new book, new life


Lately I feel like a child forever pointing at things, asking, what’s that? My agent replies to an email I’d sent him regarding my next project, saying something to the effect of, good to know you’re working on something cheerful! To which I respond, when have you ever known me to be attracted to the sweet story, the happy ending? When will I ever be attracted to something not in a state of disrepair? I tend to fall in love with things (and people) that are a perpetual state of dressing their wounds.

I believe that all ideas are in the ether waiting to be snatched up, obsessed over, developed. And once you arrive at the thing that puts your heart on pause, you start to notice all the nearly phosphorescent signs pointing to it.

Over the past few months, I’ve been reading a series of articles about touched houses. I’ve a predilection for the macabre; I’m the sort who will watch surgeries on television with considerable interest. I spend most of the early hours of the morning reading, and I paused on those two particular articles with more than a passing interest. I even thought–imagine if I wrote a novel about a house. A present day Shining. The Shining is the first movie I remember seeing as a child, and to say that it’s left an indelible mark would be an understatement. I’ve watched the film more times that I’d like to admit, and I’ll see a monsoon of blood spilling out of elevators, painting the walls claret. I’ll incant T.S. Eliot’s The Burial of the Dead from “The Wasteland” like prayer. I’ll see a man pretend to a boy bouncing a ball off the walls, feeling haunted by what’s come before, the massacre of American Indians who once inhabited the land.

A house is a home is a house, and this is a place to which one seeks refuge. But what if your home isn’t safe? What if your home is a man-made prison, a place where madness breeds? I’ve always been curious about that which is contained (or confined) within four walls and a roof.

I read those two articles, paused briefly, and moved on.

You write out your obsession, what takes hold of you, until you’ve exorcised the thing that threatens to put your heart on pause. I’m being dramatic for effect, but writers tend to be obsessed with the stories that find them, and it is through the act of writing, of transcribing experience to type, that one is free to part ways with that which has arrested them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about writing as an act of continual failure. You have this brilliant idea–you can practically hear the music in your head–but when you sit down to translate it, what you have in your head never magically appears on paper. (I mean, unless you’re Nabokov) The work is in that realization and the perseverance that comes to revision, the hope that the idea that seized you will someday makes its way on paper as close to the way you’d seen it.

I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and loved it. I was dazed for days.


Living in Los Angeles forces you to learn an entirely new vocabulary. The tentacle arms of the cactus; mountain dandelions and lemon bottlebrush trees–species of flowers and trees previously unknown now an assault. The shape of houses and land feel unnavigable. I discovered that I’m interested in learning more about my adopted home. I bought a stack of books on Los Angeles architecture and history (including: Southern California: An Island on the Land, California: A History, Houses of Los Angeles, 1920-1935, Los Angeles Residential Architecture: Modernism Meets Eclecticism, Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook, among many others), and found myself drawn to novels where California is a character. I met up with an old friend, and he had a book about the making of The Shining on his desk. I gasped, and he was kind enough to lend me the book for as long as I need it. He told me about the You Must Remember This podcast, and then I found the No Sleep podcast.

I recognized this feeling, a seizing, an obsession mounting.

I found a new story. I wrote my first page, and then retreated.

Imagine two stories converging. A gruesome murder from the 1950s juxtaposed with the story of a man who specializes in appraising/selling disaster properties forced to live in one of the homes he tries to sell after having lost his job. He moves into this home and slowly begins to unravel. He becomes paranoid, irrational, convinced that he’s being spoken to. Instructed.

This idea excites me for a number of reasons:

1. A new landscape–I’ve a desire to learn as much as I can about Los Angeles (art, history, architecture) so I can cogently write about it. The feeling that Los Angeles is a terrain I’m obsessed to navigate.

2. Writing from the male point-of-view. Although I’ve a central male character in my second novel, women in my books tend to drive the story. However, writing as two disparate, brilliant mad men, thrills me.

3. Attempting to write a story that is fairly linear. Although I’ve dueling narratives (1959/Present), the novel will follow a linear time arc. And anyone who knows me or at least has had a conversation with me knows that it’s nearly IMPOSSIBLE for me to follow a straight line. It’s as if I’m not able to understand the natural progression of time. The structure will likely pose the greatest challenge–one I’m anxious to meet.

4. Writing a ghost story. What I love about The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and the like is the fact that the stories are extremely realistic in its rendering and the supernatural events could be construed as real or madness–one can never really tell. I like this ambiguity, a lot, and I love the idea of making people wonder if these events are truly rooted in the supernatural or in a man’s psychological unraveling.

Being here has thrown open all the windows and doors, and I can’t wait for what’s next.


built by women: melissa lim, founder of beautimy

melissa lim

Since I’ve moved to Los Angeles, I’ve absolved to find smart, passionate women who are building things and breaking ranks. In two week’s time, I’ll host a salon of 15 women who are artists, creators, and founders–all as a means for collaboration and support. As you can imagine, I’m wading in the deep end, far beyond my comfort zone, but it’s worth it. I met Melissa Lim via a Facebook group, and her energy and excitement are infectious. She’s launching Beautimy, a “a progressive, co-creation platform that empowers women by transforming them from passive consumers to conscious creators of their own high quality organic personal care products online.”

I hope her verve and honesty inspire you to build, create.

First off, congratulations on Beautimy! In the past few years, we’ve seen a host of beauty companies come to the market with an eye toward sustainability and ingredients derived from nature rather than in lab. We’ve also seen the rise of apps like Think Dirty, which target an ingredient-conscious consumer. I’m excited for your vision for Beautimy. Can you tell us about how Beautimy came to be, and what you envision as its future?

Melissa Lim: I’m glad you’re excited!

I grew up with technology and I started testing and using a lot of beauty products since I was very young, so it was only a matter of time before I merged the two together.

I was working for a high-traffic woman’s website where I dealt with some of the top beauty and fashion brands like L’Oreal, Chanel, Neutrogena, Mac, Benefit, etc. Not only was my team entrusted with our clients’ big budget to come out with creative marketing campaigns, I was also fortunate enough to have a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how their most popular products are being manufactured from scratch to finish. I learned what most of us already suspected — that most brands use similar manufacturers and ingredients, but invested heavily in their marketing to command mindshare and a different market price.

The two industries I’m most passionate about also happen to be very practical because they’re highly profitable billion-dollar recession-proof industries to play in, but it is precisely because of that, that there is so much competition. It feels very much like a David vs. Goliath situation, and in order to be competitive, I have to create my own blue ocean and make the competition irrelevant if you will. I don’t want to play the zero-sum game; I rather create than to compete. People always ask, “how are you different?”

Here’s how we differentiate ourselves:

1) Mass customization – I believe that mass customization is the future of e-commerce
2) All-natural ingredients sustainably-sourced from the USA
3) Social enterprise – we have something similar to a TOMs, Warby Parker, model where we give 20% of our profits to charity and also work with human sex trafficking shelters to help women reintegrate back to society by teaching them how to make our products

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It’s so clear from your background that you’ve a passion for start-ups, specifically in the online space. How did you make the leap from working for companies that have such a strong, passionate vision to forming your own venture? What lessons did you learn from OpenRice, CozyCot, etc?

ML: Thanks for doing your research on me! Right after I graduated, I was fortunate enough to gain full-time employment for a large financially-healthy company at a competitive salary during one of my generation’s worse economic crisis while a lot of my highly, if not more, qualified peers were having difficulty finding great jobs.

However, despite the stability and obvious upward career trajectory, I was getting restless with too much bureaucracy, because at my very essence, I’m more of a creative innovator than an operational person. I get daily energy from dreaming up new things instead of managing the nitty-gritty day-to-day affair of scaling up to new heights.

I decided to join a big holding company that owns high-traffic job portals in Asia and they were launching in the country that I was then residing, so I decided to jump at the opportunity. I launched/work with projects/startups backed by much more stable and bigger companies so that gave me the safety net and resources to experiment but at the same time the feel of a startup.

Have you endured any challenges with Beautimy specific to your gender? We’ve read countless articles about the struggle for female founders to secure funding—have you found this to be the case? If so, how have you overcome these challenges? Can you share any specific anecdotes?

ML: Oh, trust me, I’ve read and heard so many gender-related horror stories and have already primed myself for the worse case scenarios – but then I realize that these fears are mostly irrational and I do not want to live with that kind of paranoia, and we make real what we pay attention to. You are confined only by the walls you build yourself.

Sometimes there is a misalignment of intentions when you first connect with the opposite gender. You see them as a professional contact, but they see you as nothing more than a romantic interest – but I believe that you teach people how to treat you.

Don’t let other people’s voices drown your own inner voice. Ever. Mind over matter.

I could definitely recall one specific anecdote that has been etched into my memory. Once, an industry heavyweight obnoxiously uttered this to me and my team of young fresh female members: “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, little girl”. For some reason, that comment didn’t offend me but thrilled and amused me. Precisely because I’m not shaken by that comment and continued to surpass all expectations that I gained respect in a pressure-cooker male-dominated environment.

Ellen Chisa wrote a terrific piece about what she learned in her first year at HBS. One of the leadership lessons challenges you to understand your worst self. I imagine that this is appropriate for all leaders, even more so for entrepreneurs since new ventures can be so all encompassing. When it comes to being a leader, what is your worst self and when does it come out? And what do you do to combat it?

