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'As We Get Older, We Become More Ourselves,' Says Author Mary Gaitskill

Before she turned to writing, the National Book Award nominee ran away from home and worked as a stripper. Her new collection of personal essays is Somebody with a Little Hammer.


Other segments from the episode on May 9, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 9, 2017: Interview with Mary Gaitskill; Interview with Julia Turshen.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Mary Gaitskill, first became known for her 1988 collection of short stories "Bad Behavior" about people whose relationships and sexual relationships were outside of what was defined as normal. One of those stories was adapted into the movie "Secretary" with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.

In Gaitskill's new collection of essays dating from 1994 to 2016, Gaitskill writes, in case you don't know, I'm supposedly sick and dark. But as Sariah Dorbin recently wrote in the LA Review of Books, it should be obvious that she is neither one, nor the other, that she is, in fact, a voice of reason and sanity, of piercing intelligence and generous humanity. Gaitskill's 2005 novel "Veronica" was on our book critic Maureen Corrigan's list of her favorite books of that year and was nominated for a National Book Award. Maureen described Gaitskill's 2015 novel "The Mare" as a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion. I spoke with Gaitskill about her new collection "Somebody With A Little Hammer." In one of her essays, she writes about working as a stripper when she was just starting out on her own.

Mary Gaitskill, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that you were a PC feminist before PC (laughter) was even named. So what was it like for you as a feminist to be stripping and to have so many men lustfully gazing at you? Did you find it to be, like, affirming, an ego booster? Was it threatening? Was it demeaning? Did it make you feel more valuable or less valuable - you know, like, what - how - I know you were doing it because you needed to make a living. But when you were on stage or whatever, like, what was it like for you?

MARY GAITSKILL: Well, I - that was kind of...

GROSS: Is stage the wrong word? (Laughter).

GAITSKILL: No, it was actually a stage.

GROSS: OK, good.

GAITSKILL: The places that I was working were actually old-school strip clubs. They were not - I did work sometimes in bars, but the main places I worked were actually a kind of a cross between - like they did - there was one place that actually had a band still.

GROSS: It's like a burlesque era (laughter). Yeah.

GAITSKILL: Well, it was transitioning from the burlesque era to the topless go-go bar era. Like, there were women who still, like, had boas and did a very old-school strip act. It was not - you - like, customers weren't allowed to touch you. There wasn't - there's very little tipping. They couldn't touch you. They couldn't, like, stick money in your underpants or anything like that. But I was very young. I was like 21. And I wouldn't say at that point I was a PC feminist, but I was kind of getting there. I was thinking about things in a different way. But at that time, I mean, it perhaps sounds strange to you, but I know it wouldn't sound strange to other - to some people now.

I didn't see a contradiction. To me, I felt like this was something that I could do for my own benefit. And I didn't feel like it was degrading, although I could see how it could become that way. I saw the women who'd been doing it for a really long time, and it did define them. I could see if you did this for a very long time, it could define you regardless of what you thought your politics were or what you thought you were in control of. And I was cautious about that. But for me to do it for - I did it for two years - didn't feel like there was any conflict.

By the way, I didn't call myself a feminist with a capital F. I didn't like walk around saying feminists - giving feminist speeches or anything like that. I was just very empathic with, say, people like Germaine Greer particularly who were speaking out about women, like, being treated better and being paid equally and not - like at that time in the '70s, you could actually - it was almost impossible to successfully prosecute a rape charge. In some states, you actually had to have a witness.

A woman could be beaten black and blue and still the rapist could get off. It's - that's pretty extraordinary. And I was aware of that. And I - that's what feminism meant to me, like, dealing with that kind of gross inequity. And so to me, the idea of getting paid money to take off my clothes, it just wasn't horrific to me. But, you know, that's a whole - there's several branches of feminism, some who really would violently disagree with that and some who wouldn't. But I didn't even know about that then.

GROSS: Once you developed a persona or whatever, what was your act?

GAITSKILL: Well, I didn't really have a fully developed that, but I looked very, very young at 21. I had a more developed body, but if I had not had that, I could have been 12 years old. So I would dance to very young music like The Supremes or The Jackson 5, early Beatles, stuff like that.

GROSS: Was there an aspect of it that was a little creepy, thinking that a lot of the older men were getting off on the idea of seeing a girl as opposed to a woman?



