Listen: Linda Fairstein on Her Thorough, Investigative Research

Linda Fairstein returns to discuss Devil’s Bridge, her newest novel in the Alex Cooper series. We chat about her rich historical settings, Cooper’s agelessness, and of course, her love for our Penguin Book Truck. Is it safe to assume that it’s currently parked at Linda’s Martha’s Vineyard home?
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Writing Tips from Jennifer Steil, author of The Ambassador’s Wife

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? Usually when I sit down (or often, stand up) to write, I start by re-reading and editing the previous day’s work. That gets me back into the world of the book. Then I just carry on with the story from where I left off. I am a somewhat disorganized writer. I don’t write outlines or think too far ahead when writing a first draft. I write fast first drafts that I finish in three to ten months, and then spend a couple of years editing. I often think of scenes as puzzle pieces or quilting squares, shuffling them around until they make sense. I do, however, often write a basic timeline so I can remember when pivotal events happen and how old everyone is. But the story itself emerges only when I am actually writing. Often I have no idea where the plot is heading until it emerges from my fingers. For this reason, I am a serious rewriter. I write at least a dozen drafts of each book. Much of the structure, plotting, and pacing emerges in later drafts. I think of my first drafts as skeletons, and each successive draft as layering on muscle, veins, fat, skin, hair, etc. Until it is a fully living book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? One thing I learned fairly early on is that I cannot afford to wait to be in the right mood. For me, writing needs to be a daily discipline, like exercise. I do it no matter what mood I am in. The hardest part is getting myself to the computer and shutting off the Internet. Once I open the document and start working, I am suddenly in the mood. Work inspires work. Also, when you have a small child and the various diplomatic obligations that come along with being an ambassador’s wife, you write in every unscheduled moment, whenever those moments are. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I have kept a journal since the day I learned how to write, but I never thought of myself as a writer until graduate school. I majored in theater in college and worked for several years as an actor. But eventually I became frustrated with the limited roles available to women. I wanted to play paleontologists and astrophysicists but ended up playing ingénues and prostitutes. It got old. I began writing some of the things I wished my characters would say and decided to go back to school. After getting an MFA in fiction writing and an MS in journalism, I worked in newspapers and magazines for years before finally writing my first book. I don’t think that first book would have happened, however, had I not taken an enormous risk by moving to Yemen to take over a newspaper. From the moment I accepted that job, I think I knew I was going to have a lot to write about! What’s the best piece of advice you have received? One evening in 1992 I was sitting in a bar in Bainbridge Island, Washington with a friend who is a brilliant and prolific composer. I was going on and on about various ideas I had for short stories, and he said, “You know, there comes a time when you have to stop talking about what you are going to do and start doing it.” I went straight home that night and wrote a short story. I still think about that conversation twenty years later. It gets me into the chair (or standing in front of the computer—I often write standing up). What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Don’t wait to feel inspired. If you’re serious about writing you should be writing every day. Treat it like any other job. Schedule time for it, even if you only have a half hour a day. Turn off the Internet. Check Twitter and Facebook after you write, not before. I indulge in this bad habit too often. I write best when I schedule specific times of day to check social media. If you need to do research online, make notes in your draft of things to look up later, when you are done writing. Don’t ever send out a first draft. While there are a few writers out there who produce genius first drafts, most of us do not. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite your story until you feel you have absolutely taken it as far as you can. Then get a writer you trust to edit it. Rewrite some more. Take at least a day between drafts so that you can approach your work with fresh eyes. Do you ever base characters on people you know? Why or why not? Yes. But though real people often provide the initial spark or inspiration, the characters swiftly take on a life of their own. Ultimately I don’t think any of the characters I create resemble the people who originally inspired them except in the most superficial of ways. I observe the people around me with the eyes of a journalist, noting quirks and interesting phrases. There is so much rich material just floating around. The imagination takes off from there. Read more about The Ambassador’s Wife here.

Reading & Eating: The Broad Fork, by Hugh Acheson and Under Magnolia, by Frances Mayes

Wine and food pairings are all well and good, but there’s no better pairing than two complementary books. Reading + Eating posts feature two titles that will inspire you to cook, read, eat, and enjoy. The gorgeous cookbook images, and handpicked recipes and quotes make for some delicious reading.  This month, we’ve paired Frances Mayes’ gorgeous memoir about growing up in the South with The Broad Fork, a lush cookbook from beloved chef, Hugh Acheson. collage

In Under Magnolia, beloved author Frances Mayes returns with a lyrical and evocative memoir of her childhood in the South. Under Magnolia is a searingly honest, humorous, and moving ode to family and place, and a thoughtful meditation on the ways they define us, or cause us to define ourselves.

