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How to Feed a Writer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

black coffee, blackberry jam, and a dark story

M.F.K. Fisher, the great American food writer, once stated:”A writing cook and a cooking writer must be bold at the desk as well as the stove.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, when Mary Frances began her concurrent explorations of cooking and writing, most writers did not cook, probably because these writers were primarily men. And the earliest published women writers who were lucky enough to have the space and time to do this work—Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and the like—were typically upper class and had household staff to feed them.

I love to write, and my escape from the stress of writing is cooking. if you follow my blogposts, you’ve seen me wax rhapsodic about mushrooms, about Parsi eggs dishes, and all kinds of food.

In my quest to spend more time on writing, I am striving to be more balanced in the kitchen—and to also explore whether certain food powers my brain to focus better. I’ve read several cookbooks with recipes promising better neurological health, but my goal is not to work with cookbooks as often as I’ve been doing.

This year I asked myself: what is the healthiest way to fill both the stomach and the imagination? How can a person too easily diverted by cooking avoid such temptation when she’s alone at home?

pumpernickel is a powerful base for a breakfast sandwich

Plenty of writers have decided it makes sense to write outside of the house—and to eat there as well. In this era, they are mostly at Starbucks. I prefer to think of Dorothy Parker striding into the restaurant inside the Algonquin Hotel for breakfast and lunch with her friends. Not that she used a pen at the table! It was all about joking, drinking, and probably not getting much done in the afternoon.

Okay, let’s return to the present. Have you ever tried going to a real restaurant with your laptop? While it’s nice to have eggs and toast brought to me at the table, once I’m finished with my plate and continue to write, I feel like a barnacle on the side of the establishment. And how does the writer handle bathroom breaks in the restaurant? Do I leave the laptop containing my big project on the table, or carry it to the potty the way I’d bring my purse?

There’s nothing wrong with dining at home on food prepared elsewhere. However, to undertake this needs a good deal of planning, and the food choices that look the most beautiful are often destructive. A sugar-dusted doughnut is tempting with morning coffee, but it will make me shaky and unable to concentrate within a few hours. Gourmet sandwiches from stores often stand six inches high and are made from such thick bread that they also put my insulin into overdrive. And don’t get me started on full-sized entrees from proper restaurants. If you’d like to see me snoring through the afternoon, just serve me a delicious, heavy lunch.

This year, I am streamlining my dining at home. My goal is not to spend longer than 30 minutes cooking anything during my workday. Here’s the M.O.

For breakfast I toast good brown bread from a local bakery, and I top it with a quality cheese or jam, and several times a week the toast topping is an egg scrambled with vegetables. I take vitamins and calcium on the side, and I try to drink a couple of glasses of water. I am seriously dehydrated, all the time.

Ahh, the antioxidants in cherries!

After that, I try to write at least two hours. Fresh or cooked fruit is the second energy shot that I take around 10 in the morning. After that, I break for some activity at the gym.

Lunch is always eagerly anticipated. Like breakfast, I eat it by myself, so I don’t have to worry if anyone else likes what’s going on the plate. A fridge full of leftovers means various cups of soup, beans, small cooked vegetables, kimchee, and rice. Sometimes there’s even a half-serving of chicken or fish or a couple of meatballs. So, how is my meal different from tapas? I can imagine Dorothy Parker poking fun at my lunches, especially since they are washed down with a glass of water and a couple of Vitamin D gummy raspberry chews for dessert.

A simple homemade carrot soup

Chicken curry, rice and a melange of potatoes, yams and green beans

I work again. Around 4 p.m. I’m often craving salt. The standard snack to fill the void used to be crackers and cheese, but now that I am trying to reduce dairy, I dip raw vegetables or plantain chips in hummus or munch some almonds or cashews. If I have a sweet craving, I might slather peanut butter on a toasted waffle (I keep a few homemade ones in the freezer) or Nutella on a digestive biscuit.

A homemade waffle with almond butter, banana, and chia topping

The writing day is done by five and cooking is once again allowed! I I relish the chance to sway between the fridge and stove and bend to lift up pots and pans. I usually cook meat or fish with vegetables and some form of rice. Usually it’s Asian or Mediterranean food—easy dishes flavored with spices and herbs—true friends with benefits.  I often use the InstantPot to pressure cook dried beans or to concoct a dal that can be eaten at a few different meals during the week. My husband likes this kind of food. My children do not.

You might have noticed something missing in my diet. It is coffee, the infamous element in a lot of writers’ rituals.

I drink about one and a half-cups of locally roasted coffee made in a French press at breakfast. I might have another cup in the mid-afternoon if I’m dead-tired and have to go out and drive the carpool or drive to a faraway book signing. But chain-drinking coffee does not make me feel grounded and focused on work—it gives me the jitters. Some therapeutic drinks that work for me throughout the day are water, black tea, green tea, mint tea, and before bed, the venerable chamomile.

Writing a book is slow work, and in my experience, it can be detrimental to the body. There have been years when I would sneak downstairs from my study to snack as a way to escape the half-written page. I’m no saint—if I know there’s chocolate in the cupboard, I may have an afternoon binge. But overall, I take a great deal of pleasure in eating this way.

Am I feeding my mind?

I don’t know about that—but I do feel sated.

The Start of a Book Purge

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A doctor once reassured that it’s normal for a writer to be disorganized. Clutter goes hand in hand with creativity. That my excuse for my lifelong for tendency to fall victim to clutter. But looking at it doesn’t make me feel calm.