GAITSKILL: I think that I understood that a lot of men have that desire. I mean, I certainly learned that. And even now, I don't find the fantasy itself creepy. It's - I think it's pretty standard. I think it's creepy or beyond creepy when it's acted out on.

GROSS: So you ran away from home when you were 16. And in your 2005 novel "Veronica," she says, I ran away from home partly because I was unhappy there and partly because it was what people did then. It was part of the new style. Did you see it that way at the time for yourself?


GROSS: And did you know people who'd run away or read about them?

GAITSKILL: Well, everybody heard about it or read about it because so many people were doing it, but that isn't why I ran away. The girl in "Veronica" is very, very different from me. Her situation is not at all the same. She does run away partly out of a kind of boredom and a wish for something more vital in life, which I don't disparage, but that is not why I ran away.

I ran away because my parents wanted to institutionalize me, and I understandably didn't want that. I would never have done it otherwise because I really cared about my parents, and I didn't want to hurt them or scare them. But no, I did it because I felt that I was in danger.

GROSS: Why did your parents want to institutionalize you?

GAITSKILL: That's kind of a complicated situation, basically because they were pretty conservative. And I was - I seemed to change dramatically in their mind. I went from being an extremely quiet kid who did well in school and pretty much abided by rules to suddenly smoking pot and - just a little bit really, but that seemed very scary to them - and getting kicked out of school and not even really having sex but appearing like I might. And that was scary to them.

And also, in a psychiatric setting, I failed something they used to - I don't think this is used anymore, but it was something called a Rorschach test, an inkblot test. And I also would add that the psychiatrist who ran this place was a guy who was on record saying that any teenager who smoked marijuana was mentally ill.


GAITSKILL: So that kind of...

GROSS: That kind of sealed the deal (laughter).


GROSS: Yeah. You know, when I look back to some of the things I did when I was a teenager that really upset my parents and I thought like you just don't understand me, you don't want me to have any freedom at all, do you? And I look back on it now, and I think like, oh, of course they were scared (laughter). They had every reason to be scared (laughter).


GROSS: Do you ever look back on your past that way and think the same thing?

GAITSKILL: Well, I certainly wouldn't want - that happened when I was 15, by the way, that I ran away from home the first time at 15. And if I was a parent, I would definitely not want my 15-year-old daughter running away out in the world especially, I mean, nobody would. Nobody would.

GROSS: Where did reading a lot and writing come in?

GAITSKILL: Well, I read a lot from the beginning. As a child, I loved reading. My mother read to us even before we learned how to read. And I - it was just something I took to very, very naturally and would read adult books sometimes too when I was a kid. And I just - I loved it. And it was also very natural for me to write very early. Like one of the first things I did when I was 6, when I learned how to write, was write a story.

GROSS: When you were 6? You still have it?

GAITSKILL: You know, I don't know if I do. But my mother might have it. But, I mean, it was extremely simple. It was called "Billy And Betty Blue Jay," and they meet. And they fall in love and fly off together.


GROSS: OK. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Gaitskill. She has a new collection of essays called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Gaitskill. She has a new collection of essays called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." In a couple of essays collected in this book, you write about being raped, and the first time is - you considered it kind of a date rape, even though it wasn't exactly a date. And he had offered you LSD, which you took, and then you really kind of lost your bearings and ended up having sex with him. You - think he probably wouldn't have, and it was not a good experience for you. And you felt it was somewhat coercive.

And then about a year later, you were violently raped by somebody who threatened to kill you, and you say something really surprising in writing about that. You write (reading) after it is over, it actually affected me less than many other mundane instances of emotional brutality I've suffered or seen other people suffer. Frankly, I've been scarred more by experiences I had on the playground in elementary school.

But then later on - and you write about this in a later essay - you realized that it had a much deeper impact on you than you thought. And - go ahead.

GAITSKILL: I still would stand by that, actually. Even though - yes...

GROSS: Stand by that it didn't scar you in the way...

GAITSKILL: No, it - no, no, no...

GROSS: ...That people say it scarred them.

GAITSKILL: ...Not in the same way. It's not - I'm not saying it had no effect on me.

GROSS: It just seemed to me reading it took a while for you to realize what the impact really was.

GAITSKILL: Yeah. But even when I wrote that first statement that you referred to about the playground, it had been years later. And I didn't mean to say that it had no impact. It certainly did. I mean, I remember very vividly when I was at an eye doctor's office shortly after it happened, he made a move that surprised me, and I practically leapt out of the room. So I was very aware of that it had an impact on me.

