Kate Christensen: You Can’t Hide When You’re Writing about Food

Five years ago, I was invited to a dinner party hosted by Kate Christensen, in which she turned food depicted in her novels into an actual meal for her guests. The party was held in Christensen’s actual home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a beautiful old house with an antique stove and bare walls that had been stripped to show the original horsehair underneath, which she claimed she had used as the model for the house where her character Teddy lived.  She once told me that her characters are mostly fictional, but her houses are almost always real.

 

All of her six novels are rich in food and characters with great appetites, but at that party she cooked dishes from her fourth novel, The Great Man, in which two dueling biographers attempt to build a posthumous portrait of a painter recollected after death by his wife, his mistress, and his sister, a less successful lesbian artist. The prize dish that night was a chicken tagine, deceptively drab brown in color, but bursting with competing textures and flavors: sweet apricots, briny green olives, toasted almonds and a muddled mixture of spices (it’s always worth the trouble to toast the spices whole in a pan, then grind to order, she advised).

 

Christensen’s publisher posted several of her recipes for dishes eaten by the characters in her novel on their website (a lentil soup with grilled artichokes and merguez cooked by the great man’s mistress, Teddy, has since become standard in our house). Her longtime editor, Gerald Howard, was also at the dinner party, and by then the question had already reached something of a dull roar: “Kate, when are you going to write a food book?”

 

The answer comes out this week, with Blue Plate Special, a memoir of Christensen’s life as seen through its meals. But it was a long time coming: In the five years since that dinner party, Christensen wrote two more novels (Trouble and The Astral), divorced, left New York City, where she had lived for more than twenty years, fell in love again, and moved first to New Hampshire, then to a nineteenth-century farmhouse in Portland, Maine.

 

Christensen started her first blog soon after moving to Portland, mostly to chronicle the meals she was cooking and the restaurants where she was eating, and her exuberance with falling in love again, with Brendan Fitzgerald, a filmmaker twenty years her junior. The blog was a celebration of joy in appetites of all kinds — walking, cooking, eating. But the more she wrote about food, the more she realized it was a portal into sense memories of all kinds, including much darker memories from her childhood, starting with one of her very earliest: a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs that ended with her father beating her mother in front of their three children. Unlike the blog, which is often rooted in Christensen’s rather ecstatic present, the book moves chronologically from that breakfast — through her childhood as one of three girls raised by a beautiful, bohemian divorced mother putting herself through graduate school; living in France during her late teens; college at Reed and graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; living in New York as a young writer — and concludes with her divorce and new life. Throughout, Christensen interrogates ideas of gender, instability, violence, and appetite, while asking how these things all work together to shape a writer’s psyche. I spoke with Christensen last week from her home in Portland, Maine.  –Amy Benfer

 

The Barnes & Noble Review: You’re a novelist and you weren’t exactly dying to write a memoir. Was it terrifying to do this? Now that it’s out there, how do you feel?

 

Kate Christensen: It was terrifying in the sense that I had to expose myself and other people. That kind of exposure was nothing I had had much experience with, because I had only ever written novels. I think my blog is fairly circumspect and elliptical. I’ve written personal essays, but they are short and to the point, in and out and that’s that. But in terms of writing my whole life, that happened a bit by accident.

 

I wanted to write a food book, but I’m not a chef or an expert on culinary matters, to put it mildly. Food is therefore rooted solely for me in my own experience, so that’s all I had to go on. And then I opened a writhing can of worms in the first pages of the book: a scene of soft-boiled eggs and domestic abuse.

 

That scene is probably one of the most disturbing in the entire book. And it is the very first one.

 

That was one of my earliest memories, so I had to start there. I remember the soft-boiled eggs and I remember the breakfast. Every food memory opens a bubble of what was around that meal, the experience. Often it’s dark. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s light or funny or pleasurable. I didn’t set out to excavate the fact that my father hit my mother and that I was sort of molested by two trusted community figures in high school and that my long and often happy marriage ended extremely painfully. But those experiences went along with everything else in my life, so I couldn’t leave any of it out.

 

Comparing the book to the blog, which I have also read, I was surprised at how comprehensive it was. You do really go through pretty much every year of your life, whereas the blog just dips in and out and is often in the present tense. And your present life is also pretty great — it’s all about hey, I’m walking the dogs, I’m hanging out with Brendan, whom I love, we’re remodelling our idyllic farmhouse, and making these insanely delicious meals that everyone on the Internet is jealous of.

