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Mexican Gothic: Talking With Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The most exciting kind of travel has been taken away from us. Borders are closed, flights cancelled, museums shuttered. And who dares go to a restaurant? Yet we can still escape quarantine with books. And nowhere has seemed more mysterious, gorgeous and suspenseful to me than the inner world of a book called Mexican Gothic.

This remarkable novel by Silva Moreno-Garcia is narrated by Noemi Taboada, a smart young single woman who is sent by her wealthy family in Mexico City to check up on a cousin who’s sent a worrying letter after having moved to her husband’s family estate in the mountains. This is a true Gothic novel, with the benefit of being enriched with Indian mythology and surreal dream imagery, and colonial history, warped eugenic theory, and biology of plants, animals and insects. Critics are calling it intoxicating and pitch perfect gothic and admire its chills and thrills. It debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and is still in the top 15 three weeks later.

I am grateful to Silvia for answering my questions about the book and her writing life.


Silvia, this is a very special book. To me it feels like part historical suspense, part gothic novel, part Latin-American magic realism, part horror. Were you aware you were doing something ground-breaking with this book? Did you hear “this book doesn’t fit any category” when you were in the submission process? Was this book an easy sell or a complex sell?

Gothic fiction is a hybrid genre. It contains elements of psychological suspense, sometimes of outright horror, sometimes romance, sometimes supernatural elements, often a historical setting. It can have a mystery. It’s the literary grandparent to modern domestic noir, but also an ancestor of modern romance. It’s why I was interested in working in a Gothic mode. It can spill out of categories.

As to how it sold, it was easy in the sense that Del Rey bought my previous novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, in a two-book deal. So this was the second book I delivered and because I was under the contract we didn’t have to shop it around.

However, that ease is relative. I’ve had a hard time selling almost everything I’ve ever published. Right after finishing Mexican Gothic we tried selling Untamed Shore, a noir, and it was basically impossible to move that. We ended going with a new, small press called Polis/Agora for a very modest advance of a few hundred dollars and a print run of 2,000 copies.

English Pantheon
by Diego Delso, Lic CC-BY-SA

Is this book coming out in any other countries, and any film interest yet?

I’ve never had much luck with translation but Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic will be translated into a handful of languages. And there is film interest. Nothing firm, though.

Mexican Gothic has been on the NYT bestseller list for two weeks, and hopefully more, as word spreads. What is different about life for you now that you are a NYT bestselling author? 

I can hopefully worry less about my future. As I indicated above, it hasn’t necessarily been easy to sell my work. My vampire narco novel Certain Dark Things and my fantasy of manners The Beautiful Ones both went out of print very quickly. Publishing houses expect very quick successes and have little patience in nurturing talent. And they didn’t think much of my genre-switching ways. I’m not interested in writing in just one category, I don’t want to write series, I write a lot about Mexico. All those were minuses for me. But now that might not matter.

This book presents an old-fashioned Mexico with most characters living elite lives, rather than the stereotype of suffering that is predominant in novels published in English about Latin America. Did you intentionally wish to share a different Mexico?

All my books show different slices of Mexico. In Certain Dark Things one of the POVs is a homeless teen, in Untamed Shore we have a woman in a very small town in Baja California with limited social mobility, in Signal to Noise the characters are different shades of middle class. There are programmers, cops, radio announcers, small business owners, translators, and everything else.

It’s the 1950s, and two regions are central to the novel—sophisticated Mexico City and the quiet mountains, where peasants still labor in silver mines for foreign landowners like the Doyles. What is your relationship with these areas? Had you visited each place over the years and how else did you learn such intimate details of these places?

Mexican Gothic is inspired by Real del Monte (also known as Mineral del Monte), which is a town located in Hidalgo in central Mexico. It was mined by the Spanish and then by the British, which earned it the nickname of Little Cornwall. It has a very unique look and feel because of that. There’s an English cemetery and it is high in the mountains, so it can get chilly and foggy. Yuri Herrera by coincidence recently released a non-fiction book about this region and its mines called A Silent Fury. If you want to learn more about it, check it out.

The Pool Las Pozas
by Rod Waddington of Kergunyah, Australia, Lic CC-ASA-2.0

It’s also worth mentioning that Edward James built a surrealist garden in Mexico, in Xilitla. I didn’t include this in my book but at one point I wanted to have structures inspired by it, with stairs that go nowhere and things like that. I think it has a very haunting look.

A Stairway to Heaven in the surrealist garden
Photo by Pavel Kirilov from St Petersburg, Russia

The novel’s heroine, Noemi, is a pampered society girl who wants to study anthropology rather than marry. She longs to enroll at the national university, and her father promises to pay for it if she’ll check on her cousin. Noemi arrives at the remote Victorian mansion with a suitcase of lovely clothing, cigarettes and a lighter. Tell us more about the inspiration for your protagonist.

My family on my mother’s side was poor, my great-grandmother was a maid and my grandmother wanted to be a doctor, but her father forbade it. He said she couldn’t go to medical school because there would be men there. Plus, they expected her to bring money in for the family. So at 15 she finished secretarial school and by her early twenties she married, which was what you did in the 1950s.

My father’s side of the family, my aunts came from a family with some money so they were able to live a life of leisure, and a couple of my great aunts remain unmarried (solteronas) because the family had enough money to support them. One of my great aunts that did marry had a bad marriage and stayed for a while because she was terrified of what people would think if she separated. And in the case of my own grandmother, my grandfather abandoned the family and divorced her, but she couldn’t say that publicly. They lied because if anyone knew about it, my father and his siblings would have been expelled from their Catholic school. There were a lot of secrets that we kept because of the prevailing morality.

