When did you discover the writer in yourself, Erica?
As soon as I could read – perhaps as soon as I first heard books read aloud to me, which was much earlier – I knew I wanted to write. But I realized what I wanted to write when I was college and discovered novels that focused on what many considered the “unimportant” things in life – relationships, the small gestures people make, the things they don’t say – and made them important and beautiful.
“THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS” is your first novel and “Lillian’s” is the stage for your characters. Why did you choose a restaurant to teach… life?
I think there are so many things that affect us on a subconscious level through our five senses, and that our lives are much richer when we pay attention to them. Food was a logical and wonderful way to explore that concept. Lillian’s restaurant and her cooking classes provided me with the opportunity to bring strangers together to discover these things both individually and as a group.
Very often relationship between mother and daughter are difficult, but the one between Lillian and her mother was terribly difficult.
Yes, but I think it’s also important to see what these two characters gave to each other. As I wrote the story, I saw more clearly how Lillian ended up receiving something valuable from a difficult situation. Would Lillian have become a chef if her mother hadn’t been withdrawn? Perhaps, but certainly not the kind of chef she is.
How much of yourself did you put in this book?
I read a lovely quote the other day: “The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention.” It’s true for me – none of the characters in The School of Essential Ingredients are based upon anyone I know, including me, and yet, I feel as if I discovered deeply personal things about myself while writing the book.
It seems that you have the exigency to give life to food with the touching, colourful, dancing, deep words of your descriptions.
What a lovely description! Thank you. I once asked Diane Ackerman (author of A Natural History of the Senses) how she came up with her amazing metaphors. She said it came from a desire to be specific. I loved that. I think when we combine a love of the poetic and sensual with a desire to be specific, we can create something marvellous.
You lived here in Italy for some years. Is it so different from USA?
Yes. The pace is so utterly different. The Italian attention to food, to family, to architectural beauty is so wonderful – many Americans would like to pay attention to these things, but Americans still tend to value a more-is-better and faster-is-best approach to life. Even now, every time I visit Italy I feel as if my soul slows down and finds peace.
Your book here in Italy is a big success. Does its echo reach you?
I love the letters I receive from Italians, and it means a great deal to me that Italians – who know how to celebrate food better than anyone – would embrace “The School of Essential Ingredients” so readily. I also am incredibly grateful for the opportunities it provides me to visit Italy… (I will be part of the Festival of the Islands in Naples this May!)
Which Italian dishes do you like?
Most of my favorite memories of Italy are connected to food. Butternut squash ravioli with butter and sage at a tiny restaurant in San Gimignano, ricotta and porcini tortelloni with butter and black truffles in Venice. Maccheroni a mano with roasted tomatoes, eggplant and smoked mozzarella at Da Mimmo in Bergamo. Pesto lasagna in Vernazza on a warm evening in summer, looking out over the harbor. Polenta with gorgonzola cheese that we had one day at a rifugio in the Dolomites after a long hike.
Very often in America novels I read about cheese pasta in… can? … box? What is it?
Oh, dear. Well, you did ask about the differences between America and Italy… In America, boxed macaroni and cheese is very popular among children and young people. The box contains dried pasta that you boil, and a packet of dehydrated sauce which you add to warm milk and melted butter. The organic version is not that bad, but it’s no more “pasta” than those strawberries that you can buy in January – you know, the hard ones that come from 6,000 miles away and look like strawberries but taste like plastic – are really strawberries.
Pasta in a can is a soggy, nasty mess. Its claim to fame is that you can heat it in less than a minute. Enough said.
What about your next projects? Maybe a book set somewhere in Italy?
I just finished my next novel. It’s about 7 characters who all challenge each other to do one thing in the next year that is new or different or scary. One of them does end up in Venice…
So we look forward to reading it very soon, Erica. Please inform us when you will be at Naples Festival. Some of our readers will certainly come to meet you. For the moment, thank you very much for the time you spent with us.
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