ML: Patience isn’t exactly my best virtue and when blood sugar is low, sleep is inadequate, tempers flare and misplaced anger take commonplace.

Everything that Ben Horowitz wrote in this article on managing your own psychology helps a lot because you constantly feel like you’re failing, but it is only by reading other people’s experiences that it makes me feel so much less alone.

What has surprised you most about launching your own company? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

ML: You will never feel like you’re ever prepared enough. You’re putting out fires all the time. There is a kind of valedictory feel to any sort of creative output but mistakes are the portals of discovery and the best way to get started is to quit talk and being doing and keep doing it until you’re successful. Advice is largely irrelevant because we all have our own inherent biases. This quote from Ira Glass on storytelling:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

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Who has inspired you along the way and why?

ML: I get inspiration everywhere. I believe that if something isn’t beautiful, useful or inspiring, that we’re probably better without it. Kat Cole, Shiza Shahid, the two sisters from Juicy Couture, Ivanka Trump, Elizabeth Holmes, Hillary Clinton, etc.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching a start-up should know? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding beauty-related ventures?

ML: The age-old adage “just do it” because done is better than perfect. See point number 5. Everyone is different and will go through different experiences. The only way to get started is to quit talking and start doing. Take baby steps. Watch the power of vulnerability by Brene Brown. Feel free to imitate others because we’re all imperfect mirrors.

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day? What are three books you’ve read that have helped you along the way?

ML: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. “How Will You Measure Your Life” by HBS professor Clayton Christensen.


All images courtesy of Melissa Lim.

first impressions: my first month in los angeles


People ask me why I moved to Los Angeles. Why I tossed nearly all of my belongings and moved me and the cat out west. Everyone I love lived in a ten mile radius. All of my professional contacts were in the tri-state area, and I had a steady stream of projects. I spent most of my time in a huge rent-controlled apartment in a brownstone in Park Slope. Everything appeared good on paper. Everything was going according to plan.

The only way I can make sense of the past year is to say that I’d become allergic to my home. Space didn’t exist other than in the confines of my apartment. Everyone was loud and suffocating. Days would pass and I’d become exhausted with the idea of going into Manhattan. I was forever tired, depressed and anxious. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t write.

In Nicaragua I met a couple from Santa Barbara, and we bonded over our obsessive affection for our cats. At the time I planned a four-state adventure (remember?) My project was an expensive, logistical nightmare and I spent most of my time over thinking how I’d do it all. The couple listened politely, and as I was telling them of my plan I started to feel that it was kind of ridiculous. I’m someone who needs roots; I’m far from itinerant. At the end of my story, the husband said, I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to tell me the first word that comes to mind. Don’t think about it. Just speak. I nodded; I’d play along. If you could live anywhere in the states, where would you live? he asked. Don’t think.


I’ve been here for over a month and my only regret is that I haven’t moved sooner. I don’t yet have the privilege of perspective–that aerial view–however, the only thing I can say is that California feels right. Everything about being here feels right. Is it an adjustment? Absolutely. Do I miss my friends? So much it hurts. Am I nervous about paying the rent for my expensive apartment? EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. But I don’t regret it. And while I’m not yet at the place where I can give you a narrative, I’ll share my impressions. These aren’t truths; this is me acting like a tourist sketching the shape of things without understanding its true form. Think of it was an outline before it gets fat from fleshing.


1. FOOD: The best thing about childhood is the wonder. How you always have a first. How all the things that adults take for granted and invariably ruin, are beautiful and complete. While I knew the produce in California was superior, never did I anticipate that I would love eating more than I already do. I’d spend mornings at the farmer’s market in awe. Four variations of avocados, ripe peaches, mountain-reared apples, local chorizo, figs, guava, watermelon, plums, and a dizzying amount of herbs. And when I’m not at the farmer’s market, I’ve eaten lunches in places that make you excited about ordering a salad.

Because salad is an EVENT in Los Angeles.

This isn’t about a pile of sloppy greens on your plate. Oh, no. People take salad to a whole other place. I’ve had peaches, grilled chicken and local goat cheese dressed in a spicy cashew dressing. I’ve had things done to pork one wouldn’t think possible. Being here actually inspires you to eat healthy. And that’s not to say that I haven’t had my fair share of pizzas, tacos, and blueberry crumble bars–but there’s a real pride about the ingredients and everything tastes better. Eating gluten-free is easy here because restaurant menus are abundant with healthy and gluten-free options.


2. WATER: All conversations converge to water, the lack of it, how to conserve it, and how it tastes like wet coins shoveled into your mouth. Each tenant in my building has to pay for their individual water usage, so while I have a dishwasher and washer/dryer, know that I’m not just tossing in dirty items, willy-nilly. I have a shower filter and a water filter, because there’s no way I’m drinking out of the tap. And I’ve booked an appointment with a dermatologist next week because the water and my skin are in an acrimonious relationship. While the breakouts on my face have improved somewhat, I’ve scattered bumps on my chest, back and shoulders that aren’t going away.

Also, it never rains. The one night it did pour, my building’s fire alarms blared at 3:30AM, and people were more fascinated by the fact that it was raining than the idea that we’d be engulfed in flames. My neighbors’ reactions were much like this. In Los Angeles, you know the date it rains because it never does. Rain is also an event.

3. NEIGHBORS: THEY EXIST. AND THEY SPEAK TO YOU. Actually, everyone speaks to you here. Let me give you context. In all the years I lived in New York I only knew my neighbors by calling the cops on them or complaining about them. No, it’s not okay to have a threesome while blasting Britney’s “One More Time” on a Tuesday night when I have to be at work the next day. No, it’s not cool to have your dealer pound on my door when he mistakes my apartment for yours. No, it’s not normal to beat your front door with a snow shovel in the middle of July because you’re wasted and your husband’s frightened of you when you go off your meds. The last time I felt any semblance of community was when I was small, living in Brooklyn. Back then it was everyone’s business to know everyone else’s business. We traded stories on stoops and messed around with tire swings in the park or treaded water in the pool in Sunset Park.

Maybe I had the wrong neighbors or maybe I was a shut-in? Who knows. What I do know is that it’s normal in Los Angeles for people to ask about your day and genuinely care about it.

My next door neighbor just moved from Union Square, and sometimes we’ll catch one another on the stairwell and talk about Los Angeles as if we were gathering our findings and comparing notes. We actually lowered our voices and said, people talk to you here, and realized how asinine that sounded as soon as we said it.

4. THE CAR SITUATION: What it relief it was to toss my Metrocard. You can’t even understand how I don’t miss the MTA, LIRR, and NJT. I do not miss Showtime! Showtime! I do not miss being screamed at because my soul has yet to be saved. I do not miss stories about rats and pizzas and men telling me I’m beautiful. Smile, baby. I so much wanted to reply with Cry, baby. I do not miss the collective rage blackout that is the morning commute.

In Los Angeles, most people drive. I do not, which makes sidewalks blissful. I can walk around without having people book a one-way ticket to my sternum. My friends are awed by the fact that I walk four miles to Brentwood or two miles to Venice. For me, anything under five miles is walkable. The buses are pretty amazing and reliable, and I can take cabs for long-distance rides. While I’m still adjusting to life here, I can’t bear the thought of taking driving lessons, and I’m in no financial shape to buy a car, deal with insurance, gas, parking, and the inevitable accidents that will ensue. Most of my friends live in, or near, the Westside, so I’ve been managing well. It’s also amazing that I’m able to supermarkets, fitness classes, and the beach are in walking distance.

When I can afford it, I will invest in a car because there’s so much to see. California offers the desert, mountains, and beaches, and I want to explore them all. I love the idea of being alone in a car and driving to Joshua Tree. I love the idea of being alone, in a car.


5. MY TRIBE: I’ve read countless articles on the dangers of technology. You’ll be distracted; technology kills conversation and empathy, however, I’m finding a need to rely on technology to connect with those whom I miss and love. I use Facetime, Skype, email, social media and the good old phone to keep up with the relationships one can easily take for granted if geography isn’t an issue. Geography, and the distance between myself, and everyone I love is real, constant.

I miss my friends, and the ease in which I get to see them.

I knew that moving here would be tough. I would have to rebuild my life, establish professional contacts, and make new friends. Logically, I knew all of this and I expected to feel as I do now, but knowing doesn’t make discomfort any easier to bear. It’s hard for me to reach out to strangers and arrange friend dates (fear of rejection), and meeting them (!!!) presents a whole new set of anxieties. I tend to talk too much when I’m nervous. After meeting up with a new friend (I met this lovely women by way of introduction from a mutual friend) and her two sweet dogs for coffee, I text’d the friend who’d introduced us, writing: I really liked her. I hope she doesn’t think I’m…crazy. I’m reconnecting with old friends who I haven’t seen in years and it’s almost as if I’m forging new ground. Yes, we know one another, but we knew previous versions of ourselves so the getting-to-know-you phases is as pronounced in these scenarios because I don’t have the privilege of a clean slate.