My heroine is going to rural Mexico in 1950. Women don’t even have the right to vote. She can’t just phone the authorities and drag her cousin out of a house, even if the people there are creepy. And the family wants to keep this all obviously hush-hush.

Mexico was never a British colony, buts its land and people were exploited by British and American businessmen, following Spain. Discuss the Doyles and how they fit in with this picture.

Spain was the first European nation that exploited Mexico, but obviously it wasn’t the only one. We didn’t get a French empire in Mexico for a few years just because we were bored. Colonialism is not something that ends and everyone says let’s go home. One reason why Latin America is an absolute mess nowadays is because the USA intervened in many countries there, backing coups and destabilizing countries. My next novel briefly mentions some of the CIA’s work in Mexico in the 1960s when they helped train Mexican forces so they could repress and violently neutralize Communist activists. The Doyles are in many ways a much easier boogeyman than the horrific legacy we have in Latin America.

The description of ghostly people in the novel ring true to paranormal experiences people have chronicled. Can you share if you used real accounts of hauntings as background for what happens in the house, or is it all a glorious fantasy?

Ghost stories are fun but it’s all completely made up.

When the pandemic is over and we can travel, what are a few must places in Mexico, that are beautiful and historic, you’d recommend? 

Mexico has very different regions. In the south you have the jungle and a number of Maya archeological sites, in the middle there are many cities that were colonial sites, in Baja California we have desert and water and whales and sharks, and we obviously have beaches too. And then there’s Mexico City which is huge. So it really depends what you feel like doing.

Can you tell us about the crime novel that you released earlier this year?

Untamed Shore combines a coming of age narrative with a noir sensibility. It’s set in the 1970s in a small shark fishing village where a young Mexican woman becomes entangled with some American tourists. I’ve seen people compare it to Jim Thompson’s work. It had two starred reviews (Booklist, Library Journal) but because it came out from such a small press not many people heard about it. LA Review of Books said “Brutality takes on an almost divine quality.” So, maybe check that out.

I think once people have finished Mexican Gothic they’ll be ravenous for your other work. I’m grateful you’ve got all these books waiting for me, and that you continue to take risks and tell the stories that are in your heart. Thank you for visiting with Murder is Everywhere.

Roots of Writing

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I got a three-month writing retreat with every comfort needed!

I scrawled the grand statement, which sounds like a cheesy advertisement, and taped it next to the guest room desk back in March. I was upset about the pandemic, and I was trying to reframe what I could do with the quiet time in my future. There would be no school activities, doctors’ appointments, no grocery shopping, no hours at the gym. The time would really be mine alone to write.

Of course, I wrote down the hours I planned to write. They came just before or amid zoom appointments and phone calls. In between those appointments I had other duties, ranging from cooking to dog walking and gardening. All of it went into my bullet journal. Some days, I felt like I was writing more in my bullet journal than anywhere else.

It’s crazy how fast the three months of retreat turned to four. And no end in sight.

Here’s my plan, which no longer requires documentation for myself, or anyone else. I work on my writing for as long as I can before my brain goes dead, usually two to three hours. And then I credit myself for what I’ve done and move onto something else. Often, it’s the garden.

I’ve described the growing pains for my fledgling victory vegetable garden, which has yielded the tiniest radishes I’ve ever seen, a bit of parsley, and some shallots that may or may not be ready. I’m afraid to dig them out and be disappointed.

My native plant gardens are different. Started in fits of activity and lulls of laziness over the last four years, I have three distinct zones filled with cuttings and young seedlings that took root, require little water or care, and are bursting with enthusiasm.  If you could imagine a book that would write itself for each year—yes, that is my actual fantasy—you only need to see a native plant garden doing just that.

Pictured at the top of my blogpost is a native plant to the Maryland-Delaware-Virginia area; it’s called veronicastrum virginatum and is more commonly known as Culver’s Root. Already it’s almost five feet tall, with flowery stems set up like a candelabra. I’m thrilled this one huge clump of vv has become Studio 54 for native bees, all shapes and sizes.

I am not afraid of my bees. I love to watch them dance around the Culver’s Root and the other neighboring plants in flower. I smile when I see the squirrels chase each other in the trees, and I even tolerate watching a rabbit munch the leaves of a baby native flower.

Insects and animals are my company, breaking up the isolation. And the distraction they offer is oddly medicinal. When I am literally grounded—with my hands in the earth, I mean—I look two feet away and discover a small robin has settled down to watch me, and doesn’t budge when I move.

Gardening does something magic, even if it means I’m not writing. After I dust off the dirt and shower, I feel like a new person eager to return to my book. I wind up able to write longer, because of time spent in nature.

A writer’s lament is that her job is never done. Just as a garden is never finished; something’s always coming up, whether it is noble and bountiful like the Culver’s Root, or unhealthily dominant, like the pesky unnamed green vine that shoots up and twists the good guys down to the ground. Such drama to clip those vines and attack their roots.

I’ll always have writing work to do. But thank God for it. The volume of my work fills the void. Having a creative project at home gives order to a life when rules have evaporated.

I do not know the future. Come August, I’ll probably be done with edits to my third Perveen Mistry novel. Maybe not.

What I do know for sure is that the Black-Eyed Susans are going to burst into full, glorious bloom, and the bees will be drinking their fill.

