Q&A with Doina Rusti, author of The Book of Perilous Dishes.
Posted in Neem Tree Blog on February 17, 2022
With less than one month until the publication day for The Book of Perilous Dishes, we wanted to celebrate by interviewing Doina Rusti all about her journey as an author, the inspiration behind this dark magical tale and the process of translating her novel from Romanian into English.
An atmospheric magical tale based on real historical events and Romanian culinary recipes; The Book of Perilous Dishes is a page-turning historical fantasy that will follow readers long after they close the book.
Bucharest, 1798. A slave-cook lives in Bucharest, sought after by everyone. His sublime cooking satisfies even the sophisticated tastes of the Prince, who lays claim to him, whisking him away to the Palace. However, no one knows that the cook has in his possession a witch’s recipe book, the Book of Perilous Dishes. His food can bring about damaging sincerity, forgetfulness, the gift of prediction, or hysterical laughter. And the rightful owner of this book is fourteen-year-old Pâtca, an adolescent initiated in the occult arts. Pâtca comes to Bucharest, to her uncle, Cuviosu Zaval, to recover this book, but she finds him dead, murdered, and the Book of Perilous Dishes has disappeared without a trace. All that Zaval has left her is a strange map…
The Book of Perilous Dishes follows the story of Pâtca, who uses her powers to avenge the death of her uncle and retrieve a magical recipe book left in his keeping which has been stolen by Silica the cook. Travelling from Romania to France and on to Germany to do so, Pâtca’s family’s true past and powers are revealed, as is her connection to Silica the cook…
Please tell us a little bit about you and your journey as an author?
I started writing because I didn’t like the endings of the stories my family read to me as a child. In time, I realized that what I like is to build, and among constructions, the epic ones delight me the most. All occurrences of the world depict a fantastic element, that part that we sometimes call incredible, other times just bizarre, and I have always felt an attraction to the realm of shadows and unseen gods.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
At one point, as a child, I wanted to become a confectioner, but I soon realized that I didn’t stand a chance. My grandmother wouldn’t let me into the kitchen. I had a chair by the door, and I wasn’t allowed to move away from that spot. If I broke this rule, disaster would follow: I would drop the dishes, shelves would crumble, and our plates would break. “See”, my Grandma would say, “you can’t be a confectioner! I know you’re trying, you poor thing, but you’re so clumsy! You’d better sit in your chair and just watch, and later, if you want, you can recount everything you found interesting.” And that’s how I became a writer.
What inspired you to write The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii)?
It all started with a grievance, written in 1798 and kept at the National Archives. In this document, a woman complained that her cook had been stolen. Obviously, I was immediately drawn in and got curious about the dishes prepared by this cook, dishes so special that made someone want to steal him and someone else miss him so much that they filed a court case… The rest is literature.
Can you tell us about some of the Romanian customs/culture that seeps its way into the story?
There are 21 culinary and magical recipes in my novel. They originate in old recipe books, folklore books, written and unwritten traditions of the Romanians. Among the common spells used in my house was one linked to our bread, kneaded in the evening, peppered with chicory and mash foam cakes (instead of yeast), left to rise, and the next day spread on a round tray. From here on out, the ritual started. We would take the velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) bolls, which adorned the dough with unforgettable shapes – lucky stars. We would add horseradish leaves on the edge and mix everything together with an egg yolk. Then we placed it in the oven and waited until it formed a delicious crust. Without this large bread, about the size of a cartwheel, life had no meaning. This is Crumilla cum animis (bread with many souls), a bread I mentioned in my novel, which infects you with generosity, and makes some people poor.
But of course, there are many myths that have been absorbed by the novel, without preserving the folkloric form – they turned into structural elements of the world to which they belong.
The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii) has been very popular in Romania, why do you think that is?
I got lucky. Every book has its own luck. It was published at the right time, and readers connected to a fantasy story set in a historical era very close to my heart. Two years earlier I had published The Phanariot Manuscript, a novel which received much love and appreciation, and The Book of Perilous Dishes somehow followed in its footsteps.
How do you feel about publishing The Book of Perilous Dishes in the UK? How have you found the process?
That was also a matter of great luck: unexpectedly, I found a literary agent interested in the theme of the novel, himself a writer, who convinced the publishing house to publish my book. But there are many people who contributed to this launch. It has been a long and difficult journey.
How did you meet James, had you known of him previously / is this the first time you have worked together? What has this experience been like?
James is a colleague of mine at the University of Bucharest, where the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures holds annual translation workshops. Many of my writings have undergone this innovative treatment, especially my stories. James translated The Truancy and excerpts from several of my novels. Meeting him meant a lot to me. He is not only fond of Romanian literature, but also a refined connoisseur of its myths. Among other things, he is working on a volume of Romanian fairy tales, translating them into English.
Who is your favourite character in The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii) and why?
Pâtca, of course, the main character and narrator, who largely resembles me, because I, too, at the same age of 14 years old, went out into the world, opening the gate of adults, sooner than I should have. She inherits something about which she has little information and is left mysteriously alone, without any relatives. Moreover, she is driven by a curiosity that gets her into trouble, while a strange spiritist lurks in the shadows. But she is also blessed with unknown weapons: The Book of Perilous Dishes and crooked teeth that have the power to leave you speechless. For most of my life, I also had crooked teeth, thinking that I was trendy, honestly believing that they are a gift of nature, just as Pâtca considered hers.
How long did it take you to write The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii)? Did you have to overcome any challenges whilst writing?
Not the period of writing is important to me, but the time before, when I share a home with my future characters, inside an unborn story. The actual writing took me 3 months.
What is your favourite recipe from The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii) and why?
Formicosus! The ant liqueur. It’s a potion that was used until recently throughout the entire Europe, against fevers (in fact, ants are still used in modern pharmaceuticals). In my novel, ant liqueur is for lunatics and it helps with fortune-telling. It also cures the damages caused by the rose cake. The recipe is simple: a handful of ants are macerated in alcohol, preferably plum brandy (the national Romanian drink), seasoned with other healing plants, including yarrow. I find this elixir interesting because it is engrained in the heart of history, between cruel reality and magic.
What is the one piece of advice you wish you could tell your younger self?
If I met myself from the past, I wouldn’t give her any piece of advice because I know for a fact that I wouldn’t take said advice. Nothing in the world compares to the joy of discovering things on your own. Making a mistake and starting over is a more complex and beneficial undertaking than being at the top all the time. That is the very essence of adventure.
What is the ‘day in the life’ of a writer like?
It’s full. I write whenever I can, during breaks, while I’m running errands through the city. I’ve always had a lot of jobs, carried out lots of activities. But constantly, from dawn to dusk, my future novel lives on in my mind.
Do you have any goals/milestones for the future you would like to achieve?
I just published a short stories book with the title “Love Oddities in Phanariot Bucharest” and I am working on promoting it; I would like for it to reach as many people as possible and offer everyone at least a drop of my optimism.
About Doina Rusti
Doina Rusti is one of Romania’s most successful writers of historical and speculative fiction. Known for the originality of her novels, Rusti is the recipient of many major Romanian awards, and her books have been translated into multiple languages, including Chinese and German to date. Rusti is known for exploring aspects of fantasy and the supernatural, as well as tackling darker themes such as political corruption. She says, “I live in Bucharest, the happiest city in the world, even its name says it (The City of Joy). In all my novels I write about Bucharest. If this city didn’t exist, maybe I wouldn’t be a writer.”
The Book of Perilous Dishes is available to pre-order from your local book shop or online.