Last year I ate a mixture of Just Right Cereal, Life Multigrain cereal and Granola every morning. For about a year. Now I’m eating plain Greek Yogurt (0% fat!) with a teaspoon of honey in it. One year I drank nothing but yogurt smoothies for breakfast every day. One year it was peanut butter on toast. The only thing I never change is my cappuccino! I have to have a cappuccino for breakfast every day.

What good books have you read recently? I just finished “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan and loved it. She did what I’m trying to do with my novel – each of her chapters are individual stories. However, her book is different because she never “ends” the chapters so they don’t really stand on their own as much as mine do. I also read Ann Patchett’s new novel, “State of Wonder” and am not sure if I loved it. I liked it, but didn’t really love it. I’m presently starting two books of stories which I’m reviewing: Julie Booker’s, “Up, Up, Up,” and Cathy Stonehouse’s, “Something About the Animal.”

What did you eat for dinner last night? I had a tofu and chicken stir fry – with bok choy, carrots, red pepper, bean sprouts, zucchini, onion, and a peanut butter/terriyaki sauce and honey sauce. I had it plain. My family had it with rice. They had mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert. I had a second glass of red wine.

Writing rules you live by: I’m an advocate of “write what you DON’T know,” “Show Don’t Tell,” and “What Happens Next?” but I don’t really live by rules. I don’t think there should be solid, fast rules. You can try to stick to rules but sometimes if you don’t stick to them, something exciting might happen. I guess, really, grammatical rules are the only rules I really try to follow. I’m horrified when I see grammatical mistakes in my writing (we can’t all be perfect)!

Foodstuffs you’re fiending these days: cheese. There is this cheese someone brought me a couple months ago – it’s a goat cheese, it’s almost a gorgonzola, but not quite. It’s really, really soft (almost melts on the knife, has a sweet and salty crust. I have no idea what kind it was, but I really wish I had some right now. With a lovely glass of wine. Sigh. I think the cheese was from somewhere in Quebec.

A scene or piece you’ve written that features food: I’ve had two particularly interesting food-related books. My novel, Blind Crescent, had a character, Mr. Walcott, who had synesthesia – a rewiring of the brain where his senses are confused. Mr. Walcott see shapes as flavour. He is obese because of this and is constantly cooking and eating. In my most recent novel, “This Book Will Not Save Your Life,” I also have another obese character (morbidly obese – 750 pounds!). Sylvia spends most of the novel in an ambulance on her way to a veterinary hospital to get a CT Scan. A regular CT machine won’t fit her bulk.

Favorite restaurants: “Parkhill on Hunter,” “St. Veronus,” (Belgian food) and “Hot Belly Mama’s” (Cajun) in Peterborough, Ontario.

Three formative books from your youth: “Alice in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll, “Where the Wild Things Are,”by Maurice Sendak and “Winnie the Pooh,” by A.A. Milne (oh, and anything by Dr. Suess).

Three formative books from your adulthood: Only three? This is a very hard question: “Falling Angels,” by Barbara Gowdy (first time I realized Canadian literature could be exciting and dark and wildly funny), anything by Ellen Gilchrist, Flannery O’Connor or Raymond Carver (all influenced my own writing.)

Dishes/recipes in regular rotation in your cooking repertoire: Remember: I have two kids at home – pizza (they like cheese pizza, I gourmet ours – fancy cheeses, basil, roasted peppers, grilled chicken, etc.), stir fries, salmon and asparagus, pastas, perogies, homemade soups and cornbread or buttermilk biscuits in the winter – we’re not very original over here on a daily basis, sorry.

Random bits of writing advice: My most energetic bit of advice to a new writer is: Read. Seriously, do you know how many wanna-be writers I’ve met who don’t even read? It’s insane. And then: Write. Again, I have lots of students who wonder why they aren’t getting published and it’s often because they aren’t writing a lot, they are just talking about writing, or taking courses. Read! Write!

What do you do when not writing, eating or reading? I drink wine. I watch movies on Netflix. Or great TV shows (“Modern Family,” “Bones,” “The Middle,” Damages,” the list is actually long).

What’s your idea of comfort food and comfort reading? Depends. If I’m sick I revert back to the kid phase – my mom would make cornbread or scrambled eggs and I’d have Earl Grey tea with sugar and milk. If I’m depressed or anxious, there’s nothing a good chocolate chip cookie (home made, of course) can’t cure. Microwave popcorn is also a crutch…. Comfort reading: a really good literary novel, something with amazing dialogue, something with intelligent humour and a great plot. These are few and far between but occasionally I stumble upon a book that knocks me out. That’s when I pop the popcorn, make a white wine (pinot grigio) spritzer and disappear.

p.s. The photo I’ve attached is of our Christmas Stollen. It’s a German bread someone in our family will make every year on Christmas Eve day (it takes all day to make). We eat it Christmas morning while opening our presents.

