Food, Writing, and the Land of Zenobia: An Interview with Kate Christensen

by Leslie Entsminger

All was proceeding well during Kate Christensen’s reading from her memoir, Blue Plate Special, when she came to the word, “assuaged.” She stopped, tried the word several times, then asked the audience, “Is that right? How do you say this?” Someone called out the pronunciation and Kate, smiling, said, “Thanks. I can never figure out how to say assuaged. I hate that word. I’m never using it again.”
It was then I thought, I am in love with this woman.
Granted, I fell in love with her books a while ago, but to have the chance to witness an esteemed writer behave as if they existed on the human plane was a gift. I tend to romanticize well-published writers, believing they live in an alternate universe where people stroll in parks reciting Chaucer out loud. No one is allowed into this universe unless they intimidate beginning writers, forcing them to humble themselves by rolling in the slime of adverbs and misplaced commas.
Anything but intimidating, Kate Christensen is warm, generous with her time, and completely natural.

In addition to Blue Plate Special, Kate is the author of six novels, including The Epicure’s Lament, the PEN/Faulkner award winningThe Great Man, and The Astral. She resides and writes in Portland, Maine.

Leslie Entsminger: Your novels often fall into the category of black humor. How do you set up humorous writing? Do you have a procedure for building the narrative?

Kate Christensen: The qualities in the kind of novel I’ve always found most interesting and memorable are interpersonal drama, trouble, tension, mischief, and/or emotional duress. For me, the key word is “interpersonal.” An overly contrived or clever or gimmicky plot can detract from what I find most important in a story: how are the people getting along? How do they feel about one another? What sorts of mistakes are they making, and what are the consequences?

Loss creates desire, which creates narrative energy and forward momentum. I find that most plots are set in motion by unfulfilled desire, whether it’s desire for money, love, fame, freedom, justice, escape, children, work, identity, etc. All my novels seem to be about people who are undergoing an unexpected upheaval, who are forced to reckon with the consequences of their own behavior and mistakes, are in a state of unusually heightened awareness. They’ve been shocked awake. They’re more prone to frank reflection and change than a complacent, settled character who has no reason to want anything to be different. What interests me are people who’ve been challenged who can rise to it somehow without compromising themselves, who remain true to themselves even as they take stock and accept responsibility for their actions.

For me, black comedy is about the shock of the truths that are revealed under this type of psychic duress. Black comedy is a deeply moral genre: it concerns itself with the friction between the way things are and a character’s inability to deal with this or change it. Authenticity is the fundamental aim of the black comic novelist—an inability to stomach hypocrisy or bromides or the banality of evil. The only way to combat them is to point them out, to invoke a particular kind of laughter that can be cathartic and communal in spite of the darkness.

LE: How would you recommend the narrator avoid judgment of tough/flawed characters?

KC: My narrators judge other people, freely, at will, all the time. But I try very hard not to: it’s my job not to. I have to distinguish between my characters’ judgments of one another and my own role as the novelist. My characters tend to exist in relation to one another, like the cast of a play – I see them as parts of a whole that fit together to make the novel complete. Each of them is essential; I hope none of them feels superfluous. And all of them are parts of myself. I write intuitively, from the gut: I feel what each of them feels. I want all of them to be fully drawn, to feel real and complex, even if they’re only in the novel for a brief moment. I relate to all of them because in order to write them into being and bring them to life, I have to enter them, imaginatively, and see through their eyes. Judging them can’t enter into it, if I’m doing my job right.

LE: When writing, have you ever fought or had conflicts with your characters, or are they unaware of your existence?

KC: The endings of my novels frequently surprise me. I think they’re going to go one way, and then my protagonists make decisions seemingly of their own accord and cause them to go in an entirely different direction. This seems less like a conflict between me and my characters, though, and more like an ongoing dance between my controlling superego and my visceral gut-brain. The gut-brain always wins, because it knows more, and it knows more deeply. I prefer to let my characters’ actions be informed by my visceral sense of who they are rather than any overarching desire to control their fates.

