Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Read This Book: Suzanne Beecher's Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (If Disorderly) Life

Honestly, to know Suzanne Beecher is to adore her. Really. I mean it. Not only is she the founder of DearReader.com, where you can sample 2-3 chapters of books in your email each week, but she writes a column and designs book clubs for publishers, booksellers and libraries across the country. After having lunch in the city with her, I felt that I had known her forever. She's that kind of person.

Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (If Disorderly) Life is a wonderful book filled with recipes and insights about what it takes to live a happy life--the Suzanne Beecher way. I'm thrilled that Suzanne is here to answer questions.

I love the structure of this book. It’s part memoir, part cookbook, and absolutely enchanting. How did you figure out the structure? So tell us, how IS life like a recipe? And what made you decide to write this book?

Thank you. I wish I could take credit for the structure, but I can’t. In the midst of writing the book, when I got to feeling I was in way-y-y over my head--’Oh, boy, I’ve done it again, pretending I know how to do something when I don’t have a clue’--I relinquished control and the book took over. I was merely a hired temp to do the typing. Okay, so that may sound a bit bizarre. But it really did feel as if when I decided to get out of the way, the words flowed onto the page. Author friends suggested I should take my columns and put them into a book. But the reason I wanted to write a book was to learn how to do something different. If I simply put my columns into a book, I wouldn’t be learning anything new and it wouldn’t be a challenge. And now I’m in the midst of working on that challenge again—I’ve begun writing a second book.

Cooking, especially baking, is one of the things I do to keep me grounded in life. Food is a way to connect with almost anyone. Baking chocolate chip cookies and giving them away to friends and even strangers, is one of my trademarks. Every time I hand someone a bag of my chocolate chip cookies, they tell me a story. “I remember when my grandma used to bake cookies. I’d sit on a stool in her kitchen waiting to lick the bowl. I miss Grandma.”

You’re known for the incredible DearReader.com, an incredible online bookclub. Can you tell us how you started DearReader?

It was the summer of 1999. My husband and I were working together in his software company. Most of the people who worked for him were stay-at-home moms, working part time from their homes, so they could be with their children. Frequently one of the moms would comment, that when her children were old enough she wanted to go back to college.

So one afternoon, when I heard the frustration in Cathy’s voice about wishing she could go back to school, I asked, “Why wait? Your kids might not be going to school for three or four years, but you could start reading about whatever subject you’re interested in right now.”

Cathy was not amused. “Look Suzanne, I cook, clean, do school activities, take care of my children, and work part time for you. I don’t even have time to shave my legs and you expect me to sit down and read a book!”

Good point. I guess I’d forgotten how little free time my husband and I had when our kids were young. In-between managing our businesses, trying to get kids off to school in the morning and then transport them to music lessons and sports afterwards, it was a real juggling act. So that evening when I was preparing our daily company email, on a whim I started typing in the first few pages of Tuesdays with Morrie, a book I’d just finished reading. The next evening I typed in a little more, continuing to send short installments with each company email.

Four days later, No Time to Shave My Legs Woman called. “I’m embarrassed to admit it, Suzanne, but I’ve been sneaking over to my computer late at night to see if company email showed up yet, because I’m hooked on the book.”

So if sending part of a book, to a busy stay-at-home mom, could inspire her to add reading to her “to-do” list, what would happen if I sent daily book club emails to millions of people? And that’s how my online book clubs at DearReader.com were born. (By the way, before I continue, I need to tell you that taking copyrighted material out of a book is illegal, which my loving husband pointed out to me at the time. I assured him it was for a small group of women and that’s how creative ideas are born. But that still doesn’t make it legal. Not to worry, I have permission for all of the books I use at my online book clubs today.)

I knew how to build a website and I could envision what the book clubs would look like, but how was I going to get permission to use material from published books? Silly, na├»ve me, I thought if I called a publisher they would call me back. When they didn’t, I tried sending a fax and then an overnight letter. Finally it was my persistent dialing that reached a Random House executive. She decided to take a chance on my online book club idea. But a week later, when we were supposed to finalize things, my contact was gone—literally. The recording on her phone said she didn’t work at Random House any longer, “Press one if you need further assistance.”

So I had no choice but to begin again. Eventually I connected with someone else at Random House and I started getting permissions. I figured I could name-drop and easily get other publishers on board, too. When that didn’t work, I baked chocolate chip cookies and sent them overnight with a one-page letter. I realize a business letter and chocolate chip cookies might seem like strange bedfellows. But I loved to bake, and I needed to stand out, and who doesn’t love a homemade chocolate chip cookie—like the kind Grandma used to make?

What a difference when I’d call a publisher the day after my package arrived, “Oh, you’re the cookie woman! I’m sorry we didn’t get back to you yet.” Today, eleven years later, over 375,000 people read at my
Dear Reader online book clubs every day. I’m still baking cookies for publishers—because it’s fun—and I bake for readers, too. Every month there’s a Chocolate Chip Cookie Giveaway at the book clubs. Stop by, if you’re name is drawn I’ll bake and overnight two-dozen homemade cookies to your front door.

Sound a little crazy? Yes, but a little crazy means we have a lot of fun. When you sign up at one of my free online book clubs, in addition to test-driving great books (every Monday through Friday you receive an email with a 5-minute read) I write a daily column, and I give away other “crazy” items: bubble machines, heating pads for kitties that live in cold climates, vintage aprons, garage sale goodies, measuring cups, journals, and I’ve even shopped for socks for book club readers.