Beautiful Beignets

The food: beautiful Parisian-style beignets from Thobor

Thobor's mini beignet

The story:

I’m currently fiending – that is, loving, craving and rapidly becoming obsessed by – the incredibly delicious, incredibly cheap (only 80 cents each!) mini-beignets from Thobors Boulangerie Patisserie Cafe in Toronto, a small French bakery that is open 5 days a week, from Wednesday to Sunday.

At the Thobors shop, the beignets are sold in sizes mini and regular, unfilled or filled (for 20 cents more) with a choice of applesauce, raspberry jam, nutella and some kind of cream.

My favorite way to eat the beignets is filled with something lemony, as I discovered by accident this week, while questing for a lemon meringue tart to enter in round 3 of my lemon meringue tart wars (click here for round one results and here for round two).

On a hot day when I couldn’t muster the energy to drive out to bakeries in Leslieville or the Beach where I suspected a lemon meringue tart worthy of duking it out in round 3 might be found, I rode my bicycle instead to nearby Thobors and bought a luscious looking lemon tart, sans meringue, because I was feeling lazy, okay? And because it looked delicious. While I was in the small shop, comme d’habitude, I picked up a beautifully sugared mini-beignet, unfilled, for later.

The lemon tart, though packaged nicely at the bakery, got a bit roughed up in my bike basket, and looked like this when I got it home:

After I’d sworn – in English – I used my limited food styling skills to try to restore it, without great success:

Then I ate half of it. The lemon curd was exemplary – sweet, eggy, buttery, intensely lemony, and not adulterated by any milk or cream (is there not something scary about making a lemon tart with condensed milk? There is). But the pastry – a no doubt excellent rendition of a pâte sablée – did not amuse me. In fact, I hated its crumbly, cookie-ish texture. I was looking at the second half of the smushed tart and thinking about how I wanted to eat the lemon curd but that it would be a bit gross to spoon it directly into my mouth, when I remembered loving the Italian sfingi donuts served with lemon curd at Enoteca Sociale.

In a matter of moments, I had extracted my beignet from its bag, sliced it open, scooped out the remaining lemon curd from the tart shell and tucked it into the beignet’s cavities.

How did it taste? So fucking amazing that I’m working up the courage to make some homemade lemon curd soon. And until I can come up with the guilt-free fortitude to execute a recipe that calls for 6 eggs, a 1/2 pound of butter, and 1 cup sugar to yield 2 cups of curd, I’m filling my daily (3 days in a row, so far) mini-beignet with some almost as good lemon honey, and loving every bite.

Julia Glass Answers the HN Questionnaire

Writer: Julia Glass

Currently residing in: Marblehead, Massachusetts

Website: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorJuliaGlass (This page, maintained by my publisher, is the closest thing I have to a website.)

Blog: Periodic ramblings on the Facebook page

On Twitter? You mean Twaddle?

What’s going on in your writing life right now? Aside from too much procrastination (my chief enablers a recalcitrant garden and two scofflaw puppies), I’m well into writing my next novel. I’m also trying to catch up on Facebook blogging now that my most recent novel, The Widower’s Tale, is out in paperback.

What’s your writing routine? I am, to my chagrin, as capable of maintaining a routine as I am of skippering an aircraft carrier. Fiction is my most important work, and I do spend part of every day pondering and scheming out the lives of my characters, but I transcribe those daydreams only in sprints: say, for a few hours daily over two or three weeks. Then I may go for another couple of weeks without adding a word; often I’ll work on nonfiction writing then.

What do you usually eat for breakfast? As of a year ago, I eat the same breakfast virtually every day: vanilla Greek yogurt with fresh or home-frozen fruit: usually berries; stone fruit if in season (plus wimpy American coffee with lots of milk).

What good books have you read recently? To the End of the Land (David Grossman), The More I Owe You (Michael Sledge), Emily, Alone (Stewart O’Nan), A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (Brigid Pasulka), Extraordinary Renditions (Andrew Ervin)

What did you eat for dinner last night? Vegetarian chili, inspired by orphan veggies from our weekly CSA farm share, with grated Parrano cheese and whole-wheat garlic bread. For dessert, blueberry cake—the recipe an heirloom from my Maine-raised mother-in-law—with vanilla ice cream.