Because of my issues, I find it escapist entertainment to read books and watch TV programs about cleaning and organizing. I recently binge-watched a great program on Netflix, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” I’d already read her two books, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, although I’ve followed of her teachings so far is to declutter about thirty percent of my clothes.

I’m charmed by Marie’s warmth and playful excitement when it comes to transforming chaos into serenity. Yet critics are attacking her for her ideas about book tidying. In truth, she does not advise a certain number of books for anyone, just as she won’t guide people on which items to discard from their drawers. But she does suggest paring down in a few different ways in order to make sure what we have are books that are used or that are physical embodiments of comfort and happiness.

I decided to see if Marie’s approach could help me with my book problem. I typically donate dozens or up to a hundred books every few years. Such book purges are often inspired by moving house. I only throw away a book if it’s damaged. When every town had several used bookstores, I’d find buyers for some of the haul. Used bookstores are so few and far between these days, so it’s easier to donate.

When I lived in Minnesota, I could drop off used books in good shape to be shipped to readers in Africa, part of a humanitarian effort our own Michael Stanley championed. In Maryland, the best option is to carry cartons of books to The Book Thing, a nonprofit located in an old industrial building a couple of miles away from my home. Every Saturday, The Book Thing attracts browsers who pick up whatever they’re drawn to. It’s got the same vibe as used bookstores I remember from the old days, only instead of the books costing $1 to $10, they are completely free.

As I think about this, I visualize people discovering my books, hopefully feeling like they got a steal on an immaculate coffee table cookbook or autographed mystery. The trouble is I have to get the books off my shelves first, and decide who gets to stay in the nest and who will be sent out to fly.

Marie advises gathering all the books into one place and then start sorting. But when we are talking about a couple thousand books on three floors, that sounds like hard physical labor.

I like the expression “to pick low hanging fruit.” So I began with the long, built-in bookcase my husband built for our cookbooks in the butler’s pantry. Cookbooks are unemotional handbooks not literary keepsakes—and we have more than three hundred. Yes, three hundred cookbooks owned by a couple who probably cook dinner four times a week!

Tony and I began buying cookbooks when we married in our twenties and were dreaming of a domestic future. If we tried to cook every recipe in this collection once, I am certain that we would die before we were done opening cookbooks. Morbid thoughts aside, I addressed the bookcase.

Most of my cookbooks feature cuisines of different countries. I’ve always rationalized storing them as authoritative resources I may turn to in the future, when I am cooking as often as Nigella Lawson (ha ha). Tony has his own favorite cooking tomes from his hometown of New Orleans, as well as Julia Child classics that I am keeping without question to preserve marital harmony. There are also a few easy cookbooks I received when I was a little girl that must be saved for future grandchildren. Jammed in between the books we often use are slick, trend-driven cookbooks that publicists sent to the Baltimore Evening Sun when I used to write their cookbook reviews, and dozens of cookbooks collected when I was in Japan and India that are part and parcel of the novels that I write. When I describe a Japanese rice gruel that is spoon-fed to the ill, or a caramelized onion dal served at a palace, the origins of these dishes are in my cookbooks.

I hardly ever cook Japanese food anymore, so I’m only saving two of those books. However, I continue to cook Indian food regularly, so most of these cookbooks, large and small, weathered this purge. But I thanked about twelve of them for their service and hope they find homes with Indian food lovers who shop at The Book Thing. They will be part of the donation of about one hundred cookbooks.

I can’t boast that my shelves look splendidly organized, but at least everything’s in the right section. I know to locate any Italian cookbooks on the far-right bottom shelf, the vegetarian cookbooks in the case’s top shelf, and all fifteen Louisiana cookbooks stacked in a column running down the center.

It took two to three hours to go through this book case, which is not an inconsequential amount of time. Yet the hours spent sorting turned out to be a sentimental return to past journeys and meals.

I came away feeling certain that that books are food … and food is better when shared.

Digital White-Out

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


When the snow fell last weekend, I welcomed it, not just for its beauty, but the way it stops time.

I grew up in Minnesota, where children are hardwired to appreciate the beauty of snow and also to expect it as a normal rhythm of the winter, rather than a natural disaster. As an adult I am able to admit that snow is not just fun and games. I can’t decide what is more treacherous; the flat packed snow that forms a shiny, slick surface; the thick ice lurking under snow; or the thick salt crystals scattered over the sidewalks that sting my dogs’ paws.

Even though snow trips me up, I still love it.

Snow only falls a few times each winter in Maryland—but often it’s a storm, rather than a casual sprinkling. Supposedly it’s because of the freezing air coming down from Antarctic meeting up with the warmer Atlantic. And when we have snowstorms in Baltimore, we never have  enough plows. In bad winters, the whole Eastern Seaboard runs out of salt and sand. In my city, the protocol is to concentrate on freeways and major roads while the storm is ongoing, and to address the rest of the city later. Or not.

Last Sunday, when Baltimore was snowed in, a tremendous quiet descended over my world. I bundled up and went for a walk around nine in the morning with my husband. The streets and lanes had only a few car tracks. On my way back, I slipped on one of the slick snow patches on an unplowed street, but no lasting harm was done.

Unspoiled snow gives the feeling of open time. It is the opposite of an ordinary day dominated by rapid-fire texts and emails demanding answers. The snow seems to wipe all of that out.

This weekend’s snow came just before I started reading a book called Deep Work written by Georgetown professor Cal Newport. Dr. Newport examines what a lot of us already know: that toggling between different kinds of intellectual activities leads to a poorer quality of life and produced work. Using studies and examples of scientists, psychologists, tycoons—as well as his own hard-fought academic writing accomplishments—he talks about the need to limit shallow work that distracts from the deep snowbank of joyful, rewarding work.

