Q. Your love of food is evident in all of your novels and you’ve mentioned in the past that you view food as a form of communication. In what way?
A. Food is a physical need, of course, but it’s so much more than just fuel for the machine. It plays a role in nearly every major religion and it’s inextricably woven into our social fabric. Every rite of passage from birth to burial traditionally calls for a feast or fast. The number of proverbs and expressions that derive from the act of eating is truly staggering. Even our everyday lives are structured around breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is where I think cooking and writing dovetail so neatly. Both are usually rather solitary pursuits, but the object of both is to touch other people, to offer them something, to communicate.
Q. Many of the women in your novels seem to be on a quest for self-discovery. Why is this issue so important to you?
A. It may sound strange, but I never think about those kinds of things when I’m writing a story. The self-discovery issue just shows up in the work, probably because I’ve been on that same quest for years. I had a lot of other “lives” before I started writing fiction, most of them interesting in their own way, but none totally absorbing or satisfying. I was always searching for something. I think readers identify with that, especially women, because women are more likely than men to be taking care of other people and trying to live up to someone else’s expectations. At some point they say, “What about me? Don’t I get to be myself and do what I want?” And then they think, But…I have no idea who I am. I don’t know what I want.
Q. How much of your writing is autobiographical?
A. Everything I write is autobiographical in some sense—not that I share all my characters’ views or that what happens to them is based on something that actually happened to me, but just in the sense that every one of my character represents some aspect of myself. I think that’s true of most writers. So getting to know these fictional people is really a way of getting in touch with who we truly are.
Q. Much of your writing deals with families in conflict. Do you see families as having a more difficult time in today’s culture?
A. I think families have always had their difficult times. The problem is that in today’s culture it’s so easy for families to break apart. People just leave. Sometimes they form other families either through actual relationships like marriage and adoption, sometimes just by proximity to certain other people—what I like to call circumstantial families. The other thing that’s true is, in the past, families tended to stay together because of tradition, and also because most people were busy just trying to survive. They didn’t always have a lot of free time to sit around thinking about relationships and brooding about how their family was dysfunctional or how unfulfilled they felt.
Q. Has anything about the reaction to your work surprised you?
A. Lots of things. To me one of the most fun things about having books published is the wide variety of reactions you get. I’m always surprised at what different readers find in my books. I do a lot of book clubs, which I love, because you get into really in-depth discussions with people who see things differently than you do and find things you really never intended—at least not consciously. It’s fascinating.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of setting in your books, how the setting informs the story or perhaps even inspires it.
A. Setting is crucial, at least to me. It almost dictates how the characters develop, how the story proceeds. There’s a very close connection between the mood of a place and how you write about events there, about what can happen there. For example, the Pacific Northwest…Think about the Olympic peninsula, the rainforest, moss hanging from branches, growing on bark, the forest primeval, giant trees, huge ferns, banana slugs. Nature on steroids. Clearly this is an atmosphere of growth. Yes, it’s sort of gloomy, but even that darkness is more like the darkness of the womb.
The high desert of New Mexico is 180° in opposition. High altitude, blazing sun, extremes of temperature, poor soil, ferocious winds. It’s a hardscrabble place where survival is possible, but it takes special skills. There’s no softness, none of the cushioning you find in other environments. If you look at the history of the place, you think of the adventurers, the prospectors, the native people, the cowboys. It’s the sort of place where you have to scratch and dig to discover what you’re looking for.