Monday, November 14, 2022

The Princess and the Mirror

Here’s one of the fairy tales from The Rat Queen. This was one of the first things I wrote, even before I knew what the book was about. It’s a story told to Annike by her Aunt Ozols, a cautionary tale about accepting gifts from strange rats.

 

Once upon a time, a princess was born into the world with a full head of bouncing golden curls, rosy pink lips, and bright blue sparkling eyes. Her name was Princess Raisa. Her father, the king, proclaimed her to be the most beautiful child in all the land, and no one dared to disagree.

Remarkably, the princess became even more beautiful as she grew into a young woman. Princes and princelings came from far and wide in hopes of gaining her favor. The princess knew how beautiful she was, and she used her beauty to charm and befuddle her suitors. Many young men came and went, but not one of them did she deem worthy.

Alas, she was a rather foolish girl. Because her beauty was so great, she had no need for her wits, and therefore had little practice at using them. This is true of many beautiful people.

Time passed, and the queen, who was wise with years, saw changes in her daughter that others overlooked: a slight crease at the left corner of her lips, a hint of dryness at the tips of her golden tresses, a tiny mole just above her collarbone.

“Soon, you must choose amongst your many suitors,” she advised the princess. “The day will come when your beauty fades. You will want the love of a man who remembers you as you are at this moment.”

The princess shook her golden curls and laughed.

“I need no man,” she proclaimed. “As for growing old, I refuse to do so.”

The queen sighed. “Would that it were so simple.”

That night, when the princess retired to her rooms, her maidservant brought her a silver tray with two slices of toasted bread, a small ramekin of juneberry jam, and a flask of sweet rosewater, as was her custom. The princess ate the toast and jam, leaving the crusts on the tray, as always. In the morning they would be gone; she had never thought to wonder why.

She drank the rosewater, then examined herself in her full-length mirror. The mirror was framed with gold filigree, and had once belonged to her great-great-great-great-grandmother. She was as perfect as ever. She picked up her hand mirror, also bordered with gold filigree, and smiled at her reflection. Her teeth were white and even, her lips were plump, her skin was flawless . . . except . . . was that a tiny wrinkle at the corner of her eye? And where had that mole on her collarbone come from?

The princess threw the hand mirror across the room, crying out, “I refuse!” The mirror shattered against the stone wall. “I will not grow old!”

With that, she threw herself onto her feather bed, pulled the covers up over her head, and after many long minutes of tossing and turning, she slept.

Sometime later, the princess was awakened by the sound of gnawing. The princess was not afraid, as nothing bad had ever happened to her. She sat up. At the foot of her bed, illuminated by moonlight, sat a creature larger than a rabbit but smaller than a goose. It had shiny black eyes, long white whiskers, and a glossy sable pelt. It was eating the crust of toast the princess had left.

“It is true, as they say, you are quite lovely,” said the creature in a voice that sounded like paper tearing. “Despite your lack of a tail.” It twitched the tip of its long pink naked tail. “Would you like a tail?”

“No, thank you, Your Majesty,” the princess said politely. She did not know what sort of creature this was, but she recognized royalty when she saw it, a useful talent shared by all of royal blood.

“Are you sure? I can give you a tail. You should consider it.”

The princess considered it for only the briefest of moments, then said, “I fear my dresses would not accommodate such an appurtenance.”

The creature shrugged. “As you wish. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Er . . . what are you?” the princess asked.

“I am the Queen of the Rats,” said the Rat Queen.

The princess accepted this immediately, although she had never seen a rat, and had always assumed they were somewhat smaller.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Your Majesty.”

“As you should be. I come to offer you a boon.” The Rat Queen smiled. Now, a smile on a rat looks nothing like the smile on a person. It is more of a wrinkling of the nose and a flash of pink tongue, but the princess grasped the queen’s intent, and smiled back at her.

The Rat Queen frowned. In rats, frowning is a rapid blinking of the eyes. She said, “When you contort your face in that manner, you cause your skin to stretch and wrinkle.”

“I do not wrinkle,” said the princess.

“Ah, but you will! You will grow old and lined and your lips will narrow and your golden curls will grow thin and limp and gray. Your belly will sag, your ankles will thicken, and your back will curve. Brown age spots will speckle the backs of your hands.”

The princess stared at the Rat Queen in shock. Even her mother, the queen, had never spoken to her so harshly.

“Why are you saying these horrible things to me?” she asked.

“Because they are true . . . but perhaps not unavoidable! Would you like to remain as you are—young and beautiful?”

“I would like that,” said the princess.

“I can help,” said the Rat Queen. “As I said, I come to offer you a boon.”

“Why?” asked the princess.

The Rat Queen shrugged. “I could say it is because you are the firstborn daughter of a firstborn daughter of a firstborn daughter, but that is not an uncommon thing amongst royalty. Or I could tell you it is because our families have shared these walls and crevices for a hundred generations—

“Is that true?”

“A hundred rat generations. It would be seven generations for you.”

“Oh, I see.”

“The truth is, you made a wish as you broke the mirror that belonged to your great-great-great-great-grandmother, who made a pact with my great-great-great . . . I will not bore you with all the greats. Your family and mine have lived in harmony ever since. For our part, we eat only such scraps of food as will not be missed—such as this delicious crust. For your part, you permit us to live in your walls and secret spaces, so long as we remain out of sight. Every night while you sleep, my subjects emerge silently from their cracks and holes and devour every last crumb of food or splash of grease left on the floor, on the counters, on the dining tables, in the garbage bins, and on your nightstand.” The Rat Queen ate the last bit of crust, as if to demonstrate. “This is why every morning your silver tray is empty, and your cooks wake up to a perfectly clean kitchen.”

