Friday, April 13, 2012

Mark Kurlansky

After a few glasses of Pinot we started talking about Toni Bentley's sodomy memoir. That's when the evening heated up. I ended Passover by celebrating with eight colleagues, all students and professors at Butler, and the esteemed author Mark Kurlansky.

Kurlansky, a prolific nonfiction writer, has penned over twenty books, including the bestsellers "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World," and "Salt: A World History." In his early sixties, Kurlansky shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, Mark said that last year was the first time that four of his books hit the market in the same calendar year. His newest offering, hot off the press, is "Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man," a biography of Clarence Birdseye.

When I asked Kurlansky about Birdseye, he lit up. "You might not expect it, but Birdseye was a foodie," he said. He went on to explain that Birdseye, who was born in 1886 and died in the mid-fifties, took a series of jobs that required him to travel to remote areas and shoot animals for scientific purposes. In one job Birdseye helped identify the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever by isolating ticks off of the animals he bagged. When I asked Mark whether Birdseye took these posts because he wanted to be a part of scientific breakthroughs or simply because he liked to shoot animals, he responded, "Probably both!" Birdseye married the daughter of a member of the board of National Geographic. "She really got him," Kurlansky said of Birdseye's wife. She followed Birdseye to an outpost in Labrador, where she delivered their child. It was in ricket-riddled Labrador, a remote icy area inhospitable to the cultivation of vegetables, that Birdseye, wanting to ensure the health of his family, first got the idea of freezing and transporting produce.

I observed that Kurlansky is conspicuously absent (for the most part) in his work and asked his opinion about the current trend in nonfiction -- so much of what's written is personal narrative, and even non-memoir pieces weave the "I" of the author inextricably throughout. As if bemoaning the state of nonfiction offerings, he said, "That's true. I like to keep myself out of the story." Interestingly, he added that in his more recent books he has put more of himself onto the page. I mentioned to Kurlansky that all a reader needed to do to get a sense of him was look at his oeuvre. He nodded.

Within his oeuvre are a few short story collections and novels. I was curious about this mix, so I asked Kurlansky about his relationship to fiction. I expected to hear that Mark's heart remained solidly in the camp of nonfiction, but he said his true love is writing short stories. "Unfortunately, you can't make a living writing short stories," he said.

I was curious about his process. "When you begin writing a short story do you know where the story is going to go or does the plot develop as you write?" I asked. Two writers who recently visited Indy, Nicole Krauss, author of "History of Love" and Maile Meloy, author of "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It," both said that when they sit down to write they have no preconceived plot, only the characters in mind.

"Often I start with a single sentence and go from there," said Kurlansky.

"And how do you tackle nonfiction projects?" I asked.

Kurlansky said he loves the research stage. Once the research is completed, though, and he faces masses of notes, the task feels daunting. When compiling his first draft he usually goes through his notes and includes salient events as they happened chronologically. "It's such a relief to get that first draft down on paper," he said with a smile. "After that the book starts to write itself." Kurlansky said he loves the revision process, taking a rough draft and molding it into a finished product.

Kurlansky told us about his next book, which will be about the 1964 song "Dancing in the Street," by Martha and the Vandellas.

At one point in the conversation Mike Dahlie, author of "A Gentleman's Guide to Gracious Living," brought up one of his favorite authors, one whose work has been on his mind as of late, Trollope. (When I recently brunched with Maud Newton and Dahlie, Mike mentioned he wanted to write an essay about Trollope. Put those thoughts on the page, Mike. Write the essay!) Trollope's autobiography contains spread sheets that detail how much money he made from each book, then ends with a paragraph in which, according to Mike, Trollope states that his inner life is none of the readers' business. "It basically says f@#^ off," said Mike, who never swears. (Must have been the Pinot.) This led to a Kurlansky-centered, table-wide discussion on whether, generally speaking, most fiction is born from an author's experience, and whether or not it's valid for an author to exclude readers from his/her inner life.

The evening's conversation rambled far and wide. Kurlansky observed that despite Israeli children's love of vegetables, Israel has no business growing salad produce -- or rather has no water with which to cultivate those crops. Mark also laughed while telling us he is staying at our program's new Efroymson Center for Creative Writing. He has bad associations with the house, as his memories of it are from the late '60s, when he was a Butler undergrad, and it was the home of Butler's controversial president.

Kurlansky said that as he reflects on his books, he now sees their underlying theme as survival. He said that in some of his books, like "A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry" and "The Basque History of the World," this theme is obvious, but in others it's less conspicuous, like, for instance "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World."

"Where does this notion of survival come from?" I asked.

"I don't know," he answered.

Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton

About two years ago my relationship with my closest gal pal Janine flipped, culinarily speaking. Until then, I was the one who asked if she had checked out the new recipe for carrot soup in the paper. I was the one who had stories about trying to make asparagus souffle from the newest Kosher By Design cookbook. Upon mentioning any of this, Janine would inevitably muffle a laugh as if to say Are you kidding? For Janine dinner was a utilitarian chore. For me, at the time, making dinner was a metaphor for love.