And for the first time in nearly a decade, I missed have an artistic tribe. I used to be deep in the book publishing scene in New York and I…hated it. Nearly every minute of it. For a number of reasons I won’t go into. Suffice it to say it’s taken me a while to even consider the possibility of surrounding myself with fellow artists, attend readings and be part of something. After posting questions on a few closed forums on Facebook, I found what I wanted didn’t exist. I was blue for a couple of weeks and then I decided to create that which didn’t exist.

I posted a long call on several local Facebook groups populated by women creatives and artists. Similar to a salon I once co-hosted in New York (which gave me more stress than joy), I offered up my home as a meeting place for a small group of like-minded women who wanted to talk shop, collaborate, or just make new friends. What binds us is our art, our verve, and our drive to build. I was shocked about the overwhelming response, and a friend emailed me and said that Los Angeles is aching for more meet-ups that I’m trying to cultivate–we’re all so spread out!

I’ve been visiting Los Angeles since I was 17 and only now did I realize the geography. When it took me two hours to get home from Silverlake by bus did I understand that L.A. is MASSIVE. No wonder people crave connections–we’re all so far away!

I’m also flying to Seattle ($150 airfare!) for LitCrawl in late October–something, candidly, I would never have done had I still lived in New York. However, I’m staying with a fellow writer friend who has pets and lives far away from where the action is, and I see this as a good thing. I’m excited to see Sarah Hepola talk and a host of other writers read.

Luckily, I enjoy my company and don’t need many friends in my life, but I’m reminding myself that this work, these friend dates, this crippling anxiety–all of this is necessary.

Professional contacts….working on that.

6. THE LANDSCAPE: It’s incredible how a shift in geography will change everything. I’ve a whole new vocabulary to learn, a landscape to navigate. Plants that don’t grow in the East, tectonic plates that keep shifting, land that constantly rearranges itself. Even though I’ve traveled to Los Angeles on and off for twenty years, there’s nothing like setting roots here. My novel takes place in New York, Nevada and California, and much of the book relied on my impressions of the West coupled with research. Last week an idea crystallized for the third book, and I’m excited because it’ll take place in California during the 1920s and present day. This means more land to navigate, more to learn, more to feel.

My friend Pedro once told me that in order to learn a new language you have to think in the language. He’s fluent in five languages so you know I paid him the strictest attention. You can’t translate from the English, he said. You have to think, yo quiero ir… instead of I want to go… in the Spanish. Thinking in another language makes it intuitive; you feel the words as you’re saying them instead of relying on your brain to decode and translate. I feel that way about being in California. Until now I’ve been translating (and I’m still looking at this place through the lens of New York), and it’ll take me time to naturally interpret and speak the landscape so it feels visceral, real.

As you know I’ve a taste for the macabre, and the fact that my new novel centers around the appraising and selling of “touched” property (think cults, gruesome murders, suicides, the occult), I’m oddly excited to learn the language of construction, to see these houses and understand their architecture. There is so much history here, and I’m hungry to learn it.


7. FELIX UPDATE: In Los Angeles, there is no cowering from the light. In New York, buildings shielded me from the sun, but the light here is clean and abundant. So much so that it’s made my special guy content. I was worried how he’d adjust, and although he initially had a hard time without furniture (translation: boredom), he’s now content. Most days he stares out my many windows, battles with the washing machine and garbage disposal and longs to go out on my deck (not happening, mister). Much of his time is spent lazing in various columns of light that stream into my apartment. He’s so comfortable I wonder if I can send him out on my friend dates in my stead. He’d make for better company, clearly.


There’s so much more and I know I’m missing it, but these broad strokes are all I’m able to share at the moment. I can only imagine what it will feel like in a year’s time looking at this post with the advantage of perspective.

finding the big magic + giving zero fucks

“We all spend our twenties and thirties trying so hard to be perfect, because we’re so worried about what people will think of us. Then we get into our forties and fifties, and we finally start to be free, because we decide that we don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of us. But you won’t be completely free until you reach your sixties and seventies, when you finally realize this liberating truth–nobody was ever thinking about you anyhow. –Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

I’ve never read Eat Pray Love, and when I saw the movie in theaters I thought it the most painful experience (if I don’t count seeing Eyes Wide Shut with my father in the theater–now that is torture). However, I was a part of group of literary types who thought we were cool for shooting someone else down. We thought Gilbert frivolous, privileged, deserving of side-eyes and media roasts–and we hadn’t even read her book. We eviscerated a stranger who was brave enough to wake in her sleeping life and see an entire book through–all because she didn’t write the big books, the important books.

Whatever the fuck that means.

For much of my twenties (and I dare say my early thirties), I was a judgmental asshole who surrounded myself with other judgmental assholes. It’s true, you are the company you keep. We thought ourselves smarter than everyone else; we were insufferable, self-indulgent, ANNOYING. Art wasn’t art unless you were creating something important, something that would endure, even if the judgment of that art is wholly subjective. Even if the books we revered were ridiculed in their time but went on to mark the period in which they were published. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was laughed off the Parisian stage and yet it’s one of Beckett’s most memorable plays. How could one predict which stories will endure?

So I dare say that much of that vitriol toward Gilbert was rooted in jealousy over her sweeping success, and the fact that we were angry that our weird little books didn’t reach quite as large of an audience. We were only privy to the success, not the lifelong struggle that accompanies it, because people don’t want the ache, boredom, frustration, and pain–they only ferret out the fairytale ending. They crave the fanfare and confetti of the overnight success without realizing that it’s a myth. We were also frustrated that our cultural was shifting from type to reality television; everyone became tethered to their devices and their emails and social media networks were phantom limbs. Pay no mind that people have been bemoaning low culture since Shakespeare. Pay no attention to the fact that us literary types tinkered with our phones at book parties and readings.

In an 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Susan Sontag rallied against the mythical divide between high and low culture. For her, there was no high/low, right/wrong books, rather we needed to absorb the totality of experience to create meaningful work. Sontag said,

I really believe in history; that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly one: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period. We’re still essentially dealing with expectations and feelings formulated at that time. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche. –Susan Sontag

This isn’t to say that Elizabeth Gilbert is low brow, at all (and who cares if she is?), this is more about us judgmental assholes who were myopic in our world view. We forgot that those who we revere created their work not in a vacuum, but in observation of everything in the world around them. Most of the writers we treasured barely finished high school.


It took me a really long time to change. And even now I sometimes fight the knee-jerk impulse to judge the low. It’s hard, but I remind myself that what we need is balance and contrast. We need our world to be complex, strange, insufferable and interesting for it to be remarkable. I’m reminded of that Twilight Zone episode, “Mind Over Matter,” where a curmudgeonly man, Archibald Beechcroft, uses his mind to rid the world of people. And when he populates New York with photocopies of himself (because he can only truly tolerate fellow Archibald Beechcrofts), his vision come to pass startles him. A world full of Archibald Beechcrofts is an insufferable one, and in the end, he returns the world to what it was–even if most of it annoys him.

It took me years to enjoy low-brow without guilt, and it took me even longer to realize that if someone pours their heart into a work it doesn’t matter if it’s a pink book jacket or a dark one–what matters is that someone saw a story through. Because who really finishes anything? It’s noble to admire a fellow writer who’s able to write that book in small pockets of time during the day, and it’s cowardly to admonish him/her for the kind of work they produce. If someone writes a mass-market thriller and it gives them joy, who am I to take that away?

What right do I have to judge the worth of someone else’s labor?

Today I read a post by Dr. Andrew Weil, on why he likes to cook–the alchemy of imagination and creation:

There is another reward of cooking that fascinates and motivates me: it is excellent training in practical magic. By that I mean that cooking gives you a chance to practice the esoteric art of manifestation — bringing something from the imagination into physical reality. –Dr. Andrew Weil

It’s not about plating or cookbooks or competitions–Weil simply cares about creating something from nothing, and there’s nobility in that simple, tactile truth.

If you would’ve asked me five years ago if I would write a blog post inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert, I would’ve thought you INSANE, however, Big Magic is a real treasure. I like it because it’s simple, honest. Where so many other self-help books focus on a platform, use jargon that serves only to distance writer from reader, and I invariably feel empty, sold-to. With Gilbert, I felt as if she were in my home, whispering courage in my ear. Take your work seriously, but PLEASE do not take yourself seriously. Because my writing a novel is not going to save lives and cure cancer.

And about that elusive success? No one really enjoys insane fame and fortune and if that’s your motivation to create art, you really need to think about your life. Even if we’re not going to win big, that doesn’t mean we completely take ourselves out of the game. In Play it as it Lays, BZ folds. And even though the game is rigged and L.A. is a wasteland, Maria keeps on playing. Because Kate, because why not?

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert shares her insights, tools and stories on how we can truly live our most creative life. Fear? Have it come along for the ride but never let it take the wheel. Perfection? It doesn’t exist, rather focus on being done. The tortured artist? Stop this. Who wants to consciously inflict pain on ourselves? Gilbert shares how one can be confident, inspired, and passionate about their work and generating ideas. And even though I’m nearly 40 and have published, I still found her words inspiring. A yoga teacher once told me that the mark of an advanced practitioner is someone who doesn’t have an ego about returning to a basics class. The advanced yogi re-learns downward-facing dog. An advanced yogi knows the hardest pose isn’t handstand, but savasana. We never stop learning, and sometimes it’s important to return to the core, the fundamentals, and I feel as if Gilbert gives us that through the lens of someone who knows how to tell stories.