“That sounds like an excellent arrangement! But what does it have to do with mirrors and wishes?”

“I don’t know,” said the Rat Queen. “There is probably more to it. For example, every month at the full moon, we rats all leave the castle and gather around the moat holding paws, and the queen—your mother—stands upon the drawbridge and hurls handfuls of buckwheat into the water. A waste of buckwheat, in my opinion, but it is what we do, and no one knows why. Not even the queen.

“In any case, because of the mirror, I am compelled to grant your wish. Henceforth, you will not age, and your beauty will remain intact.”

“Thank you!” said the princess.

“There is a price, however. There is always a price.”

“I have gold,” said the princess.

The Rat Queen shook her head. “Gold is of no use to me. It must be a part of you. A finger, a toe, an ear . . .”

“But then I would not be beautiful!”

“Yes, that is a conundrum. But you have things to offer that will not make you less beautiful. A bit of your intelligence, perhaps?”

The princess was not terribly smart, as has been mentioned, but she was smart enough to know that intelligence was not a thing she possessed in excess.

“I am afraid I need what wits I have,” she said.

“How about joy? I would not need it all at once—say, a tenth of a tenth for each year that passes.”

The princess considered. The mathematics were beyond her, but a tenth of a tenth did not sound like a lot. Still, she was not overflowing with joy.

“No?” said the Rat Queen. “Is there nothing you have in excess?”

“My mother says I am too foolish.”

“I have no use for foolishness.”

“She also says I am too stubborn, too vain, and too proud.”

“I do not want your stubbornness, and vanity is something you will need if you wish to remain beautiful, for if you are not vain you will let yourself go. But pride? That I can accept.”

“A tenth of a tenth of my pride?”

“That should be sufficient.”

And so the princess remained young and beautiful to the end of her days.

#

Ozols stopped speaking, but continued to read for a few seconds, then lowered the book to her lap.

“That’s it?” Annie said.

Ozols roused herself. “Is that not enough?”

“How long did she live?”

“A long time.”

“But what about her pride?” Annie asked.

“I imagine she became less and less proud as the years passed.”

“A tenth of a tenth. That’s not so much.”

“At first, but with each passing year she grew less and less proud, and after a hundred and seventeen years her pride was mostly gone.”

“Then what?”

“I will read you the end, but first you must tell me about the crying.”

“I’m not crying.”

“When I first arrived yesterday you were crying. Why?”

Annie was too startled to say anything but the truth. “My best friend in the whole world doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.”

Ozols nodded. “That is deserving of your tears. But you are both young, and things change.” She lifted the book and continued to read.

“On the last day of her one hundred seventeenth year, the princess Raisa was as beautiful as ever, but when she beheld herself in her full-length mirror, she took no pleasure in it. Her pride had deserted her. She thought herself as plain as any peasant woman.

“She took up the silver tray by her bed and hurled it at her reflection. The mirror broke into a thousand shards, and as the glass shattered, so did the princess. The next morning, when her handmaid brought the princess her morning tea, she found nothing but a sea of broken glass and an empty nightgown.”

Annie thought for a moment.

“You are right,” she said. “I do not like it.”

Ozols shrugged. “One ought not expect a Litvanian tale to end happily, but there is always a lesson.”

“What’s the lesson?”

Ozols pursed her thin lips and gave her head a little shake. “It is different for every reader. It may be that pride is an essential part of us all, but pride in excess is unseemly. When I first read that story, I was no older than you, and I thought the lesson was to never give away one’s pride. Reading it now, I learned that everything has a price. What did you learn?”

“To never trust a talking rat?”

Ozols laughed. “You are incorrigible!”

“I don’t know what that means!”

“Do you know how to look things up in a dictionary?”

“Usually I just ask.”

Ozols tsked and stood up. She went to the bookshelf, lifted the heavy dictionary, and set it on Annie’s lap.

“Look up incorrigible,” she said.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

More Sausage Making

Writers often mention “Impostor Syndrome,” that unpleasant and sometimes crippling fear that you have no genuine talent and might be unmasked as a fraud at any moment. It’s a psychological phenomenon that it both entirely real and entirely made-up. Often it is self-owned in the form of a humble-brag: “I guess I got lucky.”

The flip side of “Impostor Syndrome” is “God Syndrome,” an equally common (but more useful) visitation. God Syndrome is the thing that allows writers to overcome Impostor Syndrome long enough to actually, you know, write something.

God Syndrome allows me to believe that the book I am writing will be the best book I have ever written—maybe the best book of its kind ever written by anyone.

I have never written a book without believing that it would be loved. With every new manuscript I send to my agent and my editor, I am certain that they will be astonished by its concept, execution, and overall quality.

Am I deluded? Of course! It never happens that way. Maybe my work will produce a few hints of astonished admiration—things I can grab onto and clutch to my godheart.* Enough to keep my God Syndrome alive for the next book—the book that will be even MORE amazing.

Anyway, thanks to God Syndrome, The Rat Queen will be available "everywhere" on Tuesday, October 11th.

