Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Barbara O'Neal


If you have not read Barbara O'Neal's wise and wonderful women's fiction, you are missing something special. The Lost Recipe for Happiness (which won a RITA award in 2010, one of four RITAs she has won) and The Secret of Everything explore healing, loss, finding yourself, and finding family - against a background of delicious and exquisite food. Her latest book, How to Bake a Perfect Life, has just been released, and as usual I plan to treat myself by curling up and reading it as soon as I can.

For aspiring writers, Barbara is also an occasional columnist at Writer Unboxed, a blog I have been inspired by many times over the years. So of course I took the first opportunity I could to invite Barbara to Get Lost in a Story!


An unforgettable novel that celebrates food, family, and the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters.

In a story as warm and embracing as a family kitchen, Barbara O’Neal explores the poignant, sometimes complex relationship between mothers and daughters—and the healing magic of homemade bread.

Simone: First up - the food. Oh my gosh, the food in your books is fabulous. Every one of your books makes me hungry. What is it about food that draws you back to it in your books?

Barbara: Food is the center of everything, isn't it? Community, family, living. I didn't know I felt that way until a crisis in my extended family. Everyone flocked to the hospital to get news, but I stayed home to start cooking. It was so obvious--soon everyone would be hungry and they would want to eat good food. It was wildly rewarding when they came home to the fragrant, hearty meal I had cooked, and fell on it like it would save all of our lives.

I've loved beautiful food for as long as I can remember--seriously, I remember my aunt's cheesecake when I was about ten--it was so unbelievably beyond any food I'd ever tasted that I thought she was just the most brilliant cook in the world (and she actually is a really good cook, but so is my mother). My mother has a collection of about 500 (or more?) cookbooks and reads them for fun, trying all sorts of things. Her specialty is baking and also jams and jellies, which I enjoy but are not my forte. Except, obviously, bread, which I adore. She doesn't bake bread much. It's as if we split the favorite things between us.

Kitchens have been at the heart of my books for a very long time, probably because they do represent the center of women's lives through the centuries. That's where we go to talk to each other, to sort things out with a child, to cook a meal to nourish a family or ourselves or...

Not everyone likes to cook, but a kitchen is still the heart of a house in many cases.

Simone: What is the first story you ever "got lost" in?

Barbara: It's hard to remember the very first. I so loved Rapunzel as a little girl, and when I grew a little older, I was the mad, mad reader that most writers are and always ordered the most titles from Scholastic Book Club. What a thrill it was to carry those titles home on a winter afternoon and know I was stocked up! One of those books was Shadow Castle, about a fairy tale land where half the people were locked into shadows by an evil spell.

But the book that snared me for all time was Green Darkness, by Anya Seton. I was fifteen. I read it about 10 times, carried it with me wherever I went. It was history and romance and good writing, and mystical. Oh! Perfect.

Simone: Did you do any special research for this book? What did you discover?

Barbara: I had to do a lot of research for How to Bake A Perfect Life. The first thing was sourdoughs, which I have worked with a lot, and loved, but I needed a thorough grounding in the many forms and styles, so I spent the winter reading about bread making (notably Local Breads, by Daniel Leader, and Paris Boulangerie/Patisserie by Linda Dannenberg among many others--these two I finally purchased for myself and their pages are stained and tattered with all of my learning.

I also had to do a lot of heartbreaking research into meth addition, which is more horrifying that I had even suspected and made me very happy to go to the pharmacist to buy my antihistamines if that's what it takes. I also had to research what happens to soldiers who are wounded in Afghanistan--what is their path? What hospitals would they be in? What happens along the way? There is a great organization devoted to helping them called Soldier's Angels, and I found a lot of information there (all mistakes are my own, of course!).

Researching a book is one of the great pleasures of the writing life for me, I have to admit. It satisfies the hungry, hungry student who lives forever in my heart.

Simone: You've started re-releasing some of your backlist (written as Barbara Samuel) in ebook form. Tell us a little about this, and how did it come about?

Barbara: Basically because my partner Christopher Robin, nagged me unmercifully to do it. He was frustrated by not being able to get some of his favorite writers' backlists on Kindle and realized I didn't have my backlist up, either, so he started nudging me. Around that time, my dear, dear cousin Sharon, a computer geek herself and a stay at home mom, arrived like Dudley Do-Right to fix a huge mess with my old web server, and she just stayed on to help with the ebooks, thinking it would be a fun project. Ha! The first book was a huge learning experience but then we found systems to make it work. (By "we" I mean her, because left to me, this would not have happened---I just don't have time.)

What I will say is that it's worth the time and energy. They sell a tidy little number of copies each months, and I love that they get a new chance at life. They never really got the audience they deserved because I was writing a very dark historical romance at a time when the tide was shifting to a lighter comedy of manners. Bed of Spices, my first historical romance, had a bit of a cult following and I saw it for sale for $75. Which is fine for a collectible, but not if you just want to read the story. I don't have all of them up yet, but there are five available now.

(Simone's note: You can find out which books are available, and where, here.)

Simone: Did you travel this past year? Where to?

Barbara: I did! One of the best trips of my life--rambling around England with CR and his mother (he's a Brit) and then to Spain to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient and holy pilgrim route, with a group of women. It was a lark to begin, and then became quite a lot more. I'm aching to go back and walk the rest of the road, maybe in 2012.

