Thursday, June 28, 2018

Meg Waite Clayton talks about BEAUTIFUL EXILES, Martha Gellhorne and Hemingway, how Hemingway appeared at Gellhorn's door with a cleaning bucket on his head, and why choosing titles is so damn hard.

“Clayton uses her meticulous research skills to bring to life the wartime years of Martha Gellhorn… Clayton’s take on their boozy, love/hate relationship is packed with details of the war … a dramatic backdrop for her fictional tale of two vivid personalities and world-altering writers.” —Booklist (starred review)

I cannot remember where I first met Meg Waite Clayton, probably because it feels as if I've always known and loved her. I do, however, distinctly remember, her speckling on freckles on me for my clown costume for The Pulpwood Queens! And of course, I devour every book she writes.

She's a book club fave, and a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Her books (and you need to read every one) include The Race For Paris, the Wednesday Sisters, The Language of Light and now Beautiful Exiles, about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

Thank for times a billion, Meg!

I always want to know what about your own life was haunting you into writing about Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway?

I wouldn’t say this one started with a haunting so much as an obsession. Like every other poor high school English student in this country, I slogged through The Old Man and the Sea long before I’d ever heard of The Trouble I’ve Seen or A Stricken Field. But I came to this story through Martha Gellhorn: I read about how she became one of the only journalists to go ashore in the early moments of the Normandy invasion, and I was hooked.

The Reader’s Digest condensed version of that story would go something like this: Denied an official opportunity to go across with the D-Day landing ships because she was female, Marty hid in the loo of the first hospital ship to cross the channel and went ashore with a stretcher crew to cover the landing in a brilliant article for Collier’s. As reward for her bravery, she was taken into custody, stripped of her press credential, and confined to a nurses’ training camp. But Marty, being Marty, hopped the fence and hitched a ride on a plane headed to Italy, where she continued do some of the best reporting to come out of the war even without her credential or any official support.

Really, how could I not want to know more about how Marty became Marty?

When I heard Caroline Moorehead’s Martha Gellhorn: A Life was to be published in October of 2003, I dug around to find a prepublication copy, which has long been underlined and dog-eared and loved to bits. I read her books, her articles, her letters. I visited places she’d been and tried to imagine being her, tried to learn everything I could. I discovered, among other things, that that first version of the D-Day story was a bit of an exaggeration: she didn’t hop that fence—she rolled under it!

I also discovered that she had been the lead correspondent for Collier’s until a man snagged the position from her—and that man was her husband, Ernest Hemingway.

For me, a novel is a long part of my life, all-consuming often for years. As Marty writes in an August 1940 letter to Charles Scribner, in explanation for why she is turning down a contract to write a book for Scribner’s, “I could not do a book (a book, Charlie, think of the high pile of bare white paper that you have in front of you before there is even the beginning of a book), unless I believed awfully hard in it. Unless I wanted to do it so much that I could sweat through the dissatisfaction and weariness and failure and all the rest you have to sweat through.”

I’ve been mopping the sweat from this one for a long time. My hope for what began as one of those high piles of white paper is that it will introduce others to the truly extraordinary Martha Gellhorn.

What about your research really surprised you?

Probably that Ernest Hemingway once stripped to his long johns and knocked on Martha’s door with a cleaning bucket on his head, and brandishing a mop.


I know not all authors are with me on this, but I feel if I am dealing with real people, I ought to honor their lives as they were lived. To intentionally make up stories about real people seems to me to lean on the crutch of a famous name in service of a story that ought to be able to stand on its own. And ... let’s just say I can’t imagine portraying Ernest Hemingway in long johns, cleaning bucket and mop if I didn’t have a basis in fact for it.

As might be expected for a story that begins with one clandestine relationship and ends with another—and involving people as famous as Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway—the many sources I turned to in the writing of Beautiful Exiles often differed on even the simplest of things, including who was where when. I sorted through those discrepancies as best I could, with the intent of being as true to the facts as possible. It was a bit like putting a puzzle together, taking little bits and pieces and turning them this way and that to see how they fit together.

I loved every minute of the research on this one—especially reading Martha’s letters, which are fabulous.

There’s a line in the book where Gellhorn talks about “the love, or whatever it was we shared.”  I found this incredibly moving. In a different cultural climate, where there really was more equality between the sexes, do you think their relationship would have succeeded, or was it doomed to fail?

You had me at “incredibly moving.” (Thank you!)

I think a lot of the challenge in Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’s relationship came from Ernest’s need to be seen as manly and Martha’s need to be free. No doubt the times played some part in that, but only so much—as I think we continue to see even eighty years later.