And I think, perhaps, more of one that I knew. But nonetheless, I have - I would say I have been scarred more emotionally by things. When you're a child, things that don't seem that bad to an adult can seem really terrible because you're formative, you're forming. And I think what my point was that emotional cruelty can be far more devastating and more difficult because the man who raped me was a stranger. He was not someone I trusted. He was not someone I had any expectation of in terms of kindness or decency. But when people who you know or who you are at least are meeting in a context of friendship who might be your peers do something that deeply wound you emotionally - for one thing, it's very hard to understand what happened.

It's - I think the phrase I used in the article was it sticks to you because you don't know how responsible you were. You don't know how big a part you played. If somebody simply attacks you whether it's to rape you or beat you or whatever, there's no question that they did something wrong. Whereas, if something happens on a more complex, emotional way or somebody just pouncing on you in the playground that that's far more inexplicable, and in a strange way to me worse because it's hard - for me, it's harder to understand and to separate out what did I have to do with this? Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah that it wasn't about you personally. It wasn't about somebody's feelings about you. They weren't judging you. They were just violently attacking you, but it wasn't personal.

GAITSKILL: Yeah, and...

GROSS: It's still terrifying, you know - yeah.

GAITSKILL: Well, yes it was, and I think it affected me on a nervous system level in a way that I didn't get. I think that the worst thing about that kind of attack is that even if you don't - it may not impact you that much emotionally for the reasons I said. It just, to me, so clear that they did something wrong, as opposed to something - another situation where you're not sure if it was your fault or not.

But what's really bad about a physical assault like that - and this is something I didn't understand - I think it can leave a kind of physical effect on you in a nervous system way where you can suddenly become really scared in a situation that isn't actually harmful. And it isn't rational. You don't know why you're feeling scared, but it's because of that - it's triggering a subliminal memory of some kind.

GROSS: Yeah. It sounds like with one man who you were playing around with, you know, and you say you were both fully clothed and everything, but you had this, like, PTSD experience, you know, a flashback experience...


GROSS: ...And it just kind of set you off. And, you know, I guess I wasn't surprised to read that.

GAITSKILL: Yeah. It was that, and I didn't even know what it was. It didn't even - I had no idea what - to make the connection.

GROSS: One of your essays in your new collection "Somebody With A Little Hammer" is about losing a cat and desperately trying to find it in every way imaginable. And also in a way losing two children, and these are two children who you spent - what? - a couple of weeks a year with you through the Fresh Air Fund program, which is a program to send inner city kids to the country for the summer for a couple of weeks in the summer or to send them to a home that isn't, I guess, a more, you know, rural kind of setting so that they can be exposed to that and get away.

And, you know, you write about how you'd considered having a baby and considered adopting and kind of went in this direction instead. Can you talk about the decision not to have a child and how you weighed both sides of that in your mind?

GAITSKILL: Well, it was a decision - if it was a decision at all - I made very early. And I didn't really weigh it much. The only time - it was just very instinctive that I didn't want to. The only time that I considered it was when I got married. And I was still young enough that I probably could have. And I did think about it. There was a couple things going on that - we didn't have enough money. Both of us were - at least I was in quite a bit of debt. And I had to work teaching. And I was trying to write a book.

And I thought if we had a child, he would have to take care of the child all the time, and I would have to teach all the time, and I wouldn't write at all. And I also began to think, well, I'm also kind of old to have a child. A baby is very energetic. And maybe it would be better to adopt an older child like a 7-year-old or something. So that's what led us to the Fresh Air Fund. And we actually got way more involved with those children than just having them up for a couple weeks.

We were - would have them up several times a year and - including Christmas and also go visit them in the city. And I sent the boy to Catholic school and the girl too, but she got kicked out pretty fast. I mean, and we're still - we still know them. In "Lost Cat," I was afraid of losing them. And I felt like I was - they were becoming teenagers.

I met him when he was 6 and her when she was 10. And they were becoming teenagers. And I was feeling, like, frustrated by the - my lack of ability to really understand what they were going through anymore. And so I was - I had fear - a great fear of losing them. And it's certainly not as close a relationship as it was, but I - we do still know them.

GROSS: In your most recent book, "The Mare," one of the main characters is, you know, a woman who like you did has this relationship she builds with a couple of children through, you know, a program like the Fresh Air Fund. And this book is written from the perspective of several of the characters, so the perspective keeps shifting.