I’ve become very interested and inspired by this theory of deep work, though I cannot of course end my daily life as a person raising children and dogs, helping with my husband’s business, and keeping in touch with readers. But I know that I do many more distracting activities now than twenty years ago, when I was starting my fiction career. Now I understand why focusing was easier.

One of Dr. Newport’s suggestions for managing smaller job-related responsibilities  is to address them in batches rather than every day. For instance, I could write a couple of Murder is Everywhere posts over one day or two days and then I’d be ready for the month. In that same week of managing small writing assignments, I could write my monthly author newsletter and cue up some Instagram posts. And in the other weeks of the month—at least three!—I could immerse myself in 1921 Bombay, the very un-snowy setting of my current novel.

So I’ve got an idea. Regardless of what the weather predictions are, a metaphoric storm is headed to my house tomorrow morning.

It will be a white-out from the digital world. I aim to concentrate on my neglected next novel, which means I can answer email just thrice daily. And podcasts, radio and TV will have to wait two weeks as well. My mind doesn’t need any more jumbling.

I intend to listen hard enough in the silence that I can hear snowflakes fall.

A Fresh Page for 2019

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Hark! A new year means a new Bullet Journal!

I’d love to start everything fresh in the new year. Clear Desk, Clear House, Clear Fridge seem to promise a Clear Mind.

But I can’t blank out what’s already going on. For this writer there is my work in progress—Perveen Mistry #3, about 1/4 written—and various contracts for audio and foreign editions that need to be managed, book signings, as well as family responsibilities.

In my house, there are dogs that need to be walked every few hours, a dry Fraser Fir that needs to go to composting heaven, and two fireplace mantels full of holiday cards.

The refrigerator has become a library of sorts, full of small containers of leftovers. TBE shelves—To Be Eaten. Ha ha!

The only new thing I can count on enjoying January 1 is my Bullet Journal™.

The index is waiting for my 2019 life to take off!

Last year, I shared some information about my fondness for this type of planner. I’m even more in love with it as time goes on. The system of organization was first implemented personally by the Austrian graphic designer Ryder Carroll, who has lived in the United States since the 1990s. His back-to-the-pen method in the era of digital organizing hit a chord with his colleagues who urged him to share his strategy with the world. He started with a blog. Now there are untold thousands using the trademarked bullet journals manufactured for Carroll’s company, or using the blank books of their choice.

How is it different from a datebook or daily planner?

It’s blank. This means one lays out a calendar using a ruler and pen, allowing spaces for to-do lists, gratitude lists, activity logs and more. In the trademarked bullet journal, there are a few pages with instructions like this to help:

Ryder Carroll’s instructions come inside the notebook

I began my odyssey into bullet journaling in the middle of 2016, when I had barely any space left in the dated calendar book I carried in my purse. Yes, I had a calendar feature on my smart phone, but I could not rely on myself to remember to pull the app up several times a day. The app’s calendar setting didn’t provide enough room for me to take good notes. I am not a fast keyboarder, I frequently hit the wrong letter, and worst of all, events sometimes disappeared from the phone due to various calendars not showing. For me, having a paper calendar book that has enough space for me to quickly scrawl down things is a joy.

Leuchterm is the German stationery company that has had its sales explode internationally after the Bullet Journal ™ phenom took off. These notebooks have very firm covers and pages that are stitched together, rather than the cheap spiral-bound style The notebook pages bear a very faint dot grid. This is perfect for drawing lines and blocks and writing text so it doesn’t meander at an angle. Also it offers so much more flexibility for the size of your handwriting. The ideal journal has pages that are numbered at the bottom and has a multi-page index at the beginning, so you can simply look in the front and flip to the place where you want to be in the 249-page book. 249 has turned out to be exactly the right length for my year. A built-in elastic band holds the day’s spread ready for quick reference—and also can keep your book closed and the pages safe when you’re carrying it in a bag.

I need to come clean about the lousy condition of my 2018 notebook. It’s the result of traveling throughout the year and constantly stuffing the book in the skinny pocket of the airplane seat. I do not recommend jamming your book into small spaces. I also sometimes forgot to use the elastic band to keep it properly closed. I have promised my new cornflower blue book I’ll be gentler than I was with the turquoise 2018 book.

You might think that I’d throw away my 2018 book because I’m not using it anymore. No way. As the Japanese organizing guru Marie Kondo suggests, I will thank the book for its year of hard service, and also for managing not to get lost. But while she would say to take a snapshot of the journal and put it in recycling, It’s headed for the special shelf in my study where other old journals and datebooks live. Occasionally, I page through these books, large and small, enjoying seeing addresses of my old haunts in Japan and India, and reading the names of overseas friends I haven’t seen in years.

The thing about having a serial pattern of Bullet Journaling is that you can learn from the old books and be more efficient with the future ones. All you need are colorful pens, a ruler, and maybe a stencil. And here are a few more things I’m taking to heart:

I followed the Ryder Carroll video on breaking in a journal and stretched all the page spreads to relax the notebook’s spine. This should guard against the spine separating from the cover. As he suggests in the video, I’m following a simpler system of listing upcoming events for a month on one page, so they can easily be transferred to the two-page spread that shows one week at a time.

