Author Archive for Sujatamassey.com Webmaster – Page 2

A Writer’s Escape to the East Caribbean: St. Kitts

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Confession. Last week, I did a scant amount of writing, and a lot of hillside climbing, on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Christopher, better known as St. Kitts.

I had flown here with all good intentions. Freed of daily chores, including dog walking and driving and cooking, I suspected my mind would expand. To stay in a colonial style cottage in the rain-forest, to gaze through a screen of trees at sparkling blue water, would only enhance my motivation. It all made sense!

The problem with going to a place like St. Kitts is that the scenery is so spectacular it’s difficult for a visitor to notice anything else. I became mindful without being tied to any formal practices. I simply could not focus on much, except for my immediate environment: the sparkling sea and endless parade of clouds. Although it wasn’t all sunshine; sometimes it rained gently, or the water poured down like an Indian monsoon.

I’d dragged my husband along with me to Bellemont Farm, a working organic farm/luxury resort. The farm is investor and government-owned, meant to bring jobs and profits to the island. The eco-resort has 44 guest cottages and villas, and about as many more that are partially built. The development was  designed by Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley in St. Kitts’ historic cottage style and built stone by stone by carpenters and stonemasons from the island.

Without a doubt, the raw landscape is Bellemont’s greatest asset. There are almost 500 acres of undeveloped hilly land that once belonged to sugar barons, but was unsuitable for sugarcane. These hills are close to the island’s dormant volcano, Mount Liamuiga; and volcanic soil is said to bring a special sweetness to the vegetables and fruit grown in its terroir.

It is hard not to slip into French here, even if you don’t speak it, because the French and English were continuously vying to dominate the island since the 1600s.  The island was originally inhabited by Carib Indians who were the victims of a. horrific genocide by the French and British settlers working together. Without anyone to undertake the hard labor of sugar farming, the colonists ordered slaves brought from Africa. After the British government outlawed slavery, British sugar plantation owners used indentured laborers from Asia.

St. Kitts and neighboring island Nevis became an independent nation-state in 1983, and they still retain membership in the Commonwealth nations. St. Kitts’ last sugar plantation closed in 2005, quite late compared to other countries with sugar. The island has both a veterinary and medical school that attract North American students. There is a main tourist drag called Frigate Bay on the south end of the island close to the airport.

On a half day tour of the island, we saw plenty of simple houses in villages that we passed through on the main island road. This is not a prosperous island, and the government is encouraging people to invest in good building projects here, in exchange for a St. Kitts passport. I thought it was great that the original villages, some going back to the 1600s, have survived and are honored with signs one sees driving along the winding beach road.

For the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, sustainable luxury is a delicate issue. Bellemont’s shingled guest cottages are not a literal depiction of the homes that sugar workers lived in, but they do succeed in making someone like me feel pampered in a homier way than a chain hotel could. And the benefit to the community is clear. Many employees had worked in sugar before the mills closed and were proud to be creating a visionary project for St. Kitts. Our taxi tour guide, Zien, worked as a surveyor at Bellemont while it was being laid out. Zien explained that if there was a big tree on the property, it could not be cut down for the sake of a cottage. The cottage could be built near the tree or on another slope. Such ecological wisdom has kept this rainforest area  very attractive to animals and gives a feeling of age and longevity to the resort.

Another sign of island pride is that every cottage is named for a Caribbean writer. Cottage 204’s designated author was Slade Hopkinson, a poet from Guyana. The cottages and villas are scattered throughout the hilly terrain to give their temporary tenants breathtaking views and maximum privacy from human eyes.

Many of the cedar-shingled cottages have their own private plunge pools. For some reason, ours did not—but like all of the cottages, it had three gorgeous verandas wrapping around. Because the resort is in the mountains, we experienced no mosquitos and happily spent many hours on the verandas—though the cottages themselves have subtle mosquito screening backing the shuttered windows and doors, just in case a whining bug might show up, perhaps in a different month.

The cottage’s rear veranda is open to the sky to allow a maximum sea view. I found this place extremely magical at sunrise, but too bright during the day to spend much time there.