I invite you to join the fun at
www.DearReader.com and if you like my style, you’ll love my new book, Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (if disorderly) Life. Read a sample at www.MuffinsandMayhem.com get a signed book plate, and discover my “goodies” for book clubs that meet in person.

I’m always fascinated by the writing process, so can you tell me what it was like to write Muffins & Mayhem?

It was the most intense high a person could imagine, and the most extreme terror I’ve ever experienced. What a ride. I’m not the sort of person who makes outlines and business plans before I begin something new, so my recipe for the book was—jump in. Even though I didn’t want to reprint columns in a book, one of the first things I did was take my columns (from the past eight years) and sort them into topics. Recipes and stories seem to be an interchangeable part of my life and I wanted to see what topics came up the most frequently. What were the issues I seemed to spend the most time writing about in my column every day?

Periodically, when I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d call my agent. From the Acknowledgements Page in my book:

Small-town girl meets big-city agent. She learns about the business of writing and selling a book, and also makes a kind and patient friend in the process. Thank you, Dan Conaway.

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

And he would ask, “Are you still writing?”

“Yes, Dan, I’m still writing.”

“Then everything is fine, Suzanne.”

You’ve had an extraordinary life. You’ve owned a restaurant, founded a business, and written this book. What’s next? Do you have a vision of what your life might be like when you are ninety?

When I’m 90 I think I’ll like myself better than I do today. The older I get the easier it is for me to let go of things. Having said that, I realize I’ll always be a work in progress. The boogey-man still hangs out underneath my bed, but I’m better prepared to fight him off, because I’ve had years of experience. Maybe by the time I’m 90, the boogey-man will be bored with me and will bother younger folks—a girl can only hope.

My grandchildren are very important to me. I’m doing my best to create memories for them that they’ll be able to think about when they need to get grounded. My grandparents were my soft place to fall when I was growing up.

I’m baking once a week with my 3-year-old grandson, Paul. He loves baking cupcakes with Grandma—and I love the afternoons we spend together in the kitchen. A reporter recently asked, “Last meal on earth?”

“Macaroni and cheese with my grandchildren. I hope I’m giving them the kind of memories my Grandma and Grandpa Hale gave to me.”

Writing is all about how we see and experience and perceive the world. You have an eye disorder benign essential blepharospasm which you write that you have learned to love. I’m curious how you were able to do that, but I’m also curious about how the disorder changed your perception of the world, and your writing.

I don’t want to give people the wrong impression. I dislike the phrase, “I make lemonade out of lemons.” That’s way too Pollyanna for me. Bad stuff happens in life. We get crummy breaks, things seem unfair and sometimes all a person can do is cry and scream and be depressed—for a while. My first reaction to my eye disorder, (when I was walking around with a red-and-white cane) was, “It’s okay, I’ve made it through other tough situations and I’ll make it through this.” Then after a couple of weeks, I rationalized, “Things could be worse, some people don’t have arms or legs.” But eventually one morning I woke up furious, “I don’t care if some people don’t have arms and legs—this eye disorder sucks, it’s not fair, I don’t want to live like this!!!” And I stayed upset for quite a while. In fact, I stayed angry for so long I started to scare myself. But when I confided to a friend that I feared I’d crossed over some anger line, and wouldn’t ever be able to return, she assured me I wasn’t even close to that yet. And she was right. Finally I decided to give up. Giving up, is always a last resort for me. I don’t know why, because giving up—letting go of the problem (because really I have no control over it anyway) seems to work for me.

The day I finally gave up, I had a conversation with my disorder. Told it we could learn to live together, to even be friends, and I literally wrapped my arms around it. Today I drive, no red-and-white cane, most people wouldn’t even know anything was wrong with me. I do have to get 13 eye injections every four weeks. People cringe when I tell them about the shots. But the shots are a blessing because they allow me to open my eyes.

I loved the section of the book where you suddenly felt you could acknowledge and own the fact that you were a writer despite the self-doubt. (I’m someone who knows that feeling of self-doubt all too well.) What do you think is the best way to do what you love without worrying what others think or denigrating yourself?

I don’t think my lack of self-confidence will ever totally disappear. But I’ve wrestled with those feelings and found middle ground. So when the feeling comes over me, instead of freaking out, I tell myself, “Oh, look. Here it is again.” Kind of lay out the welcome mat and suddenly it’s not such a big deal. The feelings move on.

What’s obsessing you now?

I’m frustrated because I can’t get as much done in a day as I’d like to get done. I know the truth about such an absurd way of thinking, yet I keep thinking if I were only more organized, more motivated, less lazy. . . “blah, blah, blah. . .” (I’m smiling because it’s so silly, and I know it.)

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I’ve spent way too much of my life trying to “do it right,” looking at other people who seemed successful and happy, trying my best to be like them. To get them to like me. Finally I realized that I’m okay, just the way I am, whatever that might be. And that the most important person who really needs to like me—is me. I hope that when people read my book, they can walk away with those same feelings and realize they can be their own soft place to fall.


Jessica Brilliant Keener said...

Love Suzanne's book and love Suzanne. Lovely interview!

LitPark said...

Wow, I'm totally charmed!