Monday, January 19, 2009

Interview: The Lost Recipe for Happiness: A Novel by Barbara O'Neal

Cover Image
Last December, my wonderful friends at Fresh Fiction sent me an advance copy of The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O'Neal. If I didn't just fall in love with the cover of this book (love the Labrador & woman with whisk in hand), then I fell immediately in love with the writing. The first sentence of the novel reads:

"Along Elena's smooth white back is an ancient scar that cuts downward in grotesque beauty like a long, graceful snake."

Like a snake charmer, O'Neal conjures up a novel with beautifully crafted characters who are filled emotional depth and a plot that keeps the pages turning till the wee hours of the night.

Book Synopsis
In this sumptuous new novel, Barbara O’Neal offers readers a
celebration of food, family, and love as a woman searches for the
elusive ingredient we’re all hoping to find….

It’s the opportunity Elena Alvarez has been waiting for–the challenge of running
her own kitchen in a world-class restaurant. Haunted by an accident of
which she was the lone survivor, Elena knows better than anyone how to
survive the odds. With her faithful dog, Alvin, and her grandmother’s
recipes, Elena arrives in Colorado to find a restaurant in as desperate
need of a fresh start as she is–and a man whose passionate approach to
food and life rivals her own. Owner Julian Liswood is a name many
people know but a man few do. He’s come to Aspen with a troubled
teenage daughter and a dream of the kind of stability and love only a
family can provide. But for Elena, old ghosts don’t die quietly, yet a
chance to find happiness at last is worth the risk.

Author Biography
Barbara O'Neal
Barbara O’Neal fell in love with restaurants and the secret language of spoons when she was sixteen.She spent more than a decade in various restaurants, dives to cafes to high cuisine, before selling her first novel. O’Neal teaches workshops nationally and internationally, and lives
with her partner, an English endurance athlete, in Colorado Springs.

Modern Girl Style asked Barbara O'Neal about her lectures and workshops. She replied with this:

"I give a lot of workshops and lectures.  I've been around the world teaching writing--voice and layering a deep book are two subjects that are popular, but I also lecture on creating an artful life--because it seems difficult for women to figure out how to take care of themselves and everybody else!"

The Interview

After I found myself making Mayan Hot Chocolate (The Lost Recipe for Happiness, pg. 70) and inspired to whip up Pomegranate Baklava, I knew I had to interview O'Neal. Lucky for us, she agreed! So, sink your teeth into this: Barbara O'Neal on The Lost Recipe for Happiness!

Moderngirllogomini 1. What motivated you to write The Lost Recipe for Happiness? Was there a specific event that made you realize you had a story to tell?

Three things came together for Lost Recipe.  I'm always fascinated by people who have survived terrible things, and interested in what qualities or pursuits make it possible for one person to get through it and another get stuck in that awful moment and never really live at all any more.

I'm also deeply intrigued by descansos, those crosses that are erected at the site of an accident on the road.

Driving to Chimayo once, I saw a very elaborate descanso to a couple and it stuck with me.  Who were they? What happened? Who put those fresh flowers on that fence post?

And then, there was a terrible car accident in the neighborhood I lived.  Five young people in the car, only one survived.  It was on my walking route and my son knew some of the people involved, and a huge descanso bloomed at the foot of the tree, and I couldn't get it out of my head.  I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it, about the accident itself, the violence of which bothered me deeply, but even more I thought about the girl who walked away.  How do get through something like that?  How do you have a normal life afterwards?

So I started doing some research and became fascinated with the legacy people who survive such accidents carry with them. 

It also made me feel guilty to want to explore it, thus the thread with Julian arguing with himself about that very thing.  I worried that it was ghoulish of me to want to understand this--and yet, how lonely would it be to never be able to share your story, no matter what it is.  In the end Julian and I both decided that art and beauty can sometimes emerge from tragedy, even if it never entirely makes sense.

Moderngirllogomini 2. How long did it take you to write your novel and what was a typical writing day like? Since it is a fabulous foodie novel, did you have any addictions to certain foods or drinks while writing your book?

Lost Recipe took me about a year to write, but it was rolling around in my head for about a year before that.   And I've always cooked a lot when I'm writing--there is something so immediate about cooking, having a finished product at the end of a day, while writing a novel takes so long--but I cooked like a madwoman with Lost Recipe.  The best discovery was duck tamales.  My partner is English and he loves those game meats, but I'd never really worked with them before, and he became my slave for those tamales!  They take an entire day, so I save them for times when I'm very, very stuck.

Oh, my writing day.  Because I am not by nature a very disciplined person, I find I have to make routines to get my work done or I can waste endless weeks doing nothing up uploading photos to Flickr and looking up new recipes in Saveur.  So I have a strict routine: after breakfast, I do 20 minutes of timed writing on essays or blogs or journals, then take my dogs for a walk (by the end of the 20 minutes, they are breathing heavily on my side, hhhhhhh hhhhhh  hhhhhh).  We walk for a half hour, and I come back, make a cup of tea and write my pages for the day BEFORE I am allowed to turn on the Internet computer.  Sometimes that happens by 11.  Sometimes, it's five pm.

