by Kate Lebo
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; 416 pp.; $25.76Buy Book
Kate Lebo’s first collection of essays, The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with Recipes), debuted in April 2021. The New York Times calls it “a darkly funny encyclopedia-memoir-essay collection.” In Lebo’s book, fruit that is difficult is sometimes a metaphor for thorny people; sometimes medicine, but occasionally poison; and often cause for rumination on the nature of family, relationships, and her own desire to be a mother.
Lebo is also the author of the chapbook Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rodgers; the anthology Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze, which she edited with Samuel Ligon; Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter; and the poetry/ephemera/recipe collection A Commonplace Book of Pie. Her poems and essays have appeared in This is the Place: Women Writing About Home, Ghosts of Seattle Past, Best New Poets, Gettysburg Review, Willow Springs, The Inlander, and Poetry Northwest, among other places. Her essay about listening through hearing loss, “The Loudproof Room,” originally published in New England Review, was anthologized in The Best American Essays 2015.
A graduate of the University of Washington’s MFA program and Western Washington University, Lebo lives in Spokane, Washington, with her husband, the writer Sam Ligon, and their son.
Literary Mama Profiles Editor Susan Bruns Rowe met Kate Lebo at the 2019 Port Townsend Writers Conference where Lebo taught a workshop on the lyric essay and later helped a dozen writers make a perfect berry pie. Their interview was conducted by email.
Susan Bruns Rowe: Motherhood is explored in your book in different ways—longing for motherhood, your relationship with your mother, and your relationship with your step-daughter. About five months before The Book of Difficult Fruit came out in April this year, you gave birth to your son. Did writing the book in any way help prepare you for motherhood?
Kate Lebo: It’s probably too soon to know. The part I knew before having a baby: I was afraid to have that baby before writing a book of this scope and ambition. I thought that if I had a child too soon, I might never return to the economic, domestic, and artistic conditions I need to write a book like The Book of Difficult Fruit. I’ll never know if I was wrong, if I could have had a child earlier and still continued to write. But it doesn’t matter. For a whole host of reasons I can say and reasons I can’t say (or even describe), I didn’t feel ready to have a child before finishing this book. Once I finished, I was ready. Prepared? I don’t know. While pregnant, I figured I’d know what to do when I needed to know, and if I didn’t, I’d ask family and do research. Now that Cy is here, I still feel that way.
SBR: The essays in The Book of Difficult Fruit are wonderfully and deeply layered. What was the inspiration for writing it and did you have any inkling of its scope—research, interviews, new recipes—when you began?
KL: This book began as a response to my worries that, after writing three books with “pie” in the title, no one would take me seriously writing about anything else. That anxiety fell away as I wrote. That happens often for me—anxiety or irritation gets me started, but those anxieties and irritants become less interesting the more I engage with whatever I’m writing about.
Once I began writing, I became more interested in the relationship between food and medicine. I wanted to learn how to recognize the metaphors we use to identify our medicines—for me, those metaphors tend to have something to do with food. I wanted to write a book that felt like entering someone else’s secret garden.
In an effort to establish my authority on each of the fruits I wrote about, it became important to me to engage with them in as many ways as I could—library research, interviews, personal experience, memory, recipe, chance encounters, rumor, myth. I hoped by weaving these ways of knowing together, I could write pieces that contained contradictory truths about the fruits. I hoped that difficult fruits could help me tell stories from my own life where what nurtures and harms are entangled.
SBR: A number of the book’s “difficult fruits” are also metaphors for exploring larger, societal issues. For example, the wildness of Northwest huckleberries is also a story about the loss of Indigenous cultures and languages. Which “difficult fruit” was the most interesting to research? To cook?
KL: Oh, all of them. If I couldn’t get interested in a fruit, that wasn’t the fruit’s fault. But my interest was a prerequisite for spending so much time with each fruit, so every single fruit in this book is one I found fascinating.
As far as cooking goes, I loved discovering through painstaking trial and error that the most delicious way to cook a medlar is to boil the hell out of it and turn that decoction into a jelly. The flavor of medlar “juice” is very different from medlar fruit, and that difference was not obvious.
SBR: You are a poet, essayist, cookbook author, and someone who teaches others how to bake pies. In what ways are the culinary and literary arts alike?
KL: I think of them less in the ways they are alike than in the ways they satisfy different needs—though the way they satisfy those needs can be complementary. Writing a recipe is nothing like writing an essay. With a recipe, there’s a prescribed form and an ideal outcome the writing tries to push the reader toward. With an essay, anything goes, and if I end the essay with the idea I started with, I’ve failed to do anything interesting. As a writer and as a reader, when both of these experiences are woven together throughout the day, I’m having a good day.
Another way culinary and literary arts overlap is the way they can help me enter a creative space where I lose time. That kind of focus is so satisfying, and much easier to achieve with cooking than with writing.
Perhaps another way they’re related could be in how anyone can cook, anyone can write, but some people are trained, some people train themselves, some people are artists, some people just do it for fun, some people do it because it helps them survive. There’s no one way to be a cook or a writer, though there are ways one is a cook/writer that give one more status. A chef is fancier than a home cook, definitely. Within particular spheres of influence, both kinds of cooks are revered. I think cooking is both overvalued and undervalued. I wouldn’t say that of literary arts.
SBR: Your latest book is an essay collection with recipes, and your cookbook is seeded with poems. Have you always taken an unconventional approach to genre?
KL: I guess so! My husband was just pointing out that no matter what sort of book I’ve written, I have always included recipes. Recipes make it harder to pin down The Book of Difficult Fruit as a particular thing—is it an essay collection? A cookbook?—which annoys some people and delights others. I like the contrast between the prescriptive language/bossiness of a recipe with the lyricism/engagement with mystery in poems and essays. All these moving parts have helped my books feel full, to me. I certainly wonder, and would like to try, writing a book without recipes. A book that’s not about food at all!
SBR: You write, “When I was a teenager, I considered being a nun. Never, not even once, did I consider being a housewife. Yet sometimes I look at my life, which I have lived as a certain kind of feminist and a certain kind of artist, and I see another woman who’s struggling to make her peace with being at home.” Where are you in that struggle?
KL: Oh, same. My domestic situation is exactly what I need to be able to write books, but it does not look like something outsiders would recognize as an artistic life.
That’s probably bullshit. What I’m trying to say is, sometimes I feel afloat and foolish. No matter how many books I write I’ll probably still grapple with that feeling.
SBR: The final essay in The Book of Difficult Fruit concludes with this beautiful line: “If Sam and I have a child . . . we’ll try to grow a garden so comfortable and sweet, so without difficulty, that the child won’t notice she’s been locked in. We won’t be able to help ourselves—the only selves we can truly help. I hope, at the right time, we fail.” Now that your son has arrived, how’s it going?
KL: Well, it’s not yet the right time to fail, I know that much! Right now he’s seven months old, and I’m enjoying just being with him. We spend a lot of time touching leaves and smelling flowers and watching bugs. He’s usually in a great mood after dinner; that’s when Sam will put him on a blanket in the grass. He’ll play on his own while we tend to the garden. Then it’s time for bed. The next day we get up and do it all over again.