An introduction to Erica Bauermeister, author of the novels The School of Essential Ingredients, Joy For Beginners, and The Lost Art of Mixing (Putnam Books, 2013). Bauermeister’s new book brings back a few familiar characters from her first book and introduces some fresh faces. At Rakestraw Books last month, Bauermeister talked about her writing process and how this novel came together in bursts and small sections, like fireworks building toward a finale. It pulls the reader in effortlessly, even if you haven’t read The School of Essential Ingredients. Each chapter explores a different character’s perspective, and readers gain insight into every side of the story. Add in the delectable descriptions and details that pepper Bauermeister’s prose and you’ve got an elegant and fulfilling read. You’re in for a treat with Erica Bauermeister.
Quick Facts on Erica Bauermeister
- Erica Bauermeister’s website www.ericabauermeister.com | Facebook: www.facebook.com/EricaBauermeisterAuthor
- Home: Port Townsend, Washington
- Comfort food: To eat, rice pudding (with cinnamon, please); to make: pasta with ragu sauce.
- Top reads: E M Forster, Joanne Harris, Diane Ackerman, Alice Hoffman, Donald Hall [See EB’s full list of favorite reads]
- Current reads: Population: 485 by Michael Perry
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m actually shifting gears—I’m working on a memoir, about a trash-filled wreck of a house we bought eleven years ago in the small Victorian seaport of Port Townsend, Washington. The experience was such a combination of oddness and magic that I couldn’t have made it better by turning it into fiction, so memoir it is.
Where did the idea come from for The Lost Art of Mixing?
I had two images in my head—the first was of a middle-aged man, lying in bed with his wife, feeling her complaints rocking against him like waves on a docked boat. I had this instant feeling of affection, and I wanted more for him. A rebellion. An escape. A larger understanding of his life.
The other image was of a character from my first book, The School of Essential Ingredients. In my imagination I saw Lillian, the chef, standing in the restaurant kitchen doorway, overwhelmed by the smells and realizing through her reaction that she is unexpectedly and unsettlingly pregnant.
Over the course of a couple years, the connections between these characters became clear, six other characters joined them, and they turned into a book.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
“Everything I write has to do with compassion.”
I have come to realize that everything I write has to do with compassion. The Lost Art of Mixing consists of four pairs of characters, each pair in the midst of misunderstanding. Each chapter takes the reader into the perspective of a different character. It is my hope that readers will learn to understand and perhaps love each of these very human characters—which raises an interesting question: what happens when we empathize with both sides of a disagreement?
What role does food play in The Lost Art of Mixing?
As far as I am concerned, everything begins and ends with food. It is one of the first things we search for when we are born. We prepare it for others. We share it with friends and family. It can bring us together or bring us to ourselves. In The Lost Art of Mixing, food creates the community that draws all those conflicted pairs of characters together.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
In general, I write in a big chair in front of the window in my office. But I have a laptop, so I am apt to move about the house. I have found it intriguing that I tend to write different characters in different rooms. Isabelle, my character with Alzheimer’s, always liked to be written in a kitchen. Tom liked to be by a fireplace. I wouldn’t really think about it when I was writing, I would just find myself there. It was only later that I saw the patterns.
Do you listen to anything while you write?
No. I need silence. The music is in the words, in the characters’ voices, and I want to be able to hear it as clearly as possible. My husband has mentioned, however, that I sometimes write out loud, so perhaps a little music would be a good cover.
Where would you most want to live and write?
This summer, we finally moved permanently to our house in Port Townsend. I sit in my office and look out at a 100-mile view. I can’t imagine anywhere better to write.
That said, I get fantastic ideas when I am travelling. I’m not sure if it’s that sense of being extra alert or shaken out of my routine, but I love the ideas that pop into my head when I’m in an airport or on a train. I take a small book I can fit in a pocket and I jot down notes constantly. I feel like a squirrel, collecting nuts for when I get home and can figure out where they might fit in a book.
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
When I was in college, I discovered a short story called “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen. I was in the midst of taking a literature course that featured men writing about war and big white whales—but here was this small, intimate story of a woman standing at an ironing board, thinking about her life. It took the “unimportant” things in life and made them beautiful. Ever since then, that is what I have wanted to do.