And one of the children at one point thinks like, you know, I'm stuck with nice people who don't have anything to do with me. Were you trying to imagine what it was like for the two children who came and stayed with you, what it was like for them to be with you and how they saw you?

GAITSKILL: Actually, "The Mare" wasn't about two children. In "The Mare" it's just - there's a - they're just involved with a girl. She does have a brother, but he doesn't ever come up there and spend any time there. It was highly fictionalized. But yeah, I mean, I actually don't think that they had that particular thought, but I was I wasn't trying to base the character exactly on them.

I was just trying to think of how a child might feel in that situation. And I would imagine it's pretty strange for - certainly for a 6-year-old. I mean, in the real life story, the boy who we met first was only 6 years old. I mean, that's really - I can only imagine frightening for a 6-year-old to be put on a bus and go stay with a bunch of people that he doesn't know.

And whether they're nice or not, it's like why do I want to be here? Not to mention that they're white as sheets and they've got more than anything you've ever had. But in the case of Velvet, she's older. I mean, the character Velvet, she's older, but I could imagine somebody thinking that. Like, yeah, they're nice, but what do they have to do with me, and why am I here?

GROSS: My guest is Mary Gaitskill. Her new collection of essays is called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." We'll talk more after a short break. And we'll hear from Julia Turshen, whose new cookbook is for people who find cooking stressful. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mary Gaitskill. Her new collection of essays is called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." When we left off, we were talking about her 2015, "The Mare," which is about a couple and the Dominican child who lives with them for a few weeks each year through the Fresh Air Fund, a fund that provides children from low-income communities the opportunity to spend time in the country with host families. Gaitskill and her husband have had a long-term relationship with two children who they hosted through the Fresh Air Fund. Those children are now young adults.

Did they read the book, your novel, "The Mare"?

GAITSKILL: Well, I don't know. I gave it to them. I saw them. I met them for Thanksgiving after it came out, and I handed it to them. And I said, I think you might find this really weird, and you might find it boring actually because it's pretty slow paced. And she looked at it. She opened it, read the first page and a half, looked at me very seriously and said, this isn't boring, Mary, and then closed it and said, I think I'm going to read it later. And I didn't hear from her for quite a while.

So I texted her and said - asked her how she was, and she said OK. And I said, did you read the book? 'Cause I thought she might have and been angry or something. I wouldn't - I don't know why she would be, but people can react, you know, all kinds of ways. And she said she started to, and she had too many feelings. And so she stopped. And I understood that. 'Cause I actually - I said that to her when I first gave it to her, I think you might have a lot of feelings. I hope she reads it eventually. And I'd like to talk about it with her.

It's not really about her, like I said, but, I mean, the girl in the story is pretty different from her. And the things that happen in the story are quite different. I wrote it partly for her though because she was somebody who really loved uplifting movies and stories. And I - it's interesting because as a writer, I've never been somebody who believed that you should - had any obligation to write uplifting movies and stories - storylines for people to make people feel good.

It just - I was just never about that. Not that I wanted people to feel bad either, but I just thought writing with that kind of agenda was a mistake. But it's really different when you're writing for young people. And I could really feel her. Like, if we watched a movie together, which was a lot, I could feel her really respond if there was a Latina character on the screen. And that didn't happen often enough. And it's not something normally I was very tuned into, but I became very tuned into it.

And I remember during 2007, when I was still pretty involved with them, I saw a little film clip of "National Velvet." And I thought, I wish there could be a movie like this about a Latina girl, but I can't write a movie. And I tried to sell it to my agent as a treatment thinking somebody else could write it as a movie. And he said, if you want to do this, you've got to write a young adult novel. And I thought, well, that's impossible.


GAITSKILL: Really, I just thought that's impossible. And especially, how can I write from the point of view of a Latina girl? It's ridiculous. I can't do that, plus I know nothing about horses. But I couldn't let go of the idea. It kept coming back to me in a way that I've just never experienced before.

Like lines of dialogue would pop into my head, scenes would just - I'd be sitting in an airport being angry because I'd missed my flight or the flight was delayed or something, and a whole scene would unscroll from this story that I hadn't even committed to writing. I was still thinking I can't write this. So that's really never happened to me before, and I finally decided to do it.