Clearly he struggled emotionally, as a shockingly high percentage of great writers do. I’ve come to see that while some of that is amplified by culture, much of it is brain chemical.

But I do think anyone living the two-career life today, especially the two-career creative life, can learn a lot from their relationship. Even now, when women are no longer expected to abandon their dreams to support their husbands, the weight of the career-home balance tilts heavily to the female side of the scale. And where ambition is admired in men, it remains suspect in women. We need to get past that, right?

I absolutely love the title—and the cover. I know that these are both marketing decisions to some extent, but can you talk about how both came to be?

Thank you! I also love the cover, which I can take no credit for. There was only one thing I didn’t like about the original they sent me, which was that the woman in the car was wearing a prissy hat Marty would never wear. I was pleased as all get out when they fixed it!

On the title, the working title for this book was Mookie & Bug—two of the nicknames Marty and Ernest called each other—but my agent felt that title suggested a young adult novel.

Retitling a finished manuscript is, as I expect you know, a bit like renaming a fully-grown child just as she is submitting her college applications. I love the new title, but one part of me will always think of this novel as Mookie & Bug.

How I came to Beautiful Exiles?

Well, since I building from scratch, I brainstormed—just words that described Martha or the two of them or whatever. One of those was “travelers,” in part I suppose because of her Travels with Myself and Another. But that’s a hard word, and not particularly evocative.

So I looked at “traveler” in my thesaurus found “soujourners,” which for a short moment in time seemed evocative.

Heeding Hemingway’s advice about the Bible being a great source for titles, I did an online Bible search and came up with "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11).

Not a policy I generally subscribe to, but still I tried out “Soujourners and Exiles.”

Which made me see how stilted “soujourners” was.

But Exiles!

Marty was a bit of an exile on her own, exiled by the expectations that came with being from a prominent St. Louis family, and by her complicated relationship with her father. But the word also felt right because Marty and Ernest together are essentially exiled by his fame. When they were first falling in love, he was already famous enough that, in the U.S. anyway, they would have been hounded by photographers. How can you possibly sort out a relationship in that glare? They went to Cuba for the privacy it afforded them to sort out whether they even really wanted a relationship.

So I tried to find something that would go with “exiles,” but in a surprising way, with one rule, which was that I wasn’t going to do a “The” title. All five of my previous novels are “The” titles and really it’s time to break the string.

The thing about Ernest and Marty’s exile is that in many ways, for many years, it worked for them. They did have the privacy to sort out how they felt about each other outside the glare of the press, for the most part. The place they created together—the Finca Vigía—is beautiful. And they were a beautiful couple, and beautiful writers. In the end and despite everything, I don’t think either of them ever loved anyone more. Their relationship was stormy, but I think their best work—for both of them—came out of their years together. So “beautiful”—I liked the double meaning: they are beautiful exiles, and their exile together allowed them to write beautifully, the kind of writing that they both wanted more than anything else.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The state of journalism today, and especially the importance of reporting the truth. And the backward steps we seem to be taking in terms of women’s rights.  Why? I care about the future, and am sick as hell about where we seem to be headed.

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

“What’s next?” It seems to be a question everyone asks … but I no longer say for fear of jinxing myself!

THAT is one thing that haunts me, that I will somehow jinx myself or wake up or whatever, and this lovely dream life I have, spending my days writing books and hearing from readers who are moved by the stories I write, will be gone somehow.

Oh yes, the genius Thrity Umrigar talks about THE SECRETS BETWEEN US, class and women in both India and America, keeping our hearts open, and so much more


Before I knew and loved Thrity Umrigar, there were her novels. I reviewed The Space Between Us (which I adored), and she wrote to thank me, and we discovered we had so, so much in common and we became friends. (Of course, I cannot review her anymore now, it would be unethical, but I can interview her on my blog!) Not only is Thrity hilariously funny and an astonishing writer, she has a huge heart, a razor-sharp intellect, and a never-ending generous soul.

She's the author of Bombay Time, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, The Weight of Heaven, The World We Found and The Story Hour. She is also the author of the memoir, First Darling of the Morning.  The Space Between Us was a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins award, while her memoir was a finalist for the Society of Midland Authors award. If Today Be Sweet was a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection, while her other books have been Community Reads selections. Thrity is the winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize, a Lambda Literary award and the Seth Rosenberg prize.     After earning a M.A. in journalism  in the U.S., Thrity worked for several years as an award-winning reporter, columnist and magazine writer. She also earned a Ph.D. in English. In 1999, Thrity won a one-year Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University, which is given to mid-career journalists. While at Harvard, Thrity wrote her first novel, Bombay Time.

