1. Can you tell us how you became a writer?
Very much through the back door. When I moved to Toronto in 1979, I started working in the magazine business as a (very junior) editor — a new direction for me, since my previous field had been museum education. My job description included writing short magazine items...which gradually grew to include full-length pieces.
Even when I became chief editor of a couple of magazines, I continued to write pieces — both because I enjoyed it, and because I found it made me a better editor. But I never really thought of myself as a writer: I was an editor, first and foremost.
When we moved aboard Receta and cast off from Toronto for the Caribbean, I had no plans to write a book: I was escaping from publishing — escaping the deadlines and demands of the magazine business.
However, right from the start of the trip, I kept a journal. I’ve always liked to do this when travelling, because then I can read it over months afterwards and take pleasure in the experience again. The very nature of travelling on a sailboat meant that, without planning, I was accumulating a wealth of other written material as well: The ship’s log noted our exact location, the weather, the boat’s speed, and how we were faring every hour, day and night, while Receta was underway. I also filled notebook after notebook with details of the weather. ( I listened to three or more forecasts each day.) I sent long letters and emails to family and friends back home, which, thankfully, some of them saved for me. And I had a big fat file relating to food: Whenever we ate something delicious on shore, I’d ask how it was made; whenever we encountered a new-to-us fruit, vegetable, or spice in the market, I’d ask the market ladies what it was, and how they liked to prepare it at home. I’d jot down all these “recipes” and then try to make them or adapt them in my little galley back on board.
It was only after we had been back in Toronto for several months that I began to think about writing a book. All that accumulated material was then a great help for my memory.
2. Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate its discussion of An Embarrassment of Mangoes?
(a) The book traces two voyages: my physical journey, from Toronto to the Caribbean and back, and my personal journey. A book club might use these parallel voyages as a way to start discussion.
(b) Mangoes, in the broadest sense, is about making a change in one’s life. And about how that one basic change — in my case, quitting my job and heading south on a sailboat — was a pebble dropped into a pool, spreading ripples of change outward.
A group could navigate the book from the viewpoint of change: Physically, mentally, and emotionally how do I change as the book proceeds? Does my voice as the book’s narrator change?
3. Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed for your book, or about your publicity tour?
(a) When I was on tour in the U.S., I gave a talk on a Sunday afternoon at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut. At one point while I was signing books afterwards, I looked up at the people who were next in line: a smiling young couple, he with a toddler tucked under each arm. The couple looked familiar — though the kids didn’t. But then my jaw dropped — and the hugging began: We had met Laura and Jeff shortly after Receta reached the Bahamas; our sailboats then shared anchorages many times as we travelled south to Trinidad. When Receta headed north and back up the island chain, they headed west: to eventually go through the Panama Canal — and the rest of the way around the world on their sailboat. Their first child was born en route; their second, just as they arrived back in U.S. waters after circumnavigating the globe. Though we had kept in touch sporadically via email (and single sideband radio, while we were still living on Receta), I hadn’t seen them since we’d said goodbye in Trinidad. It was a wonderful moment.
(b) Just a couple of weeks after Mangoes was published, I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean for several days as part of the U.S. promotion tour, to talk about my book and demonstrate recipes from it. One of the ship’s ports of call was St. George’s, Grenada. As soon as I could gracefully escape a meeting onboard, I rushed ashore, quickly hopped onto a minivan bus, and headed towards the village of Lower Woburn, to surprise our friends Dingis and Gennel. When I called hello from the driveway, Dingis came out of the house, expecting to see a customer who had arrived to buy some fish or lambi. Her look of utter amazement when she saw me instead quickly gave way to a musical rush of questions: “Where’s Steve? How did you get here? How long can you stay?”
Unfortunately, the ship was sailing again that afternoon — but I was able to hand her and Gennel copies of my book, myself, in person, and catch up on all the local news and gossip before it was time to flag down a bus going the other way. We hugged goodbye, and I promised I would try to return soon — with Steve — for a longer stay on Grenada.
4. What question are you never asked in interviews, but wish you were?
(a) I am occasionally asked this question, but not often enough: “What advice would you give to someone who is contemplating doing something like you did?”
