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.


  1. Nice job, Sus! You put me right there at the table. Sounds like you really enhanced the conversation. Dare I say, steered it? ;) What's your favorite Kurlansky work?

  2. Thank you, bethbates! Hm, my fave Kurlansky is always the one I've just read. Just finished "The Food of a Younger Land: a portrait of American food: before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation's food was seasonal, regional and traditional: from the lost WPA files." Wow, that's a triple colon title! When I finish a Kurlansky book I feel 16% smarter than when I started. What's your fave?