MEMOIR MINUS EGO: A Q&A WITH KATE CHRISTENSEN
BLUE PLATE SPECIAL: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY APPETITES
By Kate Christensen
Doubleday. 368pp. $26.95
Novelist Kate Christensen, whose books include The Great Man and The Astral, turns her hand to memoir in this month’s Blue Plate Special, an unforgettable coming-of-age story about love, loss, and food. We caught up with Kate to ask her about taste and memory, making the leap from novel to memoir, and why food is such a powerful portal to the past.
BIOGRAPHILE: You mention that the book has its roots in your blog entries. At what point did you see the larger story start to emerge? Did you have to do a lot of editing to turn them into a book?
KATE CHRISTENSEN: It took only three or so months to write the first draft. It came out of me naturally and fast because, of course, I already knew the story. The hard work started after the first draft was written, when I had to figure out how to structure my life as a narrative, how to shape it around my love of food, how the recipes fit in. But the greatest challenge was trying to figure out how to excise my ego from the whole process. I think it all started working for me when I was finally able to treat myself as a fictional character and allow my own voice to be separate from my life.
BIOG: Were you surprised by any connections that emerged between the entries?
KC: I was surprised at how hard it was to write the book after having so much fun with the blog. The blog was one thing: easy, organic, episodic, lighthearted – the book was another. I had to dig intentionally to uncover memories that were raw and visceral and painful to recall. I had intended to write a book about food. But there is no hiding in food: the fact that food was my subject and theme in no way provided any shade. On the contrary, every memory about food, beginning with the soft-boiled eggs of my two-year-old, cataclysmic breakfast, forced me to recollect everything that surrounded it, sad or painful, funny or revealing.
BIOG: What was it like moving from fiction to nonfiction — does it feel like a very different writing process? Do you think you’ll write more nonfiction in future?
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.
That said, I am fomenting another food book, but one that is less about me and more about food itself.
BIOG: Much of your writing about food focuses on obsession — you discuss gorging on particular foods (like cream cheese sandwiches) and at other times, severely restricting what you ate, which feels different from many food-related memoirs that primarily emphasize pleasure. Did you deliberately set out to describe both joy and the punishment of eating, or do you think those are connected somehow?
KC: As a creature of extremes who strives (usually fruitlessly) for moderation, my life story is, like many people’s, fundamentally an account of sliding along a spectrum of irreconcilable, though coexisting, desires. Both overeating and hunger have been profound parts of my life, and therefore I had to acknowledge both in its telling.
BIOG: We seem to be in something of a golden age of food- and drink-related memoirs by women. Are there other “foodie” writers (men or women) who influenced you during the writing of this book, or whose work you particularly admire?
KC: Food memoirs have saved my life during times of insomniacal trouble, most notably the works of M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Laurie Colwin, and Nicolas Freeling. I also love the fictional and nonfictional works of the likes of James Hamilton-Paterson, Diana Abu-Jabar, John Lanchester, Nora Ephron, James Chase, Jami Attenberg, Adam Gopnik, Cathi Hanauer, Gabrielle Hamilton, Tamar Adler, and Michael Pollan.
BIOG: Throughout the book you’re surrounded by people who are seeking some kind of unconventional salvation, from Berkeley hippies, to anthroposophical communities, to your sister’s involvement with a cult. In the book, it often seems as though food was in part a refuge from the spiritual yearning of the people around you — a tangible response to their otherworldly needs. What kind of spiritual balm, if any, does food offer?
KC: I’ve grown to feel that the deeper the attachment to a dogma, religion, or belief, the less the visceral connection to experience, which is all I’ve ever wanted. If food offers any balm, it’s the comfort of being in a world of pleasurable concreteness, one in which the experience is evanescent and temporary. When food is gone, it’s gone, and then it’s time to make the next meal.