*That’s another humble-brag. Sorry.**
**Not really sorry. (That's yet another humble-brag.)



Thursday, August 25, 2022

My First Rat

This is a true story. 

I was living with my parents and six younger siblings in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. My bedroom was a curtained-off corner of the basement. My bed was a an old door topped by a thin horsehair mattress, four feet off the floor, suspended from the rafters by chains. I was negotiating a bleak, ascetic, existential phase, reading Sartre and Gide and Beckett and Camus. Being seventeen, I felt simultaneously both stupid and brilliant, both fearful and capable of anything. I was paralyzed by the hopelessness and immensity of life, and overflowing with ambitious optimism. I contained multitudes. 

Late one January night I was reading The Plague by Albert Camus, a 1947 novel set in Oran, Algeria. The novel opens with rats—a lot of rats—emerging from the sewers and crevices and dying on the street. The invasion of dying rats is shortly followed by a plague, the city is sealed off, people die by the thousands, and so forth. It’s a sort of slow-motion horror novel; it kept me up well past midnight. 

As I was reading, I became aware of a faint sound from the cinderblock wall a few inches away from my pallet. A scratching sound. A gnawing sound. An animal sound. It went on and on. I imagined a rat chewing its way through the cinderblock, attempting to invade our safe suburban home. 

Reading became impossible. I got dressed, put on boots and a parka and gloves, grabbed a flashlight and a jar of peanut butter, and went out to the garage. It was snot-freezing cold, well below zero. After a few minutes of searching I found my old Havahart live trap underneath a deflated wading pool. I baited the trap with the peanut butter and placed it alongside the foundation, right outside where I calculated the head of my bed would be. I went back to bed. I opened my book. I listened. The gnawing sound stopped. Eventually, I fell asleep. 

By morning, the temperature had dropped to -18°F. I checked the trap, not really expecting to find anything, but inside the trap was a rat. The first rat I had ever seen in the wild. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. There is Significance here, I thought. What were the chances that this rat should arrive just as I was reading The Plague? Especially considering that I had never seen a rat in St. Louis Park, or anywhere else outside of a pet store. and I had always associated wild rats with big cities, not squeaky clean suburbs. What could this mean? The rat was smaller than I thought a rat should be—about the size of a chipmunk—and it was frozen popsicle solid. I had to pry it’s claws (they looked like little pink fingers) off trap’s wire grate. 

After disposing of the ratsicle, I reset the trap.  



That night, the gnawing resumed. 

In the morning, I had another small frozen rat. 

And, again, the next night, more gnawing. And a third frozen rat in the morning. There was no audible scratching or gnawing on the fourth night. I finished reading The Plague. Good book. When I checked the trap in the morning, I found the queen rat. She was twice the size of the others—a good nine inches long, not counting the tail. She, too, was, frozen, although not quite rock hard like the others. 

I continued to set the trap every night, but never caught another rat. 

That’s it. That’s my first rat story. 

My second rat story can be found here:

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Cover reveal!

Publishing is a sluggish craft, but the big wheel keeps on turning. THE RAT QUEEN has a new cover design, and I gotta say, I LOVE IT. Advance review copies (ARCs) should be out any day now, and I’m enjoying the weird melange of hope, dread, joy, and nausea that arrives with every new publication.

THE RAT QUEEN is new territory for me. It started out as a horror novel based on a childhood nightmare, but as the story unfolded it became a meditation on the nature of the human conscience disguised as a fairy tale composed of fairy tales, which is kind of what fairy tales are—and if you can unscramble that train wreck of a sentence you might like it.

Here’s the cover. Pub date is October 11th. Preorders much appreciated!

Cover art by Anastasia Suvarova



Thursday, December 30, 2021

It's been a while...

…since my last book. Coming up on three years. Not that I haven’t been writing. Just writing more slowly. And also delayed…by…supply…line…issues in the publishing industry. You remember the great toilet paper “shortage”? It ain’t just the paper you wipe your butt with that’s hard to come by. I’m hearing a lot of weeping from authors whose books got great reviews, or won an award, or hit a bestseller list, or whose aunt wants to buy ten copies for her book club—and there are no copies to be found. 


In retrospect, it was a good time to not be launching a new book. We’ve had two years with very few public appearance opportunities. No school visits, no bookstore signings, no conferences. This may change in the latter half of 2022. I hope so, anyway, because I have a new book coming out in October.


A lot can change in ten months. This pandemic was always managable in theory, but we are creeping toward the sort of social responsibilty that will make it manageable in practice. There are still too many anti-vax anti-mask people out there. There will always be some, just as there are still drunk drivers, cigarette smokers, and untrained, irresponsible gun owners. But their overall numbers are waning. Or so I choose to believe.


Anyway, I have this new book to look forward to. It’s called THE RAT QUEEN, and yes, there are rats. And a queen. Ten months is a  long way out, so I’ll say no more. Later, I’ll say plenty, because I am unhealthily excited about this one. I’ve seen a cover design. Here:

 

(It’s tiny because I’m not sure this is the final design.)


Be well, stay safe, and let us bring hope with us into the coming year.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Post-Thanksgiving Post

After last year’s pared back celebrations, I was really looking forward to T-Day 2021. It wasn’t the usual full-bore extended family circus because we had a couple of anti-vaxxers who did not attend, and a few others who opted for smaller, safer venues. Still, there were about two dozen of us.