 

My blog is a celebration of the unexpected settled happy life I find myself living in Portland, Maine at the ripe old age of fifty with someone I deeply love and am very happy with. That’s part of why I started the blog. I thought, “Damn, how did I get here?” That’s also the question that fuelled the book.

 

I tried to give everything in the book equal weight. I don’t feel that I’ve had a life of abuse or that I am a victim in any way. My life is pretty typical of a lot of Americans of my generation, who grew up in the sixties in families like mine that were sort of unconventional.  I wanted the title to suggest something cozy. Something plain and honest. Something you can read at night when you can’t sleep that will make you feel connected and less lonely.

 

Your parents were smart, and extremely well-educated, but even though you were raised in a fairly liberal, progressive community, it seems like what you are getting at is that in the sixties and seventies even progressives hadn’t quite evolved to care about women and girls — things like domestic violence and middle-aged guys hitting on teenage girls may not have been embraced but were often at least tolerated.

 

That’s at the heart of the book: The idea that understanding something, being able to articulate it, is so different from being able to live according to it. My mother certainly demonstrated that. She was always smarter and more aware than her circumstances. I followed that same trajectory, much as I tried to avoid it. I found myself in my twenties writing incredibly articulate journal entries delineating all my relationship woes. I knew was drinking too much, and I didn’t have any money, and I hated my job and I wasn’t writing. I laugh ruefully for myself now, because I kept doing the same thing. My analytical understanding of my predicament in no way offered any sort of lifeline. I felt paralyzed.

 

Claudia from In the Drink, your first novel, seems similar to you at the time — she’s in her twenties, living in New York, drinking too much — but as you point out, she has a very different voice. You say in this book that your most autobiographical novel is Jeremy Thrane, which no one would construe as autobiography — he’s a gay man, older than you were when you wrote the book.

 

Exactly. That’s my other autobiography, in a way.

 

That seems to play into this same idea that when you see your father striking your mother and you felt a psychological split and decided you wanted to identify with being strong like your father and not weak like your mother.

 

It was a profound thing to watch as a two-year-old: my beloved, adored father beating up my beloved, adored mother. It certainly never made any sense to me. Even now it doesn’t. My mother and I still try to puzzle it out: What was that? And who was that man and how could he do such a thing over and over?

 

I know there is no escaping it — I know this now — and I think that is part of why I can be happy, finally. Well, not happy. More integrated. I don’t feel bifurcated anymore. I don’t feel that I am trying to deny my own vulnerability to these painful experiences. I wasn’t someone who could feel pain. I couldn’t let myself.  I just shut down that part of me. I saw it as being female, which was so scary, given my mother’s experiences. The side of me that was needy, that would ask someone to stay home and help me with the dishes, might cause me to get beaten up.

 

That underlies the whole book, this question you’re getting at, my lifelong sense of separation from myself that caused me to be out of control with my appetites.

 

There is a pattern that follows in your writing life as well: At Iowa, Frank Conroy doesn’t like your waitressing story and mocks it as a little coming-of-age story, but you realize that his first novel Stop-Time is a male coming-of-age novel. Your six novels are more or less directly split between male narrators and female narrators. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems to me you get the most serious literary attention and critical praise for your novels narrated by men. They are considered serious literary fiction; whereas those narrated by women, including your first novel, were written off as more minor. I seem to remember that Trouble, your fifth, about a forty-something woman going through a divorce was actually bundled up with chick-lit beach reads in the New York Times, whereas The Astral, about a fifty-something man going through a divorce, got a full-page review by Daniel Handler. Sometimes I feel like the VIDA conversation we are having is going on within your books! You are the same writer! And yet, you can see the difference in which of your books are taken more seriously than others — and they are those that are narrated by men!

 

Absolutely true. It’s always been a puzzlement. People have sometimes asked me, “Why don’t you write The Epicure’s Lament again?” And then I wrote The Astral, and that was regarded as another literary novel, sort of like The Epicure’s Lament, but in their opinion not as good, because — who knows, maybe because it wasn’t as dark and subversive. I’m frankly flattered that anyone reads my books and has a favorite. I’m not complaining. But like you, I’m marveling at the truth of what you said.

 

But I also wonder how much I bring this on myself. Because when I’m writing in a male voice, I do write differently.  Probably because of my early identification with my father and denial of my own femaleness, I think I tend to show female experience differently from male experience. And I’ve even thought to myself, “It’s so much fun to write in the voice of a man because a man can say things a woman can’t necessarily get away with.”

