Q: How much of THE DIARY OF AN AMERICAN AU-PAIR is based upon your own experiences as an au-pair? What was one of your most challenging experiences as an au-pair? What was one of your favorite experiences?
A: The story is all based on my own experience as an au pair. To tell the emotional truth, though, I had to add fictional incidents and change certain characters’ personalities.
My greatest challenge as an au pair was to keep my psyche intact. To be trapped in a foreign house for 24 hours a day—with a hostile stranger—asks a lot of a fragile person’s strength. I was especially fragile then, since I, like Melissa, had just been laid off from my first job. I had broken off my “safe” engagement. I thought I could escape my failures and explore abandoned dreams. I really did imagine luncheons on the lawn a la Henry James. But Henry James had never made me wonder who served those lunches? I never knew how servants were treated, and I hated finding out.
There were compensations. The best was finding a friend. He was nine years old. Like me, he was always being yelled at. Both of us were daydreamers who took half an hour to put on a sock. I have probably never valued or enjoyed a friend as much as I valued and enjoyed that nine-year-old.
Q: Not to pry, but a touching romance develops throughout the course of your novel—was this also based on your au-pair experience?
A: The love affair with the character called Simon didn’t materialize as a love affair in real life. person on whom Simon was based had another girlfriend, and our relationship remained a one-sided crush—except for one thrilling fact: he really did blurt out, “I can't marry you.” Ahah! He’d been thinking about it. I don’t think I’ve ever been as elated as I was when he said he couldn’t marry me. I went home and really did fall in love.
Q: Do you think this novel is a realistic portrayal of an American au-pair's experience working for a British family?
A: There aren’t that many families like the Haig-Ereildouns. Most American au pairs would never find themselves in manor houses like Sir Chester and Lady Chipchase’s or castles in the Hebrides or farmhouses in Scotland or even such shabby London townhouses. You probably wouldn’t be in a family with a nanny who’d worked for them for forty years. You also would be unlikely to land in a family that made you share bathwater. This family, their houses, their habits, and the characters they knew, were more storybook than you’d probably get if you became an au pair for a banker.
Q: In your novel, you poke fun at a lot of aspects of British culture. How has this book been received in Great Britain?
A: From what I hear, the English like it! The Observer said, “In the most funny and gleeful way, this is a work of comparative anthropology.” I'm told that on the BBC, a famous author raved on for ten minutes: “I loved this book! Found myself smiling all the way through.” One Times review had a slight touch of hurt feelings, but liked the character (Melissa) enough to recommend the book. One English acquaintance became a friend, because of this book. She just couldn’t contain her delight. “You've really hit it on the head!”
Q: You include a lot of descriptions and references to food in your novel (that makes your readers very hungry!). How did you learn so much about the food in Great Britain and why did you choose to make food such a prominent feature of this novel?
A: One of my duties was to cook. One of my pleasures was to eat. The au pair has a lonely life—especially in a Scottish farmhouse. In London, I did take cooking classes—at the Cordon Bleu. The techniques were archaic. The teaching chef really did recommend boiling the vegetables as long as possible, so that their flavors wouldn’t interfere with the taste of the sauce. In the fancier houses, the cooking was highly sophisticated. What they say about English food may be true of the average family’s food, but it’s not true of aristocratic kitchens. There are class differences in food, as well as in manners and dinner table conversation.
Q: What is one of your favorite British dishes?
A: Kedgeree. Smoky mousse. Wild pheasant. But most of all, sweets. Fiction and fact get blurred in my mind, and I'm afraid that if I’m honest, Mrs. West didn’t really make the lemon bars described, and Granny Aitchee didn’t really bake shortbread. My friend Ardsley, in Australia, makes those lemon bars. My friend Ron's mother, in Canada, baked the mostly-butter shortbread. But Morag, in the castle in the Hebrides, really did serve mushrooms on toast as dessert.