Chocolate, Sourdough, and Other Blessings

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

MFK Fisher in France

MFK Fisher in France

A few weeks into the pandemic, a big bang broke this stillness of a stay-at-home Saturday afternoon.

An electric fuse had blown, which meant the third floor had no lights, and the wi-fi was down as well.

When I say a fuse was blown, I don’t mean a modern one made of steel that’s neatly labeled. We have those fuses in the basement. The fuse that blew was antique, the kind of curiosity no contemporary electrician would have on hand.

Our mercurial fuses

My husband called around to a couple of historic neighborhood hardware shops. The second store, Falkenhan’s Hardware, still had such early 20th century fuses in stock. Tony got six of them for ten dollars, and an hour later, he screwed in the new fuse while I kept my fingers crossed. Once again lights shone, fans whirred, and a wi-fi signal allowed us to keep going with our work.

The famous King Arthur pizza!

We are now solving problems with our own hands. In my neighborhood, several homeowners are up on their roofs, replacing shingles and painting the porch trim. And we are gardening like gangbusters. Seed companies and nurseries have an estimated 300-plus percentage rise in business. The green proof is visible in raised beds, garden boxes, and potted plants growing everywhere you look. 2020 is the best year for gardening, ever.

My garden box with lettuces

And while I don’t peer through people’s windows, I suspect many more people are cooking, some for the first time in their lives. Fortunately, newspaper websites abound with cheerful instruction, as do websites like Kitchn, Food52, and Bon Appetit, and King Arthur. Six times already I’ve baked King Arthur Flour’s Recipe of 2020, a deep dish cheese pizza that involves making pizza dough yourself and setting it up for a no-fail rise by using a cast iron frying pan. King Arthur is also the go-to spot for fledgling sourdough bakers, and those who use sourdough discards to thriftily make more food, like the sourdough-chocolate cake below.

A sourdough chocolate cake!

I leave no stone unturned, when it comes to culinary thrift. Before I got my garden box going, I harvested dandelion leaves and wild onion from my garden. I freeze vegetable scraps, chicken bones, and shrimp shells to make different stocks. In fact, I’ve become such an old-fashioned homemaker that I’m freezing cut-off pieces of fat to melt down into lard.

I can stay out of the stores because I’ve found local farmers who sell to customers directly—not just at farmers’ markets, but by porch delivery, the US mail, or curbside pickup. And within the city, at least four restaurants I know are not just offering takeout, but regular  ingredients to home cooks.

Here in Baltimore, curbside pickup from my local restaurant, La Cuchara, means signing up online a day ahead for what they can order in for us from their farmers and food distributors.  On the luxurious side, these curbside pickups have included fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters and diver scallops and rockfish. More goodies have been local strawberries and turnips, garlic ramps, and morels, oyster and porcini mushrooms: all priced at, or slightly below, regular grocery prices. I’ve adjusted to buying what the farmers and restaurants can provide—blocks of butter rather than sticks, and takeout containers of olive oil and canola that I funnel into clean, recycled bottles at home.

Local kohlrabi and sugar snap peas

I wonder how long restaurants will keep going with the marketplace model. The truth of it is, I’d rather swing by a restaurant and open my trunk than enter the maelstrom of a grocery store, where I cannot count on all patrons being masked.

I also experiment with foods that arrives weekly in a Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) bag: things like kohlrabi, tatsoi, and many kinds of lettuce. The CSA movement across the United States was started by small farmers who want to sell their harvest to customers who’ve committed at the season’s beginning to paying them for four to six months’ worth of vegetables, fruits, and other products.

And what if the CSA throws more collards and kale into the bag than the Masseys can handle? It’s easy to drop off extra greens or asparagus or lettuce to someone who needs it. Food is so precious now. One of the stories I like best is that of Michelle Brenner, a furloughed worker in Washington. During this pandemic, she got a new name: The Lasagna Lady, after baking and donating more than 1200 large pans of lasagna.

My mother was born in Germany during the war years. As long as I’ve known her, she has carried a small bar of good chocolate in her purse and kept an ever-changing assortment of chocolate bars and boxes in the house. All this chocolate—even though I rarely have seen her eat more than one square. The chocolate is for giving to others. She says having it in her bag is a legacy of growing up as a child of war. With the pandemic, I’m starting to understand this better. While chocolate’s sugar is an energy and mood boost—instant food that keeps well—it’s much more. Emotionally, holding onto something like chocolate is a reminder that we are safe, and we still have treats to enjoy.

World War II food reminds me of the legendary Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Best known as MFK Fisher, Mary Frances was born in 1908 and became a legendary cook and writer during a time that gourmet food was a man’s business.

My first taste of her writing was The Gastronomical Me, witty and wonderful essays about her life as a young bride discovering 1930s France through its food. Her adventures made me eager to start my own writing life overseas. And with the help of my husband, that wonderful amateur electrician, all that did come to pass in Japan in the early 1990s.

One of Mrs. Fisher’s greatest works was written and published during World War II. It’s a book of essays and recipes called How To Cook a Wolf. The grim title is a play on words referring to finishing off fear, and also satisfying one’s appetite when there’s little available to eat. Although my assumptions could be wrong; it has a graphic chapter on cooking small animals such as “hare” and pigeons.

Mrs. Fisher believed that while the war was terrible, it also shook people into the right frame of mind. Here’s a bit that amused me, especially because of the COVID-19 sourdough boom.