 

The food was great: Turkey, goose, duck, and a plethora of sides. For apppetizers there were stuffed mushrooms, sockeye gravlax, a beautiful cheese board, and more. I brought two crocks of rillettes—one duck and one pork, served with baguette croutons, cornichons and pickled okra. (If you don’t know what rillettes are, ask the internet.) I had planned to bring duck breast prosciutto as well, but I weighed the breasts this morning and they need to hang a few more days. We had four pies—apple, pumpkin, wild huckleberry, and wild blueberry.


I meant to take a photo of the presentation, but all I have is this preliminary stage of the rillettes:




 

The high point of the evening for me was the following exchange over dessert:

 

Cousin Tim: I have a joke.

Everybody: *groans* 

(CT likes to make up his own jokes, and they are far too often racist or homophobic or otherwise offensive.)

Sister-in-Law: Tim, don’t.

CT: It’s okay.

SiL: Just don’t. Seriously.

CT: But it’s good! This guy has a pet rabbit—

SiL: Tim, stop! I’ll tell you what, let’s you and I go into the next room. You can tell me the joke, and I’ll tell you if it’s okay to tell.

CT: Really, it’s fine. This man has a rabbit that won’t wake up. He brings it to the vet. The vet examines the rabbit and says, “This rabbit is dead.” “Are you sure?” the man asks. “Maybe it’s just sleeping!” The vet whistles and a black lab trots into the room.

Me: Why is the lab black?

CT: Okay, a white lab. So the dog walks up to the rabbit and paws it and sniffs it all over. The dog snorts and leaves. The vet says, “See? Dead.” “I can’t believe it!” the man exclaims. “It was fine this morning! Are you sure?” The vet sighs and snaps his fingers. A cat comes into the room, hops up on the table, and sniffs the rabbit. The cat hisses and departs. “The rabbit is dead,” says the vet. The man sighs and says, “Okay, I guess you’re right. What do I owe you?” “Two thousand dollars,” says the vet. The man gasps. “Two thousand dollars!? To tell me I have a dead rabbit?” “Well,” says the vet, “I performed an examination, then there were lab tests, and a cat scan…”

(Moment of silence)

Everybody: *relieved laughter*

SiL: That was pretty good, Tim. I’m sorry I doubted you.

CT: I have another one.

Everybody: Nooooo!

 

I have a lot of rillettes left, so I’m making pierogi for the freezer. One batch filled with pork, porcini, and sauerkraut, the other stuffed with duck and potatoes. 

 

I hope you all had a lovely holiday!

Thursday, September 2, 2021

"Poached by an Angel"

A little more than ten years ago I wrote about how to poach an egg. 

 

I was wrong about some things. 

 

Since posting that blog I have poached more than 3000 eggs, and I have learned a few things about what works, what doesn’t, and what matters.

 

My basic technique has not changed: Bring water to a boil in an eight-inch nonstick pan, turn off heat, drop in two eggs, and wait until the eggs reach your preferred texture—ten minutes, more or less. Add a little heat if they seem too soft for you. Trim off the “loose white” (the frilly stuff) and use a slotted spatula to transfer the eggs to whatever you’re going to eat them on. For me, that is usually an English muffin, toasted sourdough, hash browns, oatmeal, polenta, or a bowl of greens.

 

I also stand by my original advice to use plain water. Adding salt or vinegar won’t help. And you can forget about swirling the water to create a vortex and dropping the eggs into the center of the whirlpool. None of those techniques are necessary or useful.

 

Here is what has changed: In my original post, I go on about the importance of the age of the eggs, and how to read the Julian date on the egg carton. I have since learned that whether the egg is one hour, one day, one week, or four weeks old is irrelevant to their poachability. What is important is the age of the hen.

 

If your eggs have a nice, plump, coherent inner white, they were laid by a young hen. If they spread out in a frilly mess across the bottom of the pan, the hen was older. I learned this from the book “Locally Laid,” by Lucie B. Amundson, a Minnesota egg farmer.

 

Unless you raise your own birds, you will not be able to determine the age of the hen, so don’t fret about it. Some eggs will be better than others. Most will be just fine.

 

Another thing I have learned: Cracking the eggs into a bowl and then sliding them into the hot water is not helpful. These days I crack the eggs directly into the water. One less bowl to wash.

Following is the original, ridiculously complicated post from 2010:

A perfect poached egg is a thing of beauty—an aesthetic and nutritional miracle that is, happily, within anyone’s reach. The technique is simple, and even the priciest organic chicken eggs cost less than a quarter apiece. One would be hard-pressed to name a more versatile and inexpensive delicacy.

Recently I served a poached egg to my friend Susan. She looked at the egg perched on it’s mound of hash browns and said, “It looks like it was poached by an angel.”

Alas, for every angelically-poached egg, there are many thousands of less-than-heavenly poached eggs.

The phrase “perfect poached eggs” gets about half a million hits on Google. There are a lot of people who think they know how to do it. I have looked at all 500,000 of these sites, and I am sorry to report that nearly all of them are flat-out wrong.

I have poached a lot of eggs, using every technique available to me, including adding vinegar and/or salt to the water, swirling the water before adding the egg, using water at various temperatures and pans of various sizes, bringing the eggs to room temperature before poaching, and employing assorted mechanical poaching devices. I have poached eggs individually and en masse. I have poached medium, large, extra-large, and jumbo eggs. I have poached eggs in the oven, on the stovetop, and in a microwave. I have poached emu eggs in the outback. Okay, not true about the emu eggs, but I have poached.