I am starting “collections” of topics—such as film and literary references—in the back of the journal, gradually moving toward the center of the book. Naturally, the weekly calendars of events, grocery lists and the like will march from front to back. This strategy comes from  a YouTube video posted by a young Englishwoman with the ominous title Top 7 Bullet Journal Mistakes. Unbelievably, there are hundreds of people around the world shooting videos and writing blogposts about their journals in progress!

Still, with January 1 fresh start in mind, some goals and encouraging mottos for me are in a section up front, so I can’t avoid facing them. Things like:

Getting Writing Done in the Morning is Easier and Makes Me Feel Accomplished.

Lean Into Invitations! 

Easy Does It With Exercise.

These are my resolutions packed into a blank book for 2019.

Reasons to Be Cheerful: My Personal Gratitude List

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Chatting in two different languages: with journalist Mirko Giacchetti of MilanoNera

Have you heard about gratitude lists?

Writing down what one is grateful for, every night, is said to benefit psychological health, sleep, and relations with others. I’ve been marking small bits of gratitude down in my trusty bullet journal of 2018, a dog-eared book that is entering into its last days of service. I list everything in it from “I have a job that brings joy” to “I GOT THROUGH THE BORDER!” (into Gujarat).

Here are more of my gratitude entries for 2018:

My family.  And not just for what they do for me. Several of my family members are in mental health professions, and their treatment of addicts has changed the lives of thousands of patients—and their families. I also admire the way my family works hard at handling personal health challenges and steps in to help one another.

Soho Press. This dedicated independent publisher gave me the extra time I needed when going over edits, a fabulous national tour, and gorgeous marketing. I know we are together for the long run, and in an unstable profession, this is a gift beyond measure. And my agent Vicky Bijur, of course, who has stood by me for many years, always believing that a good book can find a home.

Agent Vicky Bijur, and Soho Press’s Juliet Grames and Monica White

Book Critics. There is very little space in newspapers and magazines for book news, so I was floored by the many reviews that came out for The Widows of Malabar HillPublishers Weekly and Amazon blew me away when each independently selected it as a Best Mystery of 2018.

Penguin Random House India! I thank my longtime publisher in India for touring me around the country last spring to promote A Murder in Malabar Hill. I met enthusiastic readers, talented journalists. Also in India, I can’t believe the energy of my film agents, Matter Advisors, who are stealthily slipping Perveen Mistry into Bollywood.

In Delhi with PRH PR Smit Jhaveri, Actor Aishwarya Jha-Menon, and PRH Editor Ambar Saihil Chatterjee

Signing at Crossword Books in Ahmedabad, Gujarat

With historian-authors Sandhya Menon and Usha Thakkur in Mumbai

Neri Pozza Publishers and Festival in Noir in Italy. Grazie mille to to the publisher of Le Vedove di Malabar Hill for organizing such a productive and delicious week in Milan. Having a simultaneous translator, and camera-clicking paparazzi shouting “Bella Bella” is something I will never forget. And Festival in Noir flew me to Italy, put me up in the historic Duomo district, and introduced me to fascinating fellow panelists and book lovers.

NP’s PR Daniela Pagani and my editor Sabine Schultz

This Italian photographer literally stopped traffic to get his shots!

Recorded Books.  Not only did the world’s largest audiobook company turn The Widows of Malabar Hill into one of the best audiobooks of 2018, they listened to my dreams about the future of audio fiction. How lucky am I that the RB publisher lives in my neighborhood?

Crime Writers of Color. This is a new and mighty writers’ organization that came together and has grown to more than 100 writers—all after a conversation between a few women writers at Malice Domestic 2018. CWOC stands for respecting diversity and lowering barriers to publication for everyone. I love being one of the founding members.

The Instant Pot. I wanted to ignore the latest cooking fad, because I have a working stove. But the Instant Pot makes beans better than anyone with a spoon. And even better, a whole subcategory of cookbook has arisen to put together complex international dishes with this pressure cooker’s efficient but intricate operations. I had more fun with the Instant Pot than with any other appliance in memory.  Chicken vindaloo, anyone?

The Women’s March. Still going strong and fighting the good fight. Bit by bit, we shall overcome the madness that has grown across the United States like mold.

Telling the Senate how we feel about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Aqua-aerobics. I never thought I would be one of those ladies kicking up waves in the warm-water pool, but do you know? It’s a blast, and I am much less creaky.

Daisy and Charlie. The aged beagle and baby Yorkie may look like odd fellows when they walk out together, but they are a devoted pair. I am grateful that this year, they are going outside more than inside—except when I’m touring.

Murder is Everywhere. To the writers who brought me in and are so relentlessly encouraging. We have signed side-by-side in bookshops, chatted together on panels, and raised a glass or two at mystery conventions. No matter how far apart we live, mystery brings us together. And we could not do it without the Murder Is Everywhere readers who keep track of our whereabouts.

Milano, Milano!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I send greetings from the north of Italy, where Christmas lights are twinkling and it’s time to buy panettone.

It was a grand surprise a few months ago, when my Italian publisher, Neri Pozza, share an invitation to be a literary guest at Festival In Noir, an international festival for crime writers and film makers in Milan and Lake Como. The proposed four-day visit would involve connecting with festivalgoers, as well as giving interviews to the Italian press about La Vedove di Malabar Hill (in English: The Widows of Malabar Hill).

Allora! (As Aziz Ansari taught me to say in Master of None).

I have never been to Italy, but have dreamed of visiting since I was ten years old and first ate spaghetti carbonara. My interest only grew as I grew older and discovered neorealist cinema, cappuccino, Italian fashion designers, other popular representations of the best in Italian taste. I fired back an affirmative email to Neri Pozza, and off I flew—arriving on a sunny, cold Monday morning in early December.

