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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »

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Cooking for Harry

Cooking for Harry Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

A CONVERSATION WITH KAY-MARIE JAMES

Q: A note in your biography says that you wrote Cooking for Harry for your best friend, who was struggling financially. Which came first, the specific idea for Cooking for Harry, or helping your friend? How did the two ideas merge?

A: The two ideas occurred pretty much simultaneously, though

it’s hard to re-create, exactly, how it all came about. Basically, I

had a book on the New York Times list, and my first big check

had just come in. My friend had recently given birth to her first

child—my first and only godchild—and she was trying to figure

out how she could afford to be a full-time mom. We were

having one of those late night, best friend phone conversations,

with lots of long pauses in which no one says anything and yet,

somehow, everything gets said. My friend didn’t want to simply

take money from me, and I wanted to do something for her and

the baby. Finally, we agreed that I’d write a book, something

easy and breezy and quick, using elements from her life, and in

return, she’d accept 50 percent of all royalties. We hatched the

plot together over the next few days, and I wrote the book in

three months.

Why the anonymity? A writer’s greatest challenge is finding

a balance between actually writing—the clean, quiet space

one needs to create art—and all the resulting promotional

obligations: interviews, book tours, questionnaires like this

one. Some people are good at maintaining this balance. I

am not. The thought of having to do yet another book tour

was simply overwhelming. And my friend, who really is a

physical therapist in Pittsburgh, was concerned that everybody

would think she, too, had run off with a handsome doctor.

(She has not. Nor have I, alas. In fact, I haven’t even been on a

cruise.)

Q: Cooking for Harry is a lot of fun to read. Did writing it pseudonymously allow you to have more fun with the writing process than you normally do? Was it easier to write under the cover of a fictional name? Did it make you want to write more books pseudonymously? Was there an ease or freedom in this process that might find its way in your other writing?

A: As I said, I wrote this book in three months. Typically, the socalled

literary novels I write take anywhere from two to four

years to complete. This is because they are considerably more

complex, both in terms of the language they use and the multilayered

stories they tell. Cooking for Harry is a straightforward

romp, narrated by a person who wouldn’t blush if someone

pointed out that the story of her husband’s diet, and its effects

on their marriage, isn’t exactly on par with the woes of Anna

Karenina. This, rather than anonymity, was what made the

book fun to write. Everything was plot, plot, plot, with lots of

little curlicues of humor woven in. At the same time, perhaps

because of my background as a literary writer, I came to care

deeply about Francie—who is, after all, patterned somewhat on

my friend—and I wanted to present her as a fully-rounded character,

a living, breathing person, instead of merely a frazzled

mother, a frustrated wife.

Q: However light-hearted, Cooking for Harry is an accurate

portrait of a family that has slowly veered off into dysfunction.

There’s an “elephant in the living room,” a problem that has

been gingerly stepped around and cannot be stated. That is,

until a talking appliance comes into the home. The scale is one

of my favorite characters in the book. How did you ever think

“her” up?

A: I’m married to a computer geek, whose definition of “light

reading” is an algorithm textbook. He’s particularly interested

in “AI”—if you’re a geek, you know better than to actually

articulate the words “artificial intelligence”—and though I

myself am not particularly interested in AI, Bots, Worms, and

other technological horrors, I apparently picked up enough over

the years to invent the New You Digital Scale.

Q: All families are, of course, at least a little dysfunctional. But

Harry and Francie’s family, which still seems very loving, does

seem to be approaching a crisis, along with Harry’s weight.

Amber’s intimate relationship keeps blowing up and her empathy

is faulty; Jason has become a real rescuer and caretaker; and

Francie herself is an enabler. How much of the kids’ traits do

you think can be related to their father’s unspoken problem?

And to their parents’ relationship dynamics?

A: As you mention earlier, there is an elephant in the Kligler living

room, and it’s inevitable that, after years spent walking on

tiptoe, members of the family will move through the world in a

way that is slightly off-balance. I think the kids’ traits are like

the traits of people in general; it’s hard to separate nature from

nurture, though, clearly each influences the other. Except in the

case of Amber. Amber, I think, would be Amber even if she’d

been raised in the desert by a convent of nuns.

