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  • Chris Patchell

House Lessons from Erica Bauermeister

I'm thrilled to introduce you to an exceptional author and one of my favorite people, New York Times Bestseller, Erica Bauermeister. I'm a big fan of Erica's books—from The School of Essential Ingredients and The Lost Art of Mixing, to Joy for Beginners and The Scent Keeper. Not only do her books have wonderfully rich and nuanced characters, but they also have the kinds of lush sensory details that deepen a reader's experience of the story. I just finished reading The Scent Keeper with my book club and today, I'm about to start her newest book, House Lessons.

Erica, can you share some of the process you use in developing your characters?

My books almost always start with the image of a character. For Scent Keeper, that was a young girl in a cabin, its walls lined with drawers. Inside each drawer was a scent. I didn’t know who she was or why she was there or who she would grow up to be. But I wanted to know, so I followed her. That’s how it works with my characters – they are like those curving paths in the woods. You keep going because you’re curious. And I definitely let the characters be in charge of that process – that’s where the interesting stuff happens.

What made you want to write House Lessons? What do you hope readers get from this book?

When I first started out writing this book in 2001, I wanted to tell the story of our renovation of a trash-filled fixer-upper in Port Townsend, WA. There were so many strange and wonderful things that happened; it was a good story all on its own. But over the almost two decades since then, the idea for the book evolved. It became as much about the renovation of a marriage, and my approach to parenthood. And then, a couple years ago, it took a big leap and gained another layer, one that explores the psychology of architectural space and how the very designs of our houses affect who we are and who we can become. I love how the book turned out, and I’m glad the writing of it took as long as it did because it took me on such a marvelous journey.

What was the biggest surprise you encountered while writing House Lessons? What were some of the highlights of the experience? Low lights?

In many ways, this book charted my experience as a writer. I wrote the first draft before I ever wrote a novel. It was rejected many, many times. The feedback was often that it was “not personal enough.” (this would be the low point…) When I switched to fiction and wrote The School of Essential Ingredients, suddenly I started receiving letters about how personal my writing was. It appeared that when I was writing fiction, I was willing to dive deep emotionally, go places I hadn’t been willing to go as myself.

Fifteen years later, when I returned to the book again, it was with four novels under my belt, and that willingness to dive deep. So in a weird way, fiction taught me to be honest. And that would be a high point.

Your book, The Scent Keeper was chosen as the pick of the month choice for Resse Witherspoon’s book club! How amazing was that? How did it happen? When did you hear that your book was selected? How has it impacted your other work?

Talk about a bolt from the blue. I was about to go in for surgery and I get this call from my remarkably excited editor. Life changing, truly. We have no idea why the book was picked – we had no “in,” in case anyone was wondering. What I’ve been told is that Reese picks the books herself – but this was a book that had been out for eight months and wasn’t selling. It really makes me believe in the power of books, and readers. And luck. Lots of luck.

And I want to digress from your question here for a moment and say how amazing it is, what Reese Witherspoon is doing with her company Hello Sunshine and her book club. She is taking her celebrity and changing the landscape for women writers and actors. She is choosing books written by women and giving them publicity, making movies with interesting female characters. I started off my career writing 500 Great Books By Women: A Reader’s Guide in an effort to change the number of women represented in the academic canon and in publishing, so this is especially meaningful for me.

What were some of the most significant moments for you on your writing journey?

There are the classic and obvious ones -- getting that first call from an agent, after almost 20 years of being an aspiring, practicing writer. Getting the Costco and Reese picks. But there are also the things that made me the writer I am – having my kids, living in Italy and learning to slow down and live in another culture. That feeling every morning when I open my laptop and feel the words welcome me. That’s what the journey is about.

What did you wish you knew when you started out on your publishing journey?

That it was going to take a long time, but it would be worth it. I spent so much time worrying that I wasn’t getting published. What I didn’t realize was that every book that wasn’t published (and there were many) was teaching me the skills I needed. So that when I was experienced enough emotionally to write the kind of books I wanted to write, my craft would be there for me, waiting.

For many years, you’ve been a driving force in uniting the writing community in the Seattle area. The Seattle7 group, which you co-founded with fellow authors Jennie Shortridge and Garth Stein, has had a lasting impact on the Seattle writing community. What can we all do to support the community around us in these trying times?

I am seeing so much creativity right now. I see readers supporting their independent bookstores, and booksellers supporting the authors. I see Susan Orlean and Anna Quinn and so many others taking the time to give shout-outs to authors whose tours were cancelled. I see authors reading their work on Facebook to children, and bloggers interviewing authors. I see beautiful passages of hope, written in Instagram posts. What I see is people doing what they do best and giving that best to others. That’s what will get us through – kindness and compassion and generosity. (and books. Always boo

To learn more about Erica and her work, you can go to the following places:

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