Erica Bauermeister: The mixology of a great book

Erica Bauermeister is the bestselling author of three novels set in or near Seattle. Credit: Susan Doupe

Erica Bauermeister is the bestselling author of three novels set in or near Seattle (the most recent is The Lost Art of Mixing) and co-author of two books of non-fiction. She has a PhD in literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at Antioch University. She lives in Port Townsend, where she’s working on a new novel that she hints will be a Pacific Northwest fairy tale.

What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

I always have a mix of books at hand – some for research and some simply for the beauty of their sentences and insights. To that end, for research I currently have The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, and The Uses of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettleheim.

For the joy of the language, I have The Snow Child by Eown Ivey, and The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken. I first read it twenty years ago and was captured by her metaphors and quirky characters.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

It’s interesting – the two books that have blown me away recently are also two of the darkest books I’ve ever read, so I’m not sure “unhesitatingly” is the right word. But gorgeous, riveting, disturbing, compassionate and absolutely lyrical, yes. The Enchanted, by Rene Denfield is about death row, and a corrupt prison system. A Man Came Out a Door in the Mountain, by Adrienne Harun, is disturbing and stunning, it bumps reality to another level. For those who want dreams without nightmares, I would recommend The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan-Philip Sendker.

Any well-reviewed or popular books lately that didn’t live up to the hype for you?

You know, I have a hard time with that question, because I truly believe reading is an interactive sport. What works for me, might not work for you, and vice versa. That said, while I loved so many things about Gone Girl – the beautiful sentences, those deliciously unreliable narrators, the cleverness of the mystery – the last ten pages drove me crazy. I felt as if the author had the chance to make the entire book a satire of marriage, she came so close, and then stepped back.

Do you have a favorite among your novels?

My favorite is always the one I am working on. It’s like falling in love — the excitement of discovery, of spending time with characters who have chosen you, of not knowing if things will work out. It’s all new and sparkling.

Food is central to the theme of your novels — The School of Essential Ingredients, and The Lost Art of Mixing — do you love to cook?

I do love to cook. We lived in Italy for two years when our children were younger and I got to experience the way that food can be so many things – an art, a celebration, a way to bring people together. It’s stuck with me ever since.

When I write, I am always trying to make people pay attention to the subliminal things in their lives — the smells and sounds and tastes and colors and textures that affect who they are without their ever knowing it. I could have written about music, or architecture, or perfume — but I do love to cook, so that was where I naturally headed first.

Did you research these books by cooking?

I do a tremendous amount of research for my books, and I make every dish along with my characters, often many times in the course of writing a chapter. One of the wonderful things about writing about food is that when you get writer’s block, you can go cook, and that usually solves many problems at the same time.

Do you have favorite food authors?

For memoirs and essays I like MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl. For fiction, Chocolat by Joanne Harris and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender.

Does your reading inform your writing? Have your books been sparked by something you’ve read?

Before I became a fiction writer, I was an academic and I co-authored a book called 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide.  That experience taught me to read like a writer. I would spend hours trying to figure out what made a book work or, if it didn’t, what it would take to make it better. It was a fascinating and educational process. In fact, I would say that sort of wide-ranging, eclectic, analytical reading is probably the best education a new writer can have.

As for books that sparked mine, I would point to some excellent novels told in interconnected stories: Alice Hoffman’s Blackbird House, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittredge, Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. They taught me so much about the possibilities inherent in the genre.

Does living in the Northwest influence your work?

The material I write here is calmer and more introspective and empathetic. I am going to blame it on the rain. Our weather is rarely dramatic; instead, it invites a bit of burrowing into oneself, coupled with that absolute euphoria when the sun returns. (A joy that is often shared with complete strangers — another thread in my books, come to think of it.) After thirty years in Seattle, we’ve recently moved to Port Townsend, which is a great place to live if you play with magical realism in your writing.

What is it about Port Townsend?

There’s such individuality here. I think the beauty here, the aesthetic pleasure of the place, allows people to calm down and become themselves, relax into themselves.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite or two that influenced you or that you particularly loved?

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I loved those books with a passion; I even had a miniature cast iron stove that I played with for years. I doubt my mother could have picked a better role model for her rather timid daughter than the adventurous, outspoken Laura.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt turn to again?

I’ve read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, at least six times. Whenever I feel as if I am living too much in my head, or want the experience of having sentences and images wash over me, I go straight for that book.

Do you have any favorite genres?

I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs this year. One of my favorites was The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, about a New York City journalist who marries an organic farmer and goes to work on the land. I also was completely sucked into Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. It made me feel as if anything was possible.

What do you plan to read next?

Tiffany Baker’s Mercy Snow; I love Tiffany’s work; she reminds me of Alice Hoffman in her subtle magical realism and her insights into human beings.

Your website hints at your new novel with this intriguing sentence…”I am hip-deep in research into smell, and the subliminal influence of architecture, and fairy tales, and what the weather does off the coast of Vancouver Island in Canada.” Can you tell us more?

You know how when you are first falling in love, you don’t want to tell anyone his/her name, just in case the whole thing might disappear? Yup. It’s like that right now. All I can tell you is that it is just as much fun to write about the sense of smell as it is to write about food.

What Val’s Reading This Week: Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller’s Tales from Europe, by Sybille Bedford, is a collection of this elegant writer’s mid-century experiences eating and drinking her way across the continent. Bedford seems to have known just about everyone and gone everywhere in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. The Quality of Travel, which she wrote in France and Italy in 1961, is a small masterpiece, beginning “A part, a large part, of travelling is an engagement of the ego versus the world.”

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