 

My female characters tend to be more vulnerable and more paralyzed in their lives, and less able to strike out and take action and behave in ways that I consider stereotypically male. I hope my novels will reflect my newfound sense of integration from now on.

 

The novel I first interviewed you for, The Great Man, is the one that combines all those voices: You have the great man himself, an artist, who is dead. You have the wife and the mistress. You have his lesbian sister, also an artist, but with less critical acclaim. And you have two duelling biographers trying to tell his story, one black and one white. In that novel you seemed to be addressing all of the questions about gender and narration that run through all your other books.

 

Exactly. And this question of narration and male and female artists directly. With Maxine and Oscar, you see their different levels of fame, and their attitudes towards fame, and their attitudes toward their work. I was aware of exploring the conclusions I’d drawn, having gone through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with that atmosphere, then being a female writer in New York, which was its own little conundrum.

 

Do you have anything particular to say about having been a female writer in New York?

 

I was always astonished at how widely male writers would spread their legs, metaphorically speaking, on the subway, and take up a lot of room in a conversation, and the lack of self-deprecation about their work, and the swagger. Even in the most mild-mannered, nebbishy, meek male novelists, I perceived an arrogance that I wished I could appropriate. They seemed to talk louder, sound more sure of themselves. But now I’m generalizing wildly, and I’m going to get slapped.

 

No, that’s fine. I’m leading you there. I was going to say, on a personal note, because we do know a lot of the same people, there is a very concrete community of female writers in New York that have sprung up, in part, around you. I think of you, and Jami Attenberg and Rosie Schaap and I could go on and on to list many of the writers I have met at parties and readings. Not all the writers are women, of course, but there is a very tight-knit group of women at the center of it all. I think you even spoke about this at Jami’s reading — the difference between feeling outside a writing community at Iowa and in your early New York years, and feeling inside now. This is a group of women critics and novelists and writers who not only can give each other moral support –reading each others work — but are starting to have real power in promoting it as well. Do you feel like that is happening?

 

Absolutely. I credit social media for that. I think we were more isolated, writers in general, before we found Facebook and Twitter and blogs and online reviews. I feel we’ve really used the community. I remember maybe about four years ago becoming aware of this community for the first time. Facebook is an amazing tool for that. I think female writers in particular have embraced it to create this sense that we do have power. This is new.

 

You started a blog in your late forties after having written six novels. I couldn’t have imagined you doing a blog, but then you did and it felt so much like your other work. Did you have to be dragged into it?

 

No, I started it with exuberance, out of an overflow of excitement about my life: “Look where I am! Look where I’m living! Look at what I’m eating! Look at who I’m living with! Oh my God!” It was an almost childlike excitement, and I wanted to celebrate it. I had just moved to Portland, Maine, where I found all these fantastic local restaurants. And I thought, “I’m going to write about these restaurants. And whoever is interested in eating here can read it.”

 

Then I began writing about my childhood and my marriage, and it became very clear that finally I was ready to write the book that I’d been wanting to write for ten or fifteen years. It didn’t occur to me at first that the blog was going to turn into a book. I just thought it would be fun to post things. It feels like instant publication, like an unmediated experience between myself and readers. At first, there were just a few people who regularly read it, but then for a variety of reasons – people posting and sharing it — my readership started really growing.

 

To make the leap to a book was not easy and not necessarily even organic. But it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, write a food book. And I recognized this as my jumping-off point.

 

It’s funny how this light, voracious book blog about your happiness and your appetites became the book, which as we have pointed out is rather dark. They are almost mirror images. It’s interesting that one became this wormhole into its opposite.

 

It felt safe, finally, to turn that corner. It’s not scary to go back now. I don’t feel frightened by it anymore. By anything. I had to tell it chronologically and I had to tell it frankly, because it’s about food, and you can’t hide when you’re writing about food. If I have a memory of a meal and I want to tell everything that was going on around that meal, that’s what I have to do. But you know, there’s a lot of darkness in M.F.K. Fisher. I’m arguing with the people who say that food and darkness don’t go together.  Of course they do. Food goes with everything. It’s the fundamental shared experience, the common denominator that links everything together.

 

In a way, it’s the anti-Eat, Pray, Love. You don’t have to diss that book, but I don’t mind going on record saying that I am not fond of it. The thing I feel is so deceptive in that book is that what she calls liberation and empowerment basically begins with her down on her knees berating God for her life not going as planned. Which seems to be the opposite of what you are saying: You aren’t coming into it with the expectation that things are supposed to go a certain way. It’s a lack of entitlement.