GROSS: You've said that after your first collection of short stories "Bad Behavior" was published that people expected you to embody hipness, but that you didn't. And people expected that, in part, because, you know, these were like transgressive stories. And there were stories about people who had, you know, what would be considered kind of kinky relationships, BDS and M. So what's the image of you now do you think? What do people expect to meet when they meet you?

GAITSKILL: I really don't know. But it's interesting because - and you're talking about that. I do know like the review I got of the book of essays in the Times which was a very, very nice review, but it was written by the same guy, Dwight Garner, who reviewed "The Mare" and was plainly disappointed that it was - he thought it was too mainstream and nice and it wasn't transgressive enough. Whereas he was happy to report that with "Somebody With A Little Hammer" was every bit as transgressive as I ever was. And I just don't use that word in connection with myself. And I'm not trying to transgress anything.

And I also don't see a contradiction between "The Mare" which to me it's as realistic as a story and one of the later stories that I've written. It's very much all along about the same theme. It's about un-socially sanctioned love, love that's not socially sanctioned. In say, "Bad Behavior," which, by the way, strikes me as a very naive book from my point of view now but anyway, like, say if you're writing from the point of view of a BDSM relationship or a John who's fallen in love with a prostitute, those are - you might say are socially unsanctioned loves.

And the love that Ginger feels for Velvet is also socially unsanctioned. So I think that there - the themes there of human feeling, trying to fit into a social form, transgression just doesn't mean very much to me because I don't think that there is this category of thing that is forbidden and if you do it, you've transgressed. It's - maybe in some circumstances or context I could think that way but I don't generally.

GROSS: Mary Gaitskill, thank you so much for talking with us.

GAITSKILL: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Mary Gaitskill's new collection of essays is called "Somebody With A Little Hammer." After we take a short break, we'll hear from Julia Turshen, whose new cookbook is for people who want some help with home cooking. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Do you get stressed out looking in your refrigerator trying to figure out what to make for dinner? Do you want to know how to cook a perfect fried egg easily? Our next guest's cookbook might be what you need. Julia Turshen wrote her cookbook to help take some of the stress out of home cooking. It's called "Small Victories: Recipes, Advice And Hundreds Of Ideas For Home Cooking Triumphs."

Turshen says if you know how to make two things in the kitchen, then you have the skills to make 200 more. "Small Victories" is Turshen's first solo cookbook, but she's co-authored several bestsellers including Gwyneth Paltrow's "It's All Good" Mario Batali's "Spain: A Culinary Road Trip." She's also been a personal chef. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Julia Turshen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JULIA TURSHEN: Thanks so much, Sam. I'm so excited to speak to you.

BRIGER: So you say the goal of your cookbook "Small Victories" is to show that cooking doesn't have to be complicated to be satisfying. And part of that you do by using these small victories. So you - in each recipe, you include at least one small victory. So what is that concept?

TURSHEN: Sure. Yeah. So every recipe is introduced with a small victory. So to me, it's a tip or a technique that just makes cooking a little bit more approachable. And then what's super fun is every single recipe has a number of - I call them spin-offs, but they're variations.

So the idea is once you know the tip or the technique, once you know the small victory, you can make this great thing, but you can also make so many other things. So it's really, you know, across the board, across the whole book, the goal is just to empower home cooks.

BRIGER: Right. That's kind of neat, like, you have a recipe about fritters. And I can't remember what the prime recipe is, but it - one of them has chickpeas, but then the other - the spin-offs - you can do it with pinto beans or other kinds of beans. So you provide like four or five different kinds of recipes from that one base, which is neat.

TURSHEN: Exactly, yeah.

BRIGER: Well, let's get to one of these small victories. One that I've been using a lot since reading the book is the way to fry perfect eggs. Can you describe that method?

TURSHEN: Yeah, this recipe is so interesting. I feel like it's become, I think, maybe the simplest recipe. But it's been really popular, which is great to see. And the recipe is for - they're olive oil fried eggs, which just means you fry them in olive oil and you serve them with yogurt, which isn't so commonly seen in America. But it's definitely very popular in other countries. So the technique is to use a nonstick pan, first of all, 'cause just why make things complicated (laughter) and give yourself some insurance off the bat. Heat up a little bit of olive oil in the pan, crack the egg in.

And then my little sort of secret trick is just to put a couple drops of water in the pan - and in the pan itself, not on the egg. And then cover the pan immediately. And what happens is that little tiny bit of water - like, not even a teaspoon, just a few drops off, you know, your fingertips - creates a little bit of steam. And the lid will trap the steam in there. So you almost create this little sort of stovetop, like, steam oven. And what happens is your egg, you know, is cooking from underneath.

