Author spotlight: Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a writer and audio producer living in Glen Margaret, Nova Scotia. He is the author of the book Adventures in Bubbles and Brine, producer of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21’s French-language podcast D’innombrables voyages, and co-host of the books podcast Dog-eared and Cracked. He is a regular contributor to Saltscapes and the Halifax Examiner. While his focus is mainly non-fiction, he occasionally publishes short fiction and poetry as well. Several of his pandemic-related poems will appear in 2020: An Anthology of Poetry with Drawings by Bill Liebeskind from Black Dog & One-Eyed Press this fall. (Photo Credit: Nicola Davison)

You recently graduated from the University of King’s College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. What was your experience of the program?

The program was great. I know several people who have done it, but I had not considered it myself until I had lunch one day with Kim Pittaway, who is the program’s executive director, and also a former WFNS board chair. We got to talking, and I shared some ideas with her for a book I was contemplating writing, and she said, “Have you ever thought about doing the MFA?”

I wrote Adventures in Bubbles and Brine while I was an MFA student, but it wasn’t my MFA project. So I was writing two books at once – I actually got a contract for the book very early on in the process of doing the program. That was stressful and exhausting, but the program itself was great. I learned so much, and I’m happy to recommend it to others. You know I’ve been in this business a long time, but the MFA experience helped me fully realize the kind of writer I want to be.

How does your background as a journalist inform your creative writing practice?

One of the ways I’ve survived as a full-time freelance writer for some 25 years is by doing many different types of work. I’ve done journalism, communications work (of course, I make sure I don’t have any ethical conflicts between these two) French-English translation, documentary film marketing—and on and on and on. And I find in some ways everything informs everything else. Right now I’m working on a draft of a novel, and there is a real exhilaration in just making things up. At the same time, I’ve kept a running list of things I’ve researched in the course of writing it. So far they include measuring moisture levels in firewood, when Plenty of Fish launched, features of hydraulic lifts for service stations, and the popularity of the name Walter by decade. I value insight, accuracy, and paying attention to details, no matter what I’m writing.

One of the things I love about your book, Adventures in Bubbles and Brine, is how it incorporates so many different elements—interviews, recipes, history—to tell the story of fermentation in Nova Scotia. Did you ever consider tackling this subject another way, or was a multi-genre approach always the plan?

This question made me laugh, because honestly, there was no plan. Kara Turner from Formac approached me about the possibility of writing a book about fermentation in Nova Scotia. I jumped at the chance, but after my first meeting with her went home and realized I had no idea how to go about it. Kara was clear she didn’t just want a cookbook. She wanted a narrative approach, and she gave me the freedom to tackle that however I wanted. I outlined the book, but the approach didn’t really gel until I’d done most of the research on my cider chapter. It’s not the first chapter in the book, but it’s the first I wrote.

I have a friend named Brian Braganza who would throw an annual cider party, where people bring their own apples to press. I’d been meaning to go for years, so this seemed like a good opportunity. After that, I visited cider-makers, dug into the history of cider, talked to people who remembered their first and worst hangover coming from Golden Glow cider — even brought in a reference to a character called Captain Glow from the 1970s Old Trout Funnies comics series.

I quickly realized my role in this book was not to be a food expert or reporter discussing the subject at a distance. It was to be an enthusiastic companion, taking the reader along on this fun journey of discovery with me. Instead of submitting the whole manuscript to Kara when it was done, I wrote the cider chapter and sent it to her to see what she’d think. She was completely on board with the way I approached it, so that set the tone for the rest of the book.

What was the research process like for this book?

Early on, I drew up a detailed outline, and that really made life easier. I did go through a period of kind of ignoring the outline, and then I realized that it was good and comprehensive, and all I had to do was follow it – while staying open to anything that might come along that I should add.

The research was a mix of travel and in-person interviews with practitioners and experts, reading a lot of archival materials, local histories and community cookbooks, and developing and testing recipes. Some events were really helpful, like the Upskilling food festival in Sydney, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on workshops on subjects like fermenting vegetables and making kombucha. So that gave me colour for the story, but also an opportunity to visit other folks in the area, like someone with a thriving home cheese-making practice. Fermenters also tend to be really enthusiastic and have different practices (eg, a professional cider maker who also makes sourdough bread and ginger beer for fun), and so each person I interviewed would give me more leads and ideas to follow.