“It took the ‘unimportant’ things in life
and made them beautiful. Ever since then,
that is what I have wanted to do.”
How do you balance content with form? How does the structure of the book influence the story?
Structure is critical when it comes to interconnected short stories. It is almost like creating a musical composition. All of the pieces have to fit together; they need to be presented in an order that builds meaning in each story, and then add up to something greater as a whole. It’s incredibly tricky work, and I find it deeply satisfying. I love the idea of readers sitting above the pages of a book, seeing the whole of the book and the ways the individual characters and stories are influencing each other, while at the same time the characters can only see their own parts.
But on the other hand, within each story, content is king. That’s the chance to dive into a character, to live in their skin. To be with them and only them.
I enjoy the combination of the strictness of structure and the fluidity of content. In the end, it is a great deal like bones and blood. You can’t have one without the other.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
Honestly? Making the time. I started out as a writer who was also a young mother and it seems to me, even now that the children are grown and gone, that I will most likely always be writing in snatches of time. Only these days those snatches are grabbed in between book tours, or answering letters, or writing blog posts. It’s a good thing I got trained early to focus quickly and in bursts.
How have your goals as a writer changed over time?
Oddly enough, they haven’t. I have always wanted to explore the intimate parts of people’s lives—the things they don’t say, the wishes they didn’t even know they had. I’ve wanted to pay attention to the subliminal things that are continually affecting who we are. And I’ve always wanted to learn about new things—how perfume is made, how to pick a lock, how to get bread to rise. Being a writer is a wonderful thing for someone with a wandering mind—you get to explore and appear focused at the same time.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.” —Rumi.
It’s not a quote about writing per se, but it’s what writing feels like to me. It reminds me to follow my instincts in my writing, to be careful not to shove the words and characters around but to let them show me what the story needs.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
“It is how you see the world—
in images, in dialogue, in stories.”
A writer is who you are. It is not dependent upon whether or not you make money with your words. It is how you see the world—in images, in dialogue, in stories. It is how you notice a gesture between two strangers in the park. It is the hours you spend thinking about the best words to describe the way your character walks. It is the fact that these things are thrilling and fill you with a kind of joy and power that you can’t get from anything else. It is who you are—whether it is your full-time job or the thing you do in your head while you are cleaning the deep-fat fryer at the restaurant or sitting at the stoplight while driving carpool. The rest is just logistics.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
I met an author once at a reading. She talked about her characters with such personal knowledge—the way they would talk to her and hijack the stories, take them in a direction she didn’t expect. I didn’t believe that was possible and when I went up to have her sign my book I said (I was young, and I am still embarrassed by it)—“I’m a writer, but no characters have ever talked to me.”
She was kind, and smiled, and simply said: “Well, perhaps you aren’t listening.”
She was utterly, completely right. It took twenty more years before I was able to listen, but when I finally did, everything changed.
Is there a question you find surprising that people ask about your work?
I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising by now, but it seems the first question everybody asks is whether the characters are people I know in my real life. They aren’t; they never are. I wonder sometimes why that would matter. My characters are perhaps more real to me precisely because they are not anyone I know.
Is there something that you wish people would ask about your work more often?
I really love the readers who dig deep into the images and interconnections in my books, who see the subtle things I slip in there, sometimes just to see if anybody catches them. Those conversations are my favorites because they involve taking a book apart and seeing it for the beautiful, intricate machine that it is. I can understand why some readers wouldn’t want to do that, as it might break the magic for them, but as a nerdy reader myself, I love it.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Travel, read, cook, spend time with my family. The fact that almost all of these usually involve food just makes them better.
About Erica Bauermeister
Erica Bauermeister is the bestselling author of three novels: The School of Essential Ingredients, Joy For Beginners, and The Lost Art of Mixing. She is also the co-author of two nonfiction works: 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide and Let’s Hear It For the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Erica Bauermeister.” Words With Writers (February 27, 2013), https://wordswithwriters.com/2013/02/27/erica-bauermeister .]