It's got that nice hot pan. It's got that beautiful, hot olive oil. But that steam on top will make sure that egg white on top is cooked through. But it's not an aggressive heat. You know, you're not flipping the egg over, so you don't get an overcooked egg yolk. So what you end up with is just a really nicely fried egg where the egg white on top is completely cooked 'cause I feel like I'll eat absolutely anything. I'll try anything. The one thing I really, really don't love is an uncooked or undercooked egg white...

BRIGER: Yeah, that can be gross.

TURSHEN: So (laughter) that prevents that.

BRIGER: Yeah, yeah, and I say it. I do it now all the time. It works really well. You get a nicely cooked egg white and a not-too-overcooked yolk, so it's great.

TURSHEN: I'm so glad to hear that's, you know, happening in your kitchen.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

TURSHEN: That's awesome.

BRIGER: So what do you do with the yogurt? When do you add that into the dish?

TURSHEN: So after you fry the egg, you mix just some plain yogurt - and you can use, you know, thick Greek yogurt, you know, a runnier kind of - any kind of yogurt, just plain yogurt. And you mix it with just some lemon juice, a pinch of salt and you kind of spread it on the plate so you have this layer of yogurt. And you put your fried egg on top. And then basically as you eat it, as your, you know, fork pushes down through that egg, kind of scoops up some of that yogurt and it creates this - it's sort of a bed and a sauce all at once - put a few fresh herbs on top. It's delicious.

BRIGER: Well, in a spin-off section for hard-boiled eggs, you suggest making deviled-ish (ph) eggs where you just cut open a hard-boiled egg and just smear a little mayonnaise on top and maybe, like, a drop of hot sauce. How'd you come up with that idea? It's so great 'cause I feel like whenever I try to make a deviled egg, it just looks like a mess.

TURSHEN: So many of my thoughts and decisions in the kitchen come from you could either call it laziness or efficiency.


TURSHEN: It's sort of your choice. But I love deviled eggs. I think they're delicious. But, you know, taking out all those egg yolks, making the mix, putting it back in, you know, it's a few steps that I think if you feel up for it and you want to, you know, it's worth it. And you could get a piping bag and really go crazy. But those same ingredients can just be layered on top of each other. It still tastes delicious. So it's - essentially, you're just, yeah, smearing a little mayonnaise on a halved hard-boiled egg - put a little hot sauce. You could dab a little mustard if you like that. Whatever you like in your hard-boiled eggs.

And you don't have to do all the work of dislodging the yolks and refilling them and everything. So I like those kinds of shortcuts where you still get a really wonderful result. But, you know...

BRIGER: With, like, half the effort.

TURSHEN: ...It's a little bit less time and effort. Yeah, and I think anything like that, if it makes it easier for people to make something from scratch in their kitchen, I'm all for that.

BRIGER: So all of this is your first cookbook. You've co-authored many popular cookbooks, including ones with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. And I was wondering if you could explain to us your role as a co-author in that situation. Like, does the other person come up with the ideas for dishes and then you're converting them into recipes? Is it more collaborative? Is it someone says to you, like, go do something with chickpeas and come back to me in a week? Like, how does it work?

TURSHEN: I would love that. I love chickpeas (laughter). It is different every time. So, yeah, "Small Victories" is my first book that's just me on my own. But it's - I think it's - I should know this. I think it's the 10th book I've worked on. So I've collaborated with lots of people. I've co-authored many books. And it's different every single time. It depends on the material that already exists. For example, I've worked on some restaurant cookbooks. And some of the restaurants I've worked with, you know, have binders full of recipes that it's my job to translate from, like, restaurant kind of vocabulary to home cooking, meaning they're often scaled to huge quantities, there's not many instructions because it's, you know, it's a chef writing instructions for another chef.

So it's, you know, a person speaking to another person who knows all these techniques. So it's my job to take that...

BRIGER: So there's, like, a language there already.

TURSHEN: Exactly, yeah. Sometimes I think of myself as kind of, like, a home cooking translator of, like, how can I translate this material so someone can do it successfully at home? And often, it means kind of taking away a lot of excessive steps. And I've worked with restaurant chefs who nothing exists - or not nothing - a lot of amazing things but nothing written down.