“As gothic as anything Faulkner could have dreamed up, populated by characters straight out of a Flannery O’Connor story…a thorny memoir that strips away the polite Southern masks, sweet magnolias be damned. Unforgettable.” – Atlanta Journal Constitution

“With perfect-pitch language, Mayes unblinkingly describes her growing-up years… One can almost taste the mushiness of ‘a pot of once-green beans falling apart in salt pork’; one can almost smell the cloying scent of honeysuckle, gardenias and overripe peaches that infuse the always-too-humid air.”– USAToday.com

Read more about Under Magnolia here.

The author of The Broad Fork, Hugh Acheson, is a James Beard Award-winning chef and partner of the restaurants Five & Ten, The National, and Empire South in Georgia. In this beautiful new cookbook, he focuses on seasonal produce, balance, and flavor. See below for two wonderful recipes from the book.

455_Ache_9780385345026_art_r1 POACHED SHRIMP OVER RADISHES WITH SALSA VERDE Serves 4, as an appetizer Poached shrimp take about three minutes. Salsa verde can be made ahead. Radishes take a minute to cut up, if that. The broth assembles in a minute and is cooked for fifteen before the shrimp go in. I guess what I am saying is that I realize you’re busy but this is so easy, so fast, and so impressive that you need to go and make it. When buying shrimp, hopefully you find them fresh. But if not, shrimp are one of the few things that freeze well, so find fishmongers whom you trust and buy from them. They’ll know which ones are going to put a smile on your face. 1 pound shrimp (16 to 20 count) 1 teaspoon olive oil ¼ cup dry vermouth 3 cups chicken stock ¼ pound (½ stick) unsalted butter 1 sprig fresh thyme 1 leek, white and light green parts well washed and cut into 1-inch lengths Kosher salt 12 radishes, quartered ½ cup minced celery with leaves ¼ cup Salsa Verde 1. Peel the shrimp, leaving the tails on and reserving the shells. (Even better if you have the heads, but if you’re buying head-on, buy about 1½ pounds.) Set aside. 2. In a 4-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the shrimp shells (and heads if you have them) and cook for 3 minutes, until bright pink and aromatic. Add the vermouth and deglaze the pan. Add the chicken stock, butter, thyme sprig, leek, and kosher salt to taste. Bring to a boil and then simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Strain the mixture and return the liquid to the pan over medium heat. Discard the strained solids. 3. Season the shrimp with kosher salt, and immerse them in the poaching liquid. Cover and cook for 3 minutes or until the shrimp are just cooked through. 4. Arrange the radishes and the celery in individual bowls for serving. Divide the shrimp among the bowls, and then ladle some of the poaching liquid over them. Finish each bowl with salsa verde, and serve. 272_Ache_9780385345026_art_r1 STEAMED ARTICHOKES WITH DRAWN THYME BUTTER Serves 4, as a side I was a wee little guy when Pops was doing a sabbatical in Palo Alto, at venerable Stanford University, but I remember eating egg rolls and artichokes with drawn butter. Now that may not have been in the same meal, but that’s how my memory puts them: together. The egg rolls were (amazingly enough) homemade by my mum and the artichokes came from a couple hours south of us. Big, green, thistly orbs. And I fell for them—hook, line, and sinker. Now my kids love the hunt to get to the heart of the artichoke, scraping each leaf with their teeth and getting all they can from their beauty. 7 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 cup sliced yellow onion 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves ¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves 2 large globe artichokes, top 2 inches sliced off 1 cup dry white wine Kosher salt 1 lemon, cut into wedges 1. Place a stockpot over low heat and melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in it. Once the butter starts to foam, add the onion, half of the thyme, and the parsley, and begin to sweat the onion. While you prepare the artichokes, the onions will happily hang out over low heat. 2. Tear off the first few outer leaves from the bottom of each artichoke, as well as any attached to the stem. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the stems until you reach the white inner part. Add the artichokes to the pot, stem side up. Then add the white wine and enough water to cover the artichokes. Bring to a boil over high heat, add enough salt to make the liquid pleasantly salty, and then lower to a simmer. To keep them submerged, place a plate that’s just small enough to fit inside the pot over the artichokes. Cover the pot with a lid and cook the artichokes for about 20 minutes, or until you can slide a knife into the stem with no resistance. 3. Remove the plate and then the artichokes from the liquid, and place the artichokes on a cutting board to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, use a chef’s knife to carefully slice each artichoke in half, starting at the tip of the stem. This will expose the heart of the artichoke. Just above the heart you will see a fuzzy part, which is called the “choke.” Using a small spoon, remove the choke. You will be left with the heart and the fleshy leaves. 4. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a small saucepot and add the remaining thyme leaves. Once the butter is fully melted, set it aside. 5. Place the artichokes on a large platter and season with salt, to taste. Garnish with the lemon wedges. Serve with the reserved melted butter for dippin’. Read more about The Broad Fork here.
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From the Editor’s Desk: Becky Cole, Editor of Stir

