Monday, September 14, 2020

TBR: Clutter: An Untidy History by Jennifer Howard

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

A few years ago, it fell to me to clean 50 years’ worth of hoarded stuff out of my mother’s house. As I dug through it all, I realized I was far from alone—and I got to wondering why so many of us wind up drowning in clutter. Contemporary society likes to shame clutterbugs, but clutter has been around since at least the Industrial Revolution—and it’s a systemic problem more than a personal failing.

What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?

To get at the bigger problem of clutter, I had to start with a painful private experience—the squalor my mother wound up living in. Early on, it felt like a betrayal to take that hidden shame and put the squalid details out there for the world to see. As I heard more and more cleanout stories, though, I realized that my mother’s situation, which felt uniquely awful to me, was part of a much bigger problem. I took heart from the idea that by sharing it, and sorting out how it got so bad, I might help lighten the load for other families. That gave me the courage to keep going, even when the going was painful.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

So many twists and turns! Nothing about the process unfolded the way I expected it would, and I’m sometimes amazed the book exists at all. I started work on it as a lifeline of sorts while I got my mother’s house cleaned out and ready to sell. I was stuck in a terrible job. It was a miserable time all around, and it was only out of sheer desperation I managed to finish the proposal. I worked with an agent for a while and we got nowhere. Friends advised me to drop the project. But I felt compelled to keep going, and wound up taking the proposal out on my own. A friend put me in touch with Dan Crissman, my wonderful editor at Belt Publishing. He’d been through a similar cleanout with his parents and understood why I needed to write this book. Working with him and with Belt has been a dream.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

There’s so much wisdom out there—I’m a big fan of Jon Winokur’s @AdviceToWriters Twitter feed, which serves up great quotes from lots of writers worth listening to. The two pieces of advice I give myself most often are “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done” (a somewhat kinder version of the “butt in chair” mantra) and “Get out of your own way”— meaning don’t let that inner critic get to you while you’re writing.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

How hard it is to write a book—even one that is “refreshingly concise,” as Kirkus described mine. And at the same time how satisfying it is to be able to stretch out and really explore ideas in a way you just can’t in a shorter-form piece of writing.


Who is your ideal reader?

My ideal reader is anybody who has struggled to bring order out of domestic chaos, and has wondered why it is such an ongoing fight. You are not alone in the struggle, friends.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

 My mother was a fabulous cook and baker. She probably owned 500 cookbooks and all kinds of specialized cookware, most of which I donated. One of her specialties, though—and one of the things I most miss her making—was Swedish coffee bread, from an old recipe handed down from my grandmother Alberta. The pecan-roll version was a staple of family Thanksgivings as long as I can remember, and the smell of cardamom still makes me nostalgic for Mom in the kitchen.




2 cups milk, scalded*

6 Tbsp. shortening, melted

2 packets dried yeast or 2 yeast cakes

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. salt

2 beaten eggs

5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

12 cardamom seed pods, seeds removed and pulverized


*Note: If using dried yeast, scald only 1 2/3 cups milk and use 1/3 cup warm water to dissolve yeast.



 Dissolve sugar in scalded milk and let cool to lukewarm. Add yeast, beaten eggs, melted shortening, salt, and ground cardamom seeds. Add flour gradually, beating a long while after each addition to develop gluten. Dough should be soft, not too stiff. Knead gently. Place in a greased bowl and let rise til double in bulk. Shape into two rings or braids and bake at 375 degrees on lower rack for 23 minutes. [My mother would sometimes sprinkle coarse sugar on the loaves before baking.]

 For pecan rolls: If you want to make pecan rolls, leave out the cardamom seed. Take a muffin pan and put some light brown sugar, melted butter, and chopped pecans in the bottom of each muffin tin. Add a ball of dough to each, let rise, and bake about 12 minutes.






DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.