Q&A with Paula
As a writer, who influences you?
An endless list of writers and books: Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows; much of Rumer Godden; just about all of MFK Fisher; Katharine Graham’s Personal History; most of Alan Bennett; Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Appennines; Jan Morris’s Venice; Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; Joan Brady’s Theory of War; Vaclav Havel’s Letters to Olga; and Helmut James von Moltke’s Letters to Freya. I can’t leave out Edith Wharton or Nathaniel Hawthorne; Annie Dillard or Eva Hoffman (who wrote the real Lost in Translation) Calvin Trillin or Larry McMurtry. And then, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Lawrence; Dacia Maraini and Elsa Morante; Pat Barker and Olivia Manning; Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Marie Vassiltchikov; and the autobiographies of Marion, Countess Dônhoff and Edward Said, who, like so many of the others expatriates on this list, reminds me vividly how life in another country can make one feel perpetually out of place, and how that very sense of displacement can, in fact, make one more sensitive to both one’s old home and new. I could drone on for pages, but I’ll stop with William Styron, whose groundbreaking Darkness Visible chronicled his own first descent into major depression; he kept me sane at a very difficult period in my family’s life.
What was is like to shift from journalism to a book?
I tried not to think about it much, nor the old line about how there’s a book deep inside every reporter, and that usually it’s right where it ought to stay. It helped that when I started the book, I thought I was writing a slim history for our children and our immediate family; only later did I realize that I had a lot more to say than I originally thought, and that the project could have a much bigger audience. Strangely enough, it helped that I did not try to write an outline at the beginning of the project, for that, I’m sure, would have silenced me forever: the idea of plotting out an entire book from beginning to end would simply have been too daunting. Very helpful was knowing that I wanted to tell the step-by-step story of all the troubles that befell us starting toward the end of 1989, so that our children would understand what had happened to their father and, in fact, what had happened to us all. I didn’t want to leave anything out, or try to shield them from one thing or another. I wanted to tell them everything John and I could remember, so they would know the truth of what happened, so that this truth might in turn protect them one day, should they ever be overtaken by troubles as we had been. I found as I went along that chapters naturally fell into place in my mind as rather similar to long, magazine stories. And since each chapter moved back and forth between childhood memories and adult ones, chapters broke themselves down into even more manageable bits.
Did you write this memoir from memory alone? Or did you have help?
I had an enormous amount of help. After John got shot, I found myself taking endless, detailed notes, day after day, basically because I was in such shock that I couldn’t remember anything unless I wrote it down. So I had notebooks full of details and dates and a calendar, filled in day by day, of medical emergencies and events as they happened. I had old stories that we’d written. I had saved every single telex, note, get well card, newspaper article and letter we ever received in connection with our troubles.
It helped immeasurably that John thought the project was a good idea. It also helped that I talked about it with the children, to find out what they thought and remembered. And I talked about it with other reporter friends, and with my family and John’s family, all of whom, of course, went through it with us. And finally, one enormous impetus was that I had grown up surrounded by my own family’s secrets, which were kept in kindness, in the hope of offering protection, but which served only to keep me confused until I learned the truth of them two decades too late.
Why did you decide to tell the story through, of all things, food?
It didn’t take me long to realize that the basic storyline of the book was unrelievedly grim. Here, in brief, is what I was trying to chronicle: a beating in Prague, a shooting in Romania, an emergency medical evacuation to Munich, septicemia, seven surgeries, rehabilitation, hepatitis B, eventual recovery, flashbacks, post-traumatic stress, an unexpected death, unexpected illnesses, a long, gradual slide into major depression, the even longer, uneven struggle back from depression.
None of it was exactly knee-slapping material; all of it was unbelievably black, and too depressing, even years later, for me to write it down plague by plague — let alone for anybody to read it. So very early on I realized I was going to have to describe how — in going through these hellish years — we managed to counter the bad memories with good ones. Since all my best memories have always been surrounded by food, I knew that the only way for me to tell the story, both the good and the bad, was to conjure up the happiest memories I have, most of them dealing with food and nourishment, family and friends.
Where did you actually begin?
I began by writing about the one single object that, years later, still troubled me most profoundly: the single bullet that had left the barrel of a sniper’s gun and cut its way into and out of my husband’s back. Confronting that ball of lead on my computer screen got me to the very heart of the matter in a very short time. It set me off on the path of the entire book.
Are you an advocate for families coping with depression and do you intend to get more involved in this issue?
