It’s officially summer and the 4thof July (ugh) is lurking. I startle at explosions and feel bad for all the creatures—crows, raccoons, songbirds, my little old man Maltese. I’m affronted by the boom of Black-Cats and M-80s…which is why we’re headed to our neighbors in the North (who’ve banned single use plastic bags!! Hooray Mr. Trudeau!) We’re taking a summer road trip to kayak, hike, and swim in the cold Pacific! I made a road trip playlist, which you can access here if you wish, but be forewarned, it’s eclectic yet upbeat, meant to keep us singing and moving on the highway.
As you may know by now, we’ve seen the last issue of Tin House Magazine. The final issue is a beauty with fiction from Karen Russell, Anthony Doerr, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Etgar Keret, Elizabeth McKenzie, and Joan Silbur. Such abundance! Poetry from CJ Evans, Nick Flynn, D.A. Powell, Brenda Hillman, Victoria Chang. Essays from Karen Shepard. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the beach, the lake, the bus ride across town. If some of these writers are new to you, hooray! You’ve met new literary friends to accompany you through the trials, truths and triumphs (small and big) of your life.
I’ve been teaching a good bit this summer and as always with class prep, I must face my very disorganized teaching files. I’ve got notes on how to build strong characters mixed in with a recipe for fajitas. I’ve got ideas about tension in a file with my insurance policies…well that one makes sense. In teasing things apart, I discovered these three things I thought worth sharing.
On Character: Of course we know characters are revealed through physical details (how they look, what they wear, their quirks and habits), what they say (what they don’t say), thoughts and beliefs, their yearnings and perversities, but also remember, it is best to reveal all of this in motion. A character unfolds through action and conflict, but they also infold, meaning revelations come through their inner lives. The action in character building is both forward and down. Forward into the action of the story, and drilling down into the heart and desires of the character. (Read Alice Munro and Joy Williams for a master class in characterization.)
On Authorial Custody: How much control does an author relinquish to the reader when the work is finally in her hands? A low custody writer views reading as a creative act, leaving lots of room for the reader to relate to and interpret the work in proximity to their lives. A high custody writer may push the reader toward their intended meaning, diminishing the risk of misinterpretation. There is danger of bewilderment in a low custody author and danger of over control in a high custody writer. Where are you? What type of author do you like to read? It’s something to consider in your work. You want your reader to be curious, but not confused. You want her to extrapolate and be engaged, but not be lectured at. Ursula K. Le Guin suggests, “The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
Adjacent to the question of control and how much we wish to relinquish to our readers (which, come on, is really a false question, for once the work is out of our hands it becomes something new for each and every reader our work is lucky to engage with) we should consider the difference between Mystery and Tension. (Thanks, Will Allison for this conversation.) Tension arises when the reader wonders how will the secret (which the reader already knows) be divulged to the character with stakes in the story. Mystery is a less compelling form of suspense, it’s simply, what is the secret? Whereas Tension is, holy crap! How is this going to shake out? Alice McDermott described this to us in a workshop, and I paraphrase, “If I invite a guest to workshop and she arrives and sits quietly to observe, you may have mild interest. But, if I invite the guest and let you know her secret, that she was just released from jail for murdering her fiancé, you will be watching her with much more interest and engagement.” This difference is something to keep in mind as you consider withholding information in your stories or memoirs or essays. What is the value of keeping the reader in the dark? How will you spark the most intrigue?
At a time when vegetables are abundant and the days are bright and long, we’re firing up the grill, taking picnics to the beach or the park, and having friends over for brunch on the deck, it seems like a good idea to share dressings and sauces, yes? Here are four I’ll be making over and over again this summer. Roasted vegetables, grilled meat, grilled salmon, chicken, omelets, tofu, grilled bread, cold pasta, on a sammie, add a spoonful to a simple vinaigrette, yes please!
Spicy Almond Sauce (inspired by The Savory Way, Deborah Madison)
4 lg. cloves of garlic
1 lg. bunch cilantro, leaves and upper stems only
1 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 TBS peanut oil (I have used olive in a pinch)
1 TBS dark sesame oil
1 TBS hot chili oil
½ c almond butter
½ c soy sauce
2 TBS sugar or agave or honey
3 TBS rice wine vinegar
Hot water to thin if necessary
Place garlic, cilantro and ginger in food processor and pulse till finely chopped. Add oils, almond butter, soy sauce, and sweetener, process until well combined. Scrape down sides, add vinegar and hot water if you choose to thin. Store in an airtight jar. This will keep for months.
Chimichurri Sauce (An amalgamation of recipes)
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 Fresno chile or jalapeño, finely chopped
3–4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced or finely chopped
½ cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ cup finely chopped cilantro
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 Tbsp. finely chopped oregano
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 – 2 TBS capers, finely chopped
Combine shallot, chile, garlic, vinegar, capers and salt in a medium bowl. Let sit 10 minutes. Stir in cilantro, parsley, and oregano. Using a fork, whisk in oil.
Coconut Lemongrass Dressing (from Food52)
¼ c just-squeezed lime juice
2 ½ TBS fish sauce
1/3 c full-fat coconut milk
1 TBS light brown sugar
1 ½ TBS grated lime zest (about 1 lime)
2 TBS fresh lemongrass, finely chopped
½ serrano pepper, seeded and minced
1 garlic clove, minced
4 TBS finely chopped fresh cilantro
3 TBS finely chopped fresh mint
In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, coconut milk, and sugar in a small bowl until the sugar is dissolved. Add the remaining dressing ingredients and stir to combine. Set aside
Miso Sesame Dressing (from Smitten Kitchen)
1 TBS minced fresh ginger
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 TBS white miso (the mildest kind)
2 TBS tahini (make certain it is fresh! Not that bitter dried up jar from 9 months ago! Other nut butters can work in a pinch)
1 TBS honey
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 TBS toasted sesame oil
2 TBS olive oil
Combine everything in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Stop to scrape down the sides once.
And a bonus:
Take some butter, + or – 3TBs, some feta cheese, + or – 4 ozs., a handful of chopped cilantro, a handful of chopped mint. Put it all in a bowl. Steam some corn on the cob, throw it in the bowl hot and, with your hands, rub all that deliciousness all over the corn. Man! I’ve also put this amazing mixture on top of grilled salmon with terrific success.