BRIGER: Well, you have a delicious-looking lasagna in the book. And usually when you make lasagna, you either add ricotta to it or you make, like, a white sauce, like a bechamel sauce as a filling. But you've come up with another method. What is that?

TURSHEN: Yeah, so it's kind of like the deviled-ish (ph) eggs where you kind of can cut some steps out in order to get a really good result, nonetheless. That is definitely what happened with this lasagna. So I took out the ricotta. I took out the bechamel. The ricotta because - I love ricotta cheese but I think when it's baked in a baked pasta, sometimes it can get a little stiff. And I love, like, a rich lasagna. So I tend to prefer a kind of bechamel lasagna. But the idea of making a bechamel sauce, which can put off some home cooks, especially people who are new to cooking - there's a lot of risk of things not being smooth and all that.

BRIGER: 'Cause you're kind of whisking flour into milk, right? Just that...

TURSHEN: Yeah. You make - yeah. You mix some flour and butter. You make essentially a roux and then you slowly whisk in milk to make like a smooth - it's like a cream sauce. And then you can add cheese to it. You know, that's how you get things like macaroni and cheese. The base of souffles, etc., etc. But basically, I just feel like it's not impossible to do by any means, but it's an extra step. It's an extra pot to clean. That's something that's always on my mind.

But I was like, oh, I want that creamy layer, but I don't want to do that work. And so I went to one of my favorite ingredients which is creme fraiche which is basically like French sour cream. And you can actually just use sour cream, if that's all you can find. But creme fraiche is worth seeking out just because it's richer and why not add some more fat?

BRIGER: (Laughter).

TURSHEN: Life is short. So I make a super simple tomato sauce. That's some garlic sizzled in olive oil. You throw in some canned tomatoes, and then I add creme fraiche directly to that because instead of layering the lasagna - all the different sauces and, you know, keeping track of what's on top of what...

BRIGER: Right.

TURSHEN: ...You know it's all going to get mixed together anyway. So I just mix it. And so you have this essentially creamy tomato sauce. And then I walk you through how to make homemade pasta, just because it's something I love doing. But you can absolutely make this recipe with store bought fresh pasta sheets. I've made it many times successfully with a box of those like no-cook lasagna noodles.

So basically you just have your noodles - your pasta layer. And the other step of lasagna that I find just to be so annoying is pre-cooking those huge pasta sheets because, again, you're - it's another pot to wash. You're having to maneuver these huge pieces of hot, slippery pasta. So instead of doing that, and, you know, cooking them first, layering them with a sauce. I just make extra sauce, so the lasagna - you layer the raw pasta and all that delicious creamy tomato sauce - you throw it in the oven and all that kind of extra liquid from the sauce will cook the pasta through perfectly. And it's such a simple lasagna recipe as far as lasagna recipes go.

And it's just one of my favorites, and I love it. And you can add, you know, cooked ground sausage. You could start the sauce with some meat. You could add a layer of spinach, roasted squash, you know, whatever you want. You can, you know, fill that however you like. But that's sort of the base of it. And it's a really great recipe.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Julia Turshen, author of the new cookbook "Small Victories." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Julia Turshen, author of the new cookbook "Small Victories." It simplifies recipes and techniques for home cooks.

BRIGER: Well, here's another small victory from your book. Peeling ginger root is always very difficult because it's this really knobby, strange looking root. And oftentimes when I have to cook with it, you know, I cut 40 percent of the root away because it's hard to peel. So I'm usually, like, just cutting it. And so out of this weird round object, I get like this perfect rectangle, you know - lose a lot. But - so what - how do you recommend getting rid of the skin?

TURSHEN: I recommend - and this is - yeah - something I've seen in lots of places but - yeah - just to use a spoon, like a normal - a spoon you'd eat cereal with. And you just scrape the edge of the spoon on the ginger because the form of ginger root, you know, is totally kind of, you know, gnarly and goes in different directions. It's not a perfect rectangle by any means.

And instead of fighting it, you kind of just need to go with it. And the skin itself is quite thin. So using just the edge of a spoon which is, you know, firm enough to make some contact, makes some difference, but it's not the blade of a knife, so you're not getting rid of too much. And you just scrape the ginger with a spoon. And the skin comes off super easily. And you're not taking off the ginger along with its skin. And I think it's one of those moments of just not fighting something, just going with it. Yeah.