My answer? “Just do it.” You can always find reasons to put off making a change in your life — but if you wait for the absolutely perfect time, you’ll wait forever. In our case, as the years ticked away, we gradually realized it was better to trade in the security of a steady income and a comfortable routine and risk the unknown than to find ourselves 5 or 10 or 15 years down the road saying to each other, “If only we had gone,” or “ We wish we had done it.” I don’t think life creates perfect times, and too many unanticipated things can keep waylaying your “perfect” timetable.
(b) I’ve only been asked the following question once, and not by an interviewer, but by someone in the audience after a reading: “Which was more difficult, making the decision to go — or coming back?”
The question really made me think: After all, I had obsessed about making the decision to go. But I realized the coming back had ultimately proved more difficult.
When we moved back into our Toronto house, I thought it would seem positively spacious after living on a sailboat. In fact, the opposite was true: The house seemed more claustrophobic than Receta. I realized that living on Receta, in the Tropics, we had spent a large portion of every day outdoors. Our living space wasn’t just the tiny cabin below decks, but also included our cockpit, the sea around us, and the island on our doorstep.
And when we moved back into our house, I thought I would revel in taking long showers, running the dishwasher, and picking up the telephone whenever I felt like talking to family and friends. I thought I would enjoy the luxury of sleeping through stress-free nights, since I didn’t have to worry about the anchor dragging or be alert to changing weather. (In fact, the first few weeks back in our house, Steve and I would hop out of bed if the wind picked up in the middle of the night to check if everything was secure.)
What I found instead was that I missed the adventure. Life back home was too predictable, and began to fall too readily into comfortable routines. On Receta, every day brought something new — new people, new cultures, new foods, new flora and fauna, even new problems to solve.
5. Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
(a) One interviewer referred to the weather as being “another character in the book.” I hadn’t consciously thought about it that way while I was writing, but I realized she was right. The weather was indeed an unpredictable character with whom I had a very personal, and emotional, daily relationship; a character that helped drive the direction and plot of the book and create dramatic tension.
(b) Comments after the book was published — from readers as well as interviewers — led me to look at Steve, and the way I portrayed him in Mangoes, with fresh eyes (and admiration). Parts of the book are quite personal: I talk about our relationship, not always positively, and occasionally make Steve the butt of my jokes. He read my manuscript several times along the way before publication, reacting to it and offering suggestions. But at no point did he suggest, or even hint, that I remove/change/adjust/reconsider something I had written about him. I didn’t realize how truly remarkable this was until after the book was published, and other people commented on it. (It really struck home, for instance, when a stranger came up to Steve at a party, and said to him: “I would have gone into hiding if I were you.”)
6. Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
When I was writing Mangoes, I thought about how much pleasure Frances Mayes’ and Susan Loomis’ delicious books had brought me. By allowing me to see, hear, smell, and taste their worlds (Tuscany and Normandy, respectively), they completely transported me away from home. Though not focused as heavily on food, Tony Cohan’s lyrical On Mexican Time also showed me how passionate, evocative writing can bring readers completely under the spell of a place.
John McPhee and Calvin Trillin are two other literary heroes: McPhee, for demonstrating time and again that a writer can make you passionately interested in something you didn’t know you had any interest in at all; and Trillin, who first makes me hungry and then makes me laugh with my mouth full.
7. What are some of your other passions in life?
Sailing, travelling, cooking, cottaging, reading.
I love the feeling of escape that sailing brings — and I still love living aboard, particularly at anchor: the coziness of Receta’s cabin; the comfortable routines of running the boat, cooking in the tiny galley, and doing the dishes together afterwards; and the memories that these familiar patterns evoke.
Connected to my passion for travel is the door it opens to new tastes, new ingredients, and new ways of preparing food. (My favourite place to buy souvenirs when I travel is the local grocery store and market.) For me, cooking is more than putting dinner on the table — it’s a way of unwinding after a hard day, sharing with family and friends, and escaping to other places when I can’t leave home.
I’m also passionate about our cottage — a small rustic one-room cabin, actually — on a lake at the edge of the Canadian Shield. I never tire of exploring the lake’s bays and marshes in my kayak, or tacking up and down the lake with Steve in the pair of Lasers (sailing dinghies) we keep at the cottage.
And I’m just starting to learn how to fly fish, having become swept up in Steve’s enthusiasm for the sport.