But that was then. Now, for reasons too complicated to go into now, I am the new Janine. Frozen breaded tilapia for dinner? Perfect. Fried chicken from the grocery's deli counter? A pot of pasta? These are my new go-to dinners. Now, when Janine and I go on power walks through the neighborhood, she's the one offering tips on the best way to peel garlic, is the one bragging about the new recipe for Moroccan fish cakes. She bakes her own granola.

Which is why I knew she'd love Hamilton's "Blood, Bones & Butter." Hamilton, chef of Prune, a famous NY restaurant, has penned not so much a food memoir, but the story of a woman who grew to know and adore good food the way the rest of us know and adore our closest friends.

BB&B is a delish read from beginning to end, and it shows that Hamilton has an MFA in Creative Writing. Hamilton writes artfully about her love affair with food -- the magic of boiled squash blossoms, the terror of butchering her first chicken. I devoured BB&B, loved it, didn't want it to end, but I did have a few bones to pick. For instance, Hamilton writes about living with a woman before she ultimately married her husband and had children, but never once explained what was going on. Did she change teams? Maybe her early lesbian relationship was an experiment, but this didn't seem to be a simple case of fluid sexuality. (New adjectives, apply here!) Hamilton writes about her rocky and unusual marriage, one in which her husband needed to marry an American to stay in the country, one in which she and her husband didn't even live together in the early times. I couldn't help but be curious -- was her marriage a farce? Did she just want to have kids? Look, if you're gonna put your marriage in your book then you've got to spill it, you can't leave your reader in the dark. An article in Psychology Today ( proposed that Hamilton's failure to dig in and address the issues in her failed marriage are a reason the memoir failed. I disagree. Kind of. It's just that what Hamilton got on paper is so, so good. (And for good gossip, checkout The Post's article which blames the breakup of Hamilton's marriage on her affair with her brother-in-law! )

But unanswered questions notwithstanding, BB&B does a memoir's work, takes you into and through one person's story. Hers is a story worth telling, even if she's not dishing the way two friends do on their evening power walks.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Maile Meloy

Whether guarded and insular or curious and generous, all of Butler's visiting authors have something to offer. Sometimes the author sends out a vibe that (s)he is doing us a favor by dropping by, but it's more fun when the author is open to the experience.

As evidence, I give you Maile Meloy. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, she's also friendly and open-hearted. Maile's vibe was I'm here, and I'm ready to engage.

Meloy is the author of two novels (Liars and Saints, and A Family Daughter), two short story collections (Half in Love, and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It), and a Young Adult novel (The Apothecary). Her morning Q&A at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing was followed by continued conversation over pizza. That night she wowed the crowd as she read from a new, as-of-yet unpublsihed story, "The Proxy Marriage."

Maile spoke about how her childhood in Big Sky Country effected her writing. She said that living in an isolated place like Montana makes people believe they can do things no one else can. She approaches writing, she said, in the same blind way.

Meloy said she likes to switch between short and long forms, and compared writing short stories to dating, and novel-writing to a long-term marriage. Each type of writing uses a different 'muscle,' and employing this analogy she said that short story-writing uses fast-twitch muscle, whereas novel-writing uses slow-twitch. She recently completed the sequel to "The Apothecary" and said that writing Young Adult novels has opened up a new area in her brain. Still, it has been a challenge for her to return the short story form, and she feels that her prose now reads like Young Adult lit.

When speaking about her story collection BWITOWIWI, Meloy said, "Time is the great editor." She illustrated this point by saying that she pulled the stories from BWITOWIWI from her reject pile. Time had passed since she last looked at them. With fresh eyes she was able to push through and fix the stories. "Don't give up on your reject pile," said Meloy, "especially if there's something in there that twinkles."

Meloy often starts a story with dialogue and puts her characters in charged situations. She doesn't outline her stories in advance, but thinks them through on paper, developing the characters and the plot as she writes. "I stand the characters up and let them talk." She tries to surprise the reader and herself. This type of automatic writing requires a lot of revision, she said, and she often goes back to makes her characters more vivid. "I have a responsibility to make the characters visible." Because there is so much revision involved, Meloy said she throws out as many pages as she keeps.

When asked about writer's block, Meloy discounted the phenomenon without saying so outright. She quoted Picasso, saying that Inspiration must find you working. "You do the work the way a violinist practices scales," she said. She writes every morning, the time of day when she is closer to her unconscious and dreams, the time her mind can make more associations. If she gets stuck, she takes a break. Often, when she returns to the work, she is able to untangle the problem. Or, she starts something new. "I feel grounded and happy when I write."

Meloy, who writes fiction, said that a lot of readers assume her stories are autobiographical. Her story Red From Green (from BWITOWIWI), tells about a young girl who has an troubling experience on a river trip. Meloy said that sometimes people come up to her and insist that she must have taken a similar river trip. When Meloy complained about this to her friend, the writer Tobias Wolff, he chided her, saying that writers work hard to make stories real, but complain when readers believe them.

At lunch I asked Maile if, in addition to writing, she teaches. She said she tried it for a year, but wasn't very good at it. That's the only thing Meloy said that I didn't buy. She didn't teach a single formal class at Butler, but I learned more than I can say.