I simply love Erica Bauermeister’s lyrical way of writing, her unusual characters, and the way she has of depicting sections out of people’s lives in her books, without overly focusing on developing storylines as such. I am a big, big fan of her The School Of Essential Ingredients. I didn’t connect with her Joy For Beginners as much as I did with The School Of Essential Ingredients, but I still found it quite an enjoyable read. Having read and enjoyed two of her books, I was thrilled when I managed to get in touch with Erica, and she agreed to a little interview for my blog!
Without further ado, here’s presenting to you… Erica!
Me: You have a unique, flowy, lyrical writing style that is a pleasure to read. Just how do you manage to write like that? Where do you find your writing inspiration?
Erica: My father was a musician and I grew up with music in our house, but unfortunately, I have a terrible ear in the traditional sense of singing or playing an instrument. I have found, however, that I hear music in the structure of sentences. To me, the flow and rhythm of a sentence is an underlying feeling supporting the meaning of the words, much the way a musical soundtrack supports a movie. I love thinking about how to build that feeling, opening my mind until I can hear what needs to happen.
As a general rule, I aim for a more lyrical style. My books tend to focus on characters more than plot, and on the sensory aspects of life, so that makes sense. When I was still finding my own writing style, I drew a lot of inspiration from Joanne Harris, Alice Hoffman, and Diane Ackerman (I must have read A Natural History Of The Senses five times during the writing of The School Of Essential Ingredients). I still often return to these authors’ books – not to try to copy their style, but rather to hear the music of it, as a way to switch from ordinary, daily dialogue into something more poetic.
Me: Your books have the most interesting of characters – from an insomniac gardener in Joy For Beginners to a child with the gift of using magic ingredients in cooking in The School Of Essential Ingredients. You have a way of getting into your characters’ heads! How do you think of such utterly interesting characters? Are they inspired by people you know in real life?
Erica: I love this question because I was so very, very bad at creating characters when I was a young writer. I remember one time going to hear a Famous Author, who talked about how her characters talked to her, and took over the endings of her books. When she was signing my copy of her book afterward, I said to her, a little self-righteously, “I’m a writer, and no characters have ever talked to me.” (Did I mention I was young?). In any case, the Famous Author was completely gracious. She just looked up and smiled, and said in the most compassionate way, “Well, maybe you aren’t listening!”
I think I had to get a lot older before I could listen. I had to get my own ego out of the way. I had to learn how to get into other people’s heads. Having children helped this, as did living in another country. All I know is when I got the idea for The School Of Essential Ingredients, I just suddenly believed the characters would show up. So I sat back and waited. Carl was first, and he will always be special to me because of that. And now, there is nothing more fun for me than catching a glimpse of a character in my mind, and then following where they want to go. It’s like seeing one of those curving, secret paths that lead through a meadow or a forest. You just have to go down it…
Which is a long way to answering your second question – which is no, none of my characters are based on people I know. I find characters who are not restrained by a personality that already exists to be much more interesting.
Me: Food seems to play an important part in your books – your love for food shows in your writing. How important a part does food play in your life? How has food influenced you, your writing?
Erica: When our children were young, my husband got a job offer in Italy, and we spent two years living there. What I learned about food and family changed my life. I honestly don’t know if I would have written fiction without that experience – both because it gave me that important experience of trying to see through another culture/person’s eyes, but also because of the loving and instinctual relationship the Italians have with ingredients and mealtimes and family. In Italy, cooking is like putting personalities together at a dinner table, rather than a lock-step set of directions to follow. There is an inherent creativity and generosity to it that is marvellous. That feeling invaded my sense of cooking, and writing. I learned to trust my instincts.
Cooking is still a huge part of my life. I love the creativity of it (what can I do with these four ingredients in my fridge?). I love the rhythm of stirring polenta or risotto, or the community of a group of people making pasta from scratch in a big, flour-filled kitchen. If I am traveling and don’t get to cook for a couple days, I start to get a little itchy, actually.
Me: Have you always wanted to become a writer? How exactly did you get into it?
