A Matter of Taste

The first crop of spring asparagus has arrived. Field asparagus, I mean. There’s such a thing as sea asparagus too, and that’ll show up at the market in June, right around my wedding anniversary. Sea asparagus is delicious. The tiny stalks are thinner than a straw and their taste is subtle but unique: a little ocean and a little lettuce. There’s nothing fishy about sea asparagus, nothing even remotely close in taste to its earth-grown cousin.

I first had it at a fancy restaurant where we Dined – capital D dined – to mark a milestone anniversary. It was a magical night. So every year when I spot sea asparagus at the market I immediately think of my love, a delicious dinner with sablefish or maybe scallops, a crisp glass of Prosecco,  a table overlooking the ocean, and candlelight.

Taste can conjure memories and stir emotions as much as the sight of a child’s first photo with Santa . . . the smell of steak barbecuing on a summer night . . . the sound of rain on the roof while you’re in bed . . . or the touch of a puppy licking your hand.

My job as a writer is to mine the senses, including the sense of taste. But it can be easy to slip into taste clichés: soothing hot chocolate on a cold night; refreshing ice cream at the lake; salty corn dogs at the fair. Those tastes are relatable because most of us have had hot chocolate on a cold night or a corn dog at the fair. But taste, like so many other things, is subjective.

Take corn dogs, for instance. I had a corn dog just once and once was enough. I was nine; it was my birthday; the corn dog made reappearance during a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I haven’t had a corn dog since and the very sight of them is enough to make my stomach flip.

Grilled cheese sandwiches, a comfort food for some, remind me of a friend who died. So does cherry pound cake and licorice candy. Depending on my frame of mind, any one of those foods can make me feel nostalgic.

Other tastes have more positive connotations for me.

Braised short ribs take me right back to the comfort of Sunday dinner when I was a kid.

Coconut-covered marshmallows remind me of my grandfather and make me happy.

The taste of chives takes me back to my first garden and the sense of accomplishment I felt at planting it.

A sesame ball with red bean paste is guaranteed to make me feel sixteen again . . . thinking about friends . . . travel . . . and new horizons.

Earthy and old-fashioned date squares inspire gratitude because I’m reminded of a woman who gave me a place to live when I was a teen.

One sip of a margarita mentally transports me to a Mexican beach no matter where I happen to be.

And the taste of cherry cheesecake reminds me of the exhaustion, confusion and joy of being a new mother . . . and reminds me too of the friend who showed up with it and an offer to hold my infant so I could take a shower.

Taste can be a memory that lives again. Do you have any taste memories?

My October Reads

stormyweather-300x198As I write this, a series of big storms is predicted for the Pacific Northwest and we’re scheduled to head off to the mainland to see family and friends. Normally we’d reschedule but there’s a high school reunion planned so we’re motivated to make the trek. Let’s hope the weather cooperates. If not, I’ll be staying home and reading by the fire. I have a few extra books on hand just in case. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

At the gym: First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Beside the fire: Unearthed by Alexandra Risen

Before bed: Blueprints by Barbara Delinsky

Books read to date in 2016: 60

Coastal Infusion

P1000623 I received an email from a teacher-librarian a few weeks ago. This wasn’t a request for an author visit but instead a question about living in BC. The woman in question is doing her masters and was about to give a seminar focusing on BC authors. She wanted to know how living here informs or influences my writing.

I mulled it over for quite a while because it’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. When I responded, I gave her some context, explaining that though I was born on Vancouver Island, I grew up both in Victoria and Vancouver, spent a year in Edmonton as a young teen and five years living in Winnipeg when I was in my early twenties. When I finally returned to the island in my late twenties, it really was like coming home.

I think there’s a certain mindset one has being born and raised on an island. You’re dependent, to a large extent, on ferries (or planes) for mail, food, fuel and the ability to come and go. You can’t just up and leave (or return for that matter) without checking a schedule or two. There’s also an understanding that land here is finite: there’s only so much room for garbage disposal or new buildings. That’s not so on the mainland where there’s always room out in the valley or up the mountain. Island living is said to be an insular sort of existence. If one defines insular as being set apart, I’d agree. If you toss in the other definition of insular being ignorant or disinterested in other cultures, I’d argue against it. That kind of insular attitude isn’t limited to island living, and I certainly don’t see it here on Vancouver Island.

With those thoughts rattling around my head, I was no closer to answering the woman’s question. How does living here specifically impact me as a writer? I finally came to this conclusion: living on the west coast impacts me. I bring that sensibility to my life generally which, by extension, flavors my writing. Some of my books are set in B.C. Others are set on the prairies which I grew to love too. A few are set in the U.S., though every U.S. setting I’ve never used has been on the west coast – Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. I think that’s telling.

To me as a writer, setting plays as big a role as character. So when I place a story in a particular location, I need to have lived there or at least spent time there to absorb its nuances. But while I’ve been to New York, for instance, I haven’t spent as much time there as I have in Seattle, San Francisco or L.A.