After I’d checked into the marvelous Hotel De la Ville, just a short walk from the famous 14th-century Duomo Cathedral of Milano, I couldn’t believe what a sweet spot I’d landed in. But I was exhausted. I transferred a stunning welcome bouquet of roses from the festival into cool water, and then I slid into a hot bath.

I woke up two hours later, and it was dusk. I left the hotel and strolled nearby streets, taking in a grand city where historical architecture and holiday light displays made a beautiful combination.

That first night in Italy, Giuseppe Russo, the director of Neri Pozza publishing, and Daniela Pagani, communications/publicity head for NP, led me through the beautiful streets to dinner at Ristorante La Brisas, where I tasted Italian haute cuisine: pork with braised greens, a salad with cod and vegetables, a rhubarb and raspberry tart. So sophisticated and yummy.

The next morning, Tuesday, my real Italian job started. I set an alarm to wake up in time for breakfast and a quick blow-out at a salon across the street from the hotel—where I spied another writer doing the same. All morning and afternoon was filled press interviews mastered  with the help of Daniela and simultaneous translator Sarah Cuminetti.

There were straight interviews with note-taking for people who wrote for newspapers and magazines, and some very interesting permutations, like the radio host who asked Sarah a question, which she then translated for me. I spoke my answer in English over the phone, and then Sarah took the phone and recorded her translation. How the producers will put it together I can’t imagine, but he did say he was happy with the sounds of our voices. We also had plenty of breaks which included macchiato and an especially delicious pastry sweeping the international landscape called a krapfen.

If you don’t like reading about food, now’s the time to check out.

More talking the rest of the morning and then lunch with my Neri Pozza editor, Sabine Schultz. She is from Germany but speaks Italian and English fluently. What did I taste this time? Arancini balls of rice stuffed with ragu—and a green salad. Sabine and Sarah taught me how to dress my own salad with salt, some shakes of balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. It turned out pretty well.

Toward the end of the afternoon I had an interview with Mirko Giacchetti of Milano Nera magazine, which focuses on crime and thrillers. Mirko asked what I’d say if I was back in the 1920s and spending time over a meal with Perveen Mistry (my series heroine). l realized that the two of us would chatter about our favorite Indian dishes, and then Perveen would probably confess she hated cooking. And then, I would try to get to the meat of things: how Perveen could make her professional dreams come true.

Tuesday rounded out with an interview with Italian journalist John Vignola at a bookstore, Libreria Feltrinelli Duomo, which is underneath a grand outdoor space, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II. I was delighted that an Instagram friend whom I had invited after she commented on the Italian edition actually came to the event. It was rather crazy to have two people talking at once—John and another person doing simultaneous translation—but I made it. And the Italians who came to get their books signed had the most beautiful names. Paola, Flavia, Gabriella… they deserve their own book.

Tuesday night, the visiting writers and filmmakers feasted on beef slow cooked in Barolo, drank Pinot Noir, and mulled over a choice of gelatos and sorbets for dessert.

After tonight, there are two more days of press interviews, a panel about British mysteries at the university and very likely more delicious fare—both literary and on the plate.

The Golden State

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Naomi Hirahara and me in a Japanese garden in Little Tokyo

The Golden State was the port of entry for me as a very young immigrant from Great Britain. Although my family’s stint in California only totaled three years of my childhood, it has always held a mythic place in my heart. Palo Alto is where I remember collecting snails in the garden during a rainy winter and my parents getting their first car. Berkeley is where I spent a mostly ecstatic eighth grade year during in which I bought my first album (The Commodores) and had an awkward first kiss (Laurence).

The beloved house that we rented in the Berkeley Hills was destroyed to a wildfire that raged up from Tilden Park in the 1980s. So I know that fire is both shocking and a fact of life in California.

It has been terrible to follow the news of the devastating fires of Fall 2018 currently raging through residential areas in both Northern and Southern California. These fires—more than 7600—are the most destructive in California’s history. There are reportedly more than 14,000 people fighting fires, including a number of volunteers and prison inmates.

Arguments abound about whose fault these fires are and whether global warming is a factor. I have no argument with global warming and the increasing dryness of California has been well-documented. This article in Slate gives a great explanation of many factors, including the dangerous conditions caused by building very close to wilderness. In some areas, like the town of Paradise, the fire jumped from building to building, and trees were actually left standing.

A vintage academic building at Occidental College

A few days ago, I flew with my teenaged son to Los Angeles County for college visits planned several months ago. I was almost certain that CalArts, the school we were visiting near Santa Clarita, would have been evacuated. It turned out the flames hadn’t come that close, and the campus was open for visiting.

Historic student housing at Occidental College

It felt surreal to drive along the typical crowded highways visiting schools during the three day period. The sky was hazy sometimes, and there was something in the air that gave me slight cough, now and again—but it was manageable. Yet probably twenty or thirty miles away, everything was burned black. The reports from Northern California were even worse; one of my friends has to wear a mask when she goes outside, the air is so filled with particulate matter. And people are living with the knowledge that hundreds are likely dead, and thousands displaced with no chance of rebuilding their homes.

Most California citizens and officials have worked hard not to speed up global warming by regulating energy, cars, and potential sources of pollution. On the trip, we saw electric charging stations for cars everywhere, and my son was surprised to be billed 15 cents for a bag when he was buying sundries at a gas station. The colleges all had well-identified recycling stations and served food in compostable containers. But still—a lot of people want to live in California. And developers and towns have allowed buildings to go up very close to areas with a lot of dry brush.