My first few hundred attempts were not perfect, but over the past few years I have developed a simple technique that produces a perfect or near-perfect poached egg most of the time.

The egg: Of course, if you have access to a good farmers’ market—or better yet, if you have chickens—freshness will not be an issue. The happier the chickens are, the better their eggs will taste.Freshness is the key. Learn to read and interpret the date on the egg carton. In the U.S., there is a three-digit number on the carton that tells you when the egg was packed. This number, from 001 to 365, is the “Julian date,” with 001 representing January 1, and 365 (or 366, during leap years) indicating December 31. The “sell by date” is usually thirty days after the “pack date,” or about five weeks after the egg leaves the hen. For poaching purposes you want an egg that is not more than two weeks old. If the egg is older than that, make yourself an omelet.

The grade of the egg is somewhat important. Grade A eggs can be fine for poaching, but Grade AA eggs usually work better. Egg grading is an arcane business, but it does take into account the firmness of the albumen (the white), and that makes a big difference to the appearance and texture of the final product. Shell color, however, is irrelevant—that depends entirely on the breed of hen, and is no indication of quality. Any size egg will work—keeping in mind that the bigger the egg, the longer it will take to cook. I usually buy whichever size has the most recent date on the carton.

The pan: I use a ten-inch non-stick skillet. A smaller pan will work, but its lesser volume means that the water will cool more quickly when you add the eggs. Adjust cooking time accordingly.

The water: Use plain tap water. No vinegar or salt! I don’t know what it is with these vinegar-adders. Acidulating the water does nothing good for the egg’s texture or appearance, and everything bad for the taste.

The cooking: Fill the pan to within ½ inch of the top and heat the water. When it reaches a boil, turn it off and let it sit for a minute while you prepare the egg for immersion.

Your egg should be cold, straight from the fridge. Anyone who tells you different is wrong. A cold egg will hold its shape better. Crack the egg into a small bowl. It is important here to understand the structure of the egg. (This is not biology class, so don't worry - I’m not going to get into a discussion of the chalazae and vitelline membrane and so forth.) I think of an egg as being composed of four parts: the shell, the firm white, the loose white, and the yolk. The “firm white” is the thicker albumen that surrounds the yolk. In a fresh egg, this will comprise most of the white. The “loose white” is the thinner, more liquid albumen—the part that spreads out around the edge like a frill when an egg is sautéed. The older the egg, the more the “firm white” breaks down to become “loose white.”

When cracking the egg into the bowl, take care that the sharp edges of the shell do not tear into the firm white. This is important! Tearing into the “firm white” will produce a lopsided end result. Be gentle. Respect the egg.

Carefully lower the egg into the hot water. The water temperature will be somewhere around 180-190° F. Believe it or not, the precise water temperature is not that important, so long as it is at least 160°, and less than boiling.

If you have performed your task well, and if the egg is fresh, it will look something like this:

Once the egg is in the water, do something else for five or six minutes. Fry some potatoes, slice some bread, make a cup of coffee, check your email—whatever. Now look at your egg. The white will be opaque. The loose white will have spread out a bit. Carefully trim the loose white away with your spatula. Slide the edge of the spatula between the egg and the bottom of the pan. The egg will be quite jiggly. At this point, the process becomes very personal. It’s between you and the egg. If you like your egg quite loose, lift it carefully from the water and serve at once. If you like it on the firm side, you can turn on the heat for a few minutes. Not too hot though—the water should never boil. If your water gets too hot, the egg white will become unpleasantly firm.

I mentioned before that the exact water temperature is unimportant. I lied a little. Sorry. The final texture of the egg can vary tremendously depending on time and temperature, but because one person’s perfectly poached egg is another person’s slimy nightmare, I cannot make specific recommendations. David Chang (Momofuku) poaches his eggs for thirty minutes at 160°. Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) poaches eggs at about 205° (a simmer) for less than two minutes. Two completely different approaches, both producing excellent, albeit different, results.

IMHO, the slower the poach, the nicer the texture. It is possible to slow-poach an egg to the point where the yolk is nearly (but not quite) solid, while the white remains soft and yielding. This is the Momofuku ideal. A fast poaching results in a much firmer white contrasting with a runny yolk, as preferred by Thomas Keller. I like an egg that is somewhere in between.

Like I said, it’s personal. I considered giving exact water temperature, timing, egg size, and water volume…but really, this is worth learning to do by feel. There are so many variables—altitude, egg temperature, cookware material and weight, barometric pressure, moon phase, pollen count, etc.—that the more precise the instructions, the more likely you are to fail.

To test the doneness of your egg, lift it from the water with a slotted spatula** and look at it. Experience is important here. After a few tries, you will learn to gauge the doneness of the egg by the way it behaves on the spatula.

Cooking more than one egg at a time: Some cooks recommend lowering each egg into the water individually. Bah. That is counterproductive and completely unnecessary. You can crack two, three, or four eggs into a bowl together and slip them all into the water bath at once (gently, please). The eggs will not stick together, and they will all get done at the same time. One thing to watch out for though, is that multiple eggs will lower the water temperature more quickly, so you will have to add more time or more heat than you would for a single egg.