LE: Will you ever use the character of Shlomo (from The Epicure’s Lament) again? Do you ever consider revisiting characters?

KC: Come to think of it, I think Shlomo has reappeared in subsequent novels, in different forms, although this was entirely unconscious on my part. His character in The Epicure’s Lament functions in a very similar way to Moe Treitler in The Great Man and Dan Levy in The Astral. All three of these minor characters are sort of the Ghost of Christmas Past—they’re old men who offer spoken flashbacks to the major character’s youth, as a conduit for memories. Shlomo is the narrative jumping-off point to Hugo’s ruminations about his own youth. Moe Trietler reminisces with Abigail about his history with Oscar when they were young, and Dan Levy opens a window onto Harry’s past. Shlomo, Moe, and Dan are all similar types. They all talk Jewish street New Yorkese. The descriptions of the three of them have certain similarities. I hope Shlomo will turn up again in another one of my novels… but I don’t seem to be the one making that decision.

LE: You’ve published six books and now a memoir, what advice might you have for new writers who actually want to make a living at their craft?

KC: Be true to the writer you were at the age of 13, or if you didn’t write yet at that age, then the person you were. Don’t try to be something you’re not.

An example from my own life: With much less success than Cormac McCarthy, I tried to imitate Faulkner as a student at the Writers’ Workshop in my 20s. I wrote turgid prose, breathlessly urgent with the tragic fates of my characters, my voice wobbling with earnest, imitative flat-footedness. I thought that was how you were supposed to write if you wanted to be Great, and I assumed you were supposed to want to be Great. There was a rape! A lesbian love scene with the word “plum” prominently featured! A sad little family in the Arizona desert! And other terrible, hilariously dramatic things. I wrote 3 chapters of the novel, turned it in as my MFA thesis, and abandoned it forever.

Five years later, after floundering painfully in a world that was not hailing me as a literary genius, or anything close to it, I exploded in a burst of rebellion against this earnest literary greatness I’d been trying with no luck to cultivate. I remembered how to write – and remembered that as far as I can see, we are not demigods, we just sometimes think we are, and the resulting comeuppance can be very funny. I went right back to the way I’d started out writing as a kid – visceral, playful, fun, subversive, with no thought of Greatness, no thought of anything but having a good time as I wrote, of exposing people, showing them as they are – not as they ought to be or as I wished they were – heroism and sentimentality went out the window and I was left with my real voice. Claudia Steiner, who narrates my first published novel, In the Drink, is the exact same narrative soul as the narrator of my first finished novel – also named Claudia – a comic murder mystery I wrote when I was 13 to amuse a boy I had a crush on in Social Studies class. That was my authentic voice. Once I found it again, my writing career began.

LE: When someone says to you (as I overheard at ODU), “You are my favorite writer,” do you tend to see that statement as somewhat of a burden or a validation?

KC: Did someone say that? I have no idea what to make of that. I can’t fathom anyone picking me. I want to say “But haven’t you read so-and-so?”

LE: Your latest book, Blue Plate Special, is a memoir. Would you characterize writing a memoir as a “ripping apart” or, “sewing back together”?

KC: Neither – I would call it more of a process of indiscriminate and necessary revealing. Food was the organizing principal of Blue Plate Special. As I wrote, I opened my memory to tastes, meals, dishes, ingredients, and constructed recollected 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.

The breakfast scene that opens the book—the soft-boiled eggs, the shocking domestic abuse between my parents—is one of my earliest food memories. I had to write the whole memory, though—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.

LE: In your approach to writing fiction v. nonfiction, which would you find the most revealing? Does one present more obstacles than the other?

KC: I feel a greater sense of responsibility, writing nonfiction. Rather than inventing a cast of characters whose lives are generated by my imagination and the demands of the novel itself, these are people who actually exist, both in my memories and in the world, people whose stories I have appropriated in the course of telling my own. I changed many names and soft-pedaled as much as I could and sent the manuscript around to various loved ones for corroboration, correction, and comments, but in the end, I can’t pretend it was easy or comfortable to write about real people, including myself.

