Thursday, September 26, 2013

Elinor Lipman Visits the Reds

LUCY BURDETTE: I am so excited about today’s guest, as I’m a huge fan of everything she writes. She is funny, witty, smart, well, you’ll see...if you haven’t yet read Elinor Lipman’s books, you are in for a big treat. She has written ten novels, including the latest THE VIEW FROM PENTHOUSE B, along with TWEET LAND OF LIBERTY, and a book of personal essays. Welcome to Jungle Red!
Will you tell us a little about the new novel--and if you can stand it, what your writing process is like?

ELINOR LIPMAN:  The new novel is narrated by Gwen-Laura Schmidt, widowed two years previous, now living with her divorced sister, Margot, who was--as I like to say--"Madoffed."  Margot's ex lives in the same building, newly sprung from prison for practicing amorous medicine.  So it's about these two middle-aged women finding their way in the world, with a little forgiveness and reluctant internet dating.  

As for my process:  When I'm working on a novel, I aim for 500 words per day. I don't move forward until I've revised and polished every chapter because I send each one to my two first readers, novelist Mameve Medwed and biographer Stacy Schiff, who was my first editor.  When I'm finished, despite all the polishing along the way, there's still revising for consistency and because I know my characters better at the end than I did when making my way through it, pretty blindly. 

 Also, I never outline, so I have to go back and cut scenes that went nowhere, or amplify ones that proved to be important.   And then revisions that my editor asks for.  I find 90% of those to be good suggestions and very much worth addressing.    

LUCY: The personal essays in I CAN’T COMPLAIN started out not terribly personal. But then wow, the last few about your husband’s death and what it’s like to be single and 60 were so open and touching. How do you figure out what feels okay to write about and when, and what is too personal and private?

ELINOR:  I didn't quite appreciate how personal they all would be in the aggregate.  One section, "Coupling," was made up of essays that appeared in the Boston Globe, so that had been boot camp for marital exposure.   And even more so: The essay about my husband's decline and death was a NY Times "Modern Love" column in 2010.  So what feels the most personal are the new ones in the section "Since Then."  

LUCY: Here’s the way your essay “It Was a Dark and Stormy Nosh” begins: I write novels and I cook dinner, and some days the edges blur. Like me, my characters know their way around a kitchen, and like my family, they are good eaters. Increasingly my plots thicken in restaurants, as waiters hover, and increasingly readers ask, “What’s with the food in your books?”

We are food-crazy here at Jungle Red Writers too! Please tell us about that--how you use food and eating and cooking to show your characters’ style.
photo by Michael Lionstar

ELINOR:  I go on to say in that essay (which originally appeared in Gourmet) that food likes and dislikes can be shorthand characterization:  What does a fussy eater who annoys with her (yes, mostly her) complaints and special requests say about her personality?  A lot, I think.  A man who makes himself  franks and beans is one kind of guy; the one who poaches a fish and whips up his own vinaigrette is another.  It's almost too easy, isn't it?  I love to quote a New Yorker cartoon caption where a woman is saying to her dining companion, "I started my vegetarianism for health reasons, then it became a moral choice, and now it's just to annoy people." 

LUCY: I love that one of the characters in the new novel bakes cupcakes. In fact, I got so inspired by the sound of Scarlet O’Hara cupcakes that I made a batch. (And one of my characters will be making them in the fifth food critic mystery.) After consulting with my Facebook friends, I decided that they must have been red velvet cakes with raspberry cream cheese frosting. But now I’m dying to hear how you imagined this recipe would be constructed.
ELINOR:  I imagined it not at all.  I just thought it was a cupcake Anthony would like to own.  

LUCY: Unbelievable! Well just let me say that they were divine...
Tell us about your book of tweets.  

ELINOR:  In June of 2011, I thought it was time I joined Twitter.  Actually, I didn't want to, but publicists and such want you to do it, all hoping you'll get a zillion followers like Susan Orlean has.  I didn't want to tweet about nonsense or nothingness, so I pledged on impulse to write one rhyming political tweet per day until the 2012 election--without counting how freakin' far away that was.  I put my pledge on Facebook, and the Boston Globe picked up on that promise, so I couldn't back down.  Then at the (wonderful) Grub Street Muse and the Marketplace conference in May of 2012, Helene Atwan of Beacon Press said, "Someone's doing your tweets as a book, right?"  I said, "No, nobody."  She said, "Well, I am."  Three months later it came out:  TWEET LAND OF LIBERTY: Rhyming Tweets from the Political Circus. (You can follow Elinor @elinorlipman.

LUCY: And finally, you have a new blog in

ELINOR: It's called "I Might Complain." It appears every Wednesday and covers life's little annoyances. So I try to strike a balance between amusing and cranky. 
LUCY: thanks so much for visiting! Reds, Elinor will be stopping in to answer comments and questions, so please pile on!


  1. Scarlett O’Hara cupcakes? I’m going to have to move that book to the top of my to-be-read pile . . . .

  2. Joan--there's no recipe therein. I hope that won't knock me off the top of your list...

  3. Elinor, it is good to see you here on JRW. I like your personality assessment by food.

    I think for Valentine's Day I'll make the Scarlett O'Hara cupcakes with chocolate cabernet cake and cream cheese rosé frosting.

  4. Waving! I am such a huge fan.

    My question is about writing essays. I thought they'd be easy. (Opinions,right? Got lots of them.) But it turns out it's demanding form in which something (preferably more than one thing) pays off in a big way at the end.

    I find often I don't know where I'm going when I write an essay -- until I get to the end. Wondering if you usually know where you're going when you start to write an essay, or if you discover the *epiphany* in the process of writing?