Serving: Recently, I have been enjoying my poached eggs on hash browns.* They are also quite nice on toasted bread, or eaten with a spoon from a small cup. You could swing out and make Eggs Benedict, or even serve them cooled to room temperature on a green salad.

Concerning perfection: Not every poached egg will come out perfect. Sometimes you will tear the albumen when cracking the egg, and get a lop-sided result. Sometimes the white will be too runny, and your egg will come out looking like a shallow disc with the yolk jutting up from the middle. These eggs will taste just fine, despite their lack of visual appeal.

“We aspire to perfection, but we do not insist upon it.”

* My article on “Perfect Hash Browns” will be coming soon.

** The slotted spatula will make it easier to keep the egg from sliding off as you lift it out of the water.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Four Things I Will Do This Spring, in Chronological Order

I'm not doing a lot of book stuff this spring, which is good, because there will be mushrooms in the woods that need picking, and yard work to do, and a novel to finish. Here's what I've got:

April 6—Minnesota Book Awards
Most state book awards draw from a national pool, but Minnesota is one of the few states with so much talent that we have a high-profile literary award for only “our” authors. This year the Minnesota Book Awards recognize nine categories, including three(!!!) books for younger readers categories: Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Children’s Literature. I especially like that Middle Grade books get their own category—possibly because my novel Otherwood is a finalist. Mary and I will be attending the ceremony on Saturday. I’ve won four previous MBAs, and I think Kate DiCamillo has a bunch, so it’s probably Jacqueline West’s or Pat Schmatz’s turn to win. However it pans out, I’ll be applauding.


 
April 23—Paperback Release of Slider
With a cool new cover design! This middle grade novel explores autism, eating contests, middle-child syndrome, Darth Vader, and Wonder Woman. Not really, but those subjects come up. It’s mostly a funny book containing (I am told) Important Life Lessons that somehow got in there without me knowing it. No events on the schedule, but there will be copies at the Red Balloon event (see below).



April 25—The Edgar Awards
The Mystery Writers of America’s annual Edgar Allan Poe awards will be in New York, and we are going! I get to wear my tuxedo for only the fourth time ever. Otherwoodis a finalist in the Juvenile (aka middle grade) category, and I could not be more delighted. Funny thing though—I never thought of this book as a “mystery,” but I guess it is.



May 14—Road Tripped Launch at The Red Balloon Bookshop
Yes, I wrote another YA novel. Possibly my last, as I’m more interested in Middle Grade these days. This will be a multi-author event. Jacqueline West (Last Things) and Kirsten Cronn-Mills (Wreck) also have new YA titles coming out, and Bryan Bliss will be there to celebrate the new paperback edition of his National Book Award finalist We’ll Fly Away. I haven’t yet read Jacqueline’s book , but Kirsten’s is a powerful gut-punch, and Bryan’s book is killer, literally. The event is at 6:30 p.m.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Returning to Pippi and Her Ilk

In honor of International Women's Day, I am reposting this item from six years ago. It is the first of five posts I wrote about strong young women in film and literature, including Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm), Scarlett O'Hara, Emma Bovary, Becky Sharp, Emma Jean Lazarus, Veronica Mars, and, of course, Buffy.


MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2013


Strong Young Women Part 1: Pippi Longstocking


It started for me back in the third grade, with Astrid Lindgren’s 1950 novel, Pippi Longstocking: I love spunky, tough, resourceful young women. 

That’s one of the reasons I loved The Hunger Games. But I have to say, Pippi could kick Katniss from District 13 to Villa Villekulla and back again. Could Katniss lift a horse? No. But Pippi could do it with one hand.

We writer/librarian/teacher/reader types pride ourselves in our literary broadmindedness. With tens of thousands (give or take) of new titles being published every year, we like to think that we are living in a golden age of Anything Goes. That is partly true…and partly not. Would Pippi Longstocking be published today? I mean, other than as a self-published ebook?

Pippi owns a number of handguns, which she fires into the ceiling for fun and gives them freely to her friends. She uses the kitchen floor to roll out cookie dough, and eats raw eggs. She is impudent and disrespectful to adults, and has no respect for any rules or laws. She physically attacks policemen, and suffers no consequences for her actions. She has no math skills. She is functionally illiterate, and has no interest in reading. She is a heavy coffee drinker, and lives on (mostly) cookies and caramels.

Send a manuscript like that to Random Penguin, and see how fast they reject it.

Of course, many of today’s kids’ books contain elements that would have made them unpublishable fifty years ago. LGBT characters, references to certain body parts, and anti-government sentiments, for example. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back for our “open-mindedness” just yet. The only reason Pippi Longstocking is still in print is because she has been grandmothered in as a “classic.”

Today, we require certain approved behaviors in our heroines. Some of my own female characters have been criticized for being bitchy (Sweetblood and The Big Crunch), unrepentant and unpunished (How to Steal a Car), physically violent (What Boys Really Want), and dishonest (all of the above). It is true, and I hold Pippi Longstocking and her ilk to blame.

Next up: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Some Unsolicited Thoughts on Self-Publishing

For about twenty years now I’ve been watching and (mostly) staying out of the debates concerning the viability of self-published books, and the way they are received by reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers. There is a lot of anger out there in the self-published community, and there has been a lot of dismissive elitism on the part of traditional publishers and their authors. Conflict happens.