This is a world, not a womb. You can look after yourself in this world while looking after your creativity at the same time — just as people have done for ages. –Elizabeth Gilbert

Up until last year I really cared what strangers thought of me. I was wounded when they hated my writing or my book. I was hurt when former coworkers unfollowed me on Twitter. And then it occurred to me that it took a lot of time and energy shouldering other people’s opinions of me and my work. People will always find a reason to pull out their scalpel and do their picking. They’ll always hate something about you or what you do for a lot of reasons. Calling it jealousy would be simplistic and reductive because feedback is not always related to envy, but I realized I’m human and I’m flawed like everyone else. There are aspects of my personality that even I don’t like, so how do I even think that I’m able to control other’s opinions of me if I’m admittedly a work in progress? Did Elizabeth Gilbert care that people HATED Eat Pray Love? No. She kept on working.

I’m fresh out of fucks.

I don’t care if people hate me, hate my writing. I have a tough book coming out next year and I’m sure some people will hate it. I write things here that people will hate. I cook food that people will hate. I have friends that people don’t like. But I DON’T CARE.

Here’s what I care about:

I care about enjoying the work I do. I spent over two and a half years on my novel and I learned so much from the process, and that won’t be erased by someone’s opinion of the work. What matters is that I created something I loved; I saw a story through. I care about being a good friend to the people in my life–I hold myself accountable to them. And if I’m not being a good person or a good friend, I rely on the people whom I love to give me that feedback. I take that which is constructive to work on getting better because we’re always learning and growing, and I can’t spend my time on people who will never like me regardless of how hard I try.

Not only did the plot of my third novel crystallize while I was reading Big Magic, but I finished the book feeling liberated. I felt I’d granted myself permission to take in what is necessary, all that matters, and discard that which doesn’t.

All I can do is keep writing, keep learning, keep moving and see what happens. I can’t believe how excited I am to be turning 40 this year!

Quote Image Credit: Elizabeth Gilbert

on writing and publishing an “experimental” novel

Felix The Cat

What Rilke said: Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. ― Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

I didn’t find my voice until I was 37. I’d been writing for as long as I could remember, and in my first poem–a haiku, was published in my elementary school annual–I likened my mother’s voice to thunder. I was in second grade. Throughout my childhood I was routinely called into the guidance counselor’s office, a copy of a story I’d written in her hands–is something wrong at home? Always whispered, always asked in that measured voice people use when speaking to someone for whom English is not their first language. Because who writes stories about sad girls who hang themselves from trees? How is it possible to be a child and filled with rage? Of course something was wrong at home. Something was always wrong at home and out of it.

No, nothing’s wrong, I’d say. And I’d keep writing my stories and continue to lose writing contests because what kind of PTA would award a story to a girl who wrote about death so comfortably? So I lost out to happy endings.

You are dark, was everyone’s refrain, always. A few words mumbled like a record skipping. People seemed to be afraid of the words I’d arranged on paper, and in turn, they seemed anxious around me, the small child who’d created them. A child who seemed unnaturally comfortable with sitting in the dark. A child who didn’t speak much and read a lot, who didn’t understand the petty politics of living in Long Island–a seemingly foreign country to which I’d emigrated. And trust me, if you’ve been to Long Island and Brooklyn in the late 80s, you’ll understand the two might as well have been continents.

In college I set aside my stories and studied accounting, futures and options, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate finance. I memorized ratios (quick: current assets/current liabilities), navigated the fine art of the abbreviation (EBITDA, FIFO, LIFO), and considered Wall Street and American Psycho with interest. I was so finance that when I submitted a story I’d written for the college literary magazine, the editor came up to me with my story in his hands and asked if I’d really written it. Because a woman who calculates debt and drinks an unusual amount of alcohol could never write about growing up in a home that felt like a prison.

When I received a call from Judy Budnitz that I’d been admitted into the Columbia writing program, I kept her on the phone for an hour trying to convince me that this wasn’t some sort of prank. I’d written a very early (and very messy) draft of my first book and what fancy school would accept that? When I left a job at Morgan Stanley to pursue my MFA at Columbia, everyone thought I was getting a masters in financial accounting (this doesn’t exist). When I said I wanted to write, my boss said, genuinely confused: why would you want to do that?

Columbia was a wonderful, terrible nightmare. Everyone seemed to have majored in creative writing and English in college while I didn’t even understand the rudimentary elements of formatting a short story. (What is 3rd person? What is omniscient?) I was 24 and I routinely left workshops sobbing. Imagine being on an operating table, wide awake, enduring a dissection without anesthesia–that’s workshop. I left after a semester because I had a drug problem and when I returned in 2002 I was further tormented because everyone went “experimental.” The line was tantamount, and if you didn’t write like Joy Williams, Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt (I took a workshop with her and she was lovely), or Lydia Davis, you might as well not.

Family stories are done, a girl with blank eyes said to me as we were discussing a short story I’d written–characters who would find their way into my second novel, albeit in a different form, nearly a decade later. After workshop? You guessed it. Sobbing.

I finally got a backbone but still didn’t have a voice. I read voraciously. I experimented. I copied and embarrassed myself. I knew what I was writing–the style, the content–bored me, but I didn’t know anything else. Until I started editing my first book when I told my editor that presenting the story in a linear way wouldn’t work. When I said that parts of the book had to be deliberately vague, out-of-focus, because that’s what writing about my life felt like. I started to play with short chapters, strange imagery and narrative devices–much of which my editor encouraged me to tone down because writing should never call attention to itself. And while I believe that to an extent, and while I revere my first editor, I felt a belt tightening around my neck.

I talk a lot about a job I took, hated, and left in 2013. For four years I didn’t write. And what I did write should probably be torched.

In 2013 I found myself in Biarritz during off-season. It was chilly, rainy, and I spent much of my time in this tiny town staring out at the ocean. I spent most of my days inspecting rocks. I came back to my hotel one night and the first chapter of what would be my second book came like a torrent. I’d written a story about a woman’s hair catching fire in a hotel room–revenge enacted by the daughter of a father having an affair while his wife lay dying. I wrote 18 pages in one sitting and referenced Ishiguro, The Shining, barnacles and Goya’s black paintings. After, I felt like the days when I’d wake from a hangover, inspecting my receipts to see where I’d been, what I’d done.

This story, in form and content, felt like nothing I’d ever written and I liked it. That summer was one of the worst I’ve known, and there was no other way to make sense of it other than writing in a fragmented stutter.

First substantial revision, December 2013

First substantial revision, December 2013

It’s taken me nearly three years to write, edit and have my novel acquired. And the process felt like prolonged surgery, a bandaid slowly sawed off. The story didn’t reveal itself in the first draft, but rather the FOURTH. I restructured the book three times, deleted over 150 pages and wrote 170 new ones. I was attempting a project that had multiple points-of-view, moved between past/present tense, and battled with a narrative that was the antithesis of linear, and an unreliable, unlikeable main character. Over the past three weeks I’ve restructured the book, again, and added three new chapters–and I’m finally excited by the pacing (the story FINALLY moves) and how I’ve tidied up some of the plot elements I’d left dangling.

I started to read books and think, you’re like me. It’s less about stroking my ego but more the comfort of finding other strange people like me who can do what I do, only better (Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lydia Millet, Susan Minot’s latest novel). Even though writing and editing my novel was a painful, exhausting process, I’ve finally found my voice and style–elliptical, a hybrid of traditional/experimental fiction, dark, acerbic, comic, drawing on outside cultural references to complement/augment my story. In my novel, I’ve incorporated a barrage of cultural references, including: film (Psycho, Carnival of Souls), art (Goya, Marlene Dumas), writing/documentaries/cult figures (Don Delillo, Bret Easton Ellis, Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kira Henehan, friend + primary reader, Dante, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Jim Baker–just to name a few). By the by, listening to Ted Bundy for seven hours straight does things to you.

And all of this feels right.

My agent will likely shoot me for writing this but my road to publication was…challenging. While I received some critical, constructive feedback, most of the responses fell into two camps: editors who didn’t get the story and editors who got it but were afraid of it. The former is bound to happen because finding an editor is like getting married–two perfectly wonderful people who simply don’t connect for one reason or another. The second camp was a bit more frustrating. Editors found it too dark, the character of Kate unlikable, unrelatable (I wanted to gouge out my eyes when I heard either statement because is PAT BATEMAN likeable/relatable?). Many of the editors loved it (can we see more, does she have something else?) but felt it was too experimental to find a large audience (i.e. we won’t sell enough to warrant acquisition). And although I worked with my agent (he was an editor in a previous life) to make the narrative smoother and apply the feedback we thought would make for a stronger draft, I’m grateful that I have someone in my corner who didn’t ask me to compromise my style. Every revision focused on making the book better, clearer for what I was trying to do–rather than shaping it to a traditional, linear narrative, a place to which I refused to go.