“Lastly, perhaps because of the very propaganda that seems so contradictory, it has been easier to buy food with a little taste to it, once you have conquered your distrust of the thick neat slices and the transparent wrappings. You have even been able to get sourdough bread once a week in some groceries: a frail wisp of the old nose-tickling loaf, but at least an effort in the right direction . . . Sometimes, when you go past a factory in the “foreign” section of a town, and smell the honest exciting smell of real bread baking, you remember a part of your childhood, and feel a child’s helplessness before the fact of a whole nation’s cautious acceptance of its own simplicity.”

Respite

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

People around the world are saying, when?

Over eight weeks ago, business as usual stopped for most of us. Not just working: but shopping, learning, socializing, being out in society. Some are saying enough already! and demanding that their states’ governors reopen all non-essential businesses and get children back to school.

Many of the open-up crowd don’t have money to support staying at home without working.   Unfortunately, my country’s government is quicker to aid large businesses who might suffer economic losses than the poor and the middle class.

In Baltimore, COVID-19 hospitalizations and diagnoses are rising. We do not look anything like the downward slope of the national graph. We aren’t yet opening up houses of worship, playgrounds, barbershops and tattoo parlors, as our governor has said is safe for the state of Maryland.

I agree with the decision of Baltimore’s mayor. I don’t want exponential spread of illnesses. I have friends battling the illness and neighbors who risk their lives to work in hospitals and pharmacies.

I know that I’m privileged to stay at home. I’m not a front line worker. I have access to food throughout this crisis, and live in a neighborhood where I can peacefully garden and walk outside.

When I long for openness, I take my little dog on a walk alongside a stream called Stony Run. It’s a tributary to the Jones Falls in Baltimore, a powerful waterway that once supported mills in 19th century Baltimore. The wooded walking trail is about three miles long.

The Stony Run was here long before the pandemic. It rushed along when Indians lived along its banks, and when slaves secretly traveled north to freedom. It played its water music through the Civil War, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, and World War II and Viet Nam.

Due to the labors of environmentalists and neighbors, this creek is at its healthiest these days. It is a haven for so many forms of life, from tiny crawfish and worms to chipmunks, mice, birds, and wildflowers. And as I stroll, the Stony Run seems to whisper that normal really does lie ahead.

Sustainable Hope

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

On a recent day that I was missing fresh greens,  I walked into the garden. It was long before I’d planted my first seeds for lettuce. Not much was there. And yet…

I appraised the dandelions. Their gay golden faces are dotted all over the lawn and garden beds. I needed to weed anyway, and as I got down on my knees, I saw how beautiful and crisp and long many of the leafy plants were. They were absolutely fit for a “spring mix.” As I dug up a few clusters of dandelions, I saw more and more that I wanted.  I could have a series of salads. I hesitated, wondering if I was depleting my garden of food I might need later.

After I had taken many handfuls of crisp greens, I washed them in a deep bowl, rinsing them over and over until the water ran clear. I dried the greens in a towel and then and mixed them with hearts of palm, red onion slices, a bit of orange, and a little bit of leftover fennel. With a little oil and vinegar and honey, it was a delicious salad.

I have butter lettuce and romaine now, thanks to a couple of businesses that have their own delivery truck service. When I make an order, I get things for my neighbors, too. I am making my own bread and biscuits. I feel like no matter what, I can feed myself.

I was so glad for the dandelions the day I needed to eat them. They’re still popping up here and there, and I doubt they’ll ever be eradicated. I’m also taking wild chives from the lawn, and feeling grateful for their snap. It reminds me of the stories from elderly Japanese people who recalled eating grass during the war years, when there was no rice and not much of anything else.

I was placing a blueberry bush into the garden today. Turning to get some compost, I noticed a large black bird with a tangerine-colored body was staring at me.  Could this be a Baltimore Oriole, a bird that represents our city and sports team, but that has eluded my gaze in the decades that I’ve lived here?

The oriole was sitting on the branch of the lilac that I’ve considered removing because it grew horizontally rather than upward. Now I realize the handicapped lilac make the perfect perch for this bird to watch over the garden. Did he realize the awkward human was planting something that would make exquisite dining for him in the next months?

The makeshift becomes magical sometimes. And as daunting as the next months are supposed to be, I will keep hope in my heart.

Victories for Nature

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The skies are blue, the clouds dense, and it’s quiet enough that you can hear the birds. Our two dogs have never had more attention. And with a lack of places to go, I am in my garden.

The leading picture for this blogpost is a raised bed garden belonging to my neighbors, Joe and Sarah. Their practical, proud use of front-yard real estate takes on new meaning this year, as people long for a small way to be in control during a time of uncertainty. Everywhere, people are planting masses of herbs, vegetables and fruit into so-called victory gardens—a term that hasn’t been used since World War II, when people were encouraged to provide for themselves to allow more resources for men and women serving overseas.

Debbie planted herbs in cinderblocks, and so much more

Growing vegetables and fruit is an exciting challenge for me, because I am more of a wishful gardener than a skilled one. I have had the blessing of green space around home throughout my life. I have been planting and marveling at my small progresses over the years. Yet I don’t believe I will ever have the commitment to be a daily gardener.

Native Toad Trilliums grown by master gardener Debbie

My mother gave me Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden when I was 9. This masterwork of children’s literature was written in 1911. It romantically details how gardening transforms two depressed children—her very old-fashioned theory that has recently been recognized as a therapeutic practice. In the novel’s Misselthwaite Manor, an estate in Yorkshire, England, gardens are described as being set up in a series of outdoor rooms that literally have stone walls and wooden doors that lock, presumably to keep out animals and others who don’t have rights to food or flowers. Glancing through my beloved book this afternoon, I realized that gardens in my American city suburb are anything but walled and hidden. Quite a few people, like Joe and Sarah, have turned their front yards into working kitchen gardens. Fruits and vegetables and flowers intermingle, and in my particular section of North Baltimore, plants native to the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian mountains are widely encouraged, with transplants shared like bonbons by those in the know.