Much of the disdain heaped upon self-published books has to do with poor or nonexistent editing. Yes, most authors who self-publish have the good sense to hire an editor. There are many heavily advertised editorial services available. Some are good, some not so good. But even the best freelance editor might not be enough.

My experience as a reader has been that most self-published works need not just editorial advice, but editorial interventionas well.

Most writers, when they start out, have no idea what an editor does. I certainly didn’t. I did not expect, for example, that the editor of my novel The Mortal Nutswould suggest taking a minor character and making him the protagonist. I did not expect that he would tell me to make my second book “funnier.” I did not expect another editor to ask me to add 100 pages to a 200 page novel.

My first editor, Bob Asahina, once said to me, after listening to me argue against one of his editorial suggestions, “Well, you can do what you want, Pete. It’ll matter a lot more to you than it will to me.” I took his suggestion.

For my recent young adult novel Eden West—my twenty-eighth published novel—the first editorial letter I received from editor Deb Noyes was twenty-nine pages long. It took me three months to revise the manuscript. Her second letter was much shorter and I was able to address her concerns in a few weeks. I think the book turned out pretty good.

But suppose I had decided to self-publish Eden West. I could have hired an editor—maybe one as talented as Deb Noyes. But that editor’s job description would have been very, very different. For one thing, she would have a different employer: she would be working for me. That alters the author/editor dynamic in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle. A freelance editor working directly for an author has a vastly different mindset.

You can see this dynamic even in the world of traditional publishing. When an author becomes so famous and sells so many books that he or she has a significant impact on a publisher’s bottom line, the relationship between author and editor changes, subtly at first, then dramatically. 

A midlist or emerging author who sells a book through traditional channels usually regards his editor with some combination of awe, fear, and desperation. The editor (as perceived by the author) controls the purse strings, and has the power to make or break a book by means of cover quality, catalog positioning, marketing budget, and the semi-existent whisper line,* aka “buzz.” This spills over onto the art part of the deal—when editors suggest changes to a manuscript, they speak with a big stick in hand. This is largely a matter of the author’s perception, of course. The reality is that the editor is at the mercy of corporate and marketing forces, and while she can help a book, her power is not so great as it seems.

No matter what the reality, for most midlist authors in a traditional author/editor relationship, the editor’s word carries tremendous weight. For the superstars, not so much. Have you ever noticed how many superstar authors’ early novels are shorter, more powerful, and more elegantly constructed? And how their later work is often bloated, sloppy, and self-indulgent? I could provide many examples,** but I’m sure you’ll have no problem supplying your own.

Why is this? I believe the change in the author/editor dynamic is largely responsible. The editor-of-a-superstar has a little demon on her shoulder saying, “This guy is a genius! His numbers are fantastic! Don’t screw it up! If something doesn’t seem quite right, well, keep him happy or he’ll jump to Harper or Knopf. If he wants to go on a tangent for thirty pages on one of his pet topics, let him. The book is going to sell regardless.”

That same editor, working with an emerging author, will go butt ass to make that book the best book it can be. She or he will argue for and sometimes insist on changes—often big changes: Make the villain the hero. Cut four hundred pages. Write it over in third person. Make the main character younger, older, funnier, smarter, stronger, more likeable…you name it. And then, once the author makes those changes, there will be another round of edits, and another, and possibly even more. And that’s long before a copyeditor sees the manuscript.

How does this relate to self-published authors? Well, even a hard working, well-intentioned writer who digs into his savings and pays big bucks for an editor, and a copyeditor, and a proofreader, and a book designer, and a cover artist (You need all of them. Really, you do.), he will be working with folks whose mission is to make the customer happy. And who is the customer? The author.

It’s a minefield, and relatively few self-published authors—even those with decent writing chops and a great idea—have the time, the funds, the experience, or the disposition to negotiate it. Those few who do have my admiration and respect. Unfortunately, the vastmajority of self-pubbed books are a severely flawed, and that makes booksellers, reviewers, librarians, and end market readers chary of shelling out their time and/or money to look at them.

I have read dozens of self-published books, most them by friends or associates, or because the book dealt with some niche topic that caught my interest. I have enjoyed many of them, but in every case I encountered scads of wince-inducing moments that shrieked for editorial intervention.

That’s kind of sad. Because I know there are a lot of good books that need a little help, or a lot of help, but for whatever reason the author couldn’t—or chose not to—break into the business through traditional publishing.

Does this mean that self-publishing is not viable? Not at all. But the challenges faced by the self-published go far beyond marketing and distribution. Those who want to make a good book and publish it themselves should be aware of how much the editorial relationship matters.


*A little joke for you sci-fi geeks.

**Michael Korda’s memoir Another Life provides a fascinating look inside the editor/superstar relationship—particularly the section on working with Harold Robbins.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Lumberjack and the Rat Queen

I am in the murky middle of a new middle-grade novel at the moment, and grasping at any excuse to avoid making the difficult decisions I need to make to crawl forward out of the murk. That means a lot of Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, crossword puzzles, and cooking. Yesterday I made posole, and managed to use about several pots and pans, the blender, the food processor, the Instant Pot, and a host of utensils. It was good. It probably would have been just as good if I'd simply thrown all the ingredients in a pot, set it on low, and walked away. But I succeeded in avoiding writing for about three hours.

When I finally got back to the heinous task of dealing with plot issues, I began by looking for things to delete, because deleting is easier than leteing. I found a lot, and shortened the manuscript by a good twenty pages, giving me a daily word count of negative bazillion.

