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Cooking for Hugo: Roasted Apricots

Q & A: On Writing My Berlin Kitchen

My Berlin Kitchen

Hellooo, everybody! Still recognize everything? Yes, things look a little different around here this morning. I really (really) needed a change and although I'm still fiddling with some things, it feels so good to have cleaned house a bit. I'm doing all the design fixes myself, but have about as much knowledge of this stuff as a fruit fly, so I'm feeling both triumphant and totally hungover this morning. But hooray for change! And hooray for Typepad for having such brilliant customer service, without which I would be completely and utterly lost.

About a year ago, just after I'd delivered the final, final, final fixes to my book's manuscript, I asked if you guys had any questions about the process of writing a book. I wanted to help give some insight into the process, which had been so daunting even for me, a publishing "insider". You guys obliged me by asking wonderful questions and I obliged you by...oh, right. I never actually got around to answering them. I was in the end spurt of pregnancy and then Hugo was born and then my life exploded and the book tour happened and did I mention that I'm just answering emails from last September now? Right. GAH.

Anyway! Better late than never is a good motto to remember in these moments (or at least that's what I tell myself), so today, let's talk about book writing. Okay? Okay! (And if you have more questions, please leave them in the comments! I swear it won't take me a year to answer them this time.)

Jennifer asked:

I'm an American in Europe, and I'm curious as to whether or not your book will have both US and EU measurements, and if so, did you have to painstakingly test recipes using both measurement methods in order to make sure they were just right? What was the publication negotiation like on that topic?

The US edition of the book was published with only US measurements. Things are changing, especially in the cookbook world, but because I was writing a food memoir and not a straight cookbook, my publisher didn't insist on having both US and metric measurements. In fact, they didn't care at all. (For many cookbook publishers, having metric measurements - up until a few years ago - was considered a drawback. Too alienating for US readers, too messy for designers to have to include both on each page.) Because so many of the recipes I included in the book were originally in metric measurements (for example, the Poppyseed Whirligig Buns or my uncle's Sicilian Pizza), I had to painstakingly test them as I converted them to US measurements in my Berlin kitchen. All of those European-originating recipes were tested multiple times by me, some up to ten times! Hoo boy. Recipe-testing is not for the faint of heart. It's fussy, repetitive stuff and, for me at least, it took the joy right out of cooking. Luckily that phase didn't last long.

Ileana asked:

I'm curious about the discipline needed to write in long form. A deadline helps, but how else did you make yourself get it done?

By backing myself up against a wall and holding a gun to my head? Only sort of kidding! Ha! Haha! I don't think I exaggerate things when I say that finding discipline to write may be the very hardest part of any writer's job. Read any book on writing or any memoir of a writer's life and you are guaranteed to find many, many sentences devoted to the fact that the writer is convinced, at any given point, that they are a fraud and a waste of space and spirit and utterly incapable of writing, so there's no point in even sitting down and trying because it's never going to happen anyway and you might as well give up and become a garbage man or a middle manager or go hike the Camino de Santiago or something. At least then you'd be useful. That having been said, a set routine really helps: forcing yourself to sit down at your desk at the same time every day (and then ending at the same time every day) is a must. Also, I found that listening to music that you can write to helps as well - I'd put my headphones on and put my head down and stuff would just flow. Finally, re-reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird whenever I felt stuck (I know passages of it by heart now) was balsam for the battered soul. Writing is painful stuff - realizing that you're not alone in what feels like the ultimate sisyphean endeavor is hugely, hugely helpful. And it's motivating, too. Once you're done feeling sorry for yourself, you find yourself thinking, if all those people could do it, why can't I?

Thomas asked:

At some point I would love to hear what the three hardest things were to say goodbye to when editing the book, the things that didn't make the cut. And did you choose those yourself or were you 'forced' to?

I really regret not answering this question sooner, because now, a year later? I can barely remember what I was forced to get rid of. But the very fact that I can't remember anymore speaks volumes, I think. Clearly those things really did need to go and whether or not it was painful at the time ends up being irrelevant in the long run. That's a good lesson to learn. But one chapter that didn't make the cut (by both my choice and my editor's) that really stands out for me was the one about my mother's longtime boyfriend Florian. That chapter was actually originally an essay that I wrote after his death in 2004 in an attempt to come to terms with his very sudden, totally devastating death. Years later, when I was working on the book proposal, I realized that a lot of what had gone into that essay made sense in the context of what I was putting together. It was not only about him as a person and what he meant to me, but also about the food that he loved and what he taught me about love and feeding people and family. Ultimately, once the final manuscript was finished, we realized that the elegiac feel of the essay didn't really make sense in the wider arc of the book. Since I couldn't find a way to make it fit, we reluctantly cut it out.

Emily asked:

I'd love to know more about how it was that you put together a brief/pitch to get your publishers on board way back at the beginning (I know you touched on this a little back then, and also that you were maybe lucky enough to have a bit of an insider's knowledge, but a bit more of a story would be great!).

It's funny, so much has happened since I started working on the book proposal in July 2009, but I remember those days, hunched over my laptop, looking out over the treetops in Forest Hills, like they were yesterday. My agent, who at the time was not yet officially my agent, but just my good friend Brettne, and I had been getting together for lunch a lot that summer, talking about the big changes in my life and what my next steps should be. Brettne knew how homesick I was and when I told her that I was thinking seriously about moving back to Berlin, she was the one who actually suggested the idea for My Berlin Kitchen - a memoir about growing up in Berlin, my peripatetic childhood, the struggle to understand where I belong, the heartbreak, too, and then the return to where I started, all accompanied by my favorite recipes from Berlin and my uncle's table and Joanie's kitchen, among many other places. (Brettne says the idea occurred to her in the middle of the night while she was nursing her baby and after she told me that, I promptly signed with her, because where else on earth would I ever find dedication like that?). I loved the book idea instantly and started work on the proposal that very evening.

For the proposal, I wrote a general overview of the proposed book, outlined the chapters I wanted to write, gave some details on the recipes (heavy on mouthwatering details), wrote about the blog and all of you lovely people and what press I'd garnered over the years, and put together a sample chapter about my weekly trips over the border to East Germany when I was a child to visit Joanie's father-in-law, which ended up turning into Chapter 3 in the finished book. I gave the proposal to Brettne and a few of my closest friends for feedback and worked on perfecting it over the rest of the summer. In the meantime, Brettne and I compiled lists of editors that we wanted to submit the proposal to. In early October, just before the Frankfurt Book Fair, Brettne was ready to go. The day that she sent out the proposal to our first round of editors was one of the scariest of my life - woah, just remembering it now, I can actually feel the adrenaline rush up into my throat and down into my belly. I was at the office then, of course, and trying to focus on the work in front of me was so hard. Luckily, one of my close friends at the office knew what was going on (I hadn't told anyone at work that I'd been working on a book proposal - or that I was planning on moving to Berlin!) and let me come into her office every now and then to freak out. But all the worrying and sweaty palms had a swift end not two full days later when Viking preempted the book. !!! I still haven't gotten over the thrill of that moment and I hope I never will.