Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Scotland while my father, who was in the Royal Navy, was stationed there. All three children were born in different parts of Britain but we settled in Cornwall where I spent my childhood. People who think of Britain as a cold desolate place with pebbly beaches are always surprised to find Cornwall warm with world class beaches. I went to a local school in a small town, rode horses every weekend. Mum taught me to make jam tarts, and Dad tended a vegie patch and took me trout fishing. It was an idyllic semi-rural childhood. Then one day in April while I was almost 15, we moved in one weekend to the western suburbs of Sydney and I turned up to join a Year 10 class in a high school near Parramatta the following Monday. It was a huge culture shock.
When I was 12 I wanted to be a cookery teacher, so I studied O Level cookery. It wasn’t offered at my Australian high school so I dropped it, never to pick it back up.
By the time I was 18, my ambitions had changed to be a Special Ed teacher and I was in my first year at Macquarie University doing just that. I had some notion I would teach deaf children, but the practicalities of teaching and classroom management soon put paid to that. I wasn’t cut out to work with children.
I graduated with a teaching degree and special ed quals but went travelling instead. I came back and took the first job that was offered to me, for a local organisation that worked with young adults with intellectual disabilities. It was the start of a 15 year career working in the disability sector, training young adults, and later, staff training and development.
By 30 I was pregnant with my first child and tilting at management jobs within the sector. I’m very proud of the time I spent, working with thousands of people and their families and carers over the years, during a time of great change within the industry.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I was in love for the first time and it ended in spectacular fashion and I was convinced for much of that year that I would never find love again. I was wrong of course, but I never cease to be amazed at the many different ways love has manifested itself in my life. My frame of reference is constantly expanding.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
I can’t overstate the effect migrating to Australia had on my food awareness. Within months I was in a circle of friends that had a multicultural background and I was shown how to make passata and pasta, how to use chopsticks, how to make a real chicken stock. Without realising it at the time I was being immersed in the burgeoning food culture, with access to a range of foods I’d never seen before. While I now see it as a seismic shift in my education, it was all very low-key at the time, just part of my new life. I can’t relate to food in anything other than a thoroughly Australian way. I love that as a nation we take for granted a good solid awareness of both European and Asian food traditions.
Managing a healthy work-life balance seems to have been a theme in my life since I brought my babies home. In those first frantic years it seemed impossible – career roles for part-time managers were thin on the ground. My career in the disability sector limped along for a while but I was increasingly unhappy especially after we moved to the Central Coast, an hour to the north of Sydney and I found myself adding a three hour commute to my already busy day. Something had to give – in the end it was my health. It was the beginning of a long period in which I had to redefine myself and let go of expectations of others and to the shock of many closest to me, put my own needs first. It ended my career in disability and fractured relationships with my husband and family but ultimately lead to much improved health and happiness.
About six years ago I stumbled across a commentary to a story that had been posted online and to my surprise, I added my opinion. It was the first online community I had seen and the first blog I read. I soon became quite addicted, logging in each day to read the latest and my reading quickly grew to include online commentary and opinion in forums around the world. I loved the immediacy of the responses, loved the community that was there. At the time it seemed very new even though in the wider community there were mutterings of contributions from socially stunted anonymous people in dark rooms but I never found it to be that way. I have made some wonderful friends through online forums, ordinary, sane people with a wealth of ideas, not to mention some fantastic professional networks, that I would never have found in any other way.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?
When someone suggested I start a blog to share budget-priced recipes with others, it seemed a perfectly reasonable suggestion. By then I was so familiar with the blogging medium that it didn’t faze me one bit to start up online, but what happened next exceeded all my expectations. I had forgotten about the sheer power of word of mouth, so was very surprised when people started telling me how they had recommended my blog to their mum, or cousin, or friend.
I soon found out that an online community is only one discrete sector of a larger reading community. Books are for many people the only medium that matters – my mother for example uses the computer regularly but doesn’t read my blog so she can’t wait to get her hands on a copy of the book!
I am convinced that books are here to stay and they remain my first great love. I love the weight of a book between my hands, of opening up a book and having a bus ticket – or better still, a boarding pass – fall out from between the pages, of reading a favourite cookbook, weathered around the edges like an old friend, and finding butter stains and chocolate finger prints over the pages, of hand-written comments in the margins. I love that books become part of the furniture (I’m looking at a book-cased wall of my own books, gathered over a thirty year period, as I write this). I like nothing more than curling up with a good book in bed, or reading while travelling on the train, and of course a holiday is inconceivable without taking along something to read.
6. Please tell us about your latest book… The $120 Food Challenge
It’s a cookbook that follows the success of the blog, which is designed to assist people who are on a very small budget make good nutritional meals for their family. It’s a natural extension of the blog, with more time and care taken to show people some budgeting basics. In that regard it’s quite unlike your usual cookbook. There’s an entire section about setting a budget before you look at any recipes.
The recipes are categorised according to the seasons – this is because different foods are available more cheaply at various times of the year, so the recipe compilation acts as a guide to your buying choices.
Needless to say, as a first-time writer I’m immensely proud of this book. Like a new-born baby it’s small but perfectly formed. It’s also very good-looking, she says modestly.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
I’ve been contacted by people who tell me that I’ve given them hope to try something new, helped them re-think how they shop for food, or bring some sort of control into their wayward lives and that’s been hugely gratifying.
If I could change one thing, it would be to reach out to that person who watches the cooking shows on TV, or who flicks through a cookbook and feels completely disengaged from our food culture because they think they don’t have the money to spend on good food. When I write, I write to that person – I invite them into my kitchen, stand with them, show them it’s not that hard, share a wry joke, invite questions, share their joy when something goes right. I guess I did become a cookery teacher after all!
Margaret Fulton for opening the door, Stephanie Alexander for her unparalleled ability as chef, writer and teacher, single parents everywhere for always doing more with less and Nelson Mandela for remaining unshakable in his self-belief despite the worst of deprivations.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
For the longest time I battled ongoing disappointment when a goal would come to fruition but not bring satisfaction or the contentment I thought it would. It took the better part of my adult life to figure out that it was not that my goals were too big, but because they were too small.
It’s only because of the success of the blog and the book that I now have the faith in myself to Think Big. It’s a crucial goal for success. I’m no longer afraid of succeeding beyond my wildest dreams.
Write about what you know. Write about those people and places and events that resonate most with you. Dedicate time every day to the act of writing and with the exception of spell-checking, don’t edit until you have a manuscript.
Somewhere in the middle of your story, a jewel of an idea or character or plot-development, perhaps unsighted and almost certainly unplanned, will present itself, from which you can hone a great tale. Just don’t expect that the story you set out to tell will become the book you write. The finished work, just like life, will always turn out differently.
Sandra, thank you for playing.
Visit Sandra’s Blog at http://120dollarsfoodchallenge.com
John Birmingham on Sandra : In praise of artful bludgers
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.