Q: The au-pair in your novel, Melissa, gains a considerable amount of weight during her time in Great Britain, in part due to all of the marvelous food, but also because of her unrestrained eating habits. Is this an allusion to America’s unhealthy food portions and the large percentage of people that are overweight in our country?
A: No! As Melissa learns in the story, America is a whole lot of places. I live in San Francisco. You hardly ever see a fat person here. Au contraire. Melissa always tussled with chubbiness, or what she thought of as chubbiness. As an au pair, she saw her worst dreads come true. At one point she weighed ten stone! That’s exactly what Princess Diana weighed, according to a certain story in Paris Match. One Amazon reader said she thought The Diary of an American Au Pair was about eating disorders! This made me laugh. But it is about what a downcast person with no hope on the horizon might do to put at least a little pleasure into life. Eating was also the only rebellion Melissa was willing to try. By closet-eating, Nanny was also asserting her will the only way she dared: a self-defeating self-assertion.
Q: Before you were a novelist, you created a successful US National Public Radio program, Tell Me a Story, in which you would go around the world recording famous writers reading their stories. How did you come up with this idea for a radio program and how did you get it started?
A: When I thought of this series, I never imagined myself going around the world to record famous writers. That did happen, though. (Amazing.) What happened was, I was cooking soup on a rainy night, twisting the radio dial to find some company. Nothing pleased me except a Midwestern voice on NPR, reading Chapter 35 of a novel. I'd missed the first 34 chapters and would no doubt miss the rest. “What they should have is short stories on the radio.” (This was just slightly before “Selected Shorts,” from Symphony Space, came into existence.) Chopping onions, I chastised NPR for not doing short stories. They should do it! Then I thought, I should do it. I'd had some experience producing radio. “It would be simple!” I thought. (Ho. It wasn't.) But luckily I thought it would be, so—eventually—I set about it. I thought having the authors themselves read would be special. What would Raymond Carver sound like? V. S. Pritchett? John Updike? Eudora Welty? Amazingly, I found out. So did a bunch of listeners. Raymond Carver did the pilot. After that, everyone else wanted to be part of it.
Q: Who were some of your favorite and/or most memorable guests on your radio series?
A: Ah. Start with Ray Carver. Getting to know the real person, slightly bumbling and excitingly irreverant, made me read him with more intensity. His writing makes me know I'm not alone in this world: My deepest aches have been ached by another. V. S. Pritchett takes a different route to go heart-to-heart—surprising you by hitting the spot. These two writers’ styles are opposite. Ray’s spare, VSP’s fancy. Yet they were each other’s great fans. Both, by the way, loved Chekhov the most. Eudora Welty felt the same way about Chekhov. (“Victor Pritchett is the best. Well, not THE best. Chekhov is the best.”) Another thing she said was that the most important thing about a work of writing is “authenticity.” And another thing she said was, that the author's greatest accomplishment is “empathy.”
Meeting the greatest writers of the twentieth century—somewhat in depth, since I studied for each encounter and then studied them more, ever after—led me to examine what matters to me most about reading. And therefore, about writing.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration to write this novel and what was the most challenging part of writing it?
A: The experience I had as an au pair had a point. I wanted to figure out, and tell someone, how a few months could have led me from being a timid, ineffectual, and often too-good person into being someone with courage enough to be myself. Things like this must happen to other people (being a soldier, marrying the wrong person —or being told you have only a few months to live). The challenge was to state the truth in a way somebody would understand—in a way that might even make him understand himself better.
Q: Which authors have been most influential in your own writing? What contemporary authors' work do you feel is most akin to your own writing?
A: Certain writers I met doing Tell Me A Story, gave me permission to do what I wanted to do all along. John Updike, especially, gave me permission to take writing seriously, every single day—by stating the opinion that this devotedness was a requirement. He also said he felt he was “closest to God” when he was writing. He said, “You're singing praises. You're describing the world, as it is. And even if the passages turn out sordid or depressing, there's something holy about the truth.” In an article where various writers were asked the meaning of life, he said, “Paying attention.” Describing makes you pay attention. It is a kind of worship for life. He articulated not only some of my own desires but some of my own love. When I wonder about the worth of what I'm doing, I replay his words in my head.
