The Writer’s Hot Seat: Kate Christensen on Food as the Powerful Conduit to Memory

29 April 2014 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags: ,

Interview by Sarah EarleKate

I first discovered Kate Christensen's writing when I absently googled the name of my parents organic farm in Center Conway, NH, and up popped Christensen's food-centered blog Christensen spends time in a farmhouse in the neighborhood, but it was still a surprise to suddenly be reading about my father from the perspective of a writer—“handsome in a rawboned way, taciturn, sweet-natured, and warmly practical”—and about his fattened, boisterous ram—“his balls must have weighed twenty pounds, collectively.” I've grown up reading, from time to time, about my childhood home in the local Conway Daily Sun, but it was quite another thing to read about it from the perspective of a PEN/Faulkner winner. For one, the farm—the place I often take for granted—sounded magical, all “just-picked late-summer tomatoes” and “sweet, rich mutton sausages.”  Secondly, I wanted to read more.  I picked up Christensen's memoir, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, a little while later, and discovered that her rich, beautiful language rejoices in celebrating food, but also extends to celebrate everything else that makes a life—adventure and love, joy and sorrow.

Kate Christensen is the author of six novels, among them The Great Man, which won the PEN/Faulkner award. Her most recent work, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, is a food-themed memoir.  Her essays, articles, reviews, and stories have appeared in many periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review; O, the Oprah Magazine; Bookforum; Elle; The Wall Street Journal; and Tin House.

Barnstorm:  In your novel, The Great Man, there's a passage where you describe one of the main characters, Abigail, feeding her son “two soft-boiled eggs with a piece of buttered wheat toast torn up and soaked in the soft yolks.”  This breakfast food becomes the opening scene of your memoir, written six years later!  How pivotal was that bowl of eggs and toast—especially considering the memory of domestic violence that accompanies it—in conceiving Blue Plate Special?

Kate Christensen: I shaped the entire book around memories of food. That breakfast is one of my earliest food memories. I had to write the whole memory, though—including the bad parts, not just a description of the comforting food my mother made. That was the basis of the entire book: with food comes life—the dark, the light, the happy, the painful, and the beautiful. Food is the great common denominator. And in writing about food, there is no hiding from anything.

B:  You've said that In the Drink, your first novel about a personal assistant/ghostwriter who works for a countess, is semi-autobiographical.  You've written six novels in total: did you find that writing a purely non-fiction book was a wholly different process than writing fiction?

KC:  In my experience, the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred, maybe even nonexistent. We're always telling ourselves stories in order to know who we are, always shaping our experience in order to make sense of it, to feel some measure of clarity. My novels are as autobiographical as Blue Plate Special.  In all of my books so far, I've grappled with the past, with my own life story, with elements of my psyche that needed to be examined. I think of all my books as having arisen from an irritation, the way an oyster makes a pearl from a grain of sand that's gotten lodged in its shell and is chafing its vulnerable body—to protect itself from the irritant and to make something (hopefully) beautiful and structured and fine out of it.

B:  The memoir covers a remarkable amount of ground, from age two to the present day.  You include detailed dialogue, emotions, and the intricate meals you've cooked and eaten.  I've read that you've always kept a journal, but my question is: with so much material, how did you decide what to use and what to leave out?

KC:  Food was the organizing principal. I opened my memory to tastes, meals, dishes, ingredients, and constructed vignettes around those recollections. Food is such a powerful conduit to memory; I found these scenes flocking around me, rising up almost fully-formed. I constructed the book from them. And you're right, I did leave out a lot.

B:  In an interview with Bon Appétit, you say that the recipes that cap the parts of your memoir, from Camping Peas (open the can, and eat) to Lapin a la Cocotte, are like “codas” to the story.  Can you say a little bit more about that?

KC:  As I came to the end of each geographical section (the sections are organized by the places I lived, to separate them temporally as well), I instinctively wrote down the two or three dishes I associate most powerfully with that time and place, often with a little narrative that continues the story. When people tell me they skipped the recipes, I'm disappointed; they're meant to be part of the narrative itself.

B:  There are many instances in Blue Plate Special where you vividly describe your strict diets and weight reduction regimes—the unforgettable diet of one peeled carrot dipped in olive oil, for example—I wonder if this iron self-control transfers to your writing routine?

KC:  Yes, and so does the decadent overindulgence I write about in other parts of the book. I'm powerfully disciplined when I'm writing a book. Between books, I am a sloth and a glutton, so to speak. I vacillate between extremes; it seems to be my nature, and so I've stopped trying to fight it.

B:  Your frank account of studying at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in the late 1980s is fascinating.  You call the Workshop “terrifying, chilly, and competitive,” and “a man's world.”  Having just spent last fall teaching there, I wonder how the vibe has changed or stayed the same?

KC:  It's now run by Lan Samantha Chang, a Chinese-American woman. Sam has created a literary community as diverse and open-minded as Frank's workshop was monochromatic (we were all white, all straight, mostly men) and limited. I had an absolutely amazing time teaching there. I adored my students, and came away feeling recharged and inspired by the level of literary discourse, the sense of excitement about writing as writing—not publishing, not the marketplace, not fame or money, but writing itself, the daily practice that we've all committed our lives to. That sense of purity is something I remember from my time there, too. It was intimidating to me back then, but now, it was a tonic, bracing and refreshing.

B:  What new writing project do you have in the works?

KC:  I'm writing two books simultaneously now, and I'm incredibly excited about them both. The first is a dark gothic novel set at a coastal Maine private school in the 1970s and the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the present, still untitled, to be published by Doubleday. The second is called How to Cook a Moose. It's a compendium of personal anecdotes from my present-day life, along with recipes and northeastern New England food lore/history. It's for Islandport Press, a small local press in Portland. It picks up where Blue Plate Special left off and is inspired by MFK Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf—that book was about eating during lean economic times, this one will be about eating during a time of environmental crisis. And happiness. I seem to want to write about Maine and New Hampshire these days.

B:  What recipe are you dreaming of cooking right now?

KC:  I'm trying to perfect a gluten-free pizza crust; I can't eat gluten, so this is something I'm quite gung-ho about. So far, my recipe includes yeast, scalded milk, olive oil and xanthan gum, plenty of salt and sugar, and fine-milled buckwheat flour and brown rice flour. My next batch will include an egg white and some tapioca flour. I am determined! I'm also dreaming about making fresh gluten-free egg pasta—literally, I had a dream about making it the other night, and I plan to make it come true as soon as I can.

B:  Any advice for MFA students leaving their programs and heading out into the world?

KC:  When I left Iowa with my freshly-minted MFA, my head was full of notions of being “Great.” The high-mindedness of the program had permeated my writing, and I had become self-conscious and intimidated. Writing, which had always come so naturally to me, was now a struggle, no longer a pleasure at all, but I thought that was just because I needed to work harder. Five years later, after writing myself into an earnest, humorless, heavy-handed, faux-Carveresque corner, I threw it all out the window, and then, in a spirit of subversive rebellious fun, I started the novel that became In the Drink. And I have never looked back.

My advice this past semester to all of my students was to question everything they're taught in the program, all the rules of writing, as well as the pressure to be “Great” and whatever else makes them nervous and afraid. I had to embrace the way I wrote in 8th grade, which turned out to be my true voice. This might not be true for everyone, but in terms of advice, that's pretty much all I've got.

Photo courtesy of Kate Christensen.

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