Thank you oceans and oceans for being here, Thrity.

Portrait of the artist

I always think there is a why now moment for an author to write any book. What were the origins of this one for you?

I had gotten requests from readers for over ten years for a sequel but I always rebuffed those because I didn't really have anything new to say about the two main characters.  But off and on, I'd find myself thinking about a very minor character, a vegetable seller who was a social outcast because of her bitter nature and because of a ugly-looking growth on her neck.  Parvati earns a living selling six cauliflowers a day.  How, I wondered, could she possibly earn a living doing this?  And what life events have laid her so low to have brought her to this point.

And then, one day about two years ago, I knew the answer to those questions. I saw her backstory and as soon as I knew that, I was excited to "introduce" her to Bhima, from The Space Between Us, and tell the story of two distrusting, embittered, marginalized women who learn to trust and even love one another.

How difficult was it to write a sequel?  What surprised you the most?

It wasn't difficult at all because it felt organic.  If I had done what readers have asked me to do for ten years--simply continue the old story, it might have been hard going.  But here was a book with not just one new character but three new characters, along with Bhima.  And Bhima's story itself is so fresh because she realizes how foolish she's been to not take advantage of the new, globalized India.  In many ways, it's the story of her inner journey from thinking of herself as a beast of burden to a full human being.

What surprised me most was Bhima's initial reactions to the lesbian couple she encounters.  Despite being the victim of society's scorn, she herself is scornful of their relationship.  I guess it taught me that victims are not automatically inclined to be sympathetic to other minorities, that for some, compassion has to be learned and developed.

So much of this gorgeous novel is about class and women, which makes it startlingly relevant to what is going on in America today. Could you talk about this please?

I think there are obvious differences in degrees between India and America when it comes to class and gender relations.  But just today, I heard that while India is the worst place in the world for women, according to a new study, the U.S. is the tenth worst place!  This feels inexcusable to me.  India is a poor country, with mass poverty, illiteracy etc.  But what is our excuse? 

I don't think readers are going to use my novels to make an apples-to-apples comparison to conditions in the U.S.  But my hope is that the softening of the heart that novels can induce, will make people more alert to the injustices in their own backyards or can feel a sense of solidarity with my characters that's egalitarian and without judgement.  I don't want people to pity Bhima or Parvati.  I want them to think, "Aha.  I've had that thought or feeling, also.  We're not that different, after all."

I cared deeply for all the characters and want to know how you develop your characters?

I just spend a lot of time with my characters.  I go for walks with them, they accompany me into the shower.  I wash dishes with them by my side.  I hang out with them, carry out conversations with them.  I never worry about plot.  I'm just interested in their behavior and their values and am curious to see what they'll do next.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Nothing much.  Only the state of our democracy, the fate of the planet, climate change and who we will be as a people and a nation in five years time.  Nothing much at all.  But seriously, I'm equally obsessed with trying to figure out who I will become and who I am becoming.  Will the current political climate result in a hardening of my heart toward those with whom I have such ideological differences?  Or will I still be able to see their fears, their bruised hearts and recognize their humanity? 

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

Did I hear you say, "What are you working on now, Thrity?" Ah, I'll tell you: It's another novel set in India that deals in a graphic way with the treatment of women there.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Rebecca Makkai talks about her brilliant new novel, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, the Paris art world of the 1920s, the AIDS crisis, healthy terror, and why you should drink a Beauty Spot while reading her novel.


First, take a gander at just some of the raves.

The Great Believers is a magnificent novel — well imagined, intricately plotted, and deeply felt, both humane and human. It unfurls like a peony: you keep thinking it can’t get any more perfect, and it does. A stunning feat.”
Rabih Alameddine, author of The Angel of History and Koolaids: The Art of War
“Stirring, spellbinding, and full of life.”
Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife
“In the remarkable The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai conjures up a time as startling as a dream and, in its extremity, achingly familiar to us now, close enough to hold. A tender, sly, immersive, irreverent, life force of a book.”
Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship
Rebecca Makkai is the author of the short story collection Music for Wartime, wand of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. She's also the recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship.

Thank you so much, Rebecca for being here!

I always want to know what the “why now” moment is for an author in writing a novel. What was haunting you and propelling you to write?