As for this book, William Maxwell had the most influence. He told me that there came a time when he felt “deeply ashamed of all the inventions in his fiction. Because real life has characters enough, and events enough, and they happen in an order.” From the moment he felt this, he tried to keep strictly to the truth in his writing. He invented only when it was necessary, to expedite the essence of a story. And when he did invent, he always let his readers know. Somehow, I liked the part about real life having characters enough, and events, and they happened in an order. I felt the same way about my own real life. In this book, I tried to do what he said. When I began to define, for myself, the essence of what had happened, sometimes I realized that some pertinent events, if told literally, would take us out of the time span of the story. There were certain characters who were almost icons to a group (servants, say); and to make one of them sympathetic, I had to change her personality and invent amusing things for her to say and do. Unlike William Maxwell, I didn’t inform the reader when I was inventing.
The Recipes of an American Au Pair
created by Marjorie Leet Ford
Mrs. West’s Lemon Bars
"I have to describe those lemon bars. Shortbread crust, all buttery. It’s a mystery how the crumbs can be so crisp, and so soft-satin rich at the same time, and so breakable that some lingers on the hand you’re using, some on your lips, to lick off. On top of the crust, this thick, puddingish goo of bright yellow — another mystery, how the sourness of the lemon and the bitterness of the rind, plus a hint of sweetness, can all be together in one creamy taste. The dusting of powdered sugar also comes off on your hand and your lips, giving you more to lick." (The Diary of an American Au Pair, p. 74)
Amazingly, these are almost as easy to make as they are hard to resist.
2 cups flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 cup butter
Juice of 2 lemons
Grated rind of 2 lemons
2 cups sugar
4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
More powdered sugar, for dusting
Preheat oven to 350.
Mix the crust ingredients, press into a 9" x 13" baking pan.
Bake for 15 minutes.
Beat topping ingredients together and spread over crust.
Bake 30 minutes at 350.
Dust with powdered sugar.
Cut into serving-sized squares.
Makes: About 40 squares
Granny Aitchee’s Shortbread
"I feel like swooping down, my large presence, and hugging Granny Aitchee’s tiny presence, clothed in plaid.... Every day she wears her family’s tartan, the MacLaren plaid.... [She’s] completely Scottish. In her dining room she arranges flowers reciting Robert Burns:"My love is like a red red rose." Her favorite book is Ivanhoe. She makes delicious scones, and shortbread that tastes ninety percent butter." (The Diary of an American Au Pair, p. 82)
At the touch of your teeth, these shortbread cookies crumble and melt in your mouth.
1/2 cup sugar (can be granulated or powdered or half and half)
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Beat the butter and sugar till creamy.
Beat in the vanilla.
Mix flour, salt, and baking powder together and beat them into the butter-sugar.
Form the dough into 2 or 3 logs, each about 1-1/2" in diameter. Wrap logs in plastic or waxed paper and chill 1/2 hour or more.
Preheat oven to 375.
Slice logs into 1/4" rounds.
Lay rounds out on cookie sheet, leaving 1" between each.
Bake about 12 minutes, until brown around the edges, still pale gold on top.
About 40 1-1/2" crispy, buttery shortbread rounds
It’s easy to over-bake these. They should look under-done. They crisp as they cool.
Mrs. West Ginger Biscuits
"[Old Nanny] leaned forward, pushing the plate of biscuits toward me again. 'And Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun? Do you find her kind? Does she care about people’s feelings?' Oh, God. I had another biscuit.... The shine in Nanny’s eyes was almost lascivious." (The Diary of an American Au Pair, p. 72)
Nanny and the Chipchase family loved ginger biscuits. They’re like what we call ginger snaps—but snappier with spice. Mrs. West, the cook, had a secret ingredient: little pieces of crystallized ginger, mixed into the batter. If you can get this candied ginger at a specialty store, try it. You bite into little texture surprises—and you taste the meaning of the word "gingerly."