I relate to the coast. I know the flora and fauna, the birds and animals. When someone complains about a heron fishing at their pond, I know exactly what that sharp, two-toned beak looks like as it dips into the water. When a friend mentions that the bark is peeling from their arbutus tree, my mind immediately goes to the intoxicating honey scent of the arbutus flowers that bloom in spring. I know what spring is like here (often rainy, though not this year), and summer and fall and winter too (most definitely rainy). I’ve lived with the nuances of light and dark, I’ve experienced drought and floods and windstorms. I understand the politics, the environmental issues, and the social nuances that permeate towns and cities up and down the coast.

Does that mean I’m limited to setting my books on the coast? No. I love to travel and spend time in other places, and I’m pretty good at researching too. So that’s not an issue. But when it comes right down to it, I get the west coast mindset. The salt water tang infused my blood at birth. And I’m more than okay with it.

Notes From the Road

waterloo_public_library_main_books

TD Canadian Children’s Book Week started with a bit of a jolt when I arrived at my first presentation in beautiful Elora, Ontario to find my audience waiting! A  communication mix up between two librarians resulted in two grade three classes arriving half an hour early for my talk. Luckily, they were happy to wait while I set up and it meant I had more time to get to my second presentation in Guelph later that day.

I’m in Waterloo today where I’m talking to grades five and six students at two local libraries. This morning’s talk is about writing Hot New Thing. This afternoon, I’ll focus on Lesia’s Dream.

I’m off to present in New Hamburg and then Stratford tomorrow before driving to Woodstock where I’ll spend the night. Friday, I’ll speak to students in that community before driving back to Waterloo where I’ll drop the rental car and catch a bus to Toronto.

Highlights from the road so far: when talking about how story ideas often come from real life events, one grade three student told us how his father had been shot in the knee with a rifle. A neighbor did it, the student said. By accident, of course. But there was tons of blood and everybody was scared, except the family dog didn’t mind because he actually finds the smell of blood appealing. It was just the opportunity I needed to talk about how conflict – in this case, a shooting  – can impact everybody (even dogs) differently.  After the session ended, the teacher quietly informed me that the ‘real life’ rifle shooting incident the student spoke about was all fiction. She knows the family. It never happened. Given the range of details in the student’s ‘real life’ event, I suspect I was listening to a future writer.

It’s a real honor to be picked to tour. I must thank the Canadian Children’s Book Centre for coordinating the week, as well as all the teachers and librarians who have greeted me so warmly in every community. I’ve really enjoyed the chance to get out from behind my desk and talk about books and writing to so many excited students.

Hitting the Road

morocco-camels_1742251cI was up before dawn this morning to drive Teen Freud to the airport. He and his friend, Molly, are off on a grand adventure to Morocco and England.  This is a Very Big Deal for him. While he has travelled with us as a family and went to Quebec City as an exchange student in high school, he hasn’t traveled on his own. At least no trips of this scope or one this far away from home.   I watched them walk through security with a mix of excitement, envy and trepidation.  It’s a mom/writer thing. My mind is a constant and fertile ground of ‘what-ifs.’  I had to take a step back and remind myself that, at his age, I’d gone off with his father on a four month road trip through Europe and Russia. Not only had we survived, we’d thrived. It broadened our minds, strengthened our bonds and we’re still telling some of our stories.

We’re counting on Teen Freud to bring home wonderful pictures and stories of his own. Until then, we’re sitting on the patio with Team Sheltie at our feet and a gin and tonic in hand, and doing a little armchair traveling.  Here are some summer picks to quench your wanderlust:

 The Wind in My Wheels – Travel Tales from the Saddle by Josie Dew      I love biking adventures and Josie Dew is the queen of cycling travel. This collection of stories about her cycling trips through parts of Europe, the British Isles and Morocco is a funny, fascinating and inspiring read.

A Bike Ride: 12,000 Miles Around the World by Anne Mustoe    This was the first biking adventure book I ever read and it left a powerful mark. At the age of 55, Anne Mustoe gave up her life as a headmistress and decided to cycle around the world. To say she was naïve (she couldn’t even mend a tire when she started) is an understatement. History lessons interspersed with adventure.

A Culinary Traveler in Tuscany: Exploring and Eating off the Beaten Track by Beth Elon              Yes, I’ve been known to read cookbooks for relaxation. Combining a cookbook with a travelogue is a sure way to grab me. This gem of a book features ten off-the-beaten-track itineraries, describing towns, restaurants and sights. Maps and recipes are provided too. And the recipes are very user friendly. Get out the risotto pot!

 A Month of Sundays – Villa Life in the South of France by Ira & Barbara Spector     A light, fast read about an American couple who rent a villa on the French Riviera near St. Tropez for a month. Alternating chapters from a his/her point of view, they tell the tale of adjusting to life in France.

Riding the Bus with my Sister by Rachel Simon    Not technically a travel book but Rachel Simon’s account of spending a year riding the city bus in with her intellectually disabled sister, Beth, is a good reminder that we don’t have to go far to gain new perspectives and see the world differently.  I loved this book. An updated edition came out last year detailing the changes in the lives of Simon and her sister since the book was first written. I’m looking forward to reading it.