When I started, I really just wanted to write about the Paris art world of the 1920s.  It felt romantic and tragic. As I planned, though, that stuff turned into a subplot and the book became about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s. The research I did, especially the interviews I conducted and the photos I found, became my motivation. So much about what I learned made me angry and broke my heart, and those are great reasons to write.

I first came to NYC during the AIDS crisis of the 80s. I remember the silence=death icons all over the sidewalk and the horror of friends dying.  What was your research like?

I’m a bit too young to remember the height of the crisis personally, and didn’t want to rely on secondary sources, so I did a lot of primary source reading (gay weeklies on archive from the ‘80s, online personal accounts) and a ton of in-person interviews. I interviewed survivors, doctors, nurses, journalists, historians, activists, lawyers, basically everyone who was willing to talk to me. And then, after I’d written the book, I gave it to three of those people to read—people who I knew would call me on every little thing that felt even slightly off. I was terrified of getting things wrong, both factually and emotionally, and I think that terror was healthy for me.

I’m always interested in process, which is almost always different for every writer. What was it like for you? Did you find that you had learned lessons from writing The Hundred-Year House that you were using in The Great Believers, or was it like writing everything from scratch?

 Both my last novel and this one are densely populated, and I figured out only late into drafting The Hundred-Year House that I needed to combine several characters for clarity and economy (as well as depth of character). I realized it much earlier this time, and made myself a character map in which it became clear that I had a lot of redundancies. Or sometimes I’d have characters hanging out in entirely different corners of the map (someone from 1985 Chicago and someone from 2015 Paris) and realize they could be the same person, thirty years apart.

Although so much of this incredible novel is steeped in death, it feels more life-affirming than any other novel this year. Can you talk about this please?

I have a doggedly optimistic worldview, even when I absolutely know better. My default mode is hopeful. And I think that both of my point of view characters share that, even in the face of so much awfulness and despair. I found my title very early—before I’d written a word of the book, in fact—and knew I needed it. It’s from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about the Lost Generation, one I use as an epigraph. In many ways, I wrote to the title, forcing myself to ask what my characters believe in, against the odds.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Besides our awful border policies… I’ll choose to interpret “obsessing” in a good way, like what am I really interested in right now. I’m thinking a lot about Golden Age Hollywood (behind the scenes stuff, not the movies themselves), and I’m thinking a lot about true crime. The murder of Martha Moxley, and another unsolved backyard murder that a friend told me about in Shaker Heights, Ohio. I’ve been listening to a lot of true crime podcasts, which is maybe not great for me psychologically, but it’s been a good distraction as my book is coming out.

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

You should ask what cocktail people should drink when they read my book. And the answer is they should drink a beauty spot, which is really pretty and delicious, and I think it matches the cover a bit.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Jenna Blum talks about THE LOST FAMILY, genetically coded emotions, the difference between writing and public life, and so much more.

Portrait of the artist and I bet she's wearing pajamas and you can't see them

Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of Those Who Save Us (the #1 bestselling novel in Holland), The Stormchasers, and The Lucky Ones. She's one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers, and I'm so lucky to count her as a friend. We've had online pajama parties, mourned our moms together, and everything fantastic that they say about her is totally true.

Her new book The Lost Family is extraordinary. Says The Village Voice, "You can't help but be swept up for the ride." I'm thrilled to have Jenna here because I love the book, and I love her.

I always think writers are haunted into writing their books. What was haunting you?

Recently on Twitter there was the hashtag #WhyIWrite. My answer was simple: because I have people in my head who won’t leave me alone. I had worked with the hero of The Lost Family, Peter Rashkin, before in my novella for the post-WW2 anthology Grand Central, and I was gratified and humbled by readers demanding to know what happened to him beyond the cliffhanger I left him on. So I was preoccupied by that question and kept throwing it up to the Universe—but the answer always returned to me in the form of Peter’s daughter, Elsbeth, and her unsuitable crush Julian, the photographer. I was consistently presented by the image of the two of them on Elsbeth’s nominal grandparents’ terrace in Larchmont, New York, both outsiders—Julian because he is the flavor du jour photographer who’s making a sensation shooting naked pre-teens; Elsbeth because she’s a teenager. They’re both synesthestic, meaning they assign colors to letters and numbers, and I saw them over and over again comparing notes. They were as persistent as Elizabeth Warren, and they were the part of The Lost Family I started writing first.

The shadow of WWII hovers over the book. I’ve read recently that scientists have shown that traits like sorrow are actually genetically coded and can be passed down through the generations. It felt very much like that in your novel. Can you talk about this please?

