Friday, June 28, 2013

Kate Christensen talks about Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, how being happy has changed her writing, why you can't tell the whole truth, and so much more

There are certain writers that other writers just adore. Not just for the writing said writer produces, but because of the heart, the humanity, the humor, the wonderfulness of the person. Yep. I'm talking about Kate Christensen. She's the acclaimed author of six novels, including THE EPICURE'S LAMENT, the PEN/Faulkner award-winning THE GREAT MAN, THE ASTRAL and her newest, BLUE PLATE SPECIAL: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY APPETITES, a wonderful memoir about food, fate, finding family and love, and writing. I can't tell you how thrilled and jazzed and honored I am to have Kate here. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Kate.

Your memoir is so brave and so honest, so funny and so heartbreaking. Was it hard to go back to those times and look at them again? And did anything about those times surprise you now in hindsight?

It was both hard and not hard. The autobiographical material emerged almost involuntarily: I never intended to write a memoir, but I have always wanted to write about food, a lifelong passion. it turned out that my experiences with food are embedded in my life. For many years, I've been living so fully right where I am, I haven't thought much about the past at all. While I wrote the book, I felt as if I were opening boxes in my head that have been tightly shut for years and letting air into their contents and rummaging around, rearranging the contents and holding various items up to the light. 
It was refreshing, in that way, to allow my own past to surge through my head. I felt connected to it in a new way., as if I were describing my life as it happened, transcribing my memories. I was surprised both by how much I remembered and by the distance I feel now from it all. I wrote the book as I turned 50. Maybe I'm finally old enough, and happy enough, to be able to look back without flinching.
What was hard was dealing with the fact that I'm not writing fiction. Other people are involved -- my family, my ex-boyfriends and ex-husband, my friends, former teachers, neighbors, landlords, and bosses. I did my best to take my friend Rosie's advice: "The only person who should ever look like an asshole is you." I changed names, I sent the manuscript around to my loved ones to be vetted and corroborated and corrected and dealt with directly. It makes me very uneasy to have to appropriate others' experiences and identities for my own book; there was no way around the fact that writing about my life means writing about other people, but if I could have avoided it, I would have.

I found it fascinating that you dealt with food issues (overeating) and were unhappy with them the same way you were unhappy with your relationships--and then it all changed for the better. Love and food eventually saved you. Can you talk a bit about that?
I was very lonely and hungry and unbalanced for most of my life until about 4 years ago. This deep loneliness, a hunger for connection that caused me to feel out of control, is one of the primary forces that shaped my life after the age of 13 in ways I am not proud of, but which I finally understand. Food -- and alcohol -- and sex -- served many, many purposes for me:  either smugly ascetic self-denial or overindulgent consumption to fill emptiness, assuage homesickness and stress and depression, ward off feelings of frustration in my career and frustration as a girlfriend and wife. 

For the past 4 years, since I met and fell in love with Brendan, I've eaten solely for pleasure and nourishment. Also for the past 4 years, I haven't been lonely at all. There's a connection there. For me, everything comes down to this sense of being rooted, solidly connected, and loved.

I also loved your writing about your experiences as a writer, how long it took, how one book vanished because it came out during 9/11. Do you have any advice for would be writers now?
I am leery of giving advice. When I was a would-be writer, I gobbled up advice as if it could save me. I read "On Becoming a Novelist" five times. I treasured any nugget I gleaned from the writers I took workshops with in graduate school. I read dead, famous writers' journals and diaries, Virginia Woolf, Dawn Powell, in hopes of finding the key to it all. I thought there was a key. 
There is no key. And there is no shortcut. It's a bunch of hard work and perseverance, but it should be the greatest joy you know. There. Advice. 
I want to ask, do you think being so happy has changed your writing?
It's changed my writing in the sense that I can now write about my own life. I couldn't before. I don't know why this is. I don't know whether it's changed my fiction; I will find out when i write my next novel. If my personal, domestic happiness changes my fiction, I hope it allows me to go deeper and broader than ever before. I'd love to write something entirely new and wildly ambitious and risky, something that I can't technically write. I want to explode my brain. Maybe I have that luxury now. Unhappiness is a different motivator. My novels have always tended to be dark comedies. I was looking for something in writing them that I don't seem to need anymore. So we'll see. 
What’s obsessing you now and why?
My primary preoccupation these days seems to be the fact that the human race has destroyed our planet and many of our fellow living things. We're witnessing our irreversible destructiveness everywhere, all the time. My own culpability is inescapable. I'm human just like everyone else; collectively, we have done this, crass barbaric short-sighted limited apes that we are. 
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I can't imagine that there's anything left to ask after I laid it all bare in my book! Thank you so much for reading it and for responding so warmly to it. It's terrifying to publish a life story. No autobiography can tell the whole story; it's a process of selective editing. But you can never tell the whole truth. And what fun would that be, anyway?

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