Q: Francie, as the narrator, is very engaging and funny, but she’s

also part of the problem, and at times a little self-justifying, even

borderline unreliable. Was she difficult to write, or did she write

herself? Did you, as the author, like her every step of the way?

A: I didn’t find Francie difficult to write because I knew that her

love for Harry was sincere, a quality I can respect. And since I

was writing a romantic novel, I knew that her sincerity would

have to be rewarded, in order to create a satisfying closure. I

don’t think I like or dislike any of my characters. It’s more that

I feel I understand them better, at times, than I do at other times.

In a well-written book of any genre, the writer understands his

or her characters even when the characters don’t understand

themselves.

Q: Harry is a man who, when he starts to become self-aware,

turns away from his wife and toward another woman. How did

you feel about how Harry conducted his diet and himself?

A: Again, thinking about understanding—as opposed to judging—

a character, I guess I thought about how his relationship with his

weight, his body, his manhood, must have been arrested somewhere

in adolescence. It isn’t a grown man who responds to

Krys Palcek’s advances; it’s the boy who was never picked for

the team, the kid who stayed home on prom night to watch TV

with his parents, the guy who sat in the college cafeteria, laughing

and nodding as the other guys talked about their weekend,

all the while shoving doughnuts into his mouth. So it’s not surprising

that Harry finds himself tempted when, for the first time,

women start looking at him not for who he is, as a person, but

for what he looks like, as a man. It’s also not surprising that,

ultimately, he returns to Francie—and she to him—because,

underlying everything, the two of them are best friends, have

been best friends, for a long, long time. You can find sexual

attraction just about anywhere, but an enduring, sustaining

friendship—that is, a strong marriage—is precious, a gift.

Q: I laughed out loud at the way Harry’s family and friends all

feel free to add their own two cents about dieting—“Diets don’t

work,” they tell Harry, and “live large,” and “doctors don’t know

squat.” What is this impulse that people have to undercut our

efforts? How do we humans ever survive our friends’ advice?

A: Isn’t it the truth? And especially when it comes to comments

about emotionally-charged issues like eating habits and body

image. Everybody who loves us—parents, children, spouses,

friends—feels, at some level, that their love gives them a particular

claim upon our physical selves. Therefore, if we attempt

to alter that physical self in any way, say, by getting a haircut,

buying new clothes, or going on a diet, everyone who loves us

leaps forward with a comment that has more to do with their

relationship to us, their sense of entitlement to the bodies we

inhabit, than to any exterior reality. You lose ten pounds, put on

a terrific dress, and your mother says, “Are you okay? You’re

looking so gaunt. You’re working too hard.” You paint your

toenails, and your husband says, “That color reminds me of

kumquats. I don’t like kumquats. Are you trying to tell me

something?”

I mean, Yeesh.

Q: This book is filled with facts and expertise about dieting and

gourmet cooking. Which was more amusing and/or compelling

to research: dieting, or gourmet cooking? Which was more fun

to describe: diets, or food? Did you find out anything about dieting

that particularly surprised or enlightened you?

A: I hate to cook. My friend hates to cook. Fortunately, we married

men who love to cook, men who kindly but firmly removed

the whisks from our hands as soon as we were married. Men

who, loving to cook, have battled the bulge, so to speak, all

their lives, and with varying degrees of success and failure.

Five years ago, when my husband went on the Atkins Diet,

he lost forty pounds. When my friend told her husband—let’s

call him “Joe”—about my husband, what Joe heard was that

my husband had lost forty pounds eating bacon, and so Joe

promptly began to fry up a pound of bacon for breakfast every

morning. When I told my husband about Joe and his bacon, he

(my husband) began to fry up a daily pound of bacon of his

own. Of course, he began to gain weight again; Joe, who was

eating bagels with his bacon, was putting on weight by the

stone. My friend and I were putting on weight because who can

resist the smell of frying bacon? Eventually, however, we all got

sick of bacon, and everybody’s weight went back to normal—

for better or worse.