I’m so, so glad you mentioned this, wonderful Caroline! It’s like you’re prescient, looking into my head, study, and research process for The Lost Family. Much of what I was working on, and a theme I’ve been fascinated with for all my novels, is how people survive trauma: what effect it has on their psyches, bodies, and lives; how they forge on in the aftermath. And since our knowledge of PTSD is always evolving, so is my research. For Peter, for example—an Auschwitz and Treblinka survivor—I read The Body Keeps The Score, a seminal book about how trauma is encoded in our physical beings and how that might be treated. While I was hip-deep in that book, the New York Times  began running articles about how trauma affects not only the survivor but can be encoded in his DNA and passed down to the next generation! Children of survivors, for instance, often have abnormalities in their levels of cortisol—a chemical that regulates the body’s fight or flight instinct. So Peter’s daughter Elsbeth may not only be mentally  influenced by her father’s response to trauma, which is that he has an easily reachable emotional saturation point—too much emotion and he shuts down. Elsbeth may also have physically inherited Peter’s trauma, which presents in her life as an eating disorder.

Of course, children of survivors often talk about their parents’ strange attitudes and behaviors toward food: it’s common for survivors to be food hoarders, for instance. Peter is a chef, and his wife, Elsbeth’s mom June, is a former supermodel, so right there you have an excellent recipe for Elsbeth’s anorexia and bulimia. Plus, the 80s. Still, we are all a product of our family’s genetic and emotional blueprints, and children of trauma survivors bear some unusual markings, which is a big theme in The Lost Family.

So much of The Lost Family is about the families we make and the families we yearn for and can no longer have. Its tragic hero really is Peter, who is a survivor of Auschwitz, a celebrated chef who refuses to be called chef because that was what he was called in the concentration camp. He tries to remake his life with June, a beautiful model and they have a daughter. But how can he let go of the past in order to find a future? Do you think this is possible?

That’s such a good question. I know a therapist—a trauma expert, actually, specializing in exactly the kinds of techniques Peter needs, therapy that physically retrains the body to recognize that trauma is no longer happening. His mantra is: “The sh*t never goes away.” Once there’s trauma, there’s always trauma. With help, you can learn to recognize it, live with it, and manage your responses to it, making your life easier on yourself and your family. This is help Peter is loathe to take advantage of in The Lost Family, even though his wife June begs him, before their marriage and during, to go into analysis. But this specific kind of therapy wasn’t available during the decades—1960s - 1980s—in which The Lost Family takes place, even if Peter had been willing.

The Holocaust survivors I interviewed for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation had by and large managed to move on with their lives, and although it’s irresponsible to generalize, my impression is that many of them accomplished this feat by major compartmentalization. They didn’t talk about their experiences—period. Not to their families, not to their spouses—even if, in some cases, their spouses were also survivors. Not until I came along with the Foundation as an “objective listener,” an interested party with no personal investment, were many of them able to talk, and then several ordered their testimonies sealed until after their deaths, so they would never know their stories had on their families.   

Or they were public speakers who talked about their experiences all the time, in schools, synagogues, and libraries, traveling ceaselessly to warn their audiences what evil people are capable of so it would never happen again.

So I guess my answer is: the sh*t never goes away, but people find ways of working with it. Those ways might not be perfect and they might hurt other people. But the persistence of hope in the face of unimaginable past hurt is remarkable. And your question—can we really ever move on? Is there redemption?—is so fascinating and out of reach to me still that I’m working on it for Book 4.

I loved the story of Elsbeth, and the older artist, which was both shocking and exactly true.  Can you talk about how pain changes us—and how, unlike Peter, we might be able to become whole again?

Thank you so much! I have to admit, I adore Julian, in all his talent and complete f*cked-up-ness. And Elsbeth, with her awkwardness and her sort of mouth-breathing, stubborn determination to make him see her the way she wants him to, so she can capture him. Elsbeth literally reshapes herself to make Julian love her—a futile pursuit, of course, because all along Julian has been capturing Elsbeth precisely as she is, and that’s what makes his portraits of her so successful. I loved playing with questions of perception and self-perception in Elsbeth’s section—it’s such a hall of mirrors. I was a plump kid and bullied for it, like Elsbeth, and naturally evolved into an eating disordered teen, and even today I am sometimes surprised to look into a mirror and see the woman I am now as opposed to the ever-present teenager. Sometimes I ask my guy, “Is that woman what I look like? What about her? Or her?” I literally have no idea what shape I am. What has helped me—and what I hope Elsbeth will grow into eventually—is not to depend on other people bouncing back my idea of self to me, you’re my sweet assistant chef daughter, you’re fat, you’re a superstar!—but to give myself the gift, every day, of saying, You know what? You’re doing the best you can and you’re more than enough, you’re okay.