Rebuilding existing cities takes on new meaning. It was heartening to see reuse of old buildings in many areas we visited. Inside Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, the crime writer Naomi Hirahara took me to an oasis tucked within city buildings—a Japanese garden that honored the neighborhood’s population and was filled with lush California and non-native plants. I visited writer Jerrilyn Farmer at her beautiful 1920s Spanish home located within a completely urban district in Glendale.

At the University of Southern California, my son and  sat in a former sound stage that had been turned into a performing arts theater. The CalArts tour guide was proud to show us what may be the country’s last modular theater. As I walked around Occidental College, I was taken by many lovely 1920s buildings that spoke of a nostalgic era. And just like in my day—not all the dorms had air conditioning!

The Mayfair Hotel in downtown Los Angeles

The hotel we stayed in was a recycle, too. The Mayfair was once one of the largest hotels West of the Mississippi. This 14-floor hotel was built in 1927 in what was once the heart of Los Angeles, but now is a little bit lonely.  The hotel’s claim to fame is that American crime writer Raymond Chandler lived here in the 1930s. Chandler references in the beautiful renovated hotel were frequent, from Eve’s American Bistro to cocktails named “Windemere” and “Farewell My Lovely.” It made me smile to see 1920s design cliches like potted palms and clamshell motifs and curvy velvet conversation settees in the lobbies. And because today’s creative needs are quite different from that of the 1920s, there are some interesting innovations: a soundproofed podcast studio for guest use just off the bar, and a beautiful writers room on the main floor with many seats around a long, high table. I was the only one writing there at 7 AM on a Sunday morning, but I could imagine a team of television writers breaking story there at a much later hour.

Mayfair’s stylish lobby

The Mayfair’s podcast room

Rain is supposed to be falling on California the day that this blogpost goes to print. I hope that it lasts long enough to give the firefighters an extra hand in quenching the fires and saving the Golden State.

The Race is Done!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Two years ago, it was my rotation for blog duty the day after the US presidential election. I planned to write something about it that night—because nothing else seemed relevant. I spent the day buzzing around, feeling anxious yet certain the stress would soon end, and I’d be celebrating my first woman president.

I turned out to be wrong. And as the shock at Donald Trump’s surprise victory turned into a dull pain, wore off, people like me began thinking, how can we come back from this? The hope was for midterm elections in 2018. Many people who would not have considered a career in politics before decided to run for office, and there are record numbers of women and immigrant Americans on the ballot.

Typically, the voting turnout for midterms is quite low—but the early voting for the 2018 midterms is significantly fired up, on both sides of the divide.

I live in Maryland, a state where the most apparently important choices for me were whether to re-elect our incumbent Republican Governor Larry Hogan, our Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh, and our U.S. Senator, Democrat Ben Cardin. I’m telling you, although a lot of people feel strongly about keeping their voting private. That’s why there are curtains around the tables-for-one where we fill out the ballot. I’m glad that where I am, it’s still done with a pen.

This midterm election has hung in my psyche like a suspense novel for two years. And today, I woke up to pounding rain and no sunshine. My mind went first to young voters, and whether they would think it was worth leaving their cozy nests to vote. Even though Uber and Lyft are offering free and reduced fares for people going to polls.

But is weather worth the worry? On November 8, 2016’s election day, it was warm and beautifully sunny. I left Maryland to help with voter turnout in Pennsylvania. The people I met were lovely, the volunteers were stoked. It seemed like the very best kind of day to enhance voter participation—but in Pennsylvania, the state voted red for Trump.

I feel like I have a type of PTSD from being so disappointed in the last election. Perhaps that’s why I’ve given money to senator candidates in various states, but I did not abandon my own work to drive out of state to volunteer in different states, as I’ve done in the last two national elections. I am a shadow of myself.

Today I worked on writing in the morning and went to the grocery store and water aerobics. It was raining, and I didn’t want to be drenched on my way to the neighborhood’s elementary-middle school that is also my polling place. The rain was just a faint sprinkle when I walked over at 1:30 with my husband. The school fence had a few political advertisements on them meant to remind voters of the obvious, but I saw no workers. I did see a friend from the neighborhood who joked he had just voted, and his vote would cancel mine. Is my choice written on my forehead—or was his assumption based on the fact that I’m an Asian woman? A joke between friends took on a curious subtext. That has what has happened, since the last election.

Inside the cafeteria where I once opened yogurt for kindergarteners, I greeted a few more neighbors. There were a few people waiting, and it took about ten minutes to check in—much easier than the hour-and-a-half line of my early voting friends told me she’d experienced. As I carried my ballot to an available curtained voting station, a five-year-old boy playfully ran out from underneath it, bringing back a sweet memory of voting here with a toddler daughter hanging onto my leg.

I thought it was important that my daughter, followed by my son, visit the poll with me. I wanted the children to think of voting as something to look forward to, and today I saw the voting officials give “I Voted” stickers to children, perhaps hoping for the same thing.

The first time I voted I was in my thirties. I had finally gotten naturalized, exchanging British citizenship for US citizenship. While I was naturalized in 1998, 2000 was the first year I voted in a US election. I voted for Al Gore, who lost to George W. Bush. But then—I had eight years of Barack Obama.

At ten o’clock tonight, I turned on the television to see what was happening with the election. I saw evidence of a much anticipated senate contest in Texas go to the incumbent, Republican senator Ted Cruz. I had been fixated on his challenger, Beto O’Rourke.