My longstanding interest in fermentation and my obsessive note-taking came in handy too. For instance, a cheese-making workshop I went to several years ago wound up providing some of the narrative for my cheese chapter.

When writing about food, is it difficult to translate taste into words?

Many fermented foods have a particular kind of oomf to them, and I tried to capture that. I used words like “earthy,” “bite,” “bitter tang,” “edgy,” “rich,” and “funky” a lot. 

You thank your mother and grandmother in the acknowledgements for sharing their own fermentation traditions with you. Growing up, what was the relationship between food and storytelling in their kitchens?

My Greek grandmother was an incredible storyteller. She could talk for hours, and you had to pay close attention, because she could be telling you about something that happened last week, 50 years earlier during the Second World War or the Greek civil war, or during the early 1800s, or under the Ottoman occupation – or even farther back to stories of Greek Orthodox saints.  I grew up on the West Island in Montreal, and I definitely had a sense we were somehow different. The other kids I knew did not have mums who made bread and yogourt, and who picked and cooked greens growing by the side of the road. I did not grow up knowing how to cook. My mother ran the kitchen (my dad could fry eggs, but that was about it), and I was generally not involved. At the same time, I do remember enjoying listening to my mum and other relatives who had come from to Canada from Greece sitting around in the kitchen, smoking (they’ve all quit since then) and telling stories.

What do you hope readers of Adventures in Bubbles and Brine will take away from this book?

Fermented foods and drinks have a long and fascinating history, and are fun to make at home. I encourage experimenting and recognizing that your results won’t be the same every time – and that’s part of the fun.

How do you keep distractions at bay while writing?

I don’t really have a good answer for this, because I am very much prone to distraction. The best thing I’ve found is the Pomodoro technique, which involves setting goals, breaking tasks down into 25-minute segments, focusing during those segments, and then taking short breaks. I don’t always use it, but I should. It’s a great technique. I use an app called Pomodoro Timer. It costs $2.99, I think, but there are free ones out there too, and the original Pomodoro Technique book, by Francisco Cirillo, is worth reading also.

I was delighted to learn from your website that you also wrote for the Daisy Dreamer comic, which appeared in the popular children’s magazine Chickadee. I have fond memories of following Daisy’s adventures as a kid. What was it like to take on this long-running series and make it your own?

I’m glad you liked the comics! I was fortunate enough to write Daisy for 14 years, until the magazine decided to bring the comic to a close. That’s an incredibly long run, and I’m grateful for it. For those not familiar with it, Daisy Dreamer was a two-page comic featuring an active and adventurous girl with a magic ballcap that allowed her to transform into any animal she thought of. When the comic launched in the 1980s, Daisy was younger and didn’t have any magic powers – just an active imagination. When Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette were brought on as the creative team in the 90s, they updated Daisy and gave her a new origin story. I knew Mark, and we were chatting about comics writing opportunities one day, when he told me he was planning to step aside from Daisy. I approached the editor at the time, and wound up getting the gig.

In the early going, the writing was challenging because I didn’t really get the characters. All my dialogue felt generic, and like any of them could have said it. But over time, I got to know them better and to figure out which types of stories worked well and which I wanted to avoid. I can’t say I ever thought of it as my own though – and that’s a good thing. It was always a collaborative effort among myself, Gabriel, who is a creative genius and brings so much to the table, and the editorial team.

What are you fermenting right now in your writing space and kitchen?

I’ve spent a lot of my career focusing on the short term: the next article I need to write, the next short project I want to pitch. One of the benefits of having written a book is realizing I can think more long term. Gabriel and I have been talking about putting together a creator-owned comics series, I’ve got a solid chunk of the draft of my novel done, and two potential new non-fiction projects in the works. We’ll see what happens.

In terms of the kitchen, my partner, Sara, has been making kefir and is brilliant at coming up with flavours for our kombucha. I regularly make bread, and as the summer goes on and the harvest starts to roll in I’ll do up some batches of various types of fermented vegetable pickles. Kosher dills are a perennial favourite. My attempt at fermented hot sauce fell flat last year, but I’ll try again with a different recipe when the peppers are ready.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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