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How did the idea for THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE originate? How long have you been at work on this book?
For me, the process of writing a novel begins months or even years before I start writing. It evolves from pieces of my own past, stories I’ve heard, things I’m curious about, emotional journeys that interest me, unexpected ideas, unresolved questions. Most of this development of a central idea isn’t even conscious. Over the years I’ve learned to trust this process, slow and circuitous as it may be.
THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE evolved like this: One chilly weekend in early spring nine years ago, my husband David and I left our home on the Upper West Side and got on a bus to New Jersey to visit old friends. Two days later, we owned a house in Montclair – a place we had been to only once before, in a state we knew nothing about. Not only weren’t we planning to buy a house; we were tried-and-true New Yorkers, living in a two-bedroom with our two small boys. Though we were bursting at the seams (we literally had a map of the valuable storage space under our bed: diapers here, toilet paper there), we’d never even considered the possibility of leaving NYC. And New Jersey was such a foreign place to me that when, at a party in New York before we left, someone smirked and said, “So you’re a Jersey girl now,” I had no idea what they meant.
Stricken with buyer’s remorse, we moved to Montclair, which turned out to be a diverse town of 37,000 people, with great schools, art house cinemas and dozens of restaurants. For the next few years, my experience of New Jersey was mostly limited to this cultural island, but slowly I began to venture out. Montclair is surrounded on all sides by “real” New Jersey – working-class immigrant communities with longstanding histories and traditions.
The day that a rave review appeared in the New York Times for an improbably named Italian-American restaurant in Nutley, NJ, called American Bistro. My husband and I were so delighted that a restaurant somewhere in our vicinity had received the Times’ stamp of approval that we immediately booked a reservation. Decorated in Old World Italian-American style – a big brass bar, pink polyester tablecloths, heavy, padded menus – the restaurant seemed straight out of central casting, with interesting characters planted at one end of the bar and a huge Italian family boisterously celebrating an anniversary. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, except perhaps on TV.
Then the waitress – as it turned out, an actress who grew up in Maine – brought over a complimentary antipasto platter, a mouthwatering array of fresh mozzarella, glistening roasted red pepper, soppressata and pepperoni, cured olives, and sweet and hot peppers, and a basket of fresh bread and garlic toast. We were hooked. We started bringing friends, and eventually we got to know the chef and owner, Kenny Mahon, a friendly, half-Italian, half-Irish-American who learned to cook at his grandmother’s elbow.
Despite some pervasive cultural stereotypes, I hadn’t realized how heavily Italian-American northern New Jersey is until I discovered The American Bistro and began paying attention to life beyond Montclair. The more I learned, the more I realized that I had the beginnings of a novel in my head.
In another part of the story, I had recently fallen in love with Mount Desert Island. Our family moved to Bangor, Maine when I was six, and I grew up going to MDI as an in-state tourist. It wasn’t until ten years ago, when my parents bought a ramshackle Victorian house in Bass Harbor, on the “quiet” side, that I began to have any real understanding of what the island was truly like. My sister Clara, tired of city life, soon moved to MDI from New York, and married a carpenter. Eventually, all three of my sisters bought houses there. I spend every summer on the island with my children and extended family. It is, like Manhattan, a place that people come to from elsewhere and never want to leave.
I also wrote this book with my own grandmothers in mind, Ethel Baker and Christina Looper – both strong and opinionated women, and, not incidentally, wonderful cooks. And I was inspired by my mother, a fabulous cook in her own right, who set me loose in the kitchen at an early age, tolerating my disasters and celebrating my occasional successes.
Ultimately, THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE came together slowly, over time, from these and many other influences.
Did the book involve special research or travel?