I also made an ill-fated trip to Washington DC with my mother, ostensibly to see the Smithsonian museums and my son who lives there, a present to my mom. We landed during the horrible blizzard there and didn't see anything but snow drifts for four days. Luckily, my son could get to us via train, so we ate at a little vegetarian restaurant around the corner (to get there, we had to wade through hip high drifts of snow and battle howling winds), stocked up on wine and crackers at the lone open store, and watched movies on the hotel television. We'll always remember it.

Simone: What's your comfort food?

Barbara: I almost never let myself have it because there is nothing redeeming about it whatsoever, but last night when I was tired and scattered, I told CR he needed to take me to get a chicken fried steak. My mother's side is southern, and that is my go-to flavor when I need comfort.

Simone: If you could eat one dish without worrying about a single calorie, what would it be?

Barbara: Oh, I'm too indulgent to think of giving up anything forever. So I follow the rules most of the time and then if I want Julia Child's butterland food, or pecan pie or macaroni and cheese or chicken fried steak, I'll have them and do more exercise.

Simone: What three ingredients would you never be without in your kitchen?

Barbara: Garlic, olive oil, and eggs.

Simone: What's next for you?

Barbara: I'm working on a novel about a community garden and soups, which is a blast. I love soup!

Thanks so much, Barbara! My question today for our readers is one that Barbara already answered for herself - if you could eat one food without worrying about a single calorie, what would it be?


  1. Lovely interview. Welcome to GLIAS Barbara!

    My one food with no calorie worries? Hmmm...my mom's home-made divinity. (or anything sweet LOL)


  2. ONE food?! Only one??!! You mean I have to decide between pizza, chocolate, ice cream, lasagna and French fries? Um...I'll get back to you on this ;).

    Wonderful interview, ladies! And, Barbara, I loved reading about your research into sourdough!! Congrats on this new novel -- I look forward to reading it!

  3. My husband's meatloaf. He made it last night and I thought I would die, it's so good. Simple and perfect.

    The blizzard adventure with your Mom sounds like a wonderful memory.

  4. Good morning, Barbara, what wonderful, thought-provoking answers. Pretty good for your first time... at GLIAS. We're honored to have you here. Loved what you had to say about research satisfying the student in you. How true is that?

    As for comfort food, I'm with Marilyn only one? I'd say it was my Great Aunt's Yellow Rice and Chicken, from Key West. Fantastic meal with olive oil, garlic and chicken so tender it falls of the bone. And then top it off with Key Lime pie.... Okay... mine's a comfort meal :)

    Welcome! And of course I love your books!

  5. Thanks for being here, Barbara. I think my food would be my mom's baked, creamy, cheesy macaroni and cheese. I still dream about that meal (and so does she, since she joined Weight Watchers 2 years ago lol.)

    I had no idea sourdough was so complicated. I love sourdough!

  6. Wonderful interview! But one food now that's hard the first thing that come to mind is Fettuccine Alfredo. I love it!!!!

  7. There truly is something magical about a recipe in fiction!

    I think I would choose something simple and cheesy, like a made from scratch crust Margherita Pizza. The only pizza I know that is named after a queen!

  8. One food? That would have to be hamburgers. Although spicy tuna (raw) over rice is a close second...

  9. Wonderful interview, Barbara. Amazon just delivered your newest yesterday, and I can't wait to start it!

    One food? No question. Pizza.

  10. Barbara, I'm a big fan. Thanks for stopping by GLIAS.

    I, too, have fond memories of pouring over the Scholastic catalogue. What I remember is the thrill of marking everything I wanted and then the sometimes agonizing decisions of narrowing my picks down to a manageable/affordable number.

    If I could eat one food without fear of calories it would have to be cheese. Really great cheese. :) (No fear of arteries clogging up, either, right?)

  11. Barbara, Can not wait to get into this book. I am so glad to know your back list is becoming available.
    If I could eat anything I want without worry? Cheese, any kind of cheese but the sharper the better. And chocolate of course.

  12. Funny story - I went to the bookstore after one of those eye appointments where they put drops in your eyes, and I couldn't read any of the spines. I finally had to go to the nearest employee and ask, "Can you find me the Lost Recipe for Happiness?"

    The wry look on her face was unforgettable, lol.

  13. Hmmm. I posted a comment earlier, but it has disappeared. Ah, the vagaries of the internet!

    Simone, that really IS a funny story. LOL.

    Thanks to everyone for the support and love--and for having me here!

    Oh, fettucini Alfredo, yes, and cheese, and Margherita pizza (one of the best foods I've ever eat in my life was a fresh Margherita pizza and way too much wine in Naples. We were jetlagged beyond belief, happy to be on land, and way too early for the supper crowds, but we sat there with that pizza and wine looking at the blown-off top of Vesuvius and were very happy indeed).

  14. Gillian, what makes your husband's meatloaf so special?

  15. Hi :)
    Thank you for the interview with Barbara & to Barbara for the thoughtful answers.
    It was very interesting to learn more about the author behind the books.
    All the best,
    PS - Cake, of course!

  16. Hi Barbara! Such an enjoyable interview :)

    I totally agree with the garlic, olive oil and eggs.

    Calorie free food I'd love...tacos. Followed closely by pasta with cream sauce. Mmmm.

  17. The meatloaf is the recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. He always uses oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs. He doubles (at least!) the sauce so there's plenty for the mashed potatoes. And you want to cook the meatloaf long enough that it has a caramelized crust before you coat it with the sauce and bake it more. Seriously, I can gain five pounds just writing about it. :)