I enthusiastically visit public gardens and my neighbors’ yards with an appreciate eye. Until recently, I would say, “next year I will get serious about gardening.” Fortunately, I decided 2020 was going to be my serious year, and I had the foresight to start working last fall. Kay McConnell, a tremendous, environmentally oriented garden designer in my city, masterminded a backyard garden planted with natives that would thrive in the various conditions of my space; wet, dry, shaded, and sunny. Together Kay and I planted over 400 native perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees.

My garden’s baby dogwood is part of a group a woodland grove

Tulle protects strawberries in Debbie’s garden

In the past, I’ve grown a few herbs and capsicums and lettuce in a tabletop vegetable garden (often called a salad box). My husband built the structure in a weekend (yay!) and we filled its shallow pan with soil meant for raised bed gardens. It works fine, but it’s pretty small.

The “salad box” only has chives at the moment

I decided a few weeks ago to go a little bigger with vegetables. I began by making Zoom calls to accomplished gardening friends who had been eating from their gardens for years. I picked and chose from what they were doing. I see that almost all of my mentors have blueberries growing, some of them interwoven in floral landscapes; others set aside as little monarchs, walled off from intruders. When you plant things that taste good, you have to put in obstructions, if you want some of it for yourself.

Tom and Liz’s blueberry has to be fenced to keep it from the family’s chickens

No chickens are getting to Tom and Liz’s Stuttgarter mini onions!

I heard that blueberries are good in sandy soil, but I will spread them around to various spots to hedge my bets. The blueberries will be shielded from the birds by netting.  I don’t feel guilty, because there’s an open row of flowering chokeberry shrubs for the birds and anyone else. Apparently, squirrels and rabbits aren’t interested in garlic and onions, so I planted shallot bulbs and garlic cloves right in the dirt under the lilacs.

Betsy’s blueberry is artistically melded into a perennial landscape

Garlic and onions underground

I hope to harvest something for our family; therefore, most of our vegetable and herb plantings are on an elevated, gated deck just off our kitchen. This is the same location of the tabletop vegetable garden, and various pots of struggling tomatoes. And something new—dresser drawer garden. It’s just like it sounds. We drilled holes in the bottoms of the boxes for drainage, filled them, and put them on a granite workbench.

Dresser drawers hold shallots and radishes

I’m fortunate to live in a state with an early spring, and long warm summers that allow fruit trees like plums and peaches. Another blessing is that although my city of Baltimore offers plenty of restaurants, shops, and arts establishments and diversity of experiences, it also has city neighborhoods with trees and gardens and plenty of walking space.

If I plant marigolds, will it keep pests from my veggies?

How can I feel housebound when my garden has so many corners to spend time in—whether it’s to attack a patch of truculent ivy, or plant herbs and flowers in a pot, or hunt down dandelion leaves for salad? To stroll onto the deck and pluck a few chives to sprinkle over soup makes me feel wealthy beyond measure.

This spring, gardening books are piled high in the living room coffee table, next to my bed, and fill the shelves of the dining room. Still, nobody should feel they need a book to explain how to start growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. The internet is full of help. For a non-commercial, knowledgable overview, check out the New York Times column by Margaret Roach, as well as her long running podcast, A Way to Garden. (The podcast episode I’ve linked is a discussion of the idea of a pollinator victory garden). Adrian Higgins, the longtime gardening columnist for The Washington Post, also writes inspiringly about modern victory gardens and many other topics.

The quarantine gives us room to breathe and get close to the soil. And that’s a victory in itself.

Glorious Gargoyles! A Chat with Gigi Pandian

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Gigi Pandian

Continuing our journeys to Paris, I’m interviewing author Gigi Pandian about her new book, The Lost Gargoyle of Paris. Gigi has been a friend of mine since the time she was writing her first mystery featuring archaeologist Jaya Jones. She grew up as the daughter of anthropologists from New Mexico and South India and spent her childhood traveling the world with them for research. Those adventures built the imagination that created the Jaya Jones mystery series, followed by the Accidental Alchemist series, and many locked-room short stories. Gigi has won Agatha and Lefty awards for her fiction and made it to the USA Today bestsellers’ list. The Alchemist’s Illusion, published in 2019, is a finalist for the GP Putnam Sons’ Sue Grafton Memorial Award, which we’ll learn about on Edgars Night, April 30. Yes, I’m also competing for the same award, but I’ll happily lose to Gigi.

I was thrilled that Gigi could join us to talk about her latest Accidental Alchemist mystery, a novella titled The Lost Gargoyle of Paris. It was released last week and is an immensely cozy, comforting read for me during these difficult times.

Thank you for inviting me back to Murder is Everywhere, Sujata. I hope everyone is doing well in these difficult times! It’s great to see everyone remotely, from my cozy little house in Northern California where I’ve been sheltering in place for four weeks now.

Tell us a little about your new book, and especially its connection to Paris.

The Lost Gargoyle of Paris is a novella in my Accidental Alchemist mystery series about a centuries-old female alchemist Zoe Faust and her impish gargoyle sidekick Dorian Robert-Houdin. I hadn’t planned on writing a novella set in France before the next full-length novel, but the idea came to me after watching helplessly as Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in April of 2019.