Moderngirllogomini 3. I'll admit I was surprised and nervous when the main character,  Elena Alvarez, began to be visited by ghosts. However, I found that the presence of her past, as sometimes represented by memories, dreams, and ghosts, added just another amazing layer to the depth of the novel. So, at any point, where you nervous about introducing metaphysical elements into the story and, naturally, I have to ask, have you ever seen any ghosts or spirits? If not, do you believe in them?

When I began, I had no idea the ghosts were going to be so present.  At first, it was only Isabel, and I thought she was mainly a metaphor.  As the book progressed, I started to understand that they were both: metaphors for all the things we all carry around with us, the very real things in our pasts that shape us irrevocably, and actual ghosts. They stayed with her because she couldn't bear to be without them, and I don't think she would have survived without them. 

I was very nervous about it. There have often been touches of magic realism in my work, but the ghosts were way beyond that, and I had no idea how my agent would react.  In fact, I first left it up to the reader to decide if the ghosts were real or only her way of coping, but everyone loved them so much that I pulled out the stops--and I'm glad.   Isabel ended up being one of my favorite parts of the book.

Have I ever seen a ghost? Not exactly.  Have I felt them? Yes.  I think we all have.

Moderngirllogomini 4. What are some of your favorite books and what writers have influenced you?

So many!  I'm a passionate and compulsive reader and I read just about everything. I have been heavily influenced by Ray Bradbury, who influenced me as a very young writer to think outside the box,  Alice Hoffman, who does such beautiful things with passion and yearning, Isabel Allende, who tackles the things that haunt us. Elizabeth Berg, Connie Willis, and Anya Seton, the historical novelist.   Some of my favorite novels are Doomsday Book, Willis (and her Lincoln's Dreams); Like Water For Chocolate, Esquivel;  Dandelion Wine, Bradbury; White Horses, Hoffman; Green Darkness, Seton, a thousand others.  I recently loved Geradine Brooks A Year of Sorrows.

Honestly, I read a lot about food, too.  Memoirs and stories of cooks earning their chops. All of Julia Child and the Julie/Julia book.


{MGS: Julie & Julia was recently turned into a movie with Amy Adams, as Julie Powell,and Meryl Streep, as Julia Child. Here are a few film stills to hold your appetite}



Anthony Bourdain

Saveur, Gourmet, and Food and Wine Magazines. Memoirs about the lives of chefs are absorbing.$pd300$

Moderngirllogomini 5.  Can you drop readers any hint about what you're working on at the moment? We swear we won't tell!

It's another foodie book, tentatively titled 100 breakfasts.  Can't let too much out of the bag, but it is set in a town that has developed a reputation for food culture on many levels.  Really having a blast with it.  I hope you all will, too.


Moderngirllogomini I'm of the opinion that The Lost Recipe for Happiness is movie material! If you could cast Elena Alvarez, the main character of The Lost Recipe for Happiness, who would you cast and why?

Maria Bello.  She's unusual looking and both soft and tough.

{MGS: Maria Bello was in such movies as The Jane Austen Book Club & The Mummy}

One more thing...

As I researched a bit more about Barbara O'Neal, I found this wonderful Behind the Book article at Random House. It's too amazing to not share! I've included her first 5 favorite foods. Get the full list here.

Top Ten Favorite Foods
by Barbara O'Neal

1. Root beer
floats with my grandmother at the A&W Root Beer. The long spoons,
the milky suds, the sugary brown crystals on top of the ice cream, and
my grandmother across the table, telling a story.

2. Roast
rabbit, in a very small southern Italian village. I was not about to
eat something so cute and fluffy, something you could cuddle,
but the woman serving us insisted that I would mourn forever if I
didn’t try it. It arrived with chicory and mashed fava beans and red
wine. The chicory was too bitter for my tastes, but the rabbit tasted
like summer, like a sunny grassy field. Rich and deep, broad and salty,
a flavor that fills your whole mouth.

3. Goat cheese, fresh
tomatoes, and cucumbers stuffed into a baguette; lunch on a hiking tour
in the French alps. The air smelled of the wild thyme we had crushed
beneath our boots.

4. Pork and avocado burritos at Los Tres, a
family business tucked into a corner of the food court of the Pueblo,
Colorado mall, everything served on paper plates with plastic spoons by
the wife and the cousins and the sisters and brothers while a
television plays talk shows in the corner. Local green chiles and
slippery, mushy chunks of avocado mixed with slow roasted pork, and
long-simmered, very spicy chile. It also smells heavenly.

Homemade sausage gravy served over his secret recipe buttermilk
biscuits, as made by my children’s father every Sunday through their
young years.

Thanks, Barbara! Modern Girl Style recommends that you add this book to your collection of foodie-inspired books to read!

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