A Conversation with Karen Weinreb

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

THE SUMMER KITCHEN by Karen Weinreb (St. Martin’s Press; 0-312-37925-4) is a remarkable debut novel about a woman dealing with the fallout when her spouse, a seemingly ideal husband and father, is arrested for white-collar crime. While this book is fiction, the basic setup of the story actually happened to the author. Though the headlines today are full of “bankers gone bad,” The Summer Kitchen shows the human side of financial misfortune and the innocent families that get caught in the aftermath of the crime.

Q. The Summer Kitchen tells the story of this affluent family’s loss of wealth and social prominence—a story of our times. Are you trying to relate any message?

A. The novel is really an inspirational story about the transcendent power of perspective. As the Grateful Dead once sung so aptly, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” For the novel’s protagonist Nora Banks, losing her material worth and just about everything else in her life is the crucible that forges a more evolved outlook. She begins to see things really for the first time, her relationship with her children, the goodness in her marriage, gems of wisdom hidden in the most unlikely places.

Q. How much of the story of The Summer Kitchen is based on your life?

A. Like the husband in the novel, Evan Banks, my ex-husband was incarcerated for a time for a white-collar crime. I wrote The Summer Kitchen during those years while raising our darling boys on my own and suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as they say. None of this is to say that the book is a memoir. My experience served as inspiration for a book. The characters and plot are fictional.

Q. Is there a message you are trying to relate regarding white-collar crime?

A. I neither condemn nor excuse Evans’s crime, but rather present him in all his humanity. If I convey any message on the subject, it’s that nothing is black and white. This character did commit one crime, but otherwise lives a moral life. Whereas the legal system that convicted him turns out itself to be morally blurred. Those who judge from the sidelines all too often turn out to have their own shortcomings. Even the bereft protagonist wife was flawed. Her financial irresponsibility put pressure on her husband. So how do you really judge someone?

Q. You give readers a juicy insider’s view of the exclusive world of the community of Bedford, New York, without either pillorying or glorifying this community. How do you manage this unique perspective?

A. I wrote with first-hand knowledge, since I once lived in Bedford. But I wasn’t born and bred in the community, so I don’t feel protective of it. And journalism trained me not only to look for the telling details, but also to let those speak for themselves rather than editorializing them. I guess I was an insider with outsider eyes.

Q. In what ways are you like your character Nora Banks, and in what ways are you different?

A. Nora has three young sons and so do I, and she develops a worldview similar to my own: not to care if anyone judges you or says something unkind; not to give money undue value or to let it control your life; and to live your life on terms true to your own heart. But I am not blonde, and I grew up in Australia, not Rhode Island. She’s a better baker, too.

Q. Why does food play such an important role in the book?

A. I grew up the daughter of a cookbook author and food columnist. As such, I’ve always associated good food with the written word and motherhood. The Summer Kitchen is a story about one woman’s struggle to find her bearings after losing everything. Among the only constants in her life are her children, her role as mother, and her passion for baking. She searches for solace and help in all the wrong places, only to discover that she had all along what she was looking for: family, passions, good food, they are what are real and important.

** Reprinted here with permission from St.Martins ** 

Karen Weinreb is a journalist with an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a postgraduate degree from Oxford University. She has written for newspapers in Australia, where she was born, and for magazines in the United States, where she now lives with her family. For more information, visit http://www.karenweinreb.com/.
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