But no worries! When the sun rose, I hung out on a roofed veranda fitted with a long daybed that was perfect for writing. And the last veranda was on the cottage’s south side and was clearly for Tony and me only. This was a full-scale outdoor bathroom—with tub and sinks in the open, and toilet and shower that did have latching doors for privacy. We felt utterly private because that side of the cottage was shaded with many lush trees and bushes.

Well, we weren’t entirely alone. While in the outdoor bath, Tony was spied on by a curious monkey. Another time, he saw a baby monkey came off the banana tree to investigate the veranda, only to be loudly reprimanded by its mother.

Inside, our high-ceilinged cottage was a muted fantasy of tasteful blue and white cotton fabrics and traditional island wooden furniture. We shut off the cottage’s air conditioning and were thrilled by the refreshing cool air coming through the shuttered doors and windows. It was a shock to leave Bellemont’s lofty perch for the long drive to the city’s capital, Basseterre, and realize that the island could actually be humid and hot.

Some of the vast acreage is used as a sustainable organic farm, with hundreds of different fruits and vegetable. The Kitchen restaurant offered all-organic seasonal produce, meat and fish and meat cooked in a fusion of European, Caribbean and Asian styles. At breakfast, I had smoothies made from sour oranges, kale, cucumber and cantaloupe. Locally-caught mahi-mahi, lobster, tuna and snapper were on the menu, as well as free-range pork, beef, chicken, duck and rabbit.

One misty evening close to our departure, we rode a golf cart through the twisty up and down trails to the heart of Bellemont Farm’s vegetable garden. About twelve of us gathered with the hotel’s executive managers for a special farm dinner. It was an astounding array of pickled vegetables and fruits, grilled meats and fish, freshly baked breads and fruit pies.

Conversation and wine flowed, and three hours passed without us realizing it. As my husband and I traveled up the hill for the fifth and final night of my stay, I thought about how far we had come from our everyday urban world… and how wonderful it was that respite could be social, as well as solitary.

Picturing History with Homai Vyarawalla

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

These days, photography seems to have become an expected skill for writers. Confession: I like to take pictures, but I don’t understand how to artfully compose them or wait until the right moment to get a great shot. I wish I’d learned more during my years as a newspaper features reporter, because so many photographers were working just over my shoulder.

When I think back on that era—the late 1980s—I remember that out of the newspaper’s whole photography department, just two photographers were women. This was a significantly greater gender gap than among the newspapers reporters, although there were many more males than females in the newsroom.

The composition of my newspaper’s staff made me all the more surprised and impressed to learn about India’s first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla.  I first heard this name in a conversation with a smart and famous Bollywood actress. She said to me, “You probably already know about India’s first woman photojournalist, who was working in British India during the time of your books…”

I didn’t know anything about her. But I was intrigued.

Homai was born in 1913 into a priestly Parsi family who moved from Gujarat to Bombay for a better life; her father worked in the fledgling film industry that later became known as Bollywood. Some accounts say that Homai married at age 13; other accounts say that at 13, she met the man whom she later married. The gentleman in question, Manekshaw Vyarawalla, was both an accountant and a photographer. After high school, Homai went to Bombay’s famous training school for artist and artisans, the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School for the Arts. Homai was interested in painting, but because the new field of photography was booming and had paying jobs, she went for the latter.  Her first jobs were snapping pictures of women and often went into the Bombay Chronicle. She earned one rupee per published picture.

Because Homai was a woman, she wasn’t considered a trained and reputable photographer, and she therefore had to use her husband’s name on her work. Later on, when she was accepted as a working photographer, she created a catchy professional name: Dada 13. This was a combination of her car license number, her birth year, and the age she was when she met Manekshaw.

During Homai’s years in Bombay, her pictures had a wide range of subjects, but during World War II, she and her husband shifted to New Delhi, and she was hired by India’s ministry of information to take official photographs as part of an imperial propaganda force: the British Information Service. (In my novel The Sleeping Dictionary, this was the kind of work Mr. Lewes undertook during the war). While Homai was shooting pictures for the government, Manekshaw Vyarwalla managed the studio and dark rooms where the film was processed.