BRIGER: I'll have to try that out. You call yourself a recipe developer, and so I just - can you, like, lead us to the steps? Like, how do you actually develop a recipe? Do you do - make that dish over and over again just to get it right? Or how does...

TURSHEN: Sure. Yeah. So when I do it on my own, it starts actually not so much in the kitchen, but on the page. And I write all of my recipes before I get into the kitchen. And then I kind of - I print them out, and then I take my red pen like a schoolteacher and then I start making the recipe. I start testing it, but that's usually when a lot of things will change because as I'm working on it, you know, I'll decide to change a spice or maybe something will get pan fried instead of roasted it or vice a versa - that kind of thing. But, yeah, I start on the page.

I write it down first, and it starts usually with a thought or a memory of something nostalgic, maybe something I had when I was a kid. But then, you know, there's a recipe in the book for a rice pilaf that's really delicious, and I love it. I mean, I love everything in the book. I'm biased, but that recipe is basically my version of Rice-A-Roni, the rice in a box, which I ate all the time when I was a kid. And it was something I just loved about the idea of that box of rice includes a lot of things, you know, you can't pronounce. And it's quite salty and all that. So I wanted a version of that. So, you know, I'll usually start from a place like that, like, oh, what's something that meant something to me?

BRIGER: Are you more of an intuitive cook or do you like to go cook from recipes?

TURSHEN: I feel like it's almost like my, like, dirty secret which is like I love writing recipes so much, and I never follow them. And when it comes to just cooking, you know, on a average day at home, which I do every single day, you know, when I'm making dinner for me and my wife or, you know, if friends come by or something, I never follow recipes. I'll look at cookbooks a lot before just to get inspired or I just like looking at them. But I never, ever follow recipes. Every now and then, I'll follow a recipe for a baked good, like if I'm making like a cake or something. But...

BRIGER: Because those are pretty unforgiving aren't they?

TURSHEN: Yeah. But even if I'm making like a pie or something, I'm not following a recipe. Like, I've made pie crust enough to know the ratios. And once you make something a few times, you know, you get comfortable with it. And that's what I find so empowering about home cooking is you earn the set of skills that you can't lose, and then you can make all this stuff. And it's super cool.

BRIGER: The food website, Grub Street - there's this feature that's called Grub Street Diet. They ask someone to, like, keep a journal of their week and write it down what they ate or cooked during that time. And you did one - I think it was like last year - and I found this really fascinating. I mean, I understand that the article's supposed to show, you know, your relationship to food over the week.

So, of course, it's food centric, but the way you described your day-to-day activities - and food just seems so infused into your life and just the way you think about food, the way you prepare to shop or prepare to cook. It seemed deliberate and kind of mindful - it almost felt like a spiritual practice.

TURSHEN: That's such a nice thing to say. I think that's definitely accurate. It feels that way to me. It's - I'm always thinking about food. I'm always thinking about, you know - I'm one of those people who have breakfast - I'm planning dinner. Grace, my wife, is always getting annoyed at me because we're, you know, making sandwiches for lunch, and I'm always asking her, you know, what I should make up for the next meal. And she's like can't we just eat this one?


TURSHEN: So it's definitely - yeah, it occupies so much space in my, you know, my mental space, my emotional space, and I've worked really hard to make it all as much as I can like a really positive thing. If it's going to take up that much space, I want it to be mindful and positive. And, yeah, it definitely infuses kind of every decision I make.

You know, I am driving to the radio station today. The first thing I did was look up, you know, where I'm going to go grab something to eat afterwards, even though it's not a meal time, but if I'm going to go somewhere where I don't go all the time, I want to make sure I experience something good to eat.

BRIGER: Where are you going?

TURSHEN: Well, it seems like there's some good Vietnamese places around here. So I was going to ask someone up front what they think.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

TURSHEN: Yeah. I get - when I'm somewhere I don't know, I ask other people all the time.

BRIGER: You should always ask. Julia Turshen, thanks so much for coming in.

TURSHEN: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Julia Turshen spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Her new cookbook is called "Small Victories." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR.


KATHRYN HAHN: (As Chris) Dear Dick, this is about obsession.

GROSS: My guest will be Jill Soloway, the creator of the Amazon series "Transparent" and the new Amazon series "I Love Dick" about a feminist filmmaker attracted to a macho artist named Dick. We'll talk about the new series and about gender and identity and why Soloway now considers herself non-binary. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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