Throughout the process I felt all the emotions–sad, bitter, angry, heartbroken. More so when author friends of mine chided me, assured me that SO MANY EXPERIMENTAL BOOKS ARE BEING PUBLISHED. See those ten titles over there by our friends? See the small circle of people continually ushering their strange work out into the world? I was angry not because the strange work was getting published (THANK GOD IT WAS/IS), but that some of my friends live under the illusion that publishing tough books amidst the sea of same is easy.

It’s not easy. I’ve worked in book publishing (marketing), published a successful online/print journal, wrote two books and lots of short stories, and it is never easy. What keeps me motivated is the fact that this is the only thing I love doing. And while I sometimes shy away from creative writing books and anything bordering on self-help, I felt much of what Elizabeth Gilbert says is spot-on. It’s fear that keeps us alive. It’s our love for the work that makes everything else, even the business of the work, easier to bear.

And then we found Jennifer Baumgardner + Clarissa Wong at The Feminist Press. The entire team got the book, and didn’t want me to “soften” Kate or change her in any way. (Kate is essentially the female Pat Bateman without the Cerruti suits and taste for carnage, with a little plot twist thrown in for good measure). The point was more about writing complicated characters instead of likeable ones. As I finalize my manuscript, I’m excited for the editorial feedback. More importantly, I’m glad my strange little book found a home with people who believe in me and Kate.

I’m actually sad that after after fifteen years of being with some of these characters (Columbia classmates might recognize Gillian, James and Emma–now Ellie–in a different form in my novel), I’m letting them go.

Now to find more strange people to fall in love with longer enough to stay interested in writing about them.

This post ended up being a little longer than I imagined! Haha! And while I’m by no means an expert, if you have any questions about writing, publishing, book recommendations for people who write strange fiction, leave a comment! I’m toying with the idea of video responses :)

roasted tomato pesto with bean pasta + sausage

roasted tomato pesto with bean pasta + sausage

When I was told that I’d have to go without gluten for nearly a year I was sure the rapture was coming. I would sit in my doctor’s office while he pored over my bloodwork, shocked about my insulin spikes. What are you eating? he wondered aloud. How did you insulin levels jump this high so fast? At the same time my dentist studied my x-ray, studied me, and asked how I’d developed seven cavities in one year. I was 38 years old, drinking kale smoothies like it was my job and I was on the road to diabetes and several root canals.

DIABETES? You’ve got to be kidding me.

We have an image of sickness. A series of photographs and warnings that leave their indelible mark. I’m a relatively educated woman but I thought (erroneously) that diabetes was reserved solely for the obese, those who consumed processed foods. Let go of this image. Immediately. Diabetes doesn’t discriminate. Genetics also play a role, and seemingly “healthy” people can suffer from the illness. And while I was blitzing up smoothies and shopping local and organic, I couldn’t ignore the pasta, bagels and paninis I ate every. single. day. I couldn’t ignore that sugar and carbs subsumed the measly amount of vegetables, whole grains and legumes I consumed in comparison.

Last year I was on the road to ruin and I had to change my diet. FAST. But holy shit, how was I going to live without pasta.

When I first saw my nutritionist, I completed an exhaustive seven-page questionnaire and logged a food diary. One of the questions invited me to list foods I couldn’t imagine living without. I wrote: bread and pasta. These were my non-negotiables. Shoot me up with broccoli rabe and beets all you like–you’d have to pry a box of pasta off my dead body before I’d let go.

That was kind of a problem.

Recently I read Sarah Hepola’s Blackout. There’s a scene where she recounts lost time to her therapist. Hepola says, Everyone has blackouts, to which her therapist, bristled, replies, No, they don’t. I nodded along to this because I assumed blackouts were par for the adult course. One drank until they saw black. They drank until their mind was literally no longer able to create memories–the alcohol set up shop and was ready to do serious business.

I say this because I have a predilection for liking something to its unhealthy excess. I’m used to creating my own ruin because at least I thought I could control every aspect of it simply because the form of addiction is familiar. We cleave to that which is known–we’re frightened otherwise. And although I joke about chickpea fatwas and avocado addictions, there isn’t a day that goes by that I have to be mindful, aware, of my behavior. Am I ordering that pizza because I want to cope with an impossible client? Do I sit in front of my laptop and eat mindlessly because although I love Los Angeles, although I don’t regret–even for a moment–moving here, I miss my friends so dearly. I miss Amber. I miss Persia. I miss Mauve Cat Alex and Alex Alex (I’ve a lot of friends named Alex).

Food is for fuel not for recompense. Food is for subsisting not for cowering, shielding and hiding.

It took me a year but I now live a life where I’m not tethered to a box of macaroni and a loaf of bread. My insulin levels are normal, and after an expensive summer of painful dental work, I’m healthy, balanced.


Portioning my food into storage bins helps. Patroning farmer’s markets and connecting with the people who grow + cultivate the food I eat helps. California has brought me the gift of incredible produce. Never have I tasted peaches so ripe, with fruit so blistering claret. Never have I seen the diversity in pesto and tomatoes. Yesterday, before I met a friend for lunch, I trolled my local market and picked up bags of tomatoes, basil, peaches, cheese, figs, and local pork.

When I was eating gluten-free (I still sort of do), I hated the pastas. While it’s true that gluten-free fare has come a long way, corn, soy and potato are just as nutrient empty and unfulfilling as it’s white flour counterparts. Some brands didn’t keep well in the fridge, others were gummy and quinoa, for some reason, makes me extremely ill when I eat it.

I discovered Explore Asian’s bean pastas on a lark. The woman in front of me in checkout piled a few bags on the conveyer belt and I asked her if the pastas were any good. She nodded, said some were better than others, and she liked that they had a hefty amount of protein and held up well for leftovers. I’ve tried nearly all of them and they’re pretty exceptional. I’ve made them with avocado basil pesto, with chicken and all sorts of vegetables, and while the flavor takes a little getting used to (think of it as when you switched from Danon yogurt to Greek), these pastas are a mainstay in my pantry.

So after baking a peach crumble (i.e. this morning’s breakfast), I made this exceptional pasta dish. Not only did I need less of it (since the protein pretty much filled me up making room for PIE), I loved the flavors of the roasted tomato and bean with the salty sausage. AMAZING.


For the pesto
1 cup of tomatoes quartered. You can use any tomatoes, but I used 3-4 small of these farmer’s market tomatoes
1 tbsp olive oil, salt pepper (all are for roasting)
2 cups of basil, packed
2 fat cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 tbsp pecorino romano cheese
1/2 cup olive oil (dial this up or down depending on how smooth you like your pesto)
Salt/pepper to taste

For the sausage pasta
1 package of your favorite bean pasta (I used this one), but you can just use a pound of your favorite pasta
1/2 pound of Italian or breakfast sausage out of their casings and roughly chopped
1 tbsp of olive oil for frying the sausage

Start with the tomatoes. In a 400F oven, roast the tomatoes with the olive oil, salt + pepper for 35-40 minutes until charred. Set the tomatoes aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a large skillet, fry up the sausage in olive oil until brown (7-10 minutes). While the sausage is cooking, add the pasta to the now boiling water and cook until al dente (per your package instructions). While both are cooking, add the tomatoes (and their juices), basil, garlic, cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper to a blender and blitz until smooth.

Drain the pasta (leaving 1/2 cup of pasta water aside), and add the pasta to the pan with the sausage. Toss to combine. Add the pesto, toss to combine, and let cook for an additional 1-2 minutes.

Serve hot with fresh basil and pecorino cheese. Enjoy!

built by women: arlene gibbs, interior decorator, screenwriter/producer

arlene gibbs

When I first visited Rome in 2008, Arlene took me to the most incredible Italian restaurant–one I would never have found on a map. We were introduced by a woman who was interested in adapting my memoir for film. Although the project fell through, I’m thankful for having met Arlene and for our long-distance friendship since, punctuated by my occasional visits to Italy.

I admire Arlene deeply, embarrassingly so. She left a job, country, and life in pursuit of something other. She wasn’t tethered to age as a means of trapping one in one’s vocation, rather she set out to find her place in the world. Up until a few months ago she was a successful writer/producer and now tell stories in another form: interiors. I love women with verve, women who take risks, break ranks, and live without apology. Arlene is all of these things, but in the end she’s a truth-teller. I only hope to be as successful as I move through my acts. Let her story inspire you. –FS

When I first met you, you’d recently emigrated to Rome from the U.S. Truth be told, I admired you, how brave you were to leave a successful career behind for something other. This was a time before we’d read articles about expats and second acts. Your career has spanned politics, film and entertainment—but tell us how you returned to your first love: decorating. Why did you leave producing behind?

Arlene Gibbs: What timing. Until two months ago, I had two careers going on, screenwriter/producer, and decorator.

When we first met, I was writing full-time and developing a few projects as a producer. Everyone told me it would be impossible to be a screenwriter/producer based in Rome (especially without a trust fund). Even after our movie Jumping The Broom was released, and importantly was a hit, I heard the same thing. Nothing changed. Nobody cared. It was a “niche” film. When I pointed out to a producer friend that there were plenty of successful British screenwriters who worked in Hollywood but lived in London, I was told, “Yes, but they are British, white, and male.”