Yet Jacky Rosen, a strong woman Democrat running for Senate in Nevada, won. And many more women appear to be winning House seats, perhaps as continued fallout from the behavior of senators during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I am intensely grateful for this and looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Two different sides seem to present us the chance for a balance of power.

The race is done, and I’m ready for a glass of water.

The Taj’s Triumph

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in early October, I was in the Mumbai Harbour, taking the slow tourist boat back from the cave temples on Elephanta Island. The water journey had been almost two hours, and I had only a few drops of water left in my bottle. I was overjoyed to spot a tall rounded red tower appear over the waves. I knew that if I could see part of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, I wasn’t so far away.

The Taj is a city hotel, but it was designed with its turreted front facing the sea, which was very unusual for 1903.  The hotel’s sea-facing facade also offered its earliest guests a wonderful view from their bedroom windows. This philosophy of focusing on a guest’s views—rather than a hotel’s prestigious appearance on a cityscape—was a new way of thinking.

The Indo-Saracenic showpiece was conceived of and built at a cost of 500,000 Pounds Sterling. Not by the British, who ruled India at the time; by an Indian.

Jamshedji Tata, a brilliant Parsi entrepreneur, had the idea of building the Taj after a devastating bubonic plague epidemic in the 1890s caused many to lose faith in the city. He also created a nondiscriminatory policy of admission to all races, although some of the city’s best hotels and private clubs in the city prohibited Indian entry. He named his hotel after the spectacular historical tomb in Agra, the Taj Mahal, knowing it conjured exquisite beauty in the minds of tourists.

A bust of Jamshedji Tata oversees the hotel’s historic staircase

An early Taj menu cooked by French chefs

The rooms, restaurants, halls and Turkish bath were spectacular. The hotel was the first building in Bombay to have electricity in the rooms and electric lifts imported from Germany. The Taj Hotel became the icon of fine hospitality in a country already world-famous for its hospitality. Interestingly, the chefs were French because even though the hotel’s owner was Indian, local dishes weren’t considered sophisticated enough. He also made sure to hire butlers and desk clerks who were European.

When India became independent in 1947, a Christmas Eve menu cover showed a maharaja atop an elephant, with a groom holding the green, white and saffron flag of the new democracy. It’s a strategic image that recognizes the importance of the hotel’s past royal customers who had agreed to join with the new nation rather than keep their former princely states separate.

For people who live in Mumbai, the Taj is mainly about meeting for meals, attending weddings, and shopping in the arcades. I’ve met more than one married couple who got engaged in the hotel’s Sea Lounge. My stepfather fondly remembers delicious lunches with friends at the hotel during school holidays. My mother, who’s been traveling on vacation to Mumbai with him for thirteen years, has a friendship with a charming elderly jeweler in the Taj’s shopping arcade… it’s impossible for her to leave the Taj Hotel without something sparkling in a small velvet bag.

The Taj’s glory was almost its downfall. When ten Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from rural Pakistan targeted 12 sites in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, four young men raided the Taj intent on killing international guests, Indians, and staff. This mass attack also included the Trident-Oberoi Hotel, the Chhatrapati Shivaji train terminus, Cafe Leopard and Chabad House. The terror in Mumbai lasted 68 hours and resulted in 164 civilian and police deaths, with more than 300 people wounded. Nine of the terrorists were killed during the police response, and the one man caught alive was hung a few years ago in an Indian prison.

The siege of The Taj was the longest of all the battles during the 26/11 attacks. Twenty-two staff perished, as well as fourteen guests. Yet more than 300 guests were saved by the Taj staff, who stayed rather than evacuated.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The motto for the hotel is “Guest is God”; I’ve heard it when I stayed at another Taj property. Also, the Taj training for staff is reputed to be quite intense, with people taking great pride in their relationship with the hotel, many of them hoping for lifetime employment. And these employees know the huge hotel’s layout. It is a a complex labyrinth with many interior elevators and storerooms added over the years. There is even a private club, Chambers, that was not marked on tourist maps. This is where many of the guests led by staff from public spaces waited until police arrived. Other guests who had been relaxing in their rooms hid in place for days until firemen could put ladders to the windows and bring them down. This was a complicated process, because not only does the hotel have a six-story historic main structure, but there is also a modern high-rise tower.

The Taj was secured by the police on November 29, utterly devastated by gunfire, with many areas burnt from grenade explosions and fires. Yet less than a month after the attack, the hotel re-opened for business.

In January 2009, I was in Mumbai on vacation with some family members. It was six weeks after 26/11. We stayed at our usual home-away-from-home, the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, just around the corner from the Taj. On the last night of this wonderful trip, we had a light dinner at the Taj’s Shamiana coffee shop, which sits near the hotel’s main entrance. Looking around, we saw the Taj’s rebuilding had been swift and was immaculate. A monument with the names of the hotel’s martyred employees was already erected in the lobby. We learned that the Tata Company, the original family business that still owns this hotel, pledged to pay college costs for all the slain employees’ children and would give their family members who’d lost breadwinners support jobs. The hotel had also paid for damages suffered by many freelance souvenir sellers in the area who lost business for months after the attack.

The goal of Lashkar-e-Taiba might have been to kill the Taj Hotel and other places that invoke the spirit of Mumbai—but that did not happen.

