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.

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