However, in a different sense, 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.

LE: In your talk you mentioned that before you had a book in mind,Blue Plate Special started as a collection of personal essays. Did you know, when you began, that you would include recipes? And, if so, were the essays directed by the recipes?

KC: No – in fact, the opposite. 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 associated 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 rather than recipes pure and simple.

LE: You’ve moved a fair number of times in your life. How do you see the relationship between ‘place’ and writing? (NY vs. Maine)

KC: Most of my novels are set in New York City, where I lived for 20 years, mostly in north Brooklyn. Some places seem to have a complex, almost contradictory richness of both history and forward motion, qualities that suggest plot and lend themselves to stories. Greenpoint, for example, has a sepia cast to its air that reminds me of old photographs. It feels like a small town, its ways preserved, its old-timers stubborn, its storefronts pointing back to the past. Manhattan is just across the river – down almost every side street of Greenpoint are views of the spangled, sparkling, soaring island city. The air is electric and urban, but the flavor is historical and local, and this deeply influences the way people behave there, especially with the recent influx of young artists and entrepreneurs. Greenpoint is caught in a very strong cross-current of constant change, but the power it exerts on everyone who moves there is equally strong. It preserves itself.

After living in Brooklyn for so many years, a place where I had so much history, moving to New England has felt like a fresh, new start. I don’t know many people here yet, and I have no history here, either. I feel fairly anonymous and perfectly serene here – a rare luxury for a writer, but I’m sure is only temporary. Places have a way of accruing weight and depth the longer we live in them, so I’m enjoying it as long as it lasts. I had wanted to write Blue Plate Special for many years, and I started it as soon as I moved to Maine. Something about New England freed me to do so – to recollect the strong emotions of the past in tranquility, to paraphrase Wordsworth.

LE: What connections do you see between the daily routine of writing and cooking?

KC: After a day of writing, I love nothing more than to go into my kitchen and start chopping onions and garlic on the way to cooking an improvised meal with whatever ingredients are on hand. Cooking is the perfect counterpoint to writing. I find it more relaxing than anything else, even naps, walks, or hot baths.

In the final paragraph to the prologue of Blue Plate Special, I wrote, “The impulse to write comes, for me, directly from reading good books just as the urge to cook comes from eating good food. And the coincidence of food and language is as excellent and reassuring a combination as any other I’ve ever found. My favorite writing about food, like my favorite food, is plain and unfussy: clear, declarative sentences with a strong undercurrent of feeling, a soulful, hearty meal, nothing fancy, nothing pretentious, nothing but a blue plate special.”

LE: Do you ever wonder (as an adult) what the people in Zenobia, (your created world) might eat?

KC: I absolutely love this question. No, I have never thought about it, but now you’ve got me imagining all manner of fantastical dishes. I always pictured Zenobia as a colorful, architecturally baroque, topographically varied place of onion domes and flying buttresses and spires, intricately and brightly painted buildings and furniture, rolling hills with deep forests and wild rivers, jagged peaks in the far distance… a sort of romantic combination of Hungary, Mexico, and maybe India too; the language I invented for Zenobia was Eastern-European-sounding with plenty borrowed from Romance languages. And so the food there must be as interesting as the culture, since that’s always the case. I picture elaborate dishes, savory spicy filo-dough pies decorated with gold leaf, desserts embellished with spun sugar and flower petals, vegetables cut into amazing shapes and arranged by color in Dr. Seuss-like salads… I might need to write a children’s book about Zenobia some day, thanks to this question.

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Leslie Entsminger graduated from Purdue University in 1979 in Interdisciplinary Engineering. She worked for Mobil Oil as a geophysicist before retiring in 1986 to raise three children. While in Houston from 2000 to 2011, she worked as an artist in oil painting and printmaking. She is currently a second-year fiction student in Old Dominion University’s MFA program. Her recent work can be found inShark Reef.