To your last question, it took me forever to see the light. Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends, who lives in Rome, said that the universe was screaming at me and I was ignoring the signs. This friend is usually not that crunchy. I needed to heed her advice.

Then I read this quote from JJ Martin, an American fashion and design journalist who lives in Milan, and everything clicked.

The best advice I’ve ever received was to look at everything that comes your way as an opportunity. Do not underestimate the power of chance and fate. Do what you love, what opens you up, not what closes you down, and makes you act like an asshole. Be responsible, be loving, be caring. That’s what I advise to anyone starting out. If you truly love fashion, it will come to you.

She’s talking about fashion but it could be applied to any creative endeavor. I wasn’t an asshole when I worked in Hollywood, my former assistants still speak to me, but I was not myself. I became a very bitter person.

I was recently hired for a decorating project in Los Angeles. It was my first trip back since making my big decision. It was a great experience. I returned to Rome feeling positive instead of depressed.

I’ve met a lot of people our age who feel regret. Regret that they didn’t pursue this or that life sooner, hadn’t met their partner earlier in life, but I tend to believe that we find ourselves at a certain place because of all the choices we’ve made, not in spite of them. Would you agree? Do you have any regrets about the paths you’ve taken?

AG: I agree with you but I had so many regrets when I lived in Los Angeles. I wish I had started working in Hollywood at a younger age. That a woman in her EARLY 30s was told to lie about her age was ridiculous.

I wish I had worked on Wall Street, saved a lot of money, and then moved to L.A. to work in the Biz. I wish I had trusted my gut more, instead of trying to be something I wasn’t. My parents are from the Caribbean and couldn’t understand why I would choose to work in a field where migraines and panic attacks were normal.

Now, I don’t have regrets. It took me a while to get to the thing I’m supposed to do. I do believe all the experiences I’ve had, good and bad, were invaluable opportunities to learn. I think it’s just as important to know what you don’t do well, not just the areas/jobs where you excel.

Image Credit: Gina Gomez.

You’ve endured and prospered (IMO) amidst the one-two punch of being an expat and building a business for yourself in Italy. The challenges you faced (and perhaps struggle with still?) –would you say they’re mutually exclusive, or are they more like a ven diagram, one challenge eclipsing or being born out of another?

AG: Hmmm. I worked in Hollywood, which is not a meritocracy, so many of the things that infuriate American and British expats/immigrants about Italy, don’t faze me.

Is it easy to be an entrepreneur in Italy? No, it’s not. True, I do work internationally but my business is based here and Italy ranks as one of the most difficult countries for businesses. The newish Renzi government is trying to make things easier. We’ll see.

The red tape here is bonkers but it’s still easier than being a black woman working in Hollywood. Did you see the first episode of Project Greenlight this week? No words (FS: I did, and I agree, no words. I thought Damon was one of the good ones).

Regarding your previous work in film and politics– I imagine both careers required navigating verbal landmines and dealing with strong personalities. Do you feel your time spent in both careers helped you in your freelance one?

AG: Absolutely. Also, all three are about story telling, a narrative. Interior design does it in a visual way, like film, but instead of moving images it’s more tactile, fabric, form/function, etc.

A practical question—how did you build a client base and portfolio? Are there any challenges distinct to Italy?

Credits: Arlene Gibbs, Interior Designer. Architect: Domenico Minchilli. Photography: Mario Flores

AG: It doesn’t matter if you’re self taught or graduated from Parsons with straight A’s, when you’re first starting out, your clients will be friends and family (or people who are friends with your friends or family), especially for residential projects. It’s very intimate to work with someone in/on your home.

In time, if your work is published, clients who are not your friends/family will find you. However, even then, there is a courtship of sorts. Word of mouth is very important, of course. Clients will refer you to their family/friends.

Regarding my challenges that are unique to Italy, there are a few.

Before my internship, I never worked in an Italian office. I wrote all day, in English, at home by myself. My Italian did not improve when I first moved to Rome, as I wasn’t in school studying anymore. There are a lot of expats in Rome and my Italian friends speak English well. Now that I’m working with artisans, contractors, and some vendors who don’t speak English, I cannot just switch to English when I get frustrated trying to communicate. During most of my workday I’m using technical vocabulary that is not used in everyday conversation. It’s not surprising that sometimes my brain hurts. Learning a new language as an adult is tough but I’m determined to become truly fluent.

In Italy architects do the majority of interior design work. There are more architects in Rome than in the entire country of France. It’s very competitive.

In the States, technically, there’s a huge difference between an interior designer and a decorator. The former is able to do structural work and could be seen as an interior architect. Many American architects disagree. Here, there isn’t a difference as both decorators and interiors designers are not architects. End of story. If there is structural work to be done, you call an architect and/or an engineer and collaborate. I don’t know if it’s a plus or a minus that there aren’t many interior designers/decorators in Italy. Perhaps it’s not relevant.

I do know that networking in Italy is not like the States. It’s less aggressive, even in Milan. It’s a big learning curve.

Have you endured any challenges building an interior decorating business specific to being a woman or woman of color? How did you manage them?

AG: No, I haven’t. After working in a male-dominated industry for years, it was odd at first to attend design industry conferences/events and see so many women! And there are women over the age of forty. What is happening?

What has surprised you most about launching your business? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

AG: I’m surprised by how welcoming and helpful my colleagues were/are. It unnerves me. Seriously.

As my friends know, I’m very organized. My Italian friends find all my lists and my discomfort with last minutes plans hilarious but my anal retentive ways have served me well.

Working for myself, I still struggle with setting clear work/life boundaries. They bleed into each other. It’s not healthy and counter-productive especially when you work in a creative field. It’s important to step on the brakes and disconnect once in a while. If you’re going, going, going all the time how can you really take things in? What’s inspiring you?

Do I need to return text messages and emails on Sundays and/or at 9:00 p.m. at night? My business is young and I do feel a lot of pressure to be available to my clients 24/7.

As a friend said, I’m not an ER doctor. Of course it’s okay for clients to email me when things are on their minds but unless it’s an emergency (which in decorating what could that be on a day when there are no deliveries) I can return the emails on Monday.

Who has inspired you along the way and why?

AG: Man, this would be such a long list. There have been many people who have inspired me directly or indirectly. What they all have in common is passion. They have worked in different fields and many have had non-traditional career paths. I have been that person who was sleepwalking through life and now I appreciate how lucky I am to do what I love.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own business or going freelance? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding interior-related ventures?

If you’re going to freelance in a creative field learn and respect the craft.
I know people complain about the Millennials but I don’t think this is a generation issue but an instant gratification issue.

There’s nothing wrong with exploring different fields. If you want to do something creative, do it but realize it’s going to take some time and hard work. Take it seriously, or don’t bother.

I was the oldest interior design intern ever but that experience was priceless. I’ve been fortunate to have people trust me and believe in my skills. I don’t know everything and I’m grateful to have more established peers in my life who mentor me. I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so as I’m not a robot. But I learn from them and try not to make the same mistake twice. I’m floored by the number of people I meet here who think they can just, poof, wake up one day and be a success at something they know nothing about and takes people years to learn.

Do your homework.
Some people freelance because they have been downsized. Others choose to freelance. Either way, it’s important to find out as much as you can about the nuts and bolts of your new endeavor, not just the fun and sexy part.

Write a business plan. One could be the most talented creative person on the planet but if they cannot run a business, they will not succeed. Attend design conferences in your city or the big national ones in New York or Los Angeles. In Europe there are large international conferences in Milan, Paris, and London.

Many designers have workshops or bootcamps. A note of caution, choose wisely. There are bloggers who decorate/design and decorator/designers who blog (occasionally). Huge difference. Be clear about what you want to gain from the experience. I attended Kathryn M. Ireland’s workshop in Los Angeles (she also has one in France) early in my career and still use the tools I learned everyday. It was informative and also a blast.

For design creatives I highly recommend the book, The Business of Design by Keith Granet.

Have a POV.
This doesn’t a mean a minimalist designer cannot work with a maximalist client. If you look at the work of the most respected and successful designers, they all have a distinct POV. There are elements of their DNA in each project but the home fits the client’s tastes and needs.

Anyone can take a pretty photo during Fashion Week and post it on Instagram. The street style photographers who have broken through did so because they had a POV. Once this social media bubble burst or shifts (again) the creatives who have something to say and an interesting way to say it will continue to work.

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

Working out.
I’m a morning person and one of my favorite things to do is jog or walk through the streets of Rome to Villa Borghese or Doria Pamphili Park. That early in the morning, the streets are quiet and the light is incredible. Living in Rome is a pain sometimes with all the bureaucracy, the tour buses, drunk American exchange students, the noise, people who refuse to clean up after their dogs, etc. Then you jog past the building where Bernini lived and buildings like the Pantheon and remember why you put up with Rome’s craziness. She’s inspiring, beautiful, and humbling.

Moleskine daily calendar.
I do have a calendar on my Mac and each project has a punch sheet or action items list but there’s something about literally crossing things off on a to-do-list that makes me happy and feel very accomplished.

I resisted getting one, as I was tired of everyone going on about their iPhones as if they just had a baby or something.

