Interviewed by Marsha Sasmor
“Oeuf en Gelée,” your story in this issue of Subtropics, is set in a typically fashionable New York City restaurant—small room, small plates, high prices—and there’s significant talk of food throughout, whether it be what the two main characters, Laurel and Max, are eating or the paintings of food that Laurel’s friend did before she died. What drew you to write a story so concerned with food?
It was the setting that inspired me, after I ate a meal in a particularly petite New York restaurant. This was years ago. I like when form mimics content and thought it could be interesting to write a story of similar size—something compact, delicate, yet potent. But I didn’t know what the story would be about.
Laurel and Max spend the entire story sharing a miniature appetizer—an oeuf en gelée. Why an oeuf en gélee in particular, as opposed to another equally obscure food item?
I once was served this dish in France and found it so intriguing. It seemed to me an encapsulation of a whole little world, with the egg representing birth, life. When I first thought of setting a story in a tiny cramped restaurant, I didn’t know this was what the characters would be eating, but once I decided it was a French bistro, this strange beautiful creation came to me as a microcosm of the scene itself—these singular elements briefly thrown together and preserved in their own little world, like insects in amber.
One of my favorite elements of this story is Viv’s paintings and her process of creating them, first painting the food in front of her instead of eating it and then removing the food altogether, so that, while painting, she has to imagine it. Invented art pieces are hard to do well in fiction, but Viv’s paintings are completely convincing. Did the idea for them grow organically from the other food material in the story, or had they been floating around in your mind for a while, waiting to find a story?
Almost two decades ago, I met a visual artist who happened to mention that during the Ethiopian famine in the mid-eighties she had done paintings of food, always when she normally would have been eating dinner. I don’t recall whether or not she had the food in front of her, or which types of food she painted, but for some reason, a few years ago, I recalled our conversation and thought it might spark a story. I tried free-writing around the topic but didn’t get anywhere. But when I was writing my restaurant story, I thought of that artist again, and the piece came together.
I’m not sure I have a fully formed question about this, but I’m interested in the idea Laurel presents that, through Viv’s food paintings, “absence would become tangible.” It seems like a key moment in the story because it describes the theory behind the paintings themselves as well as what those paintings represent for Laurel, and, I suppose, what the ridiculously small portions of food at expensive New York restaurants ultimately do. Would you mind talking a little bit more about that line or that concept?
I wrote this story a year after a very close friend of mine died. I was (am still) trying to make sense of grief and the ways it manifests itself. Shortly after my friend died, her mother said something to me—she might even have been quoting someone—about how her daughter’s absence was a presence. Which is of course absolutely true. One of the things that’s hard and strange about losing a loved one is that at first you feel their absence so strongly and with such constancy, that awareness becomes a sort of security blanket—something you cling to in their stead. Then you start to become used to the loved one not being there, and the loss of the constant awareness is its own distinct loss.
It was refreshing for me that Laurel’s “tragic backstory” is about the death of a female friend, rather than a husband or a lover—that you’re examining the loss of a platonic rather than romantic relationship.
I find it interesting that we have no term like “widow” or “widower” for a surviving friend. When I received condolence cards after my friend’s death, I realized there were people out there who understood that it’s not just parents and partners who are left bereft; there is this other category of mourner.
For a story in which Laurel’s backstory weighs so heavily on the present action, we’re actually told very little about it; we know that Viv is dead, that Laurel cared for her during her illness, and we know about Viv’s paintings, but that’s really all. How did you decide which details—and how many details—to include about their relationship? When writing the story, did you elaborate a lot more and then cut in revision, or did the most relevant details naturally emerge?
Because I had already set parameters for myself—that this would be a very short story—I was limited not only by length but by the balance of back and front story. I already had to communicate basic background information about Laurel and Max and the date, so I didn’t want to outweigh the present action with Viv’s backstory. Having Laurel talk about Viv’s paintings solved a problem for me by making the present action fill in some of the past. After I wrote that dialogue, I was able to trim other details about the illness, which then seemed unnecessary.
I also wanted to ask you about the final paragraph of the story, which makes a move outward—outside the restaurant, and outside Laurel’s close third person POV. What prompted this shift, for you?
First, I was simply letting my imagination roam. Sometimes it helps to look back at the beginning of a story to find the ending, and the people on the sidewalk were already integral to the piece, without my knowing why. I just knew they had to be there. So I was picturing the people waiting outside, and that they might be glancing up at the windows or door to see if anyone was leaving. At the same time, I had in mind the oeuf en gelée, with its little world of egg and ham and cornichon and herbs all held together in the aspic. I wanted to create a visual that might subtly mimic that sense of a small, contained world suspended in time and place. So I tried looking at the scene from outside rather than within.
I know that you write and publish both novels and short stories. Does your approach to writing the two forms differ? When you get an idea, do you always have a sense of whether it’s story-size or novel-size, or is that something you work out as you go?
I pretty much always know whether it’s a story or novel. My ideas for novels arrive with a whole world attached to them, including possible peripheral characters and subplots—not the specific plots themselves, but a feeling of possibility, that there’s a lot to mine and also that the idea is already too busy or complex to be contained in a short story. Until this past year I was writing novels, so I would jot down these little morsels—sometimes a situation or scenario that seemed like it could be a good single plotline piece, and sometimes just something like “tiny restaurant with little forks and knives”—that I thought might grow into an idea for a story.
What’s the most recent book (or short story) that you’ve read and loved?
Paul Beatty’s first novel, The White Boy Shuffle. I loved The Sellout and plan to read everything he’s written, even though I don’t usually think of myself as someone who loves satire. But he is so wise and brilliantly funny, I find his writing exhilarating.