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September 2011

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SOUP'S ON: Ellen Potter in the Kitchen Interview!


 "Today, the girl in the dark glasses, whose name was Clara Frankofile, was sitting at her customary table with a tuna-fish sandwich, cut into four perfect triangles, and a tall glass of tomato juice with a straw." ~ from Pish Posh by Ellen Potter       


    



Recently, while nibbling on a few tasty restaurant books, I stumbled upon a middle grade novel called Pish Posh by Ellen Potter. It's about a rich 11-year-old snob, Clara Frankofile, who has the power to decide which of the celebrities, socialites, princesses and movie stars who frequent her family's restaurant are important enough to stay.

It's a great premise (especially in light of recent events), that sheds light on our ongoing obsession in this country with celebrity and the trappings of material wealth. Equal parts fantasy, reality, and mystery, Pish Posh is generously laced with Ellen Potter's signature humor, razor-sharp wit, and boundless imagination, and contains lots of twists and turns to keep young readers intrigued. 

How much do I love that this book is set in New York City and satirizes those who think they're "Somebodies," but who could instantly become "Nobodies," at the whim of a child? Or that Clara teams up with a crafty, whip-smart jewel thief named Annabelle to solve a 200-year-old mystery revolving around an unassuming soup cook?

I'm so happy Ellen Potter is here today, to tell us a little more about the glamorous world of Pish Posh and how she transformed Clara from a misguided tyrant into someone with a newfound compassion for others. People are often not what they seem on the surface, and this book surprised me with its many layers of meaning. Of course I simply had to flavor this interview with some of the delectable dishes served at Pish Posh. Don your designer bibs and feast to your heart's content!

Welcome to alphabet soup, Ellen! Your table is ready. If you were sitting in Pish Posh right now, what would you order? 


Baked Shrimp Scampi by esimpraim.

Well, they’d probably never let me in the restaurant in the first place. But if I did manage to slip by them, I would order something shrimpy and garlicky or maybe some crazy lobster concoction. But the whole time I’d be eyeballing the dessert cart. 

Is Pish Posh based on a real restaurant? Please tell us briefly about the genesis of the book. 

I waited tables for many years. It’s a great job for writers, by the way. You can’t make a move without smacking your shins against an interesting story.

Though Pish Posh is not based on a real restaurant, Clara’s situation was inspired by a restaurant where I waited tables. The owners had two young children who practically lived in the restaurant. The wait staff helped them with their homework and the kitchen staff let them help gather ingredients. Sometimes the kids showed customers to their tables. On slow nights they made sculptures out of the silverware. It seemed like such an interesting childhood, and I wanted to write about it in some way. Of course, Clara’s story took a much different, more sinister turn. 


Braised Lamb by Premshree Pillai.

Your two main girl characters, a rich snob and a street-smart jewel thief, seem odd choices when it comes to reader identification, yet you manage to arouse sympathy and compassion for them by gradually revealing the vulnerabilities they share: loneliness, marginalization, unusual lifestyles. Can you tell us a little about how you created Clara and Annabelle? And I’m curious about why you chose tuna-fish sandwiches and tomato juice for Clara’s favorite meal. ☺  

In my upcoming book Spilling Ink; a Young Writer’s Handbook, I compare my process of choosing characters to the way I choose my friends—they interest me and I want to know them better so, in my characters’ case, I write about them. 

Clara was interesting to me because she was so calculating for a person her age. Also, her cold little heart was just begging to be thawed. She was a person who thought she was “finished” when in fact she was almost embryonic. 

Annabelle, on the other hand, was wild, funny, edgy. Her heart was wide open but her judgment was askew. In a way, she was the perfect companion for Clara. I knew that if I made these two stormy personalities collide, something remarkable would happen. 

While neither of these characters was truly based on a real person, I did initially pull parts of them from people I know. Pretty soon, though, Clara and Annabelle shrugged off those “real” people and became real by their own right. 

      

As for the tuna-fish sandwiches and tomato juice, it would be just like Clara to choose a perversely ordinary and not particularly appetizing meal while surrounded by delectable gourmet food. 

You have said in other interviews that you don’t outline, and usually don’t know what’s going to happen to your characters at the outset. Which character surprised you the most in Pish Posh? 

Audrey, the soup cook. I wasn’t sure what her deal was. I knew something odd had happened to her, but I was well into the book before I got an inkling of what it was. That worked out well though, because I know if I’m surprised by a character, my readers will be too. I was intrigued by the idea of the mind being fractured by some traumatic event, causing mental illness. What would happen, I wondered, if the fracture was physical? What if the soul could splinter off from itself?


Spinach Quiche by Ravi D.