Now I don’t know how I lived without it for so long. I have a ton of information in one tiny device. It holds my contacts, my calendar, a camera, apps I use all the time like Instagram, Pinterest, WhatApp, Shazam, Goggle, a translation app, a compass, my music, pictures of my projects and moodboards, etc. etc.

All images courtesy of Arlene Gibbs, except where noted.

triple tomato soup with buckwheat groats

triple tomato soup

For the whole of my career, I’ve been running on empty. Fresh out of school, I worked the long hours, took on all the projects just so I could prove myself. With every job or assignment I took, I always maintained a side-hustle–a creative outlet that invariably led me to my next job. Because when you’re interviewing alongside dozens of candidates who are essentially photocopies of one another, anything you can do to set yourself apart was tantamount. I’d never worked in book publishing, but I secured a job in online marketing in 2006 because I’d ran and publish a successful literary magazine, built and marketed a business from the ground up, and learned the fundamentals in marketing at a corporation where you needed to complete a requisition form in order to get a new pen.

I lived to work.

All those years I never found the fact that I’d sometimes go months without seeing daylight strange. I assumed it was par for the course, this is what you did in order to be successful. Giving the whole of yourself over to somebody else in exchange for a paycheck–you never stopped to think of what would happened if you gave away all the best parts of yourself, put yourself up for auction, what would be left? And is selling yourself and the years worth the paycheck? Because, invariably, you might make more money but the money only funds the distractions that take away from your overworked, anxious life.

When I left a job as a partner in a social media agency, I knew I would probably never make as much as I had but I was okay with that. I learned that I didn’t need things, and as long as I had a shelter, food, books, and the ability to travel and care for my cat, I’d be fine. I didn’t need fancy handbags or clothes each season since I normally wear the same ten items in my closet. I ended up donating and giving away my closet. I ended up making a fraction of what I used to make, but I got my sanity back. I became the friend who listened instead of waiting for her turn to speak. I became the friend who never took out her phone at dinner. I became the kind of friend who stopped cancelling plans.

I was present.

One of the reasons I moved to California was that I craved a quieter, slower life. I knew the risks–fewer friends, meager professional network–but I assessed that if I were going to panic about project work at least I wouldn’t be doing it in six feet of snow. Last year’s thirteen-month winter was relentless; I was tired of the grey mornings and cold that burrowed its way under your blankets and settled. Last year I woke daily to sadness, and I came here hoping to feel less of what I felt then.

What I hadn’t expected, so quickly, is how I’d become allergic to my home. It’s incredible how geography and proximity to stress changes things. Out of the maelstrom of the city, I started to react to calls where people would talk loud, fast and over you. I grew tired of the ubiquitous panic, the urgency, the we-know-we’re-not-curing-cancer-but-we’ll-still-act-like-we-are, anyway. The velocity and intensity with which people worked unnerved me, and yesterday I spent an hour with a wonderful client explaining how we could do great work without having an aneurysm.

Because I’m not living like this. I have this one life and I’m not living it to crawl my way into an early grave.

I know I have this privilege of risk, of turning away work with the knowledge that I may have to put my rent on my credit card. But I’m okay with that. Because if I wanted constant anxiety I would’ve never left my former life. I never would’ve given up a biweekly paycheck and health insurance.

I’ve worked for nearly 20 years and I finally want to choose the way I want to live this one life. For as long as I can, I’m going to try to live it on my own terms. And I’m not going to shoulder unnecessary stress.

My call went better than I expected, and I tucked into this soup late last night spent from the day but happy.

1 shallot, minced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
3 large heirloom tomatoes, chopped into fat chunks
1 28oz can of diced San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 cup sundried tomatoes packed in olive oil, rough chop
1 qt of vegetable (or chicken) stock, reserve 2 cups of the 1 qt aside
6 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stems
1 cup of basil, roughly chopped
1 cup buckwheat groats, rinsed and drained

This is honestly the easiest soup you’ll ever make. Add the oil to a large pot and turn the heat to medium/high. When hot, add the shallots and garlic with a pinch of salt, sauteeing the mixture for 1-2 minutes. Tumble in the heirloom tomatoes and toss with the shallot/garlic mixture for 3-4 minutes. Add the San Marzano tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, stock, and thyme, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and let cook on low heat for 25 minutes.

Five minutes in, fill a small pot with 2 cups of the reserved stock and 1 cup of the rinsed buckwheat groats. Bring to a boil, reduce to a low, cover, and allow to cook for 17-20 minutes.

Add the soup to a blender with the basil (or you can use an immersion blender) and blitz until smooth. Return the soup to the large pot, add the cooked buckwheat groats, stir, and cover. Cook for another 10 minutes on low.

Season with salt/pepper, and chow down.

triple tomato soup

built by women: jenna tanenbaum, founder of green blender

jenna-smoothie Today I’m chatting with Jenna Tanenbaum, founder of Green Blender, a service that delivers organic ingredients and recipes for superfood smoothies–right to your doorstep. Enjoy!

First off, congratulations on closing a round of seed funding! I’m in awe of Green Blender, and how you’ve transformed a genius idea into a fully-fledged business. Can you tell us about how Green Blender came to be, and what you envision as its future?

Jenna Tanenbaum: Thank you! The idea really came out of a frustration I had around health and wellness. Obviously what we eat is very important to our health, but in our society, when people decide to improve their health, often times, they go down a path of extremes and deprivation. We decide to give up carbs or go on a very restrictive diet and exercise plan where “no pain, no gain” becomes a mantra. I, myself, have gone on countless diets and cleanses where I am literally ticking off the days until I can have fro-yo and pizza again. This is not a sustainable approach to health and does not build healthy habits that last. Food becomes the enemy in these situations where guilt and restrictions run rampant.

I wanted to start a company that let people indulge in their health. If you love the food you are eating and it also taste great and is easy to make, then that’s sustainable. Investing in health is one of the smartest placed bets you can make.

I love that I am helping people start their day with a healthy decision and I’m ultimately helping them form not only a healthier lifestyle, but also a better relationship with the food they eat.

It’s so clear from your background that you’ve a passion for start-ups. How did you make the leap from working for companies that have such a strong, passionate vision to forming your own venture? What lessons did you learn from the meteoric rise of ClassPass?

JT: I have had a pretty eclectic career to say the least. I went to school for business and finance and started off as a consultant working in anti-money laundering and consumer compliance. I quickly realized that working in the regulatory industry wasn’t for me.

I remember reading a piece about the culture of Sales Force on a flight back from a client’s site and realized that I had to get into a company that had a strong culture. This is what spurred my career in start-ups. I was a product analyst at a real time data company, Chartbeat, and then went into marketing at ClassPass.

I learned two main things working at high growth start-ups. 1. The founders have to be passionate about the problem they are trying to solve and 2. The team needs to be passionate about the problem the company is trying to solve.

The first point flows into the second. How can you expect your team to be passionate about something if you are not?

What has surprised you most about launching your own company? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

JT: Running a company, especially a health and food company, is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I was prepared to help people but I didn’t realize how deeply rewarding and satisfying I would find it. Food is so emotionally charged. Hearing how Green Blender has helped customers combat obesity, high blood pressure and lethargy while at the same time repairing the relationship they have with their health and with their food is truly an amazing feeling.

Who has inspired you along the way and why?

JT: My co-founder, Amir Cohen, inspires me all the time. Not only are we partners at Green Blender, but we are partners in life. He was the person who ultimately convinced me to quit my job, take a risk, and work on this idea with him. He inspires me because his approach to work and problem solving is so different than my own. I tend to be more of a work-aholic and he is constantly showing me that I can enjoy the process and I don’t need to be glued to my computer to be productive and effective.

I love working with him because I love observing how he executes ideas. He is very thoughtful and meticulous but he is a playful leader. He loves fun and really cares if others are having fun around him. I think this mentality really brings the most out of the people who interact with our brand. His approach is contagious and I can’t help but enjoy the process when I’m around him.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching a start-up should know? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding food-related ventures?

JT: The three things I’ve learned:
1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable – this is my mantra. I am constantly pushing myself out of my safe heavens and getting out there to try something new. I truly believe that’s where you grow and learn the most. I am extremely camera shy when shooting videos but I recently committed myself to making a new Green Blender smoothie every morning on our Periscope channel. I seriously get a little shaky every time I hit start broadcast.
2. Get a product out there as soon as you can – Before we launched we had a lot of theories about who our customers might be and what they might want. We spent a lot of time thinking about them and designed our theoretical product with them in mind. Once we launched, of course, all that work went out the window and our actual customers took shape. One of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur can do is wait to launch the perfect product.
3. Nobody will solve your problems but you – This is a big one. Core business problems must be approached head on – no consultant, employee or software will be able to solve the key problems in your business. Of course delegate as much as possible, but you must find the answer to the issues core to your business.

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

JT: My blender – This goes without saying. I drink the Green Blender kool-aid hard core and will make a smoothie from that week’s box for breakfast. I’m then usually at my blender a few times a week testing new recipe ideas.

Rapportive – Rapportive is a Gmail extension that uses email address to pull LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Green Blender is building a strong following and I use this tool to help identify potential leads for brand ambassadors and business development deals.

