15 April 2009 0 Comments

The Writing Life: Matt McAllester

I’m starting a new feature on my blog today—a series of interviews with authors about what it’s like to be a writer. I’ll be asking them the questions readers often ask me, and I’m intrigued to know how they’ll answer them. Be sure to follow this blog so you’ll see what these fascinating writers have to say in the coming months.

It’s a great pleasure to begin this series with my friend Matt McAllester. A Scot, he’s been one of the most intelligent and adventurous foreign correspondents in the world over the last decade. That earned him an uncomfortable stay in one of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, but it also brought him numerous journalism prizes (including a Pulitzer) and the material for his first two books (on Kosovo and on Iraq). Matt’s new book, out this week, is a stunning departure. “Bittersweet: Lessons from my Mother’s Kitchen” is a highly personal account of his relationship with his troubled mother—and the way his memories of her cooking helped him recover the loving, happy times before he lost her to mental illness.

How long did it take you to get published?
I’ve written three books. The proposal for the first one was rejected by every major publishing house. Finally, the wonderful New York University Press bought my proposal, which was about the war in Kosovo. I remember the moment. It was worth waiting for. Even though I’d have made more working at McDonald’s for a couple of months than I did writing that book.

Would you recommend any books on writing?
I’d mainly recommend reading brilliantly written books and then seeing if you can ever do anything that even gets close. But Orwell is the best, I think, on the process. It’s worth reading his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. “One needs rules when instinct fails,” he writes, and begins a short list of rules with the following, which I think is probably all any writer really needs to know: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

What’s a typical writing day?
I wish I had one. But it depends on what I’m writing – a book, an article or just trying to come up with an idea for either. A good writing day produces about 1,500 words. About three of which will be tolerable.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
It’s called Bittersweet: Lessons from my Mother’s Kitchen, and it’s a memoir of my mother, who died over three years ago. She had been mentally ill for much of her life so I was surprised by the awful power of her death. I scrabbled around for a way to make sense of it, to re-connect with her, and I ended up trying to teach myself to cook using her cookbooks. Along the way I learned a lot, I think. I hope the book is full of hope and laughs and moments of beauty and love, as well as the sadness that comes with illness and death.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
“It was amazing champagne.” The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. And borrowed, if I remember correctly, by Geoff Dyer in his excellent Paris, Trance. I suppose I could have fallen in love with a sentence of great profundity. But instead I’m mad about these four frivolous, air-light words of joyousness and rarity.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
There are two snatches in Brideshead Revisited that never leave me. Waugh writes of the “cloistral hush” of Oxford and then this, full of melancholy beauty, with a rhythm that any writer would dream of capturing just once: “Do you remember,” said Julia, in the tranquil, lime-scented evening, “do you remember the storm?”

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
Philip Roth, because he is almost without style these days, which I think is an act of will and humility, and suggests that he doesn’t want anything flash to get in the way of what he has to say before he dies. Which, it seems, he feels will be at any moment. Even if it’s not.

How much research is involved in each of your books?
A lot. With my Kosovo and Iraq books, I found it almost impossible to get writing until the research was nearly done. My current book was different. The book became part of the process, really, the writing and discovering and the cooking blending into each other in a way that was new to me.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?
She gave birth to me. I thought she was pretty interesting from that moment on.

What’s your experience with being translated?
It’s only happened once, in French, and was jolly nice but I was a bit surprised when my book, which was written in the past tense, appeared in the present tense in French.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
I was in San Francisco having a bagel for breakfast. Room service had brought it up. My teeth crunched down on a large chunk of metal. I was pretty annoyed. I took it down to the front desk and held it out in my palm and began to complain that I’d found it in my bagel. At which point my tongue flicked across a huge gaping hole in an uppar molar. British dentistry is, I’m afraid, lampooned in the US for a reason. I rushed off to a proper dentist between radio interviews and slurred my way through the afternoon.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
A manifesto about how we should all live and work outside. I write this while sitting in Manhattan, one of the least exterior corners of the planet, and it doesn’t really seem such a weird idea.

Next up in THE WRITING LIFE: Bangkok nightlife and the dark side of Thailand with Christopher G. Moore.

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