A Conversation with Susan Gilbert-Collins, Author of Starting From Scratch
Olivia, your main character, is the youngest sibling in the family. Did your position growing up in your own family affect the story at all?
I’m the youngest of three and wanted to explore in writing how that position in the family colors one’s experience of the world. While neither Olivia nor I are “typical” youngest children (being separated by four or more years from the next sibling), I agree with Olivia that a lot of things “boil down to birth order,” like it or not.
Are there any similarities between the Tschetter family and your own?
We have a lot of Mennonite relatives and we eat a lot of homemade chicken noodle soup. And my mother was very much the center of our family. But I don’t think anyone looking at the Tschetters would recognize my family. That said, there is more than a glimmer of my sister in both Annie and Ruby, and like Olivia, I find myself convinced that my brother can do anything.
Do you like to cook? Do you have a favorite special recipe that you can share?
I do love to cook. Here’s a favorite recipe I make year round, although especially on winter nights:
Cheddar Soup with Shredded Carrots and Potatoes
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a large pot. Add 1/2cup diced onion and 10 oz. shredded carrots and saute for several minutes. Sprinkle about 2 1/2tablespoons flour over the onion and carrot and stir until blended.
Add 6 cups chicken broth, 1 pound shredded potatoes, 1/2tsp. dried thyme, 1 bay leaf, 1/8tsp. Tabasco (or more to taste), 1/2tsp. Worcestershire sauce (or more to taste), 1/2tsp. sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer until veggies are tender.
Stir in 1 1/2cups half and half (or milk). Remove pot from burner and cool for 1 minute. Add 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese and stir until melted.
· Note: You can play with the amount of flour you add. A little more results in a thicker soup.
What importance did food hold for your family when you were growing up? How about now?
Food was often about comfort, about being home. I remember waking on Saturday mornings to the scent of my mom’s caramel rolls or a pot of beef vegetable soup simmering on the stove. Food was also to some degree about participation, as when my grandparents would come to help make noodles. As a child, I loved cranking the handle of the noodle machine my grandfather brought back from a trip to Germany.
Was it difficult to leave behind the characters you created when you finished writing Starting from Scratch?
Alternately difficult and a relief!
Will any of the characters from this story appear in a sequel or upcoming novel?
I have no plans to use these characters again (having new ones in my head), although I sometimes think I’d love to explore one peripheral character more: Penelope, the off-stage girlfriend of Harry’s. She’d be an interesting study in extremes: painfully sincere and committed to the point of being nearly impossible to endure.
Early in the story, you explain, “in the Tschetter family, it was important to be able to tell a good story; to Olivia . . . it was all but a survival tactic.” As a fiction writer, do you relate to this at all?
As a fiction writer and as a youngest child, yes. Having a story to tell that others actually want to hear is the best way to get attention, which is something both fiction writers and youngest children want.
You write about some dark subjects, including death, grief, and molestation. Did you find it difficult to strike a balance between these topics and the overall warm, humorous tone of the book?
I purposely struck that tone in an effort to sustain a whole novel about grief that might otherwise have sunk beneath the emotional weight of the topic. Grief can bury you; it nearly buries Olivia. But I couldn’t afford to bury the reader.
What would you most like readers to take away from this story?
When you lose someone, do what you need to do. That might mean doing nothing for a while. Our culture does not know how to grieve and does not support people who are grieving, so you need to find a few good people who won’t judge.
This is your debut novel. Did you enjoy the writing experience? Did you find anything particularly challenging about the process?
Writing by turns exhilarates and stymies you. I did love writing this novel in the way that you can love raising an infuriating yet incredibly dear toddler—who, by the way, will never thank you for the trouble.
What’s next for you?
Another novel. And some short fiction, which I love. It’s very satisfying to complete a fictional thought in weeks instead of years.