What was your research like? I loved reading about the 1960s, up into the 1980s.  Do you find that your own past reverberates in your novels?

What, my past in my novels? Nah. Ha! As you can tell from the above answers, I put a lot of my past into my novels, usually lavishly disguised, sometimes less so, but hopefully with enough layering of story that I’m really out of my own head and into character. I have no intention of writing memoir.

I’m a little known in writing circles for being a “method researcher,” as one of my readers kindly called it, although you could also call what I do “craziness.” I try to recreate, as fully as possible, the environment in which my characters live. For my first novel, Those Who Save Us, I baked everything that appears in the book—while wearing a German girl outfit—went to Germany four times, and interviewed survivors. For my second novel, The Stormchasers, I went stormchasing with a pro tour company for 7 years. For The Lost Family, I did significant research for each character and era: first of all, I had an image board up in my study, comprised of images from 1965, 1975, and 1985, respectively. Every time I finished writing or rewriting a character, I’d take all those photos down and replace them.

For Elsbeth, I read a lot about the children of survivors, inherited trauma, and photography—my fiancé is a Nikon and National Geographic photographer, so although he doesn’t shoot naked children, he was my numbe-one resource. I would ask him things like, “Your camera in the 80s—what did the shutter click sound like? And how did you spell that noise? Like chkchkchkvsssshhh?”

For June, I re-read all my favorite feminist tomes from the 1970s as well as all the fiction of the day, which was very much about women finding themselves. I probably spent an inordinate amount of time lying on my bed in overalls, knee socks, and a bandanna, over a t-shirt that read FEMINIST, wallowing in Erica Jong. And my walls were papered with supermodels from her era.

For Peter, I spent an entire summer reading chef memoirs—then creating the menu for his restaurant, Masha’s, inventing the dishes, and cooking every single item. My guy and our dog were my willing taste-testers. I had the most fun making baguettes, which involves throwing ice cubes into the oven at intervals while they were baking to make a crisp crust, resulting in satisfying explosions. And the Masha Torte chocolate cake, which features cherries flambé so you can set it on fire. Our favorite was Chicken Kiev, a recipe I modified from the MadMen Cookbook, which involves doing many obscene things with butter. I had a restaurant in my basement when I was a kid, called Faster, and I worked in food service for many years to feed my expensive writing habit, so Peter’s story helped me live my alternate existence as a chef.

What kind of writer are you? You make it seem so effortless.  And what is it like to be a star over in Holland, as well as here?

I am the kind of writer who either is writing or not writing. I don’t write every day; I write when the story is ready, which means I shuffle around for months if not years thinking about the story, letting it gestate in my mind, making cryptic notes but not too many because I don’t want to dispel it. I’m both in love with the story at that point and cranky because I feel guilty for not actually writing-writing. When I am writing-writing, I do nothing else—I don’t teach, I don’t do any public-speaking. I sequester in my house in rural Minnesota and make bread or soup in the morning, drag my heels, whine, clean, vacuum, and sometimes drive to TJMaxx, and then I write for three or four hours. I do this until the book is done, which takes three to six months, and then I revise, same process, and then I do it again and again until the book is not perfect, because it will never be, but as right as it will get. During this time I correspond daily with a couple of other writers going through the same thing, and I inflict nonsequitur conversation on my guy, and after the first draft my agent reads the book and gives feedback, and I wear the same pair of yoga pants or pajamas for, like, ever. I change them when I remember real people can see me.

As you can  imagine, this is quite a contrast to public life. I am truly blessed—the word cannot express the miracle of it—to have a phenomenal following in Holland, which is a result of my first novel, Those Who Save Us, being very popular there. I think this is because so many Dutch readers were in the Resistance during World War  II or remember their parents and grandparents resisting the Nazis. I have tremendous reader support in the States, an equal miracle. When I’m done writing a book, I do my Emerald City treatment with some very excellent vanity service providers, abuse Anthropologie, and go on tour. There is such a weird leap between walking around with people in my head for months and months in total isolation and then being out in public, in big rooms filled with real people, who somehow know the people in my head. Stephen King calls it “the telepathy of reading”; it’s like electricity or light, which illuminate our lives  even though we can’t quite see how they work. It’s magic.