Both Zoe and Dorian’s histories are connected to the cathedral, so I found myself unable to focus on their next adventure set in Portland, Oregon. I knew they had to go on an excursion back to Paris first. Like all of my books, it’s a lighthearted puzzle plot mystery steeped in history.

In The Lost Gargoyle of Paris, Zoe and Dorian travel to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to investigate a mysterious discovery found in the wreckage of last year’s tragic fire: a long-lost gargoyle illustration drawn by Victor Hugo himself.

American secret alchemist Zoe narrates the novel. Her Dr. Watson figure is Dorian. He’s the most extraordinary sidekick imaginable. What’s his bio? 

Dorian would definitely take issue about being called a Watson rather than the hero! He thinks of himself as a modern-day Poirot—and as a gargoyle, he has the “little gray cells” to make him convinced of his brilliance.

Dorian Robert-Houdin is a gargoyle who was originally carved in stone for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but was accidentally brought to life through alchemy. He was a prototype who was just a little too small, at three-and-a-half-feet, so architect-restorer Viollet-le-Duc gifted the cast-off carving to his friend, famous French stage magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. The magician didn’t realize an antique book he was using as a stage prop contained real magic until it brought his carving to life. He raised Dorian in secrecy, teaching him to be a proper Frenchman.

I am a gargoyle lover—there are so many gargoyles and whimsical animals built into the grand stone buildings of old Bombay, and I’m always trying to photograph them. Was there a special time that gargoyles were in architectural fashion worldwide? Besides England, India and France, where else were gargoyles adored?

True gargoyles are water spouts, but the term “gargoyle” has come to be used more broadly for all sorts of animal grotesques. Gargoyles can be found in ancient Egyptian and Greek architecture, but they’re most associated with medieval European cathedrals. But there’s a mystery that scholars disagree about. What were they meant to represent? Were gargoyles meant to be demons who would frighten people into attending church? Did they represent the trapped souls of people who’d been wicked on earth? Or perhaps to ward off evil themselves?

By having Dorian a living, breathing character, you’ve woven a little magic realism into cozy mysteries. How has that been received by the reading audience?

When I created Dorian, I didn’t imaging it was for anyone beyond myself. I was 36 years old and had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a year of cancer treatments ahead of me, so I threw myself into writing something meaningful to me. I’ve always found gargoyles to epitomize all things mysterious, and have been fascinated by them since I was a kid, so I created a gargoyle character to amuse myself. (And of course my subconscious had kicked in and had me create an alchemist who’d discovered the Elixir of Life, while I was going through chemotherapy.)

I’ve been surprised at every step of my publishing journey how much readers love Dorian and Zoe’s cozy world of alchemy. From my agent and editor to the enthusiastic readers who made the series a success, I’m still pinching myself.

Do you draw the covers for the Alchemist series? If so, what is your art background?

I do have a background in art, but illustrator Hugh D’Andrade is the talent behind the amazing illustrated gargoyle image. In a funny coincidence, Midnight Ink hired him to illustrate the book covers, not knowing that he’d been one of my instructors in art school!

You have a career that is sometimes called a hybrid: some of your books are published by traditional presses, and some, like this current book, are self published. What advantages does this give you?

I’ve learned so much about publishing through the various ways my books have been published. I’ve been able to see firsthand the challenges of different types of publishing—not just self-publishing versus traditional publishing, but also what it’s like to be published by presses of different sizes.

I began my career self-publishing after my agent had been pitching my debut mystery for a year and kept hearing that marketing departments weren’t sure what do to with my books. It was a rewarding experience but a lot of work, so I was happy to be picked up by publishers after my debut novel novel did well. When the large publishing house that published my Accidental Alchemist mysteries closed their mystery imprint, I knew I wanted to continue writing the series and that my readers wanted more books, so I decided to publish the series on my own (and happily I was able to buy the gargoyle illustration so I can continue to use it). It’s an in-progress experiment that I’m having fun with, but I’m not sure what the future holds.

How’s quarantine going for you? What are some of your stress-beating tips for us?

My agent is patiently waiting for a project I owe her, but I’m finding it so difficult to focus these days! But I’m very fortunate to have a house full of books and a small but beautiful backyard vegetable garden.

I had an online video meet-up with my writer’s group last week, and that helped me see I wasn’t alone in having trouble focusing on writing, so I’m not being too hard on myself.

The things that are helping most with stress are staying connected to my distant loved-ones, cooking, and getting plenty of exercise. I love to cook and already cooked most of my meals at home, so I’m making a point to experiment with more recipes while I have additional time at home. I’m the cook and my husband is the gardener, so we each get the benefits of both. Personally I think I got the better end of the bargain.

Sending good wishes to everyone! I hope you have many fulfilling armchair travels this spring.

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My Quarantine Smells Like Jasmine Rice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Scents that jolt our memories are important because we rarely smell them anymore.

Think about that for a moment.

I can still summon the soothing aroma of the Nivea lotion I used during my sixteenth summer. And the piquantly fruity smell of Haribo Gummi Bears, my favorite snack at summer camp. If I smell boiled cabbage, I step back into the hallway of my late grandmother’s home in Germany. And it’s only in India that I can inhale a particular mix of diesel, wood and spices.

I am staying home, probably for a month or two, and I wonder whether there will be a scent from these days that will become a permanent reminder in my olfactory brain.

It is hard to identify the everyday smell of your own home, although anyone who visits you probably has noticed it. I can only smell a change in my environment, and these days, that is the smell of freshly cooked jasmine rice.