One of the sections I deleted was a fairy tale. There will be several short fairy tales in the novel, each of them moving the story forward—or so I hope. But this particular tale turned out to be too dark and violent for the book I want to write. 

But not too dark for my blog! Here it is:


The Lumberjack and the Rat Queen
A Litvanian Fairy Tale

Once upon a time a lumberjack chopped down a tree and it fell on a young wood rat, killing it instantly. The lumberjack felt bad about the rat, but there was nothing to be done, so he continued working. Later that day, as he rested upon a fresh stump, he was approached by the Queen of the Rats.
“You have killed my grandchild,” the Rat Queen said.
“I am sorry,” said the lumberjack. 
“It is not enough to be sorry, therefore I curse you.”
“But I did not intend it!” objected the lumberjack.
“I curse you nonetheless! I take away your conscience!”
“My conscience?” The lumberjack thought for a moment. “How is that such a bad thing? My conscience has plagued me all my life. If truly gone it be, then I say good riddance!”
The Rat Queen laughed and scampered off.
That night, the lumberjack told his wife what had happened.
The wife, a thin, sinewy woman with a lengthy nose and a poor complexion, asked, “What was the nature of her curse?”
“She said she would take away my conscience.”
The wife thought for a moment, then said, “Is that so bad? Your conscience has held you back from many opportunities. For example, our neighbor’s bull sometimes grazes near the edge of the forest. If you were to lure him into the trees we would have beef for a year, and no one would be the wiser.”
“But it is not our bull!” said the lumberjack.
The wife shrugged. “Perhaps you still have your conscience after all.”
The next day, the lumberjack was chopping logs into firewood near the edge of the forest when he saw his neighbor’s bull nearby. He approached the bull slowly, for bulls are moody creatures, and spoke to it softly. He held out the apple he planned to eat for lunch. The bull snorted and followed as the lumberjack backed into the forest. As soon as they were beneath the trees, the lumberjack swung his ax and slew the hapless beast.
That night he and his wife enjoyed thick, bloody steaks with their turnips and kale. By morning he had salted and packed the rest of the beef in barrels, while his neighbor remained mystified as to what had become of his prized bull.
“Does your conscience bother you now?” the lumberjack’s wife asked.
“Not at all!” said the lumberjack.
“Nor does mine,” she said, “for I too have met the Rat Queen. Last spring I caught one of her rat children in the coop making off with a hen’s egg. I killed it with a pitchfork. The queen visited me that very night.”
“Then neither one of us has a conscience!” the man exclaimed.
A few days later, the lumberjack hauled a load of firewood to town to sell. Because it was mid-summer, he found few customers.
“Master Grocer!” he called to the grocer from his cart. “I know you have not enough firewood for the coming winter. Allow me to sell you a rick. A mere seven coppers!”
The grocer looked askance at the wagon piled with freshly cut logs. 
“I need no wood until winter,” he said.
“It will cost you more then!”
“Then I will have to pay more. In any case, your firewood is green. You should set it out for a season to dry.”
The grocer went back into his shop. As the lumberjack brooded on whom to approach next, the grocer’s daughter, a fresh-faced lass with golden hair, stepped out of the shop. The lumberjack had always thought her lovely. 
“You are the most beautiful girl in all the parish,” he said to her. “Come with me. I would take you for a ride through the forest.”
“You?” The grocer’s daughter laughed incredulously. “You are old, and your hands are rough, and you are married.” With that, she flounced back inside.
The lumberjack finally sold two ricks to the blacksmith, but only after reducing his price to four coppers per rick. He rode home with his cart still mostly full, brooding. He imagined the grocer’s daughter sitting beside him. How unfair it was that he should be married to a scrawny, long-nosed woman such as his wife. Did he not deserve better?
At home, his dark mood deepened as his wife berated him for selling so little wood. When he could stand it no more he struck her on the cheek. To his surprise, she took up a kitchen knife and came at him. He slapped the knife aside and struck her again, and again and again until she moved no more.
The lumberjack dragged her to the shed and chopped her body to pieces and stuffed her in a barrel and covered her with salt. He set the barrel beside the barrels of beef filled with his neighbor’s prize bull. He then emptied the wood from his cart and drove to town. The grocer, he knew, lived in the rooms behind his shop. The lumberjack took his ax and broke down the door. He slew the grocer and the grocer’s wife, tied up the daughter, and threw her in the back of his cart.
As he rode out of town, several citizens chased him down. The girl was saved and the lumberjack was dragged of to the side of the road. They cut off his hands and feet and rolled him into the ditch.
As he lay there bleeding, the Rat Queen happened by. She saw the lumberjack bleeding his last drops of blood, and she laughed.
“How can you laugh?” the man said. “I am dying, and you are to blame!”
“Lumberjack, you are correct,” the Rat Queen said with a smile. “I will return to you that which was taken.”
And with that, the lumberjack’s conscience returned, and he left this world filled with shame and remorse.

“I do not like these stories,” Annie said. “I do not like the way they end.”
“Some are better than others,” Miz Ozols agreed.
“Was the lumberjack glad to have his conscience back?”
“I rather doubt it. It was his final punishment.”
“That is very sad.”
Miz Ozols shrugged. “It is Litvanian,” she said. “In Litvania we tell sad tales.”