Only very recently have I begun to think of myself as a potential advocate for families coping with all sorts of trauma, not necessarily just coping with mental illness in general or major depression, in particular. My father served as an Army medic in the Pacific theater during World War II, carrying the wounded back to the safety of field hospitals, and the corpses back from the front. My husband’s family includes two career Marines, who have been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. My husband was shot during a civil war in Romania, though he was not a soldier. This background makes me particularly open to concerns about how other families cope — or don’t — when one of their own returns home horrifically wounded from one of these wars, or when violence of any kind strikes someone down. My family knows in a most visceral way how the wounds from such violence can play out among different family members, leaving ever more havoc behind. Depression, we know, is only one possible response. I’d never considered becoming an advocate for families coping with depression, but if I did, I would start by encouraging entire families to seek professional help.
What’s your writing schedule?
I’ve always been a morning person, and I found that if I got up whenever I awakened and went straight from bed to computer — with no detours for email or dipping into The New York Times online — I was set for the day. The more I got into the book, the earlier I seemed to wake up, and over time, I saw that if I was at my computer by five a.m. — when everybody else in the house was still asleep — I would have two utterly free, quiet hours in which to write. Most mornings I would have to break off about seven to get our daughter to school, but the moment she and my husband were out of the house, I would try to sit back down at least till one p.m. By that point, I felt I’d already put in a pretty full day. Some days, if I was really on a roll, I might write again in the afternoon or evening or just jot down notes to myself for the next day. And on the days I couldn’t seem to write a word, I learned to take a breather while my brain was trying to puzzle out the problem, and write or read other things — emails or letters or the grocery list if all else failed.
Where do you work?
When I started the book, we were living in Rome, and we actually had the luxury of a small office in our apartment. It was jammed with all our books and a big desk. When I restarted the project more than a decade later, by which time we had had a daughter and moved to Paris, we had no room for an office. My computer sits in a corner of our dining room, which is where I’ve gotten used to writing. But having been a reporter for so many years, I can — and do — write just about anywhere. I write notes on scraps of paper while I’m in the Metro or on buses or on trains, while I’m cooking dinner or out for a walk. Even if I lose the scraps of paper, which I often do, it doesn’t much matter: the act of writing the note is usually enough to keep the idea in my brain long enough until I can record it in a safer place.
What sort of cooking do you like to do?
I like to cook anything that’s fresh and simple and not particularly complicated. I always hated following long, involved recipes and as I’ve gotten older I prefer to cook on the fly, just throwing things together that work and that I happen to have in the fridge or pantry. Most of what I cook is Italian or Mediterranean, partly because I grew up eating Italian food, partly because I lived in Italy for more than 10 years, partly because it’s generally easy, quick, nutritious, and tasty, and because I can do it in my sleep. Most of the pasta sauces I make can be thrown together in the time it takes to get a big spaghetti pot full of water to boil. We eat a little meat or fish, a fair amount of pasta, rice, cheese, and yogurt, and lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and salad, always dosed with simple oil and vinegar. We don’t eat much butter or cream, and generally stick to good olive oil for dribbling over freshly blanched vegetables. Actual desserts are rare in our house, except for occasions like birthdays or holidays. Many of the desserts I do make are simply fruit, baked or poached or braised in wine or fruit juice. My husband, who fights a sweet tooth, makes most of our pies — peach with wild blackberry being his best — and our youngest daughter is learning to make a few American specialties like brownies and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. We all could eat Italian gelato every day of the week, but it’s not all that easy to find in Paris.
What’s your kitchen like?
Our Paris kitchen is a narrow galley, not terribly big, but painted a bright white, with a tall, narrow window at the eastern edge. Sadly, there’s no room for even a small table and chairs, but there’s enough room for two or three people to stand around drinking wine as I prepare a meal. We’ve moved so often that I think of our kitchen as a traveling show — one cabinet with a big chopping block, a big open bookshelf made of wood, another made of metal. We’ve got a small stove with three gas burners and one electric; the oven can barely fit a 16-pound turkey at Thanksgiving but since we only roast a whole turkey once a year, it’s not exactly a hardship. We don’t have built-in appliances or restaurant equipment or fancy countertops or lots of gadgets. For me, a well-equipped kitchen needs one good-sized wooden board, a couple of good knives, and a minimum number of pots, pans, and utensils. The main thing a kitchen needs is people to spend time cooking in it.