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. When the proposal for Stir came in, it was subtitled “How My Brain Exploded and I Got Cooking.” What I found in those pages just about made my own brain explode. Here was a memoir by a first-time writer who had survived a traumatic brain injury, a Harvard Ph.D candidate who lost sight in one eye, her sense of smell, and a chunk of her skull so large that she had to wear a hockey helmet to protect her brain, impressive enough, but what made the proposal a standout was not her injury, but the way she wrote about how food and the simple everyday acts of cooking, baking, stirring, sautéing, and sharing it, helped her to heal. As she writes in the book, getting well meant finding her everyday, and she found hers in the kitchen. This stunning book didn’t fit neatly into any category in the bookstore, but everyone at Penguin Random House who read it loved it, and we knew we had to publish Stir. Every author takes an approach to writing that makes sense to them. Some outline, others write set pieces to be stitched together later. Some write almost in a fugue state, getting the book down on paper from beginning to end, barely stopping to put in commas. Jessica was not that kind of writer. She was careful, precise. Every word worked at the sentence level. The challenge with Stir was broader—we didn’t want the book to be pigeon-holed as a recovery memoir, but we also knew that her illness was the natural beginning of her story. During editorial talks, we spent much of our time discussing how to weave various strands together. First, of course, there was the aneurysm. Then, there was the food—the facts of cooking it and eating it and recovering because of it. Beyond those two main threads, there was a love story between Jessica and her unflappable husband, Eli, including their attempts to start a family (spoiler: they do! as anyone who follows her wonderful blog, sweetamandine.com knows from the pictures of her two adorable daughters she posts there); an ode to the constellation of women in her life—her mother, stepmother, grandmothers, her Aunt Fran, and close friends—whose influence she feels strongly in the kitchen; and, finally, the story of how she came to a new understanding of the link between food and identity. As we’d talk, Jessica would occasionally ask me, “How do you think I should…?” We’d mull it over and then she would go off and come up with a perfect solution. When I said as much, more often than not, she’d respond that she had simply looked at a memoir she admired to see how that writer succeeded in doing whatever it was Jessica herself was trying to do. She was applying the skills she’d honed as an academic to the process of writing a memoir. She read and dissected every memoir she could get her hands on —Wild, The Liar’s Club, Eat, Pray, Love, and My Stroke of Insight, and dozens of others– to pick them apart and learn how they performed different feats of narrative and storytelling. She marked her copy of Wild with a “Pivot!” in the margins next to the places Cheryl Strayed switched from one subject to another without losing the reader, and then figured out a way to make the technique her own in Stir. It was as if she was reading to defend her dissertation and her dissertation was how to tell the story of her life. Again and again, I could see her incorporating the lessons she’d gleaned from the writers she loved into her own book. One day, she sent me a document I’m not sure I was meant to see. It was an eleven page spreadsheet with columns delineating plot, characters, conflict, what we learn (general), what we learn (food), and “to do.” It showed an awareness of how the book was working—or not—from a structural perspective, which helped to keep everything in balance. Another time, she sent me a file that had all of the material dealing with Eli in one document so she could make sure the story hung together, which it did. This all sounds terribly clinical, but the book that came out of it is anything but, despite a good part of it taking place in and out of hospitals after brain surgery. What I love about Jessica’s writing, especially her writing about food, is how unfussy it is—the opposite of academic writing with its particular conventions, and different, too, from a certain type of food writing, the kind with sumptuous descriptions of dishes that sound like menu items at a restaurant where almost no one can afford to eat. Jessica, however, writes every bit as much for the person who swoons over grass-fed butter as she does for someone who savors a Ritz cracker melting on her tongue. She writes exquisitely but without pomp about how the way we prepare food and who we eat it with connects us to our past, our future, and our true selves. The moments where she connects to food shine brightly on the page. She writes about the smell of cucumber when her olfactory nerves kick in again, the mushrooms chopped for a favorite pasta dish when she first returns to the kitchen, and an almond cake resting on a counter that acts as a Proust’s madeleine of sorts as it lets her know, as she writes, that food had something to teach her, and that it felt good to listen. I am glad that she did. Read more about Stir here.