February selection at She Reads is Joy for Beginners
by Erica Bauermeister. Part novel, part collection of related short
stories, this book is one to pick up if you want to see a writer flex
her craft muscles. Erica Bauermeister is a gifted writer who is a joy
(pun intended) to read. Joy for Beginners
is about Kate, a cancer survivor who at a celebration dinner challenges
the group of friends who supported her through her illness, giving each
one an assignment to do something they might find difficult. And as the
title of the book suggests, they find joy in the process. Read on to
hear how this book came to be.
What was the
impetus for the story of Joy for Beginners?
Two things, really. Almost seven
years ago, my family was invited to go white-water rafting down the
Grand Canyon—my children and husband were excited to go but I was
scared. There was no way I was going to let my children go without me,
however, so I went. It was an amazing experience—terrifying, soul
opening, exhilarating. I knew then I’d have to write about it someday.
The second was my sister-in-law, who is fairly shy and a singer in a
band for some twenty years. For her fiftieth birthday she decided to do
her first solo concert. I was so proud of her, and I loved that idea of
celebrating by taking on something that scares you.
I have this part of my mind I
call the mental hopper—it’s where I put all sorts of ideas until I know
what to do with them. Those two things simmered in the mental hopper,
along with ideas about friendship and breast cancer and marriage and
traveling and tattoos, until one day it all came together and became
the story of seven women facing challenges and supporting one another.
How was this,
your second novel, different to write from your first,
The School of Essential Ingredients?
When I was writing The
School of Essential Ingredient s, I had two
children at home and a full-time job. That book took six years. Joy
for Beginners was completely different. I had a
contract and a deadline, I had been able to quit my job to write
full-time, and both my children were in college. It’s astonishing how
much you can get done when you have time and a room of your own. It
felt luxurious, honestly.
is truly beautiful. Is this an ability you just came with, or something
you had to develop?
I knew in college that this was
the kind of writing I wanted to do—books that looked at the “small”
things in life and gave them beauty. I also knew that I didn’t have the
emotional maturity or the mastery of the craft to do it back when I was
twenty. So I spent years (decades, actually) studying literature and
writing. I got a PhD in literature and coauthored a guide called 500
Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide. We read thousands of
books to find the 500 we wanted to include. I learned so much in the
process. On the personal side, I got married, had children, lived in
Italy . . . finally, when I was about forty-five, all that came
together and I wrote my first novel.
prominently in both your novels. Does it figure prominently in your
Oh, yes. I am smiling as I write
this because last night we had a big ravioli-making party at our house
and I get to eat leftovers for lunch. I think that interest in food
comes from living in Italy—heaven knows I wasn’t much of a cook before
then. But there was something about living in that country and watching
the way the Italians treat food as this celebration of love and health
and family. It’s quite addictive.
would you say to that reader who is prompted to do her own “impossible
thing” (like Kate challenged each of her friends to do)?
Just say yes! I
almost let fear
stop me from going down the Grand Canyon, but in the end it was one of
the greatest things I’ve done in my life. And you know what? I think
we’re all more brave than we believe.
What is an
impossible thing you’ve tackled in your own life?
I always thought that getting a
novel published was an impossible thing for me. I remember the day I
learned that my first novel had been sold. Honestly, if you had told me
I was next in line for the throne of England, I couldn’t have been more
dumbstruck. And yet, I’ve always written, mostly because I wouldn’t
know how not to.
What would you
say is the secret to joy?
I come from a family full of
brilliant, critically minded people who are always able to see where
something might go wrong. That way of thinking can avert problems, but
it also holds joy at arm’s length. I remember one time hearing a story
about how we all have two wolves inside of us, a good wolf and a bad
wolf. Which one wins depends on which one you feed. More and more, I’ve
been trying to feed the former. Interestingly enough, the more you do
that, the more joy you see in the world. So I say feed the good wolf.
I’m currently in revisions on my
third novel. This one revisits some of the characters from The
School of Essential Ingredients and brings in some
new ones as well. It’s about serendipity and ritual and how completely
we can misunderstand those who are closest to us.