Open Book with Elissa Altman


Whether it's in a column or a book, Elissa Altman's prose has tended to revolve around one person: her mother, Rita Ellis Hammer.

"She's been at the center of everything that I've written over the years," Altman said by phone recently.

The two have had what Altman calls an "emotionally estranged relationship" over the years.

"I always posit the question, 'What would happen if Vogue magazine's Anna Wintour gave birth to the Susie character from '[The Marvelous] Mrs. Maisel?'" Altman said.

For those unfamiliar with the references, Altman added this about the differences between her and Rita, who has been a model and singer.

"She's this tall, svelte, beautiful, long-limbed, swanlike person, and I did not get any of those genes. She's this sort of hyper-heterosexual glam queen, and I have been married to my wife for 20 years," Altman said. "So, we're the opposite sides of the same coin."

Readers will get that impression in Altman's recently released third memoir, "Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing" (Ballantine Books). Building off of a column that Altman wrote for The Washington Post called "Feeding My Mother," Altman's latest book explores what happens after Rita suffers a very harmful fall, forcing her adult daughter to care for her. The Newtown, Conn.-based author had worked hard to build a life outside Rita's New York world.

"I had to be sucked back into the fray of her life," Altman recalled.

A Kirkus review appreciated that setup.

"Funny, raw, and tender, Altman's book examines the inevitable role reversals that occur in parent-child relationships while laying bare a mother-daughter relationship that is both entertaining and excruciating," it reads.

Also an acclaimed food writer, Altman will appear at The Bookloft in Great Barrington for a meet-and-greet starting at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7. Before the event, she answered some questions about her favorite books. The interview has been edited for length.

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Q. What are some of your favorite memoirs?

A. I love Gail Caldwell's "Let's Take the Long Way Home." [Caldwell was a longtime book critic for The Boston Globe.] It was sort of quiet but lyrical and beautiful about her friendship with the also Boston-based journalist Caroline Knapp, who was very famous for writing a book called "Drinking: A Love Story" and a book called "Appetites." She wrote in the Boston area, I want to say, in the late '80s into the early '90s and passed away, very untimely, in the early 2000s from lung cancer. She and Gail Caldwell were very friendly, very close, so Gail wrote this absolutely exquisite memoir about their friendship. It's just this beautiful evocation of platonic love and affection between these two women at the height of their careers, and one of them passes in a shockingly untimely fashion. So, that book is always on my nightstand. It's never far from me. ... Her book is one I recommend to everyone I know.

Q. What is your favorite book about motherhood?

A. That's a good question. I'm not a mom myself. I loved — in the '90s, there was a wonderful writer named Laurie Colwin. She was a novelist. She was a brilliant novelist, and she also wrote a lot narratively about food. She was not a cookbook author, but she wrote narratively about food. And her young child always figured into her work. I loved that. I loved her work. ... I love Dani Shapiro's "Inheritance," which is a new book that's come out recently. That book asks a lot of questions about the secrets mother keep or don't keep from their children as their children are growing up. It's absolutely beautiful.

Q. What is your favorite novel involving a relationship between a mother and daughter?

A. I tend to read between genres, and this is not a novel, but it's quite magical. Isabel Allende, the brilliant Chilean American author, wrote a book some years ago called "Paula." And Paula was about her relationship with her daughter. Her daughter had been ill, and the book was effectively written at Paula's bedside by the author. Again, it's beautiful, lyrical, typical of Isabel Allende, telling Paula, who was quite ill, the story of her history and her background and her extended family and what it was like for Isabel herself to grow up in the world in which she grew up — just magnificent. Not fiction, but it reads like an extraordinary novel — just absolutely wonderful.

Q. What are some of your favorite books about food?

A. I love any book, whether it's a cookbook or not. The best cookbooks in my opinion, are books that are not only practical and give you good recipes but books that tell a story about the derivation of the food, of the recipe. ... People that do that brilliantly: my friend Diana Henry. I often say, I have a big kitchen bookshelf, but every year, I've threatened to expand the kitchen bookshelf because Diana is always publishing another book. Diana is one of those people who provides context and story with every recipe that she writes. Nigel Slater, again, brilliant. There's a wonderful Seattle-based food writer named Aran Goyoaga. She's Basque, from the Basque Country. Again, just beautiful evocation of family and place and flavor and tradition. She has a new book ["Cannelle et Vanille"] coming out that's just extraordinary. Heidi Swanson, who is a longtime vegetarian author. I'm not a vegetarian, but if I was, I'd probably cook from Heidi's books exclusively — again, just not quick-in, quick-out recipes but beautiful evocation of time and place and ingredients ... and all of those things that make what we eat and how we prepare it such an intrinsic part of the human experience.

Q. What books are on your nightstand?

A. I always have Gail Caldwell's book on my nightstand. I always have Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety." I'm like a freak about this book. I have copies of it in almost every room of my house, and I've given it as [a gift] more times than I care to remember. I'm embarrassed to say that! ... You had asked earlier about books about mothers and daughters. [It] didn't pop right into my mind, mostly because I haven't had any coffee yet today, but Terry Tempest Williams' "When Women Were Birds" [is] a beautiful, jewel-like look at mothers and daughters and family connection. That's on my nightstand. And I always have the work of the poet Marie Howe on my nightstand. Marie is an absolutely exquisite poet who writes again of life and time and place. I actually have all of her work. I have one of those sort of wall-hung, vertical bookshelves alongside my nightstand, so all of my favorite books that I want to reach for again and again are right there with me.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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