Q. What prompted you to write Entertaining Disasters?
A. Entertaining Disasters was born of the need to understand the world from which I came and the one in which I found myself desperately trying to enjoy “the good life” of house and garden, marriage and family. The material began with childhood memories written in Kate Braverman’s workshop, which I proudly announced, upon first presenting them, that they were what I chose to write “if I were to die tomorrow.” That the writing nearly killed me is another story. Haha!
Q. You have a background in journalism and this is your first novel. Was there anything about that process that surprised you?
A. Yes, that writing a novel didn’t kill me, that it was a good and necessary thing, and that as a journalist I could let go of the facts to find larger truths in fiction. Also, I discovered in the writing the extent to which my mother and our family were, in truth, connected to the larger world, how we weren’t the only ones who’d been through our particular trials. It’s a cliché, but it’s a hard won cliché. And families can be adept at maintaining themselves as closed systems, in the sense that they don’t discuss their challenges, even amongst themselves. Also, in researching the book, which I enjoyed far too much, I found all kinds of surprising and interesting information about the histories of food, society, civilization, women and mental illness, and the biology of families. Trying to connect them into a narrative was one of the reasons that the book took so long to write.
Q. How long did it take?
A. It took me 7 years to complete, once I determined that the disparate material I had been working with needed to be a novel. Some of the writing about childhood memories went back to the early ‘90s. It wasn’t until I was done with the book that I saw it as, in its way, mimicking the structure of Los Angeles, which has been called a collection of neighborhoods in search of a center. Entertaining Disasters began as a collection of obsessions in search of a connecting narrative. That it is set in Glendale, Mildred Pierce’s hometown and James M. Cain’s territory, connects it to the larger struggle, experienced by our parents’ generation and our own Boomer group, now middle-aged, to attain happiness through whatever is each era’s version of the American Dream.
Q. You refer to this as an autobiographical novel—how much of your own life is in it?
A. I was a freelance food writer living in Glendale in an aging house that shared the top of a hill with Forest Lawn. I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California in the 1950s and ‘60s and my mother suffered from mental illness. Unlike the unnamed narrator of the novel, I never invented any of my reportage, but I had a few editors switch things out on my behalf, without consulting me, which I found both surprising and, in the case of my novel, inspiring, and, unlike the narrator, I do drink tea on occasion. Sometimes I stop drinking coffee altogether and go on a regular tea binge. But it’s been a while. I have never consumed an entire bottle of wine all by my lonesome or cut myself on a broken bath spigot, as my husband keeps asking.
Q. Why not do a memoir?
A. A memoir would have been much darker and more disturbing to people who are still living. And a memoir is an intense form of self-exploration, but I wanted to explore other characters as well, such as the mother’s life and experiences and point of view prior to the narrator’s birth. I wanted to give voice to those women who had been silenced, dismissed and cast aside, and consider the implications of that silencing on their lives as well as those of their children.
Q.What was the most challenging thing for you in writing this book?
A. Finishing it. There were many times that I despaired of ever being able to complete it, let alone get it published. I initially began it while in Hard Words, a writing group that some of us from Kate Braverman’s workshop began after she left L.A., and then I went for a summer session to a fiction writing workshop at Skidmore, in upstate New York. Then at a certain point I felt I had to own the material, stop seeking outside feedback, and deal with it on my own. That was a lonely stretch with many doubts, moments of despair and concerns that I wasn’t even a writer any more. I’d let my journalism outlets dry up as I focused on the novel, so I really felt that I was out in the desert. Then I had to come to terms with my own personal history and how it was connected to my mother’s and how other women and children of that era were similarly challenged. When I was able to see how it wasn’t just me or my mother but that there were so many others who had experiences like our own, indeed, worse than our own, yet survived, it helped me appreciate the life I did have and stop longing for what I thought it once was or might someday be, but to appreciate it for what it is, a daily gift, a miracle, short lived and best appreciated while being lived.
Q. Once you finally finished the book, how did you go about getting it published?
A. I knew that once I’d finished it in August of 2007, I had to send it out that September in search of agents. So I compiled a list of mostly big name, mostly New York based-agents whom I did not really have any connection to, and I sent out query letters, five chapters and a synopsis. I also had it in the back of my head that one of the last moral characters left in publishing was Jack Shoemaker (I’m sure there are others, I’ve just yet to meet them) of Counterpoint Press. And by moral, I mean publishers who aren’t primarily interested in making money, but in the quality of the literature they publish. And Counterpoint was a West Coast publisher and I had a sense that New York publishers were often most interested in work that portrayed life in the West as they needed to see it, filled with tawdry superficialities and transgressive characters. So I sent the packet to Jack, as well. He made an offer and all the agents rejected me.
Q. Why leave the certainty of journalism for the unknown of fiction?
A. Journalism was going in one direction and I was going in another. It was becoming formulaic and increasingly service oriented, more about information than quality writing and stories that were interesting in their own right instead of about a celebrity or some marketing agenda. I’d come into the business during the heyday of the New Journalism, when fiction techniques were applied to writing non-fiction. In college I studied creative writing and journalism, where the strong female role models were few but included Flannery O’Connor and Joan Didion. I thoroughly enjoyed journalism until I began freelancing in Los Angeles and the only thing anyone, in town or out, seemed interested in was celebrities. The effort to make them interesting in print was exhausting and lousy pay. The P.R. people who control access to them are the ones making the living and I didn’t want to do that. In the effort to maintain my writing voice on the page, and because I was working at home, I headed off in the direction of personal essays dealing with lifestyle and food.
Q. What drew you to food writing?
A. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is extremely focused on food, and in my house, my mother had been a good, devoted cook serving up her family recipes, until she couldn’t or wouldn’t anymore. Then I did start cooking for myself. So I have always been interested in food both as a form of survival, as a creative outlet and as a way to escape one’s confinement and experience other cultures and worlds. Over the years I’ve also had the opportunity to dish with some top food folk. I interviewed Craig Claiborne over a foie gras lunch on San Francisco’s Nob Hill when he came out with his autobiography. And he said at that time food was the one intimate thing his family was able to talk about when he was growing up when they couldn’t talk about more troubling concerns. That was true for me, as well, so writing about food as a focus for my novel felt very natural.
Q. Do you give dinner parties?
A. I do, and I used to give them obsessively, as the narrator does, and feel awful, before, during and after, as the narrator does. But writing the book helped me get a grip on those urges. So while I give fewer dinner parties, I enjoy them far more AND they are less dangerous to my guests and myself. Though, trust me, unlike my narrator who has quite an active imagination on that front, I never seriously considered doing harm to anyone invited into my home. Except possibly the ageing stucco replacement salesman who refused to leave late one night unless we signed a contract, but he’s going into the next novel.