Writing rules you live by: Persevere, even to the point of denial. Read well. Revise like crazy. Back up files. Don’t visit the refrigerator too often.

Foodstuffs you’re fiending these days: Corn, tomatoes, purslane, berries, peaches (all the carpe diem summer produce that’s good for such a brief time); ice cream (because it’s so hot . . . but that’s just an excuse); chocolate (the mother of all cravings)

A scene or piece you’ve written that features food: The protagonist of my second book, The Whole World Over, is a pastry chef. I had wondered, at first just for amusement’s sake, if I could write an entire novel whose events unfold because a particular person eats a very particular piece of cake. Well, I did. The story begins when the (fictional) governor of New Mexico, while in New York City for a convention of Republican governors, tastes my protagonist’s signature coconut cake and invites her to “audition” for the job as his personal chef in Santa Fe. I described the cake in detail—a figment of my sweet-tooth fancy—and after the book came out, a flesh-and-blood pastry chef brought it to confectionary life for a literary festival event. She was faithful to my description but declared it too sweet. She was right; I loved it anyway. I wish I’d made her give me the recipe.

Favorite restaurants:
Morandi, Union Square Café, Blue Ribbon on Sullivan St., Mary’s Fish Camp, Don Giovanni, The Red Cat (all NYC); Lucques (L.A.); Fore Street Grill, Corner Room, Pacariello (Portland, Maine); The Barnacle, Five Corners Kitchen (Marblehead, Mass.); My Place by the Sea (Rockport, Mass.); Alchemy (Gloucester, Mass.); The Red Inn (Provincetown, Mass.)

Three formative books from your youth: The Diamond in the Window (Jane Langton), D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (those famous beloved D’Aulaires), Waiting for God (Simone Weil)

Three formative books from your adulthood: Daniel Deronda (George Eliot), Andre Dubus’s short stories (several collections), the best novels of Iris Murdoch

Dishes/recipes in regular rotation in your cooking repertoire:

Cold weather: penne with roast winter squash and kale pesto; vegetarian lasagne; oven-roasted yams and root vegetables; roast chicken with orange-mustard-honey glaze; curried chicken baked in tomato-coconut-pepper sauce; lentil and bean soups; pureed green soup (using spinach, Swiss chard, leftover salads, etc.); paella; baby spinach/arugula with dried cranberries, pistachio nuts, and feta (our house salad).

Hot weather: chicken and fish grilled several ways (favorite marinades: spicy cashew for chicken; lime-ginger-garlic-beer for fish); beets or potatoes cooked with onions and olive oil in foil on the grill; curried couscous salad with nuts, dried fruits, and veggies, caprese salad.

All year: fruit pies and cakes (favorites: pear-almond pie, three-layer red velvet cake with cream-cheese frosting).

Tell us about this specific cake:

While staying in Umbria this spring, at the artists’ retreat Civitella Ranieri, I made a birthday cake for another resident. I used a reliable recipe I choose for people averse to dairy: an orange-cornmeal cake made with olive oil, glazed with lemon. The challenge was finding the right ingredients at the grocery store without native assistance (never mind converting the recipe to metric, in a kitchen with no measuring utensils!). Somehow I managed to buy bread instead of cake flour, baking soda instead of powder, polenta instead of cornmeal. But I forged ahead. The result was a cake that collapsed in the middle (which I camouflaged by inserting a tumbler of roses) and had a very rustic, grainy texture. But it tasted wonderful all the same, and the blood oranges I found for the garnish were heavenly.

Random bits of writing advice: Resist the undertow of guilt or illegitimacy created by all those mythical “musts” (write every day, write what you know, show don’t tell, blah blah blah). If other people’s commandments work for you, great. If not, figure out your own. Another myth? Writer’s block. You write or you don’t. Some days you struggle; other days you’re in the Zone. Sometimes it seems pointless, absurd, or impossible. Seems is the operative word. On days like that, just doodle; make notes—or take a break. Ever heard of nurse’s block? Auto mechanic’s block? Carpenter’s block? (How about pastry chef’s block?) The job of writing is nothing special or magical exempt from the general principles of work at large.

What do you do when not writing, eating or reading? Try to keep up with two boys and two puppies. Play badminton (the serious, indoor kind; no lawn parties involved). Plan the next meal.

What’s your idea of comfort food and comfort reading? Sublime indolence defined: consuming layer cake left over from a good dinner party while listening to Sondheim while paging through cookbooks . . . or my older son’s latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine (if I can get my hands on it).