Erica: I have always wanted to write. I loved reading as a kid, and somewhere along the line, I realized that writers got to LIVE in that world they were creating. How much fun is that? In college, I figured out the kind of books I wanted to write, but I also knew that I wasn’t old enough to write them yet. So, I went to graduate school, got a PhD in literature, taught, wrote guidebooks to books, practiced my craft on several memoirs that weren’t published (thank heavens!). I had pretty much given up on the idea of fiction, honestly, when I took a cooking class after we returned from Italy. In that class, we killed crabs with our bare hands, and the idea for a book about a cooking class fell into my head. (And to answer your next question, no, I’m not Claire, although I empathize with her greatly).
Me: Are you working on a new book now? If so, we’d be thrilled if you could tell us something about it!
Erica: I love working with the subliminal things in our lives, and exploring how they affect us in ways we often don’t even notice. Food was a fun one, in The School Of Essential Ingredients. In Joy for Beginners, I stretched things further. The book I am working on now deals with the sense of smell. I’m superstitious, so I’m not going to tell you any more than that…
Me: Who are your favourite authors/books?
Erica: Joanne Harris, Alice Hoffman, and Diane Ackerman are three of my favorite authors, but I would add to that list happily. I could read MFK Fisher’s writing all day long. I love the magical fairy tale of Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child, and the lyrical way Rene Denfeld explored deep and horrifying subjects in The Enchanted. I was impressed by Emily St. John Mandel’s use of structure in Station Eleven, as I was with William Faulkner’s in The Sound And The Fury. I think Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, and Anne Tyler are masters of subtle social commentary. I think it is partially because of all the research I did when I co-wrote 500 Great Books By Women, but I tend to draw my inspiration from an eclectic group of authors.
Me: What kind of a process do you follow to write your books? Do you come up with the broad idea first, and then fill up the gaps as you go? Or does it come to you in bits and pieces and make the story along as you go?
Erica: For my first three novels, the structure just fell into my head. It was like building a house and then waiting for the individual stories to move in. Recently, however, I’ve been moving toward more chronological stories with fewer characters, so this has been a switch. Always, though, I seem to start with an image or a character. I try not to write for 6 months – I just research and sketch scenes. When I start to feel a real momentum, the building of pressure that is the story itself, then I start writing.
Me: What is your most favourite writerly tool or knick-knack? It could be anything from a writer’s website to a favourite desk where you write your best.
Erica: A window seat. In architectural terms, a window seat is an almost perfect element, in that it provides both outlook and refuge. I think that is just what writers need – a way to look out on the world, broadly and privately.
Me: Do you read a lot of food blogs or any blogs, in general? Tell us about your favourites, please!
Erica: I think it’s because I spend so much time starting at a screen that when I want to read, I want a book in my hands. That said, I do love Tara Austen Weaver’s Tea and Cookies. Remedial Eating is another world I like to spend time in.
Me: What else you do love doing when you are not writing?
Erica: Cooking. Traveling. Walking on the beach near our house. Finding a new topic (architecture, conmen, bespoke perfumes, Paul Ekman’s work on micro-expressions) and learning about it. All of these things have a couple things in common – they are all soothing and stimulating at the same time.
Me: Tell us about your favourite foods! Which foods do you love eating, and which ones do you love cooking?
Erica: I think my favourite food is butternut squash ravioli, in butter and sage sauce. But the ravioli needs to be thin, thin – like a whisper on your tongue – and it’s almost impossible to find it made that way. We got it one time, in a restaurant in San Gimignano, and I’ve been dreaming about it ever since.
When it comes to cooking, I like the leisurely, repetitive-motion foods like risotto or pasta sauces or polenta. There’s something about the stirring and inhaling the scents and thinking about the people who will eat it that is completely satisfying.
Me: What are the bits of advice you would like to pass on to people who want to be creative in their lives?
Erica: I would ask them what they are waiting for – and I mean that as a real question. If you are waiting because you are scared about failure, then think about what your life would be like if you DON’T do this thing that calls to you. And if there are concrete reasons, or skills you need to acquire, then deal with those, but don’t let them be an excuse.
And more than anything, just try to open yourself up to the joy of it. Forget that myth that art has to be painful, that you have to suffer for it. Nothing makes me happier than time spent writing. So, go make yourself happy!
I really hope you enjoyed reading this tete-a-tete! And if you haven’t read anything by Erica yet, I would urge you to pick up at least one of her books – I’m sure you’ll enjoy her flowing prose!