Q & A

What books are in that tottering pile on your desk and next to your bed right now?

• Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever
• General Vo Nguyen, Frien Dien Bien Phu: Memoirs of War
• Clara Bingham, Witness to the Revolution
• Junot Diaz/Heidi Pitlor, ed, The Best American Short Stories 2016
• Patrick Ryan, The Dream Life of Astronauts
• Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
• Dana Johnson, In The Not Quite Dark
• Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life 
Charles Johnson, Middle Passage

What have you read lately that got your juices flowing?

It’s not so much what I’ve read as where I’ve been. In December, two friends and I flew to Singapore. It was such a welcoming city, with such warm people. We stayed at a hotel right across a small bridge from the Asian Civilizations Museum. I went there twice to look at the Tang horses and soldiers and pottery. I was especially drawn to one sculpture, a strong, peaceful, beautiful woman with her hair in a topknot. The second time I went I saw that they had named the figure Woman in Men’s Clothing. I so strongly identified with it, although I don’t as a rule wear men’s clothing, I’ve begun using that image as my image.

I have a friend from childhood, a poet, who is Buddhist. I was thinking about her while I was in the Kwan Im Temple, trying to understand why she needed Buddhism. A monk there must have seen my intensity; he gave me a book to take with me, a primer: Good Question, Good Answer by S. Dhammika. I read that book in small bursts, during the rest of the time we were in Asia.

We were too briefly in Vietnam – one miserable, rainy day. I kept thinking about someone I knew who had been caught in the Tet Offensive. He would wake up almost every night crying out or screaming, thinking the planes were overhead.

We wound up in Hong Kong. We stayed in Kowloon, right near that spectacular harbor. I’m not sure why, but Kong Kong to me felt like Greenwich Village in the 1970s; so familiar, so comfortable. Even though I am still recovering from my crazy tibial plateau fracture, one day we walked seven miles toward the flower market and beyond. I liked how easy it was to meet people. In one restaurant, we met a young couple, professors, who had grown up in Hong Kong but now lived in Cologne, Germany. They were home visiting family. ‘How did you even find this place?” the woman asked us.

I came home and for one month every night dreamed about Hong Kong. I am so eager to go back.

 What do you read if you want something escapist?

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries. They’re the only mysteries I read. Essentially, I’m a sucker for anything set in Venice. But it’s been a while since I’ve read one. Other than that, I read food/cooking magazines, World of Interiors and old Skinner auction catalogs (I have hundreds).

What do you do besides reading and writing?

I go to garage sales and estate sales. (At least I did more of that before I fell…) I’m always on the lookout for vintage jewelry — I have way too much, but I like wearing it — and I also collect kitchen/dining room things. Until recently I had about 50 or more vintage tablecloths, maybe more, and an absurd amount of vintage glassware.  Periodically, I go through everything and donate the “overflow” to our local Lutheran Church Thrift Shop. (The two Lutheran churches out here do good charitable outreach.) This past week I decided I had too much milk glass that I don’t use. I have a shopping bag full ready to divest.

You don’t sell anything?

No. I think the dealers I see all the time must think I do, but I don’t want to. For me, it would take the thrill out of the hunt.

What’s your best find so far?

That would depend when you ask me. My biggest “score” so far was a room-size, handmade Tibetan rug I found at a charity sale – for $35. When I took it to be cleaned and they rolled it out, everyone in the rug store gathered round the rug staring at it. It’s worth thousands of dollars. But I’m just as happy when I find something smaller that I can use. The last thing I “adopted” was a set of vintage French Luminaric wine glasses with green stems, 12 for $6.00, to use with my Russell Wright American Modern dishes.

Do you ever write about antiques?

They show up in my short stories. I guess that’s inevitable. I’m still revising a story that features a man who collects American shelf clocks with wooden works.

I briefly wrote an antiques and collectibles newsletter for Gannett Newspapers.  I was also an editor at Almanac magazine.  I interviewed a lot of collectors for both of those publications.  I’ve been to quite a few states interviewing collectors, and the inimitable collectibles/antiques guru Ralph Kovel once had me picked up at the airport in his ancient Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud driven by a friend of his dressed as a chauffeur.

To me, probably the strangest collectors are middle-aged or older women obsessed with dolls.

You’re a baker too, aren’t you?

That’s another obsession. I’m always dieting, so it’s a challenge because I like to eat what I bake. Mostly I do pies and tarts, primarily fruit, but some savory. My favorite until recently was lemon tart. I had a lemon tart I loved when we were in Galway, Ireland, for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday, and I when we got home I kept trying to duplicate it without real success. Then when I was at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Arkansas, their cook, Jana, served one that had an amazing filling.  I’ve played with her recipe and use my own crust.  Yum; I’m not kidding. – We just bought a new stove. I’m not sure what I’ll bake next.

Do you have a favorite cookbook?

That’s a difficult question because so many recipes are now online. But I do have a lot of cookbooks, including some pretty old ones. But I find myself going back to some regularly.

• I always seem to take out my falling-apart Joy of Cooking at Thanksgiving time because it has all my previous years’ calculations written in it.

• I like Daisy Martinez’ Daisy Cooks for a few dishes. Try her Wet Rub for Pernil. I have Puerto Rican neighbors who are exceptional cooks, and I keep trying to make the dishes they’ve served.

• I am in general not a great fan of Mary Ann Esposito’s cookbooks, but she has a fennel tart in Nella Cucina that is superb. Leave out the sausages if you are serving vegetarians, increase the veggies — and it is still fantastic.

• Apple pie may seem like it would be a no-brainer. But we’ve all had boring apple pies, even from credible bakers. Carole Walter’s Great Pies & Tarts has one of the best apple pie filling recipes I’ve tried. See her Old-Fashioned American Apple Pie.

• One more … Dorie Greenspan’s Desserts by Pierre Hermé.  Fabulous book.