Before the quarantine, my go-to rice was basmati, a long-grain rice that originates in South Asia. I buy a 20-pound bag imported from India every 9 months or so from Sam’s Club. The rice supply inside my home bag was running low this winter, and I was too busy to replace the bag before I realized I really needed more.

When the virus began to spread in Baltimore, I had no desire to rush to a warehouse store to look for Royal Basmati Rice along with thousands of other panicking people. Instead, I hurried through jammed neighborhood supermarkets and a gourmet grocery stores. It was Friday the 13th, and the stores were out of lots of staples, including basmati, arborio, and long grain rice. All that was left on the shelves were small bags of sushi rice, and jasmine rice. Jasmine is a medium-length grain that is slightly moister than basmati, but still has enough of a presence that it plays well with Indian curries, and many other dishes.

Jasmine rice is grown in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, and probably would not be as delicious if people tried to grow it elsewhere. I love this rice varietal’s sizable grain that, when it’s steaming, fills the air with a sweet, almost jubilant aroma. Some say it smells like a combination of a fruit called pandan… and popcorn. Interestingly, jasmine rice doesn’t have a biological relation to the Asian flower, although the jasmine flower’s tiny white blossoms are used often for religious ceremonies also has a powerful smell.

In The Sleeping Dictionary, I wrote about the rice troubles of 1943, when the rice farmed in rural Bengal was shipped out to the troops in such great quantities, that there was not enough left for Indians. About 3 million Indians, mostly Bengalis, died of starvation in the Rice Famine. The wealthy in India hoarded rice in 1943 just as people are hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper today. And when the poor flooded Calcutta, begging for food, aid workers had to feed them rice cooking water, because rice itself was too much for their abused stomachs to manage.

Rice is once again a war-time food; a very thrifty, filling and versatile way to keep feeding a family that cannot go shopping. Potatoes go green, bread gets hard and sometimes moldy, but rice perseveres.

People are sometimes afraid to cook rice, but it’s truly very easy.

I’ve cooked jasmine rice straight out of the bag, throwing it unranked in the rice cooker with the prescribed amount of water. You get the best result if you rinse it really well, though, with a few changes of water, before starting to cook the drained, slightly softened rice with a quarter teaspoon of salt, or to taste.

If you don’t have a rice cooker or InstantPot, it’s a cinch (and faster) to add one cup of rice to a hot saucepan on the stove with a little oil on the bottom. Stir for a half minute and pour in one and a half cups of water and the aforementioned salt. When it comes to a boil, put a lid on and change the heat to low-medium. Check in ten minutes or so, and if the water is almost gone, turn off the burner and let the steaming finish. Add a half-cup more water if you want your rice really sticky! If you double the amount of dry rice to two cups, use three cups of water.

I think the sticky/starchy characteristic helps jasmine rice hold its own nicely in the refrigerator for up to a half week—when basmati really gets nasty after more than two days.

I am striving not to throw away uneaten food during this quarantine period, but to repurpose it and eat it swiftly, so I am very happy I wound up with a big bag of jasmine rice. I use my refrigerated leftover rice. I also use it with other ingredients in fried rice and biryani. I could do a rice pudding, or a casserole as well. Rice of any sort freezes well and can be reheated from frozen in a hot pan or the microwave.

I have about eight pounds of jasmine rice, having cooked it about four times so far during the isolation period. I hope it holds out for however long I’m here. The memory of Asia wafting from the rice cooker reminds me of so many happy restaurant meals and far-flung travels. Right now, rice promises me that the world will go on.

Hands Together, With Hope

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Okay, I realize there have already been a few MIE posts about this.

But when Donald Trump posted a meme of himself fiddling while Rome burns, I could not refrain from comment.

Not only were Trump’s words and image in bad taste, but his comment appeared to mocking the efforts by individual state governors and public health workers to protect their citizens from the coronavirus (since there is no serious federal response from the US government).

Fortunately, scientists  are sharing wisdom about a technique called social distancing. May I expound?

The strategy of social distancing is that with some behavior changes, we will undoubtedly slow the epidemic and save thousands of lives. What is social distancing, you ask?

This doesn’t mean snubbing your neighbor at the potluck or ignoring text messages. It doesn’t mean staying in your house alone. It does involve avoiding large group gatherings like conventions or rallies. These are spots where you could encounter virus droplets which you then might pass to others. The reality of social distancing is quite hard, if you’ve booked a space and contracted vendors. Less than a week before is onset, the organizers of  the Tucson Book Festival cancelled their event, which draws thousands, for the public good. It’s also the reason that colleges are doing by telling their students who are going off on spring break to self quarantine for two weeks before returning to the classroom. The kids might think it’s an endless party, but it gives a bit of space to letting them get through their potential illnesses and/or contamination potential.

In my daily life, the first directive of social distancing is to stop shaking hands and hugging.

This got me thinking about the basics of superficial human touch—touch toward colleges, strangers and friends that is considered standard etiquette to initiate or receive.

When I lived in Japan, handshaking was only done at the insistence of zealous foreigners. Bowing was so much easier; self contained and respectful. It’s also the preferred greeting in Korea, but not in China, where people nod, applaud, or more recently, shake hands.

South Asians also offer hospitality without touching. Adaab, meaning “respect,” is a secular verbal salutation between Hindus and Muslims that includes raising one’s right hand towards one’s own face with the palm inward, and a slight bow. The movement is elegant and humble.