 

It’s more like, “How the hell did I get what I have?” I feel just surprised and exuberantly grateful that I got here, through dint of what? Luck? Good decisions? Hello, my dog is licking me. Dingo says hi.

 

And Dingo is a character in the book, and the blog. I believe I remember him from our first interview in the house in Greenpoint, lo those many years ago. I remember the Greenpoint years. The Hoppin’ John New Year’s Day parties. That house was magnificent. All of which were described in the book.

 

Yes! Those parties were great. And that house really was beautiful. Beautiful, but damn those living room walls!

 

I always loved those living room walls. The deconstructed look. I was surprised to discover they had been a point of contention.

 

I loathed them. I can’t even believe how much I hated them. They were objectively interesting and kind of beautiful looking. But to me they were the sound of someone chewing loudly in my ear, psychologically speaking.

 

They are such a bold statement that if you see them in someone’s house, you see them as a deliberate choice. But it made me think of another parallel. I didn’t know you at thirty-seven, when as you say in your book, you desperately wanted to have a child. But when I met you in your early forties, I had always assumed that not having a child was a very deliberate choice. Your life seemed so full and interesting. So it was an odd revelation for me to find in reading your book that decision was one that came out of regret and compromise.

 

And incredible heartbreak. I remember realizing I wasn’t going to have children and the shock waves just hitting me. The sense of loss and the sense of grief. I didn’t really write about it a lot in the book, perhaps because I didn’t have any food memories attached to it…

 

There was no morning sickness involved!

 

And no weird cravings, like you get with pregnancy! I remember lying in that basement in Queens after Jon and I separated the first time, and what I was heartbroken about was the fact that I didn’t have children. I’ve always denied my deepest desires and cravings in a way that means I’m not going to want them. If I can’t have something, I pretend that I don’t want it, and I deny that it was even on the agenda in the first place.

 

It’s funny because it does have a parallel to those walls: The idea of being an artist, especially a female artist, the idea is that convention is a trap. So wanting to have clean, pristine walls, as you did, or wanting to have children and marriage and the usual things can be seen as anti-intellectual or anti-art.

 

Exactly. That was the schism between my husband and me. He was full-on ready to embrace the artistic life, and to do whatever it took. And I wasn’t. I thought I was. It wasn’t his fault. It was just that I wasn’t fully in control of who I was when I met him, when we were married. Anyway. Now it’s just gone. Now that I live with someone who is twenty years younger than I am, who is technically young enough to be my child even though he often seems older than I am…

 

And again, it’s too bad. If you were a male artist, you could be impregnating Brendan right now. Apparently, that’s not how it is done.

 

I agree. It’s fucked-up that I can’t impregnate Brendan.

 

OK, we have really taken this topic to its furthest possible conclusion, so let’s change topics entirely. I did not realize that you had four distinct names growing up: Laurie Johansen, Laurie Christensen, Katie Christensen and Kate Christensen. Do those four names correspond to four distinct periods or selves to you?

Yes, they totally do! Laurie Johansen was me until the age of fourteen. I was Laurie Christensen in junior high. I became Katie Christensen, silly name, in high school, and remained Katie until the age of twenty-seven, when I moved to New York and became Kate. I remained Kate Christensen until I got married at thirty-four, and then I became Kate Lewis. At forty-six, when I left my husband, I went back to my maiden name. So there are actually five names and they all correspond to a different era.

 

So your professional name, the name under which you write novels, is actually the last name of your mother’s second husband. So it also reflects a stage in your mother’s travels through different names.

 

That’s right. And I’m the only Christensen left in the family. My sisters both took their husbands’ names. And my mother remarried and took the name of her third husband. So my name is the last vestige of that era in our family. This whole lifelong sense of my identity being so fluid — moving and changing names and changing fathers and having these half-sisters that I didn’t know and this whole idea of myself trying to be a guy when I was actually a girl and being so unsettled — fluid might not be the word because that makes it sound more positive than it felt. It was untethered. I could go in and out through all these different modes of being and not really inhabit any of them fully. It was a problematic thing, changing my name so much. Change was always supposed to be exciting, according to my resolutely adventurous, positive mother, moving was an adventure, and new fathers were an adventure, and divorce was a good thing because it meant we were moving on, and so on throughout my entire childhood. That was the myth: that change was great. And that was the thing I adamantly told myself in order to deny how upset I was. Denial, especially when you are young, can be a really lovely security blanket, at least for a while. I look at people who grew up with one name, in one house, with one set of parents and one set of school friends and have some sort of cohesive place and self and family and I just marvel at how lucky they are and how amazingly different that is from my own experience.