  5. It will be difficult not to get fan-girly here, because I have been a huge fan since The Way Men Act, and The Dearly Departed is in my tornado bag. If I have to cower in my basement during bad weather, I want Chief Joey Loach holding my hand.

    I was there on Day 1, on Facebook, for your very first political haiku. While I love politics, that year was disturbing too, so your sharp humor was a relief--every morning for a year, a reminder that art can be topical and pointed and entertaining. I was very sad to see them end but love that they were gathered into the book.

    I have I Can't Complain on my desk, to be read next. This past last year, I have been writing creative nonfiction, and the personal stuff is hard. Thank you for opening up.

    Now I am rushing over to, and I'm sorry for the gushing. But it's difficult to tone it down when you've been a fan for years!

  6. Hallie,
    Thank you so much. I definitely do NOT know where an essay will take me. I am writing one this very minute and am making discoveries along the way--nothing huge, but little things that I'll probably expand on. I write in the intro to my essay collection that I usually accepted an assignment with something like dread, then was always glad I accepted it because, to my surprise, I grew very fond of the subject. (Or, embarrassing to admit, the finished product). So not usually one big epiphany but new little roads to take.

  7. Welcome from yet another huge fan! I am always thrilled when a favorite author comes out with a new novel - but my first love is and will always be (both reading and writing) creative nonfiction, and yours knocks me completely off my feet. SO thrilled to see you here!

  8. Ramona--Never never apologize for gushing! I always appreciate your comments on FB. This is a first for me: being in someone's tornado bag. I will be repeating this, my favorite kind of compliment. After 9-11, an editor wrote me she was getting a lot of requests for ISABEL'S BED, so she started calling it the Literary Red Cross. Kinda the same thing. Thank you!

  9. Kaye,
    The essays have been such an unexpected, gratifying thing for me. I thought my publisher was just saying yes as an "atta, girl" kind of thing, a plus-one, a side dish to PENTHOUSE B. Then they decided hardcover rather than paperback for the debut (paperback in April)and the reception (joint reviews)surprised us all. Well, at least me. Thank you!

  10. Reine--These fictional Scarlett O'Hara's are getting a lot of mileage! Your cake and frosting combo sounds divine.

  11. Elinor, I'm definitely checking out your blog! I love a well-done balance between cranky and humorous.

    Have to admit, I hadn't heard of your work until today (and such is the wonder that is JRW--always learning about new authors!). I have to say that I'm quite curious about you. Novels, essays, Twitter poems...Wow. Just wow.

  12. Pant, pant, pant...I'm back. I had to play in a 12-hole golf scramble for ladies' closing day.

    Which reminds me Elinor, I love the way you describe your husband Bob's bewilderment about your dad's golf swing--something like "no one who's played as long as your dad, has had a worse swing..."

    this is the mark of a great husband I think--a man who can make gentle fun of your father, yet the love and respect shine through. My hub, John, fits this exactly!

    Ramona, love the tornado bag too!

    Elinor, what are you working on now?

  13. Lisa--When Meg Wolitzer meets someone who asks, upon learning she's a novelist, "Would I have heard of you," she answers " a more perfect world." Yup. Welcome to the Lipman shelf!

  14. Lucy B--Working on essays...mean to start a novel but so far not. I do the blog for Parade, which is only 500 words, once a week, so can't use that as an excuse...

  15. Yes, the line between amusing and cranky! Maybe it's all about smiling as we--well, my mother used to say "I'm not criticizing, I'm observing."

    Worked for her!

  16. I SO agree on the essay thing! Sometimes I think--okay, I'll just bang this one out--and then--ah. At some point, I get it. And then it becomes a completely different process. If I'm lucky.

    Elinor, we are so lucky you're visiting today!~ And I keep thinking about our brain. DId you find yourself haunted by 140 characters?Or did you embrace it?

  17. And wait--you mean, Elinor, you just "imagined" a recipe, sort of, and then you, Lucy, made it?

    That is very meta. Or something.

  18. yes Hank--she mentioned the cupcake, only mentioned it once if I remember right--and I had to make it.

    and now my character in the next book is making them...

    I wish I'd had the Meg Wolitzer line yesterday, when I got asked exactly that question: Would I have heard of you? And then after I gave him a card, "who reads these books?"

    Obviously not him...

  19. Oh! Oh! Loved both new books, but have no time to gush or pose pithy questions because I must run to my book club meeting--it's the first of our year when we suggest books to read and I'm offering both of yours as suggestions. And Cheryl Sandberg, which is a strange combo, but that's my book club for you--plus dinner from the last day of the local farmer's market. Adoring kisses---!

  20. Hank, unlike a recipe for Scarlett O'Hara cupcakes, I totally embrace the 140 characters of Twitter! 4-line couplets fit that nicely, and part of the fun for me was and is getting that to work and rhyme and make my point. I almost always make it fit on the first try, with a poem; harder when I'm mouthing off about something and not rhyming. And thank you for your kind welcome!

  21. Nancy--Thank you! I hope the book group liked your Pose those pithy questions when you're back home. I'll answer!

  22. Nancy--Thank you! I hope the book group liked your Pose those pithy questions when you're back home. I'll answer!

  23. '...strike a balance between amusing and cranky.' LOVE IT! Gonna make that my new motto.

    Years ago, I remember having a particularly cranky day. My husband looked up from his computer and said, "Quick kids, get mom a sandwich." I laughed myself silly. Then I ate the P & J sandwich they made me. So cute.

    Great interview!

  24. Tornado bag? How did I miss the tornado bag?