Homai now had front row access to shoot both staged and candid photos of famous politicians and visitors to India. Among her typical subjects were Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatton, the Dalai Lama, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she considered her favorite subject of all time because he was both photogenic and fun to be with. Homai’s photographs were always shot in monochrome and processed by her; they are mostly part of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi. Some of her most famous photographs are gathered in this story by Catch News. After the British were gone and there was no longer a need for British propaganda, she worked for the Illustrated Weekly of India, which ran from 1880-1983 and was kind of like TimeNewsweek and People rolled together.

Within the press corps, Homai Vyarawalla was a standout, with her practical but elegant short hairstyle and trademark sari or salwar kameez. Although many Parsi women felt free to wear dresses instead of saris, she chose the sari as her daily dress probably as a means of securing a bit of respectful distance  at the chaotic, male dominated events. Yet she was no shrinking violet. Homai carried her own cameras, rode long journeys to get the pictures she needed, and did not ask for special favors. She talks about her special vintage cameras and the adventures they brought to her  in this documentary film by producer CS Lakshmi.

In 1970, one year after her husband’s death, Homai abruptly quit working as a photographer. She was at the peak of her career, but she said she was sick of the rude behavior of the photography corps. She retired to live with her only child, now an adult, and after his death, stayed alone in a walk-up apartment without a telephone in a small town. Far removed from the life she’d once lived close to the top of Indian politics and power, she passed her days quietly and thriftily, sewing her own clothes and doing other homemaking. Yet journalists persisted in visiting to ask about her trailblazing career, before she passed away in 2012 at age 98. Fortunately, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, in 2011, when she was still alive to receive it.

Being first at something, and even being very good at it, does not guarantee a long or well-paid or publicly honored career. Such was the situation for  Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam, India’s first two women lawyers. But the joy for the ones who come afterward is exploring the records they left for us. These great ladies may not have felt like legends during their lifetime, but the work they left ensured it.

Island Dreaming

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Winter has a way of making me want to fly the heck away from Baltimore’s cold wind, leafless trees, and intermittent ice and snow storms. Sometimes, it actually happens. In the middle of winter of 2018, I spent time to Arizona and India while on book tour. The winter before, it was Hawaii for Left Coast Crime. This year, I’m unfortunately grounded until a late March trip (details later!). Until then, I’ve vicariously escaped by gawking at books about island life. I’ve also read so many Caribbean stories I now understand a lot of patois.

Poring through some photos I took last year, I stopped at the sight of this coral house. This old house covered in pretty fish scale shingles lurks almost unseen on a busy street in St. Petersburg, Florida. I passed it daily as I walked from my small hotel to the Vinoy, the grand hotel where the last Bouchercon World Mystery Convention was held.

As I traveled past Victorian houses in St. Pete, they never escaped me, no matter how hard their owners might have tried to plant trees and bushes for privacy. I actually admired the house for being clever enough to have palm and magnolia sentries shielding it from traffic and ugly new buildings and, yes, tourists such as myself.

I suspect this cottage was built in the late 19th century, possibly as a holiday home. In some ways it reminds me of my own 1890s unstained brown cedar shingle house, which also has a white wrap around porch. However my porch has matchstick style bannisters rather the delightfully elaborate lacy design, and its brown color is so dull when compared with orange sherbet.

The Caribbean design books explain that a fancy porch like the one pictured above could grace a home in the Bahamas just as much as Florida. And apparently there are special colors, like pinks, that are unique to particular islands because that was what was stocked in the island hardware store.

Bright houses laugh with happiness.

For a homeowner to dress a house in bright paint is akin to wearing a bright gown to the Oscars, as Gemma Chan did. A black dress that fits close to the body is conventional good test. On the other hand, an oversized, fluffy pink confection says, “Let’s play.”

When people paint their houses to bring smiles, it’s an act of generosity. And even if the coral house is locked, the entry for dreams stands wide open.

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.