Buddhists and Hindus share an iconic gesture called the Anjali Mudra with hands pressed together before the chest. You can raise the hands slightly toward the face to show extra respect. Hindus might add the utterance, “Namaste,” which means “I salute you” and can mean both hello and goodbye. In the west, folded hands looks like a prayer. That’s OK. We need all the prayers we can get.

While recently in India, I found myself making the Anjali Mudra toward people I was meeting, especially elders. Before, I’d felt this movement was too foreign for the United States, but my feelings are changing.  I yearn to offer people a sign that I am greeting them with affection, without abandoning my commitment to social distancing.

Last Sunday I walked to our Quaker Meeting—to the early worship hour, which I knew would have less than 20 worshippers. I pushed open the heavy wooden door to the building and was greeted with the Anjali Mudra by one of the ushers, a young man who is of European-American descent. I was stunned—but recalled that I’d received this greeting from another American too, within the last few months. And at the end of meeting, we did not shake hands—but we smiled.

That’s not the end of the story, though.

Another hand movement is gaining traction. It’s the split hand Vulcan greeting created by actor Leonard Nimoy for Star Trek. Mr. Nimoy told The Forward that, in his childhood, he was inspired by the powerful gesture of blessing performed by a rabbi toward his  congregation. It stayed with him all the way to outer space. And George Takei, the brilliant actor who played Sulu, has commented this is the obvious greeting for our crisis.

So why not bring it back to earth?

An Adventure on Pali Hill

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The first welcome I had in Pali Hill was from a rooster.

I’d just entered my bedroom in the Airbnb rental. It was about three-thirty in the morning. As I put down my suitcase, exhausted after eighteen hours of flying and lots of airport waiting, a series of mournful squawks began. The glass window was latched shut; it was January, with evening temps in the sixties. But the valiant rooster’s cries carried, despite the earplugs I’d brought on suggestion from the host and previous Airbnb guests in the review.

You may wonder why I decided to stay in a flat where I knew a rooster made an impact. The answer is two-fold. First, I thought the rooster would just wake me up a little early in the morning. And the second is that I really wanted to stay in a residential neighborhood of Mumbai with a local host, rather than a hotel. I am willing to try new things, because I’d rather stay in the real world.

But is Pali Hill, a posh historic neighborhood within the area known as Bandra West, the real world? Plenty of people would say no—it is too elite and full of many people of different countries and faiths. It is far more mixed, and liberal, than a typical Indian community.

I was a temporary visitor, so I am not a Pali Hill expert, let alone one on Bandra itself. The larger village known as Bandra (Vandre means port in Marathi) began as a fishing village. Its identity was stamped in terms of architecture and a grand Catholic Church, during the Portuguese colonization. The British took over, and the new buildings that went up—charming bungalows and flats—were home to wealthy Parsis, Anglo-Indians, and others with the taste for quiet living in the hills north of Bombay. In the 1930s, film people began settling here. Today there are splashy new shopping areas with crowded streets, but most  in bungalows and apartment buildings that were grand in the 1920s and are faded-grand today. The simpler places are still locally owned and many are rented to the French and other international residents.

Some grand houses that aren’t occupied are held close by the owning family and rented for use as film sets. Many homes are guarded by high walls with signs proclaiming stern statements such as: “This is the home of the Perreira Family. Absolutely no trespassing upon penalty of law” or “This home belongs to J Winslow and family. It is not for sale and do not enquire about it.”

Keeping one’s hold of property in Mumbai is not always easy. A charming sky-blue cottage across from my favorite coffee place is titled to an elderly couple. They traveled for a few months and left the property in the hands of a servant who promised to take good care. When the couple returned, the locks had been changed and the servant had taken over the house, refusing them entry… saying the house was now his. Because of the city’s rules affirming the rights of people to stay on properties where they’ve had a history of living, the servants may trump the owners in this contentious case that has Pali Hill neighbors talking.

Back to the names on the cottages. Many of the names are Portuguese ones like Almeida, Pereira, and Braganza. It turns out that the Catholic community in Bandra is quite different ethnically from the Christians of Goa, Kerala and other areas. Bandra and the villages around it like Santa Cruz were home to a very old Marathi speaking community who lived in the area as farmers, fishing people and salt gatherers. They were converted to Catholicism during Portuguese rule in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is when they began taking Portuguese surnames, celebrating Christian holidays, and enjoying roasts and sausages.

Today, Bandra is a prime location to  run a restaurant or cafe with high prices, offering sustenance to foreigners in search of almond-milk cappuccinos, as well as affluent young Indians wishing to have fun away from the prying gaze of their family and neighbors. A number of Airbnb listings for Bandra West state that “unmarried couples are welcome,” which would not necessarily be true throughout the city.

In The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen travels secretly to meet an attractive young man. The Bandra Bandstand area is where she experiences a burning kiss on the rocks close to the Arabian Sea. This business was inspired by the kind of hanky-panky that has been going on there for at least a century.

One of my favorite rituals while staying in Bandra was fitness walking in Joggers Park, a scenic park with greenery in the center of an oval track. Along one side, you can see the sea. The park is popular all day long with friends who come to walk together, or to do yoga and training exercises.

There was a series of oval tracks—one dirt, another stone, another brick, and so on. The youngest or fastest people usually moved on the outside track, while the old friends wishing to catch up could meander and stop on the old-fashioned walkways and take time to gossip sitting on benches.

Just like a beautiful Indian garden, the track has floral flourishes and a dramatic center point: garden with a bridge over a pond with ducks. And on its banks, to my amazement, was a cage holding a rooster and some chickens. This fellow was quieter than the one near me; perhaps because he had so much to look at around him.