When I began planning this book, Kenny Mahon, the chef and owner of The American Bistro, allowed me to shadow him in the kitchen on a number of occasions, ask dozens of questions, and take notes as he worked his magic. I’ve been to Italy several times, but I relied heavily on my Italian-American muses and fellow writers, Louise DeSalvo and Laura Schenone, to give advice at every step. A number of books guided my research. In particular: Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen, by Lidia Mataticchio Bastianich; La Cucina di Lidia: Recipes and Memories from Italy’s Adriatic Coast, by Lidia Bastianich and Jay Jacobs; Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, by Louise DeSalvo; Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, by Hasia R. Diner; In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Grandmothers, by Carol Field; Essentials of Classic Italian Dishes, by Marcella Hazan; Were You Always and Italian? Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America, by Maria Laurino; Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, by Fred Plotkin; and A Thousand Years over a Hot
Stove, by Laura Schenone.
What makes this book relevant today?
Many of us yearn for a simpler life – to feel that our lives are purposeful and meaningful. We want to have time to be reflective and contemplative. THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE is about the desire in all of us to slow down, to find a way to get the most out of life. It’s about finding a place that truly feels like home. What is “the way life should be”? What is the key to happiness? How do you identify, and pursue, what you really want in life? Do you know it when you see it? Also, people are interested in food like never before – preparing it at home, eating out, learning about cultural traditions and variations, as well as family stories.
Who do you think this book will appeal to?
This novel is for general reading, book clubs, people looking for a fun and satisfying book to read on vacation this summer or cozy up with in the winter (it actually takes place in late fall and early winter). It is for general use and readership – not any particular region of the country. The book isn’t about Maine, exclusively; it’s about finding an oasis, a place that feels like home.
What are some of your favorite books, and what are you reading right now?
My favorite books of all time are Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; Middlemarch, by George Eliot, Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, and The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. At the moment I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and a beautiful book of poems by Deborah Garrison called The Second Child. Recent books I’ve also liked include Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller; The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud; and Saturday, by Ian McEwan.
What are your favorite things to do?
Words are both my vocation and my avocation – reading, writing, editing, teaching, listening to dialogue in movies and on TV. I spend a lot of time working and writing in coffee shops, observing the baristas and eavesdropping on interesting conversations. I also love to cook, all kinds of foods. I love hiking in Maine and antiquing.
Like many of you, I am working on a new writing project, a novel. What made me think I could do this, anyway? But here I am, too far in to let go, committed to my characters. Some days are thrilling, but lately I often find myself stuck, wondering how I will push out the next sentence.
My first book, published last year, was a memoir titled Perfection. The great thing about writing a memoir is that you know the story; the art is in the writing. With fiction one has that same challenge but in addition the pesky problem of not really knowing where it’s all going to end, or, for that matter, what’s happening in the beginning or middle either.
So here’s what keeps me going on the dark writing days:
1. Reading a very good novel. At first, as I am reading the very good novel, I’m filled with self-loathing and fear of failure. Wow, this book is so effing amazing, I’ll never be able to write anything like this! But then I relax and begin to enjoy and finally adore the world the author has created, and to see that we all can create our own worlds. I won’t be writing a novel about the day a tightrope walker crossed the space between the World Trade Towers, but I might be able to write a good book about something else. Like a demanding but inspiring teacher, a good book elevates my day-to-day language and my life.
2. Exercise. While I might tell myself that I don’t have time to take care of my body, because I should be busy writing, taking time to keep fit helps my mind work so much better. I have begun the year with frequent trips to the gym, which I hope will help me through the winter doldrums. It’s a cliché that our body is our home. Right now I feel like my body is my home office. If I can keep it clean and tidy, there is room for clearer thinking and perhaps some inspiration.
3. Accidental moments of insight. Just when I think it can’t get worse, that I’ll never write a decent sentence again, that my first book was a weird fluke and now I am doomed, doomed, doomed to utter failure, I’ll have some odd revelatory moment about my story and characters. Often it’s feedback from one of my readers that I have been resisting (grumpily), but suddenly realize is fantastically clear and true. Other times there’ll be some small moment out in the world, a scene at the grocery store or an encounter with a friend in my neighborhood, that allows me to understand a character or scene. These moments help me clarify a point, and then I can move on. Not at the pace I wish, but I move on nonetheless.