Which scene was the most fun to write? 

Hands down, it was the scene in Clara’s apartment with all those wild rooms. Why oh why can’t I have a Day at the Beach Room in my own house? 

      
         Cotton Candy by The Sweet Life Creations.

One of the themes in Pish Posh is child empowerment. What’s the most important thing you want a reader to take away from your book? 

I’m not very good at figuring out the themes in my own books. When I’m writing, I focus on chasing around my characters to see what they’ll do next and hoping that my readers won’t get bored along the way. But that doesn’t really answer your question.

I guess what I would like for my readers to think about it is how we judge one another, and how those judgments are often completely wrong. Also, I would love my readers to entertain the possibility of Audrey’s unusual situation. One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare is “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I say it to my son all the time and it really annoys him. 

Did you do any special research for Pish Posh, or was most of it based on personal experience/imagination? 

I had years of waitressing work under my belt, so the restaurant part was easy. I did do a little research on Washington Square Park and the Hanging Tree, which really did exist. I believe it was finally chopped down in the 1970’s. Also, the park really had served as a potter’s field and bones have been unearthed on the site over the years. 


French Onion Soup by illmungo.

Which character in the book is most like you? The least? 

The character most like me is the art teacher, Ms. Blurt. I’m just as klutzy. Plus I’m a very poor dresser. I am least like Dr. Piff. I’m a lousy eye surgeon. 

Can you tell us something the average person probably wouldn’t know about the restaurant business? 

If I told you, you would never eat out again. 


Chocolate Mousse Cake by roboppy.

What prompted the idea of having special rooms to simulate real life experiences? 

It seemed like just the sort of ridiculous, misguided thing that Clara’s parents would have done. 

The brilliant blend of fantasy, reality, humor and mystery gives Pish Posh a decidedly quirky, distinctive flavor. Who are some of the writers who influenced you the most? 

Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit are two of my favorites. They both have such a visceral understanding of children. You can just imagine them sitting on the edge of a child’s bed, telling them stories to amuse them and thoroughly creep them out. 

Please share a favorite childhood food-related memory. 

One of my happiest food memories is probably one that will make your readers gag. I was about twelve and I remember sitting on my windowsill, reading a book while eating potato chips and drinking milk. I don’t know what it was that made the salty potato chips combined with the cold milk so satisfying. I think the secret ingredient was probably the book I was reading. I wish I could remember what book it was. 

QUICK BITES 

FAVORITE SOUP


Butternut Squash Soup by zobeiry.

Butternut squash or chicken soup made by someone who knows what they’re doing. 

FAVORITE FOOD SCENE FROM A CHILDREN'S BOOK 

There are so many delectable scenes in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy! I love the endless servings of pumpkin pies and apple pies and doughnuts and cider and ham . . . and that was just for breakfast. 

3 FONDEST WISHES 

1. To be able to merge on the highway without making other drivers angry. 

2. To be able to think about an unopened bag of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos in a sensible and adult manner. 

3. That ultimately most people will consider me as useful and dependable as a KitchenAid mixer. 

FAVORITE GUILTY PLEASURE 

Charleston Chews by OldManMusings.

Frozen Charleston Chews, whacked against a table edge.

BEST WRITING ADVICE YOU'VE EVER RECEIVED 

The brilliant Anne Mazer, who has written 44 books, says that you should think of writing as “mental rock-breaking.” I love this! Writing does not come easily to me. Whenever I doubt my abilities because I’m finding it hard to write, I think about Anne’s words.

Please tell us about your latest book, SLOB. 

         

SLOB is about a brilliant and obese boy who is trying to invent a gizmo that will help solve a family tragedy. At the same time he’s also dealing with a psychotic bully in school and a gym teacher who has a personal vendetta against him. 

I wanted to write a book for boys that was fast-paced, funny, and exciting but that also had a stick-to-your-ribs quality. I hope I succeeded. 

What can we look forward to next? 

I am so excited about my two upcoming books in 2010. 

The first one is called Spilling Ink; A Young Writer’s Handbook. It’s co-authored by Anne Mazer and it’s a kind of Bird by Bird for kids who love to write. Throughout the years, Anne and I have received so many e-mails from kids asking for advice on writing. We decided to collaborate on a writing book that would be fun and quirky but solidly practical. It was one of those blessed projects . . . the collaboration was dreamy, the immensely talented Matt Phelan illustrated it, and it is already beginning to generate a buzz among teachers who are looking for an unusual writing guide for their students. It will be published March 2010 by Roaring Brook. 

My other new book will be published in September 2010. It’s a middle-grade novel called The Kneebone Boy (published by Feiwel & Friends), and it is set in England. 

Could you please share a favorite recipe with us? 

