Author Interview: Laura Kalpakian, American Cookery

My guest, Laura Kalpakian, is a multi-awarding-winning novelist from Northwest Washington. She has received a National Endowment of the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, thePacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and the first Anahid Literary Award for an American Writer of Armenian descent. Her novels include Steps and Exes, The Memoir Club, Graced Land, Caveat, and These Latter Days. Her short fiction has been gathered in three collections, including Fair Augusto, which won the PEN/West Award for Best Short Fiction. She has published ten novels and three collections of short stories. Her newest novel is American Cookery.

american-cookery-coverThis is a fascinating blend of character, story, and the love of cooking. Whatinspired you to write this book?

One of the thematic canopies of the book is the notion of “Revel and Preserve.”Usually that’s an either/or proposition; one may revel or preserve, but not both. But writing down a recipe can achieve both. A recipe is also fluid and responds to the hand ( and eye and imagination and ingredients) of whoever uses it. In my own experience as a daughter and a mother, much of the history of my family can be gleaned from recipes. When my sons got their own apartments, I started to put together cookbooks for them, but found I was more interested in the stories behind these recipes, days, events, moments of our mutual past. So it came to me that perhaps I could write a memoir using recipes as a vehicle for the story. However, I didn’t want to be constrained by just one perspective (as a memoir is), and so from the beginning, the undertaking became a broad-canvas novel, to encompass the experience of many families of varied background, cultures and ethnic heritage, hence its title, American Cookery.

Is Eden Douglass (or any of the other characters) based on a real person, a relative of yours perhaps?

The early characters in the book, the Douglass family, are taken from my 1985novel These Latter Days. This novel has provided me with characters and a setting for two more novels, many stories, and pieces as yet unpublished. When I began to thinkabout writing American Cookery I realized I didn’t have to invent wholly new characters;I had this huge family, and their whole town of St. Elmo to draw on. In These Latter Days the last scene is Eden Douglass in 1940, leaving Idaho on a train bound East. So I started with her and went backwards into her family’s past, and the people I had already created. The Douglasses are a huge Mormon tribe, and in creating them, I used bits and pieces, some memories of my own relatives on my dad’s side. But some characters are totally products of my imagination, with perhaps bits and pieces of myself thrown in. Eden is one of those.

These Latter Days and American Cookery are not dependent on one another. Scenes from one do not repeat in the other, but many of the same characters, major and minor, are present in both. The latter part of American Cookery-the Second World War and after material, the March family, Greenwater ranch-all those characters were newly minted.

You incorporate wonderful cooking and recipe metaphors into the story. For example, “You take what’s on hand and apply to that a little imagination, a sense of timing, to make those ingredients yield what you want.” Good advice for cooking as well as for life. Are the recipes from your family?

The recipes in the novel are indeed all my own; I ascribe them to my characters. They have all been “tested” in my kitchen, feeding my friends and family for the past twenty-five years. ( I only started writing them down when I began to use the computer in 2000.) Choosing the recipes was difficult because they each had to fulfil certain criteria. In terms of execution, they could not have exotic, hard-to-find ingredients, nor require expensive equipment nor exacting techniques. They all, literally, had to be doable “by hand,” even if some of them are not likely to be duplicated, given the intensive work. But yes, I have actually pickled tomatoes, as Afton does, and they are great, but whew! What an undertaking!

In terms of assigning these recipes to characters, the ingredients, techniques etc. had to fit into the era where they were cast (as, say, Connie’s 7Up Salad is a staple of Fifties cookery). They had to fit the geographic and economic situations of the ¬†characters. I wanted the book to live up to its title, to cover a wide swath of lives and contributions to American cooking. I wrote them up in a casual, often non-specific fashion, as your old auntie might write her recipe, not as Julia Child would write it. In that regard, these recipes are “elastic,” though the instructions are specific enough to assure success for anyone who tries them. I do think the quote you cited applies every bit as much to life as to good cooking.

Join us again tomorrow as Laura talks about her writing process.

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 7:45 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The stories behind recipes are always so much more interesting!!!

  2. Interesting concept. I look forward to tomorrow’s post.

  3. A great article and quite interesting. By the way, thanks for stopping by my blog.

    Gwyn Ramsey

  4. What a delightful read! Also, I just finished the Memoir Club and plan to read
    all of Laura Kalpakian’s novels. Keep going!

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