 

And now I am remembering that you were also a high school actress. But certainly having these fluid identities must be part of the thing that allows you to take on these different identities and voices and make art out of it in your fiction.

 

Ultimately, that’s what writing is.

 

You had this wild bohemian grad school single mother, but it actually sounded like the moment when she graduated and married and settled down, and had a long work week and a stable income and a large house sounded like one of the bummer periods.

 

You mean the ranch house in Phoenix? It was a bummer for my mother. But I loved the suburban stability. When I was twelve and thirteen, I loved having an ostensibly normal life. To be uprooted from that to move up to Jerome, a wild, lonely ghost town, to start high school knowing nobody, the new girl again, was horrible. I think I am a deeply conventional person. I do want a conventional life and I always did. But obviously, I didn’t choose that in the end. I married an artist. It makes me wonder again how lives are shaped. What are the forces that make a life what it is, through time? As a novelist, my own schism between what I wanted and how I lived enables me to extrapolate from it for fictional lives, to see how internal forces can cause so much conflict and so much trouble and so much pain if they are not acknowledged and if you are not in control of them. Again, it gets back to appetites and desires.

 

One of the things in here that triggered my own childhood memories were the parts in your book where you describe your evolution as a child writer. You start with drawing figures, and give them names and ages, then work your way through what you call a kind of YA thriller. It was interesting to me see — sort of a portrait of the artist as a child, as opposed to the college years, where the official portraits often begin.

 

Yes, it came out of reading and it came out of wanting to imitate the books I loved. As a little kid, I got a particular feeling about reading, it’s almost a sensual feeling, like eating, of the book itself as a physical object as well as the words it contains. Like The Little Engine that Could, it was this insatiable sensual love for the satiny pages, their feel and smell, the pictures of apples and oranges, and the way the words sounded in my brain. I could memorize them easily, with rapaciousness. It was akin to the desire to eat — the connection between eating and writing is profound. The dripping fruit in James and the Giant Peach and craving chocolate while reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

 

Oh, I loved that moment. It was kind of an illustration of the difference between writers and non-writers. When you tell your friend’s mother you are craving chocolate after reading about chocolate, she thinks you are asking for actual chocolate and being rude, when you realize you are craving the idea and the sense memory of chocolate. It’s the difference between metaphor and the thing itself.

 

I thought, “Oh shit, she doesn’t get it. I guess she doesn’t experience things the way I do.” It’s maybe even more interesting for me to read and write about food than it is to cook and eat food. That’s how this whole thing started. I was cooking so much, trying new things, experimenting and having so much fun. I left New York after 20 years and moved to Brendan’s farmhouse in New Hampshire. There, if I wanted dumplings, I had to cook them myself, and if I wanted pizza, I had to cook it myself. I felt a sense of adventure and experimentation. This was the perfect metaphor for what was going on in my life — episodic bursts of culinary derring-do.

 

This was going to be my opening question, but the first time I remember talking to you about a food book you had a dinner party in which you turned dishes you had imagined into actual dishes. But they were dishes you had never cooked. So it was this process of reverse-engineering: instead of writing about dishes you had cooked, you were cooking dishes you had imagined.

 

That’s exactly it. They turned out to be some of the best things I’ve ever invented. That chicken tagine is really good.

 

Are you going to write more on food?

 

I’m writing Barbara Lynch’s memoir with her, so that’s what I will be doing for the next year. And I’m writing a series of essays for medium.com that I hope will become a book. It’s new, even embryonic, at this point, but my working title is The Elements of Eating I plan to start with the egg, end with the chicken, with everything else in between: historical, culinary, cultural, personal. Every now and then a memory will pop up, I’m sure.

 

So for the next year at least, you are basically a food writer.

 

I sort of switched careers in my fiftieth year, didn’t I? We’ll see how far it takes me. It feels great. It feels like such a nice dip into something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a natural segue from putting all that food in my novels.

 

Chris and I still make the tagine and the lentil-artichoke soup became dishes that we make constantly.  It was the two homey basics that stuck with us. As you describe them in the book, they don’t look like much: plain, drab, brown in color. But then you bite in, and underneath there are so many layers of flavor and complexity.

 

It’s true, it’s all very literary: they are purely Teddy’s recipes. She made them up, not me.

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