I had a really nice thing happen the other day. I was asked to do an interview by Jennifer Carroll who has an online magazine called Celebrating Everyday Life
(what’s not to love about that title). She asked the best questions, about A FINE ROMANCE, but she covered lots of other topics too, like “who would you have for dinner if you could have anyone?” I liked that question! Had to think! I answered them as best I could, and then I thought, this would make a nice post for the blog. I think she’s planning to run the interview in January or February 2014, I’ll be sure to let you know… in the meantime here’s a preview for you, my Girlfriends . . . some of you will recognize these answers, but so many people are writing to say they just discovered my books or my blog … we have new Girlfriends, and this is especially for them . . . here’s some MUSICA as you read:
Jennifer: When did your love of England begin?
me: Little by little, mostly through reading, art and seeing old movies (with lovely old music like this), clues of interest kept coming up.
England is an “empire of imagination.” I think we crossed this bridge in our car!
But those clues were like the lambs scattered on the sides of English hills, one here, one there, they did not come in a clump. My mind was slowly cataloguing them. Over time I became more and more curious about the culture, then about the history and learning about my English ancestors as I discovered them.
It was a very slow unfolding, but after seeing my first English garden and realizing there were hundreds of them all attached to ancient castles, cottages and manor houses; realizing I could visit and even stay at some of the homes of my literary and artistic heroes . . .
. . . seeing the countryside where all the history I’d read about came alive because it’s all still there, nothing has changed; learning more about the interesting lives of people I’ve known from their art and writings, and then the surprise and serendipity of learning about people and lives I’d never heard of before (but should have), I became more and more enthralled more and more inspired. Each time we have gone over, we found ourselves deeper in love and always learning something new.
Jennifer: A Fine Romance – what was the creative process of writing and illustrating the book like?
me: I wrote the whole book while we were traveling for the two months in England, as a diary, one day at a time as it unfolded; mostly I wrote it while we sat in gardens and pubs.
Sometimes I would paint at night. When we came home to Martha’s Vineyard, I rewrote it in my good writing, and put in the photos of the Queen Mary 2, of Beatrix Potter’s House, of the gardens and pubs; I drew the maps, tested the recipes, added more watercolors, and after it was all done, I compiled everything into an interactive Appendix for the blog (under I LOVE ENGLAND). As always with all my books, I just work one page at a time and try to make each page as interesting, fun to read, and as informative and pretty as I can.
It’s a joy, I’ve been so lucky because I love to make things, and I love to share my passions with other like-minded people; the Internet has been quite a blessing in that way. Beauty is the very best of life. I love to try and make some to add to all there is.
Jennifer: A Fine Romance has been a runaway hit. Can you tell us your favorite part of being a bestselling author and what has been your biggest challenge in the journey?
me: When Joe and I made the decision to go to England and keep a diary of the trip, we decided to take all my “blog girlfriends” with us. I told them in a blog posting to get their passports ready and lose some weight, because we were going to . . .
Every one of these chaise lounges had a Girlfriend on it, but they were so careful — I got out the camera and turned around, boom, they were gone. We did not get caught.
. . . smuggle them aboard the Queen Mary 2 and take them along with us to England and they needed to be as tiny as possible. We would hide them in a lifeboat. It was the joke that ran through all the postings of the trip ~ that they were being so “good and quiet” and no one knew they were all smooshed into our stateroom with us. They complained sometimes about being “packed so tightly” in our suitcases as we moved from place to place and about having mash lines on their faces, but they handled all the folding and unfolding very well, and were very quiet when room service came. They liked to dance, and one of them fell into a river on a walk to Ellen Terry’s house, but we all returned safe and sound with memories galore. Whenever I took pictures for the blog (and the future book) I always thought, “What can I show them? What would the Girlfriends like to see?”
What will make them laugh, or cry or go ahhh, or go OH! ~ and that awareness of them made it even more fun for me. Previously, I’d written all my books totally alone in my studio with kitties to keep me company. This time I had a whole group of Girlfriends cheering me on. That was my favorite part. When the book was finished, it was “our book.”
I can’t think of any real challenges except
. . . of course, as I am showing Joe in this photo, the phone never worked while we were there. “See? It doesn’t work!”
Jennifer: What is your favorite region of England? Why?
me: This question is kind of impossible because it’s shockingly beautiful almost every place you go. But, I will say the Yorkshire Dales put a thrill from the tips of my toes to the top of my head . . . positively spiritual with a strong feeling of coming home, tears-in-eyes beauty, the history and sweep of it all. As the wind blows fragrance of wildflower, rain and grass across the vastness of the Dales and the lambs are baaaaing high on a hill, you want to open your arms to the view and draw it all into your heart to keep it there forever.
Jennifer: You’ve also published several cookbooks. What first drew you to cooking?
me: I helped my mom by making desserts when I was very young, brownies and potato chip cookies for sack lunches for my brothers and sisters. But, really, it was setting the table that truly got me going.
I just loved to set the table, mixing and matching old china dishes, etched colored glasses, putting flowers from my garden in little vases, lace-edged napkins, or the ones I would embroider myself, mixing and matching bowls and silverware, lighting candles and making it pretty. It was like playing house. But then, it was difficult to get people to come look at my pretty table without food on it. They simply did not care. So I learned to cook. And loved the art of it, combining recipes, flavors and trying new things.