1-1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup molasses
4-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons ground ginger
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped crystallized ginger (optional, but terrific)
Preheat oven to 350.
Beat the butter and sugar until fluffy.
Beat in the eggs and molasses.
Combine flour, salt, baking soda and spices and beat into the batter.
Stir in the chopped, crystallized ginger.
Drop by teaspoonfuls onto a cookie sheet, leaving 2" space between biscuits.
Bake about 10 minutes.
About 8 dozen ginger biscuits.
1. How does Melissa convey her physical surroundings in the houses she lives in and visits so that the reader is able to share the experience? What does she love and what does she hate about the weather, the landscape, and the material aspects of her life in the British Isles? Why do the British in the novel seem to place less value on physical comfort than Americans?
2. How well does Ford convey the sensibility of a certain type of young woman: twentysomething, college-educated, naïve, romantic, and literary? Does the reader actually feel that he or she is reading Melissa’s diary? If so, how does Ford achieve this realism?
3. If Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun dislikes the American accent and American speech patterns so much, why has she hired an American to care for her children [pp. 4, 10–11, 46, 243]? How does this apparent inconsistency of intention reflect on Mrs. Haig Ereildoun’s character and motivations? Does Melissa come to understand the roots of her employer’s anger and unhappiness?
4. Is Melissa’s character admirable? What about her approach to her difficult situation? Do her strengths reflect her American upbringing, or are they simply a matter of temperament and adaptability?
5. The two main female characters in the novel seem somewhat old-fashioned in their approach to feminine roles. Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun didn’t take a first-class degree at Oxford so as not to outdo her husband-to-be [p. 150], while Melissa says, “I do love it, though, when the man pays for everything” [p. 176]. How important for the story is the fact that Melissa begins to earn money from her writing and is able to launch a new career as a food writer?
6. Considering Melissa’s loving relationship with Claire, why would Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun admit that had she known that Claire would be born deaf she would have had an abortion [p. 191]?
7. In what ways does the novel suggest that the Haig-Ereildouns, while members of the so-called ruling class, have been left behind by British society? How do the Haig-Ereildouns’ relationships with their servants reflect their allegiance to older ways? How does Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun in particular try to make Melissa feel that she is of an inferior social class?
8. Does the role of au pair inevitably put a young woman into a position of rivalry with the older woman for whom she is working? Does Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun see Melissa as a feminine rival with whom she has to compete for the love of her children and even, possibly, her husband? Melissa is a woman whose life is just beginning, while Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun seems to be embittered and disappointed. If this is the case, is jealousy the most natural explanation for Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun’s appalling treatment of Melissa?
9. Choose one particularly funny passage or episode, and discuss how its comic effects are achieved. Why is Melissa (and by extension the author) so good at making the people and situations she observes seem funny?
10. Considering that Mrs. Haig-Ereildoun’s expectations of Melissa’s services far exceed what they agreed upon and that Melissa isn’t being paid for much of the work she is doing, why doesn’t she quit? In sticking to her original plan of staying for six months, is she being mature or masochistic? Is she asking too much of herself, or is she giving herself a valuable experience?
11. How is Simon different from Tedward? What does he recognize as valuable in Melissa? How does Melissa come to realize that she shouldn’t marry Tedward and that she doesn’t need to (despite her assertion on p. 190)?
12. If we think of the novel as having a plot similar to that of the fairy tale of Cinderella, what is the reward for Melissa’s patience and humility? Is there a reason that she undergoes this trial? What does she learn? How satisfying is the novel’s ending, considering all that Melissa has gone through?
13. One reviewer noted that Ford has created, “in the most charming, gleeful way, a work of comparative anthropology” [The Observer (London), April 29, 2001]. What are the critical differences between American and British cultural behavior as observed by Melissa, and as demonstrated by her interactions with her employers and British friends? Does the novel suggest that the cultural divide is unbridgeable, or, on the contrary, insignificant in regard to the things that really matter?