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Ericka Lutz talks writing, field trips, and food.

January 24, 2012

Ericka Lutz talks about her upcoming novel The Edge of Maybe, her writing process, and how location and food politics are woven into her work.

You have a background writing parenting books. Is fiction new to you?

Not at all. I’ve been writing fiction seriously for over 20 years, and publishing short stories in literary journals and magazines for most of that time. Actually, I began writing parenting books as a way to support myself while I was honing my craft as a fiction and creative nonfiction writer. And I stopped writing parenting books (and advice books for teens) once I began teaching and had a source of income that was more suited to writing fiction. Because it was always hard to shut down the computer after a long day of writing nonfiction on deadline, and then boot it up again to work on my fiction.

Even though The Edge of Maybe is my first published novel, it’s the third novel I’ve written. I also have a collection of short stories (many of which have appeared in literary journals) in “the drawer.”

Besides writing nonfiction advice books, I’m also widely published as a creative nonfiction writer. Many of my essays have been anthologized, and I’ve published dozens of personal columns. For me, writing fiction and creative nonfiction is a similar process. I enjoy both – and it’s the material itself that decides whether I’ll handle the project as fiction or nonfiction.

In terms of subject matter and theme, do you find there’s a lot of crossover between your fiction and nonfiction?

Sure. I tend to work empirically, fitting the form to the content rather than the reverse, so as a result, common subjects and themes emerge no matter what form I work in. I think I tend to be interested in contemporary families, relationships, marriage, parenting, poisons, truths and lies, food, real (not fake) sex, and life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What first drew you to the conflict and characters of The Edge of Maybe

The initial seed of the novel ended up not being in the novel at all, except as a nightmare fantasy of Adam’s. As I wrote the novel, it twisted and turned like a just-caught fish, and ended up being a very different book than I’d originally envisioned.  Though the characters and plot are completely fictional, a number of the stories are real – experienced by me, people I know, and people I’ve heard of.  I’ve known a number of people whose carefully constructed lives have been blown open by the appearance of a “new” family member. I was intrigued by what happens to a rather self-satisfied and progressive Bay Area family when their politically-correct ideas of inclusiveness are directly challenged – and what happens in a marriage when real issues are swept under the rug for years. 

The Edge of Maybe has gone through a ton of revisions. What has that experience been like for you?

I’m, generally, a revision writer. All of my projects go through close to ten major revisions, plus a lot of minor ones. That’s just how I do it. So, while I did revise The Edge of Maybe a number of times, the process felt very familiar and organic to me. I love getting good feedback and tweaking and changing things. It keeps the book feeling alive to me.

You must be very comfortable critiquing your own work, so how was it working with the Last Light editors?

It was fantastic. Armand Inezian is a great reader of my work – I feel like he gets what I am trying to do. He had only a few suggestions, but, without exception, he found the exact places in the text that I’d never been completely satisfied with. And, more than that, he gently suggested ideas towards fixing the issues without directly making changes. I very much appreciated his approach and his editorial skills.

What reflections do you have on the places that you write about?

The Edge of Maybe is based in Oakland, California, the city I live in. As in most of my fiction, location plays a huge role in the novel. I think of the locations as having as much to do with the story as the characters. All of the places in the novel – whether in Oakland, Berkeley, Harbin Hot Springs, Disneyland, Highway 80, or Elko, Nevada — really exist. When I began writing the book, I had just come off of five years of writing short stories all based in a mythical Northern California city called San Andreas. This time, I wanted to write a book where the places were real, where I could figure out how long it took to drive from one place to another simply by getting in the car and clocking it.

I’ve been everywhere in the novel; some places many times. I placed Amber and Sandi’s home in Elko, Nevada because it was exactly 500 miles from Oakland, and I thought that was a cool distance. Then, I had to go there. So I took a four day field trip, driving the drive that Adam takes, taking notes, talking to buckaroos, eating dinner in The Star and staying at the same casino hotel the characters stay in. I had a great time, and learned a huge amount about my characters on that trip.

The reality of the locations is something readers are really enjoying about the book. The can go – and many of them have gone – to the restaurants and stores, on the streets and highways — where the characters go and where the action takes place. It makes the experience of the book that much more real and vivid.

There’s a lot of food in the novel, from gourmet to junk. Where are you coming from with food, both personally and as a writer?

Personally, I’m a bit of a foodie (or, as friends of mine call me, a Foodhist). I love to eat and I love to cook. I prefer to eat organic and “sustainable” food – though I also appreciate good regional junk food. I’ve even arranged travel plans around meals and restaurants. So, it makes sense that food would make it into my writing. As much as sex or love or adventure or politics or family life, food is a vital part of our experience as human beings. And I love reading about food in fiction.

In writing the food scenes in The Edge of Maybe, I was also thinking about the statements we make with our food choices in this country. The Glazers, the family that the book focuses on, are pretty typical of middle-class “new age” Bay Area people – food is far more than fuel. The food they eat, don’t eat, and judge says a lot about their politics and sensibilities. Amber, who has grown up in a less privileged environment, eats a lot of fast food and junk food. The old saying is, “We are what we eat,” and much of that plays out in The Edge of Maybe.

One more on that note: what’s your favorite dish and/or type of food?

Again, I’m a “Foodhist,” so I don’t have one favorite anything. I love most anything – except raisins and zucchini – as long as it is prepared well. (And even those foods have their place.) I do love a lot of the foods I put in The Edge of Maybe, including sushi, and Acme Pain au Levain, and dried apricots with almonds and chocolate… and, of course, Adam’s mushroom risotto, which I learned to cook from a Venetian chef named Francesco many years ago.

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