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Why I Write (and eat)

04/01/2009

I admit it: the lifestyle was one of the things that first attracted me to thrillers, particularly to spy novels. Who wouldn’t want to drive an Aston Martin and drink Meursault, like James Bond? Vicariously, at least?

When I first started reading thrillers, I remember being particularly captivated by the sophisticated lifestyle implied by all those descriptions of meals. Obviously James Bond knew how to live. Maybe if I read enough Ian Fleming, I too would learn how.

Of course, readers and writers don’t always have the same motivations. As a reader, I wanted vicarious experience. As a writer, I’m interested in characterization and setting. But I won’t deny I enjoy the research.

On my first research trip to Europe, in fact, I squired a glamorous brunette in the footsteps of Frederick Forsyth’s Jackal, going where the Jackal went and ordering what he ordered –- at various points, in case you’re wondering, the Jackal dines on cold chicken and Moselle, pot roast and noodles, and a “magnificent” speckled river trout grilled over charcoal, among other things. It became a joke between the glamorous brunette and me: “The Jackal dined excellently,” my wife would say, and we’d order the tartine beurree or the sandwiches or the fish. (I did, however, draw the line at buying a melon to use for target practice.)

Years later, on book tour in Madrid, I ordered baby eels for the first time because I remembered reading about them in another thriller –- and then I had Baumann, the villain of my novel THE ZERO HOUR, dine excellently on them when he’s in Madrid. Repellent as they may sound, tiny freshwater baby eels, or angulas, harvested in the rivers of northern Spain, are delicious. They’re no thicker than a strand of linguine, only they have eyes. It’s a Basque dish, served sizzling in an earthenware casserole in olive oil with garlic and chili peppers. I liked the idea of my bad guy dining on baby eels, for some reason. I felt it did narrative work.

Writers high and low, lit and pop, often use food as one of their storytelling tools (along with clothing and cars and domicile and physiognomy). In his novel SATURDAY, Ian McEwan’s protagonist, Henry Perowne, makes an elaborate-sounding fish stew while watching the news about 9/11; McEwan even posted the recipe on his website. The great Len Deighton (who just turned 80, by the way), is a major foodie and was once better known for his food writing than for his thrillers. (If you’re interested, read more here.) Bob Parker’s Spenser loves to cook, which sometimes may seem at odds with his laconic, tough-guy style. But as someone who dines excellently with Bob and Joan Parker from time to time in Boston, I can tell you that Spenser’s creator takes his culinary research seriously.

It’s not always that way, though. Not all writers whose narrators or protagonists dote on food are into it themselves. Ian Fleming once wrote, “My contribution to the art of thriller-writing has been to attempt the total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds.” So he gave us stone crabs in melted butter with Pommery pink champagne. But Noel Coward observed cattily after staying at Fleming’s house in Jamaica, “Ian Fleming’s cooking always tasted to me like armpits.” Fleming’s favorite meal was a plate of scrambled eggs.

Me, I’m more in the Bob Parker camp. I like to do firsthand research. I like food. So on a recent trip to Barcelona to research a sequence in the next Nick Heller book and do book publicity, I ate and ate. I fell in love not only with Barcelona’s amazing architecture, but also with the food.

In fact, I’m a little embarrassed by how much I ate, and when the airline threatened to charge me for exceeding the weight limit on the return trip, they weren’t talking about my luggage. I blame my friends, who gave me too many restaurant recommendations -– especially the author David Hewson, who made the mistake of telling me to try churros dipped in hot chocolate. I don’t know how I got to my current age without having churros, but I made up for it in Barcelona; they are fried pastry sticks, but to say that is like saying that Dom Perignon is a fizzy wine. The best I had in Barcelona (and I take pride in being a diligent researcher) were at the Café de l’Opera.

A look at my Twitter posts from Barcelona tells the whole story about my priorities: the herbal liqueur at Salamanca; Jamón ibérico (cured ham made from black Iberian pigs, which eat only acorns); the best paella I’ve ever had; arroz negro; chipirones (fried baby squid); and did I mention the churros?

Call it rationalization, but I think that food can often convey a sense of character as well as place. Think of how much we learn about characters by seeing what they eat: Nora Ephron’s main character in HEARTBURN, a food writer, channels her emotions through cooking, while the main characters in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat literally work magic through food. Cooking mysteries are their own subgenre, with books by Diane Mott Davidson, Joanne Fluke, Katherine Hall Page, Michael Bond, Philip Craig (well, his detective likes to cook), Anthony Bourdain, and even The Washington Post’s longtime restaurant critic, Phyllis Richman. We all eat, and we all like to read about food. At least, I do.

Which is why it’s a little ironic that I chose not to make my new series character, Nick Heller, a foodie. Nick doesn’t care about food. He likes his coffee strong and black, but he can’t tell Blue Mountain from Kona from Taster’s Choice. But that doesn’t mean the people around him can’t be into food.

I do need a pretext to keep doing research.