And when I walked into the room carrying a homemade banana cream pie with the flakiest crispiest crust, rolled out on my kitchen table with my wooden rolling pin, just like my Grandma made
with sugared whipped cream and bananas and toasted coconut, my friends would go, “OH MY, look at that, you are wonderful Susan, yum yum yum ~ and the table by the way, it looks so beautiful!” They made me feel so good, I couldn’t wait to do it again. It was the first time I really felt like I had something I could give. It was one of the ways I began to notice it was the little things that made life sweetest.
Later writing books, hoping I could help others experience that wonderful feeling when they brought a homemade banana cream pie into the room, became my passion.
Jennifer: What do you consider your “go-to” dish?
me: With all the cookbooks I’ve written, there are so many recipes that are go-to for me. My Mom’s Spare-ribs and Juice with Onion Pudding (I’m the oldest of eight children so my books have lots of home type dishes) . . .
. . . always has them rolling in the aisles from happiness. I also have the best Apple Crisp recipe alive in the modern world as we know it today. I’ve tested them wherever I go (a rotten job but someone must do it), and this is a true thing if I do say so myself. ♥ Also, crisp-skinnedroasted chicken with my Grandma’s Bread Stuffing. I really could go on all day. A big one-dish casserole of Pork Chops, Apples, and Sweet Potatoes. Cold White Rice Salad scattered with fresh flowers and herbs. My roasted Cranberry Sauce mixed with Orange Marmalade for toast and tea. In my new book, A FINE ROMANCE, there’s a recipe from my English girlfriend Siobhan. It’s her Orange Lavender Polenta Cake, moist with the little crunchy bits, it’s gluten-free and it serves about twenty-four people so it’s perfect for a tea party. You would like the recipe? Oh yes!
Jennifer: Tell me a little about your ideal day at home?
me: I go into my studio very early before it gets light. I close my eyes and meditate and count my blessings which is a good way to start because it usually brings on a bout of ecstaticness. I have my tea and maybe it’s snowing outside and all I can hear is the furnace humming and the patter of snowflakes on the window. I swirl my watercolor brush in water then load it with paint, put it on paper, and watch the color spread. I write in my diary, make a list or work on a new book. Later, I take Joe his tea, the snow melts and we put on our big jackets, mittens and hats and walk out to the water through the woods (we live on an island so there’s lots of woods and lots of water) . . .
We come home and eat a healthy breakfast. I shoot ponytail bands across the room for my kitty Jack and he retrieves them; we do this about a hundred times. I take my book to lunch, sit at a corner table next to a fire, eat and read. Then a nap. Then a bubble bath. Then Joe and I make dinner together and friends come over and we laugh and drink wine.
I normally don’t get all those things in one day, a nap and a bubble bath and lunch with my book? Not all on the same day. But those are the things I love best and you said ideal. I have red letter days, red letter weeks, etc. Where I get to do the things I love in moderation.
Jennifer: What’s your favorite way to make ‘an everyday’ feel special?
me: I would say the Bubble Bath. With the book. Then the diary, and of course the kitties and Joe make every day special.
Jennifer: Describe your favorite celebration…
me: I love Valentine’s Day. I think it was invented for women, so I like to make sure all my Girlfriends feel loved on that day. I also love to give Tea Parties. There are so many creative things you can do with decorating the table! So many delightful little taste treats that go along with it. I’m a Christmas person too… I don’t think there is a holiday I don’t like! I like non-holidays too, which all seem to revolve around winter and breakfast. Sunday breakfast in bed. Winter breakfast parties with friends.
Jennifer: Can you share your philosophy when it comes to entertaining?
me: I go by the six senses. Does it smell good, look good, sound good, feel good and taste delicious? (The sixth sense is Imagination.) If all those bases are covered, you can’t ask for any more. Hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows in front of a crackling fire, dinner under the arbor draped with twinkle lights in the garden, cinnamon spice wafting from the oven, old music playing, if the church bells ring across the street, then it’s perfect. Most important to remember: It’s not what’s on the plate that counts, it’s what’s on the chairs. Your friends and family. A party is a gift you give the ones you love.
Jennifer: If you could have anyone in the world over for dinner, who would it be?
me: What a wonderful question. I would like Albert Einstein to talk about the spiritual side of his life ~ put his elbows on the table, start talking and not stop until he told it all. I know a little but not enough. I’d love a dinner with Elizabeth von Arnim to hear how she was inspired to write her first book (Elizabeth and Her German Garden). I would like Beatrix Potter to talk to me about her childhood. I would love to get caught in a big nor’easter storm with Gladys Taber where the electricity goes off and we light candles and make baked apples in the embers of the fireplace while shadows dance on the wall from the flames. I would love a fashion-show tea party where Diane Keaton models everything she’s ever worn — at the end Greta Garbo would come out wearing the dress she wore in Ninotchka (the white off-the-shoulder sparkly one, the prettiest in all movie history) ~ while Frank Sinatra (preferably with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra) sings It’s Always You.
One date with Mark Twain, lunch on a rainy afternoon, just the two of us, elbow to elbow, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. That’s the young Sam → in that photo. (I would probably come home and write “Susan Clemens, Mrs. Sam Clemens” a hundred times in my notebook, wondering will he call? Which he won’t because there are no phones, maybe he will write!). After the Plaza, I’d jump through time to pass a tray of orangey-cherryish Old Fashioned’s to everyone at the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920’s (the way to be popular with this crowd, but never saying a word, only listening and praying not to be disillusioned. It’s always dangerous for dreams to truly come true, you take your chances, imagination is a wonderful thing and perhaps all is best left there; in some cases the dream itself might be enough). And that’s all. I’ll just leave you with a few words of wisdom from the genius who should know all about it . . .