When you’re writing a story, food is important. Mark and I are both working on a novel here in Greece, and we keep batting back and forth what our characters are eating. My main character Amanda is a good cook. She cooks lightly without much oil, and everything she makes is fresh. She doesn’t use anything from a box or a can. She cooks pretty much the way we cook at home. If there were an earthquake, we’d be down to rice and fire roasted chilies in about twenty-four hours. We buy fresh food almost daily. Amanda’s husband loves her cooking. He doesn’t love much more about Amanda, but the food and the kids keep him around. That’s always a good question in a marriage. What is the fuel that keeps it going especially after the love runs out? If you aren’t desperate for money, that helps. You can coast along in a long sleep walking through your life.
Mark’s character doesn’t know how to cook at all. She manages to feed her family by mashing potatoes night after night. The fact that she doesn’t know how to cook and that her husband and son don’t complain says a lot about his characters. They’re used to thinking of her as the boss of the house and the husband as the boss of what goes on outside the house. In Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, we all remember the dinner season where the little Chip has to sit there with his gross inedible food, but his father doesn’t want to cross the mother who he sees as being in charge of the house which is her domain.
In my book, the main character, in spite of her good cooking is fat. That’s because she’s a sneaky eater. That’s an important element in describing a character. Where and when do you do your eating? Some people do all their eating at the table, some people are snackers. Mark can get into the habit of not eating breakfast or lunch but then coming home and eating steadily from 6 pm to bedtime. When I’m trying to lose weight, which I’ve been trying to do since I was twelve, I always blame the fact that when I’m around other people, I am expected to eat, but the fact is that if I didn’t do any eating by myself, I would be bird thin. When I’m out with other people, I try to eat as I imagine a thin person would eat. When I go out with my friend Kim who is perfectly thin, she likes to order a small Caesar salad for us to split. That’s how thin people eat. When I’m alone, I can’t get enough fruit and jellybeans. I eat apples, cherries, pears, and melons. I don’t eat a slice of melon for breakfast on Sunday, I chop up the whole cantaloupe for Mark and me, and we eat it. If Mark eats so much as a single tortilla, I give him an evil stare. “Carbs?” I say. “Carbs?” I eat watermelon and grapes, tangerines and apricots. I eat mangos and papayas. I’ll even eat lychees and star fruit. In the evening, I like jelly beans. If it weren’t for all this fruit and jelly beans, I’d look just like my friend Kim. That’s why I made my character Amanda a secret eater. I’m interested in what we eat in public and what we eat in private. I’m interested in our secret lives.
That’s what we work on as writers. Everyone has a public life and a private life. The private life, which we hardly tell anybody about is often much more interesting than the public life. A male friend of mine told me recently that for men most of what is important and interesting in their life happens outside the house and that for women it’s the opposite. His wife doesn’t work, so maybe that’s true in his case, but I doubt Madeline Albright would agree. Whether your public life has as much weight as your private life depends on the success of each. As writers, we try to explore both who we are inside the house and outside the house.
What you get to explore as a novelist is the inner life of your characters who may be neurotic, well meaning, cruel, morose, but to work as characters, they have to have some balance. What does your character do that’s self soothing? What does your character eat, drink, do when he or she is alone? And most importantly, when your character is alone in the bathroom, shaving or brushing their teeth, what story do they tell themselves? That inside story reverberates into the outside story.
Here in Greece, the fruit is good especially the apricots. I’m managing to think of myself as an epic writer even without the jellybeans. That’s the story I’m telling myself.