What is the point of this seemingly pointless tale? The point

is that there was very little research required for this book

because, between my husband and my friend’s husband, there is

always a man in our lives who is trying to lose weight. Flannery

O’Connor once said that anyone with a childhood has enough

material to write fiction. Kay-Marie James says that anyone

with a dieting husband has enough material to write just about

anything.

Q: Changing one’s diet really is changing one’s entire life. Did

you know when you started writing this book how each of the

characters would change? Did any of them surprise you in any

way?

A: My friend and I mapped out the general arc of the novel

together, so I knew, from the start, the general trajectory of

Harry and Francie’s fallout and reconciliation. I also knew that,

this being a romantic comedy, any relationships that cropped up

in the course of writing Cooking for Harry would have to be

resolved pleasantly, in order for the reader to be satisfied. This

is quite different from the writing I’ve done before, which has

been more “literary” in nature and, therefore, tends to reflect

more accurately the casual brutalities and unanswered questions

of real life. I guess my biggest surprise was how well Francie’s

neighbors came together as a neighborhood, and also, how

large a role Francie’s mother came to play during the worst day

of Francie’s life. Originally, I’d conceived the mother merely as

a voice on the phone. It was my friend’s suggestion to have her

arrive for Jason’s graduation, where everybody got to know her

better, much better—in some cases, in fact, a little too well!

Q: It seemed very chancy for Harry and Francine’s marriage for

Francie to take a cruise with Tommy Choi. Did you know the

fate of her marriage when you sent her on that cruise? Do you

think that calm seas might have yielded a different ending for

Harry and Francie?

A: As far as Francie is concerned, her marriage is already over

by the time she boards the Czarina with Tommy Choi. But I

knew I’d have to find a way to foil any significant romantic attempts

between them, and since I myself get queasy floating on

a raft in a swimming pool, the solution wasn’t difficult to find.

Q: Cooking for Harry is just the book to give to people on a

diet: It’s amusing, it’s chockful of facts, it lightly but intelligently

maps the emotional territory of dieting. Have you invented a

new form—the self-help novel?

A: I love it! Academics claim Henry James as the father of the

modern novel; I find a satisfying synchronicity in naming Kay-

Marie James the mother of the self-help novel. And if you like

reading well-written stories about the relationship between life

and food, Ruth Reichl’s memoirs are wonderful. Also the opening

chapter of Carol Shield’s terrific novel, The Stone Diaries, will

make your mouth water even as it breaks your heart.

Q: Will Kay-Marie James be writing any other novels? Do you

have any other alter egos clambering for pseudonymous page

space? Do you recommend the pseudonymous experience to

other writers?

A: I have actually begun a second Kay-Marie James novel, though

it is on the back burner right now, as I focus on finishing something

of my own. I have many alter egos as, I suspect, most writers

do, but the issue, of course, is time. I’m married, I’m a

mother of a young child, I live close to my extended family, I try

to maintain some semblance of an intellectual relationship with

the publishing world through reviewing and promoting the works

of upcoming writers. Every day, there’s another small fire to put

out: somebody is sick, the car needs an oil change, I have to feed

my mom’s cats while she’s out of town. These things all take a

toll on alter egos, on egos in general. Maybe when I’m in my

eighties, I’ll have time for that Stephen King–style horror novel

I’ve always wanted to write.

Okay, maybe not.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780345453716
Subtitle:
A Novel
Publisher:
Ballantine Books
Author:
James, Kay-Marie
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Cookery
Subject:
Reducing diets
Subject:
Weight Loss
Subject:
Cooks
Subject:
Married people
Subject:
Domestic fiction
Subject:
Overweight men
Subject:
General Fiction
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
03-5
Publication Date:
20041228
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
8.08x5.24x.57 in. .40 lbs.

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Cooking for Harry
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