I love baking cookies and cakes, but my son has several food allergies, including an allergy to eggs. I found this great chocolate cupcake recipe in The Joy of Vegan Baking by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. A friend of mine says it’s virtually identical to the one his mom learned how to make during the depression, when eggs were hard to come by. The cupcake is incredibly yummy and tender. 

EGGLESS CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES 

1 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp. baking soda

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/3 cup canola oil

1 tbs white distilled vinegar (honestly, you don’t taste it!)

1 cup cold water 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) Lightly grease muffin tins. 

Combine flour, salt, sugar, baking soda and cocoa powder in a bowl until combined. Create a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and add vanilla, oil, vinegar and water. Mix until just combined. Pour into muffin tins and bake for 15 minutes. 

Then smear on the frosting. Easy squeezy.

--------------------------------------



For more about Ellen and her books (including the popular Olivia Kidney series), visit her official website.

Read an excerpt from Pish Posh here.

Other blog interviews can be found at Through the Looking Glass and Miss YingLing Reads (featuring Slob). And don't miss the fabulous audio interview with Ellen at blogtalkradio!

More 2009 Fall for Restaurants posts here.

Thanks so much, Ellen!!

photo by j.y.c.

"Clara ordered onion soup and braised lamb and roast Cornish hen and sautéed truffles and spinach quiche and asparagus spears in hollandaise sauce and chocolate mousse cake and crème brûlée and raspberry tart with vanilla ice cream, and much more -- so much, in fact, that the waiter had to set up a little cart beside their table to hold it all. And the whole time, all the famous and glamorous people in the restaurant stole surreptitious glimpses at this woman who was so very important that Clara Frankofile herself had invited her to dine at her table." ~ from Pish Posh

Copyright © 2009 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan's alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

 

Comments

Sounds like a really interesting book. Also, I want that chocolate mousse cake now!
It was quite different from anything else I've read in a long time. I'm obviously biased because of the food references, but I also liked Ellen's imagination. Clara lived in her own apartment and had an entire floor filled with different "rooms" based on different themes. You open one door, you're at the beach, another, you're in a Brooklyn neighborhood, and another contained a mini roller coaster! Wild!

But the best part was that a potentially unlikeable main character won me over. Her loneliness was palpable and it was wonderful witnessing her transformation. I'm giving my niece a copy for Christmas :).

(Anonymous)

Sounds great! So does SLOB. And I love the "mental-rock breaking." This I shall remember, too.

Jules
7-Imp
Just started reading SLOB. Always interested in boy main characters, plus the OREOs!

"Mental rock breaking" really does nail the process, doesn't it?
Oh, yummy! Wonderful premise, and I love that last excerpt. (And I, too, still get hungry just thinking about those scenes from FARMER BOY.)
Farmer Boy seems to be everyone's favorite food book (mine too). The food sounded so wholesome, too -- everything farm to table fresh in such abundance.

The premise of Pish Posh will definitely give readers lots to ponder when it comes to social status. Sadly, kids begin worrying about this sort of thing earlier and earlier.
You know this already but I LOVE your blog! My daughter became a fan of Ellen Potter's with PISH POSH! :)
Yay -- your daughter has excellent taste!
What a great title, and an intriguing subject... thanks for featuring.
Now, may I have a bowl of french onion soup, please?
Liz, you're always hungry. Didn't I just serve you some soup recently? You might need professional help ;). . .
Normally I have some semblance of control. It's the photos you post. I blame it all on the photos...
Ooh! I'll be looking for for Spilling Ink for M, I think. And she quoted Hamlet - *swoon*.

What a terrific interview.
When she quoted Hamlet, I thought of you and Sara :). Spilling Ink sounds really good!
One of the best interviews I've ever read, anywhere! Ellen's advice is just what I need to get back to my own neglected novel today. I even have Pepperidge Farm Raspberry Milanos...
I didn't know Milanos came in raspberry! Yum. Like your holiday userpic (are you dressed as an elf?).
Pish Posh sounds like a yummy book! Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Jama!

I'll probably end up buying Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook. :o)

Tarie
I think you'll enjoy Pish Posh. I'm so glad I "discovered" Ellen's writing, all because of my restaurant thing. Don't know how/why I missed her books before.

A bloody Mary for Santa

Who'da thunk?

Re: A bloody Mary for Santa

No, just straight tomato juice. Wouldn't want Santa to steer the sleigh under the influence :D!

A bloody Mary on Christmas?

The reason for Rudolph's red nose?

Re: A bloody Mary on Christmas?

Allergies, probably. . .

Allergies, probably. . .

Yes, allergic to vodka. That makes sense. Why he had a glow on.