MeetEdgar – there is no way around it, brands must maintain a presence on social media platforms. Consistency (along with great content) is king and MeetEdgar let’s Green Blender categorize and rotate a lot of our evergreen content so my team doesn’t have to waste time republishing and writing content we can use again.


All images courtesy of Green Blender.

easy zucchini fritters

zucchini fritters
I’m a creature of habit. While I took conference calls from my air mattress, waiting for my furniture to make the long crawl across the country, I feasted on a small gluten-free sausage pizza–every day. My neck hurt? Order the double sausage. My furniture’s uncertain location and delivery date? Order the double sausage. Missing my friends who were no longer a subway ride away? Please, please, deliver me the double sausage. It got to a point where I was on a first-name basis with the Fresh Brothers cashier and delivery guys. Even now, even as I type this, I miss that pizza because it was so damn good.

I’ve an addictive personality, and when I get hooked on something, I tend to consume it to an unhealthy degree. Years ago I lived on avocados for a month, so much so, I developed an allergy to them and I couldn’t eat them for over ten years without getting violently ill. Last year I had to put a fatwa on chickpeas because my affection for them was getting out of hand. I tend to skirt the extremes, and it’s taken a lot of effort to create balance in my diet.

The double sausage and I are on a mini-break.

Last year, I was a wreck. Raised burning hives covered 85% of my body, and I had to cycle through steroids for a week and maintain a strict diet for months in order to heal myself. Come Thanksgiving, I couldn’t eat turkey, cranberries, gluten, dairy, yeast, and a host of other foods, and I found myself along eating gluten-free pasta because I was too embarrassed to ask my best friend, whom I see every year for the holidays, to make a special plate just for me. It’s taken over a year but I feel the healthiest I’ve ever been and I’ve fallen in love with foods I never thought I’d tolerant. Because when you live boxed in, you have to get creative. And while I’m able to occasionally indulge in gluten, I’ve no longer a taste for bread or pasta (I can’t even believe I’m typing this because I was a carb junkie, hoovering two plates a pasta A DAY).

Now that I’m on a break from the double sausage, now that I’ve got a stocked kitchen and a table on which to finally eat, it’s been a joy to comb the farmer’s markets and bring home fresh produce. From plump figs to corn and heirloom tomatoes, living out west makes me EXCITED for food in a way I hadn’t felt back east.

I mean, who gets jazzed over vegetables? (Raises hand)

When my friend shared this zucchini fritter recipe on Facebook, I dropped my plans to make an heirloom tomato and leek soup. My predilection for the fritter runs deep, and I went to the market today for fresh, local ingredients because who doesn’t want a fried crispy vegetable?!

I made some alterations to the original recipe to suit my palate (I love the lemony pungent nature of thyme over oregano any day of the week), and I tend to go heavy on the shallots (the only onion I can tolerate) and pepper.

And while these fritters don’t come close to the creature comfort of the double sausage, I’m loving the return of fresh vegetables to my diet.


INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Healthy Holistic Living: Makes 6 fat fritters
3 small green zucchini
1/4 cup fresh basil, minced
5 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and minced
1 small shallot, minced
2 small cloves of garlic, minced
2 medium eggs, whisked
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp gluten-free flour (you can also make this with almond meal!)
1 tsp sea salt, divided
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Using the large blades on your box grater, grate the zucchini onto a cutting board. Transfer the zucchini to a colander lined with a kitchen towel. Add 1/2 of the sea salt, toss, and leave for 10 minutes. Wrap up the zucchini in the towel and squeeze, hard. Trust me, you won’t even believe the amount of water zucchini releases!

Add the zucchini to a medium bowl. Add the herbs, shallot, garlic, salt, pepper, eggs, and flour and toss until all the flour is absorbed. Let the mixture rest for ten minutes.

In a large skillet, add 2 tbsp of olive oil. Wait 2-3 minutes (or until a small piece of the fritter dough sizzles when it hits the pan) until the pan is searing hot. Add 2 tbsp of mixture for each fritter to the pan. Allow it to fry until the edges are crisp and brown, 3-4 minutes. Turn on the other side and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes.

Transfer the fritters to a cutting board (or baking sheet) lined with paper towels. Although the original recipe calls for an avocado dill dip (YASSSS!), I couldn’t wait and devoured half of these fritters in one sitting.

zucchini fritters

zucchini fritters

what no one talks about when you move to los angeles

in los angeles

I’ve seen many things since I’ve landed in Los Angeles: grown men walking bengal cats and brown bunnies on a leash, women buying produce wearing scraps that give the suggestion of clothing, couples taking a taxi to their parked cars. I’ve been warned that I live in a place where the land may never settle; the threat of tectonic plates shifting is a constant. A place where to which people emigrate from the east, seduced by palm trees, warm weather, chakra cleanses, and a turbulent history. In California, all conversations converge to that of water–parched lawns and weeklies that bullet out all the ways in which one could conserve, save.

I knew what I was getting into–a temperate city without seasons, a drought, a way of life that existed without subways, and the conservative politics. However, very few people talked about a minor, yet constant discomfort–what happens to your skin.

Having had the luxury of drinking water straight from the tap, I remember my first few days here, of wincing from the tap’s tinny taste. Now drinking requires filters, a water system. Over the course of a few weeks I started to see demonstrable changes in my skin. I burned easily (I now wear a sunscreen with zinc, every day). And even after showering, I rarely felt clean, rather I felt as if there existed a thin layer of something on my skin, a film I couldn’t rub off. I broke out. EVERYWHERE. Shoulders, back, chest, face. Bumps I haven’t seen since I was a teenager now blanketing my skin.

Naturally, I freaked out. I fired off emails to recent transplants, commiserated with my neighbor who suffered the same plight since she moved from New York, and took to the internet…where there was nothing. I spent hours trying various keyword searches; I paged through acne forums and Los Angeles Yelp pages riddled with bad jokes and drought complaints. Amidst the noise, I found these helpful articles. I discovered the difference between hard and soft water, how to test for hard water, and I’ve since installed a shower filter. I bring a change of clothes to my workouts, because even though most of the classes I take are within a ten-minute walking distance from my house, I worry about sweat and bacteria clogging my pores. I’m also trying different products in an effort to modify my routine because what might have worked in New York is proving disastrous in Los Angeles. Yesterday, I indulged in an incredible clarifying facial, an experience which reminded me of an excavation, but I look a lot better after having Body Deli products all over my skin. I’m also test-driving several facial cleansers that don’t require water–I’ll keep you posted.

Everyone tells me that it’ll take my body up to six weeks to adjust, but one of my friends said it took her two dermatologists, a change in birth control, and a year to get back to where she was. Has anyone moved cities and had similar skin problems? Tell me everything.

body deli products

the simplest + sweetest strawberry crisp

Strawberry crisp

I’ll never again take lying in a bed for granted. We slept the sleep of children last night–me curled up next to Felix. I love Santa Monica because the skies are perennially pink come nightfall, and the air is cool and crisp. I’m near the ocean and I sleep with my windows open, which is a luxury, really, because not too long ago I was enduring relentless heat and humidity. I lived in a home where false cold air blew in.

My furniture finally arrived yesterday (it’s been a month in the making), and I spent five hours cutting up boxes and unpacking. 39 of the 49 boxes contained books, and I’m still sore from moving them around my apartment, trying to make room for all that I’ve collected over the years. A friend sent me a note last night, asked if I’d seen the sky. She was driving home from Marina Del Rey and caught sight of it. I paused and walked downstairs and saw the sun settle into the horizon, and there was a kind of purple haze to it, a cool fire, and I felt the word home.

I fell into bed around 8:30pm, aching, exhausted–hands all cut up and bleeding–but happy that everything I love occupies this space. I don’t have my couch yet, but you can sort of tell from the mess below it’s coming together. Slowly, but surely.


I’ve been on work calls since seven this morning, and I finally had some time this afternoon to bake. I bought three pints of fresh strawberries for $7 and couldn’t wait to make a crisp.

Odd thing is, I wasn’t excited about photographing this. I brought the plates, napkins, and marble slab out onto the deck and it felt…false. I can’t explain it. I brought everything back in and set the dishes on the counter and took photos with my phone. I guess it felt more real to me–a first home-cooked meal in a new house. It felt like, okay, this is it.

I live in California.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from A Modern Way to Eat, with modifications
1 pound hulled strawberries, cut into halves and quarters
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons organic cane sugar sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp almond extract
1 cup almond flour
1 cup gluten-free steel-cut oats
5 tablespoons cold salted butter, cut into cubes (I found goat butter in my local market and it is INSANELY good)

Strawberry crisp

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Put the strawberries into an ovenproof dish (a pie pan is a good size) with the 2 tablespoons of sugar, orange zest and almond extract.

Mix the almond flour, oats, and the rest of the sugar in a bowl.

Break the butter into little chunks and add it to the bowl or pour in the coconut oil and then use your fingers to rub the mixture together, lifting them out of the bowl to get some air into the crisp topping. Once the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs and there are no big lumps of butter, you’re golden. I used an old fashioned pastry cutter.

Pile the mixture on top of the strawberries and bake in the hot oven for 25 minutes, until the top is golden and the strawberries have shrunk and started to caramelize around the edges.

Strawberry crisp


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