.Q&A: Christina Waters on Life ‘Inside the Flame’

If the author Christina Waters were a movie scene, she’d be that scene in Amélie, where Amélie, standing in a noisy market place in Paris, pauses amid the chaos to sink her fingers into a sack of beans, just for the tactile thrill of it.

“You’re beginning to become predictable. That’s a little worrisome,” she told me recently. I loved her for saying it. I’d been wavering over a cocktail menu and showing signs of defaulting on the same drink as last time. “Campari!” I exclaimed to the bartender. It would be my first taste.

That cautious nudge toward trying something new, exciting, different—to open the senses, embrace the unpredictable, and let some gosh darn adventure run through these moments—is how Waters has always lived, and the driving force alive in her new memoir, Inside the Flame: The Joy of Treasuring What You Already Have.

Unfolding in 66 vignettes, the book is a wake-up call of sorts, a reminder that we can soak up the world in three dimensions. Waters’ life chapters, shuffled chronologically, are a card deck of memories; pivotal ones, yes, like the mescaline-lucid sunset over the Grand Canyon (with a storm throwing lightening off in the distance)—but also intimately sweet passages about her mother, anecdotes of travel, relationships, customs, objects accumulated from times and places. There is something to see, she demonstrates, even in life’s mundane moments, like those spent ironing or folding sheets. Other passages—like her thigh’s first experience of barbed flesh at the spines of a cholla cactus in the Mojave—come into full-color not so much for their weight in life significance, but for their descriptive allure. Perhaps it’s her years spent writing about food and wine—tasting and touching and exploring—that has sharpened Waters’ sensory observation like a favorite kitchen knife. 

A peppering of “Your Turn” exercises—like taking a different path to work, or making dinner without using utensils—invites readers to fire up their own humanly senses and apply playful practices to their own lives. With a touch of the same pithy sass you may find in Waters’ weekly dining column, the writing sparkles with clarity, but mines deeper into the human experience to where visceral emotion lies.

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You don’t mention technology, but it played a role in triggering the book?

CHRISTINA WATERS: Right. I was noticing my university students all sort of hungry to get back to their cell phones the minute that they were out of my class. And I got to realizing that they think that this—what’s on their phone—is as real as what they can get walking around and digging and talking and touching things. I thought that was a poor substitute for real life; watching things on screens. I hoped that by writing some chapters that were vivid enough, people would say, “you know, that’s better than what I’m getting on my cell phone.”

Would you say living inside the flame is similar to ‘mindfulness’?

The word mindfulness I know is extremely au courant. But I think I prefer the word focus, and an intended life, rather than just always being mindful, which for me can kind of devolve into a nebulous halo … It’s a version of the Platonic “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I have a post-it on my computer that says “Radical adventures in everyday life.” You don’t have to go to Egypt, you don’t have to go to Paris, you really can stay in your backyard and find much more there. It’s being open to something powerful at all times.

To what extent did your childhood as an Air Force brat influence this approach to life?

That was one of my own puzzles. Working backward, it occurred to me that because I only had a few years or a few months to be in any place, I had to get into it fast. I had to make friends quickly. So everything had to intensify a little, I sort of dialed up everything. When we were visiting some place or taking a drive, I wanted to see where it went. I wanted to get the whole experience. I didn’t feel that I had the luxury of lots of time in any one place. So it developed, it’s true, since the very beginning. Not that I was reckless … all the time, but it led to a certain willingness to say “take a chance.” A habit of my saying “let’s see where that leads,” or “let’s go there” or “let’s try this.” That’s sort of the mantra of my life: Let’s try this.

I really love the recurring themes of color and of the Mojave.

The desert is a place where a lot of things become very clear. The thing about the desert is that there’s not a lot of distraction. And as we all know, the world conspires to distract us. In the desert, you can pretty much see, and you can hear, and you can feel things very clearly. I’ve gotten a lot of good writing done in deserts. But also just hiking, and enjoying the sunsets, and watching the stars come out one by one. It’s incredible.

I wanted to read more about the sad, trapped housewife in the San Francisco forest who made mud pies.

Writing about making mud pies as an adult, which I thought was so much fun, and therapeutic, forced me back into that place where there really didn’t seem to be a solution. And in fact, I had to leave it. I simply left and started a new life. And that happened several times in my life. But I had to be careful because all of those people are still alive. If I were writing a true memoir, it would be grittier and darker and more convoluted, and filled with a lot more questioning, I think, than this book has. This book is about what I know. So the next book I write will be a fictionalized version that will have lots of, shall we say, the ugly underbelly of making discoveries that we all have to make.

Tell me more about what’s next.

I already have two books that I’m working on. They’re both fiction, but, of course, they will be filled with me and people I’ve known and people I’ve hated, and people who were wonderful. They’re both set in Europe, and both involve murders. One of them deals with music and the other one deals with art. There will be plenty of sex, travel, and really wonderful food. You have to. I mean, while you’re having adventures you might as well eat well.

INFO: Christina Waters will read and discuss ‘Inside the Flame’ at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 28, at Bookshop Santa Cruz.


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