As the ten-year anniversary of the Taj’s triumph over terror approaches, I’ve been revisiting the Taj long distance. One way is through a suspenseful true crime book published in 2013: The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. I’m also delving into the Taj’s happier, older history in the form of a 415-page anniversary magazine, The Centenary Taj: 100 Years of Glory. This magazine, published in 2003, is the source of the charming photographs of old advertisements and Taj interiors that I’ve shared in this blogpost. Look for the whole magazine at antiquarian booksites, if you want a picture of Bombay history, art, food and culture.

My connection to the Taj Mahal Palace continues through my books. In my 1920s Bombay series, protagonist Perveen Mistry is a young woman lawyer whose grandfather was friends with Jamsetji Mistry when the two old Parsi businessmen were alive. Perveen’s family’s pre-engagement meeting with a groom’s family is at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel!

I won’t tell you how that engagement turned out, but Perveen must return to the Taj again in Book 3, when dangerous riots make travel home impossible. Who knows, maybe I’ll sleep over one night, too.

When Writing Series, Third Time’s the Charm

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Daisy’s checking up on the day’s progress

Did anybody ever tell you that it’s easier to raise three children than two?

I am fine with the two that I have, but I’m beginning to believe the saying could be true.

Especially when I think about books.

If each book a writer births is like a child, I have fourteen. I am like the old woman in the shoe, and all my children are troublesome in different ways.

But this week it’s been a lot easier. Every day that I’ve powered on my laptop to write, I’ve had an idea of the next sentence.  The words have been flowing now better than they have in years. That is because the book I’m writing is Untitled Perveen Mistry, the third book in a series.

Having been in print for more than a couple decades, I’m starting to draw some conclusions. Don’t hire me to teach any writing courses yet, but I’ll tell you that the third book is the magical point when a writer finally gets comfortable writing a series.

Okay, I’ll admit the first book is usually the most exciting part of writing a series. Book One is totally novel. A first book lays out the protagonist’s backstory and introduces me to her family, lover, friends, career, and the world where it all takes place.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Book One for Perveen Mistry!

Because it’s a first book, there is plenty of time to flesh the characters and build the location. Editors don’t usually accept Book One without it being written in totality, so there’s not so much pressure (this was completely different for The Widows of Malabar Hill, which was written on spec for Soho Press. But the pub date stretched so I could revise it to my heart’s content).

My very first Book One was published in 1997 and had the typical lifestyle for such a creature. I wrote it over the course of four years of suffering and was thrilled beyond my imagination when The Salaryman’s Wife was accepted by HarperCollins. I will take off my hat to everyone who has finished writing a first novel, whether or not it made it to print.

After writing this first book in my Rei Shimura series, I discovered that the second one, Zen Attitude, came surprisingly slowly. Even though I had a due date to motivate me and could reuse characters from the first book, I still felt stalled. I remember trying many drastic

behavior changes to push myself to be someone stronger and capable of writing Book Two.  I changed my diet to avoid meat (it lasted two years). I ran daily around the Hopkins track. I went on research trips, not just to Japan but to a Buddhist monastery in update New York. I was thirty-three, childless and without the curse of a day job. I had no real pressures in life outside of the book… yet  I stared at my desktop day after day and wondered if I really could write more than one book.

The first three books of the Rei Shimura series

Rei Shimura’s Book Three, The Flower Master, was—ha, another story! I don’t remember much about the process, except I began the book in India when I was staying there due to delays with my daughter’s adoption. I did not have so much as a laptop with me, so to work on Book Three I had to go to my grandfather’s office where there was an old desktop with viruses galore where I could ply my trade. I had a lot on my mind—but I still was able to proceed at a reasonable pace with this book. Frankly, it was kind of mental retreat.

I have enjoyed writing the Rei series, but as time passed, I wanted to try something new. I had spent all that time in India–and I wanted to go back. In 2006 I began writing a long historical suspense novel titled The Sleeping Dictionary. That first-book process lasted more than four years, and the book was hard to sell. By the time it came out as a Simon & Schuster paperback in 2013, I felt all the work I’d done made it a natural opener for a new series. I figured that Book Two would occur several years later, when the daughter of the protagonist in Book One could grow up to be a moody teenager caught up in the horrific violence after India’s partition. I knew my characters well and felt the plot was sound, but as I worked on this book, showing my agent revision after revision, I never got farther in than a few chapters.

Writing a second book is always a struggle, and during that time, I was busy with two children and had no energy for tricks like changing my diet or starting a new sport. Also, there was no contract for the unwritten Book 2, which translated into no time pressure to press on with it. I also understood the book’s themes of violence against women and religious intolerance were darker than anything I’d ever written. Would my longtime readers be willing to spend so much time in sadness, when I thought writing this could put me into depression?

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

This “book of my heart,” first in a series that might never be.

The second book in the Daughters of Bengal series was simply too daunting for me. I chucked it. Although I did not give up on the idea of revisiting it someday.

I’m working on my third series now. It’s about Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer working in the 1920s. I’ll admit that while The Widows of Malabar Hill (Book One) was very exciting to work on, Book Two was a pain to write. This time I could partially blame my struggles on a health issue. Lyme Disease was diagnosed after nine months and I bucked up with medicine, acupuncture, and Ayurvedic herbs. Heck, I got so excited about Ayurvedic herbs I worked them into Book 2 (because it’s set in the mountains of India, it’s not such a stretch). And this Book Two, The Satapur Moonstone, had a deadline. I turned it in a month late, it still needed serious revision, but I’d done it!

I’ve come to understand that only when I slay the dragon that is called Book Two can I get to the love affair with Book Three. And while it won’t be a romance that makes writing every series book feel like fun, it feels like being on honeymoon this week.

Book Two of the Perveen series slated for May 2019