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Powell’s Q&A: Kate Christensen

Describe your latest book.
Blue Plate Special is the autobiography of my first half-century of life, with food as the subject. I wanted to write a food book for many years, partially in homage to the great M. F. K. Fisher, whose books had sustained me through dark and lonely times. As I started to write about food, my own life became the scaffolding and structure, since food and memory are as intertwined for me as food and language.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
In 1990, when I had just arrived in New York City as a wet-behind-the-ears 20-something girl from Arizona, I spent a year or more working as the personal secretary and secret ghostwriter to an American-born countess in her apartment on the Upper East Side. She was terrifying, fascinating, maddening, and glamorous; I was hapless, hung over, scruffy, and ambitious. That job became the inspiration for my first novel, In the Drink.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"In your memoir, no one should look like an asshole but you." – Rosie Schaap

How do you relax?
After a day of writing, I love nothing more than to go into my kitchen and start chopping onions and garlic on the way to cooking an improvised meal with whatever ingredients are on hand. Cooking is the perfect counterpoint to writing.Cooking is the perfect counterpoint to writing. I find it more relaxing than anything else, even naps, walks, or hot baths.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Living in New York City is one constant, ongoing literary pilgrimage. For 20 years, I lived among the ghosts of great writers and walked where they had walked. I passed Dawn Powell's former apartment building in the West Village. I went to a dinner party at the Edgar Allan Poe cottage in the Bronx. I drank at the White Horse to soak up any of Dylan Thomas's ghostly drunken sweat molecules that might still have been there. Whenever I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, which was often, I felt the exalted, despairing presence of Hart Crane. And Walt Whitman's ferocious grandiosity and chutzpah was everywhere.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
It was just this morning. My boyfriend, Brendan, and I are staying in a sprawling, beautiful house on a mountainside in Woodstock, New York, with a group of writer friends. We are all sitting around the big kitchen table with cups of strong coffee and have just eaten our way through a big platter of organic eggs scrambled in bacon fat with chopped parsley folded in, alongside crisp-cooked bacon and toasted sesame rolls. I'm licking bacon fat off my jowls as I type.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Sitting around a table on a summer morning with friends, eating breakfast and talking about writing and books and occasionally looking down a long meadow below the windows, where a doe is grazing with her two fawns. Adding to this perfect happiness is the knowledge that soon we'll be spending most of this very hot day by the cold, clean, tree-shaded swimming pool on the premises. Very cold bottles of wine are socked away in the fridge, and later, there will be grilled hamburgers and potato salad and kale salad, and we don't have to do anything else today but this.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Dogs. My dog in particular, but really, as a species they cannot be beat. My dog, Dingo, is a 12-year-old, beige, 45-pound, big-eared, black-eyed, soulful, yearning, former Brooklyn street dog. He possesses not one scrap of irony. He is earnestly, fearlessly passionate about everything he loves, in roughly the following order: his breakfast and dinner, treats, our table scraps when he can get them, me, Brendan, his daily long walk, sniffing other dogs' pee and peeing on it, his favorite sleeping couch, the car, coming with us in the car wherever we go even though he often has to wait there (it's his cave), and sleeping at my feet on the floor under my desk while I'm working. Through the eight years we've lived together, from his dignified and courtly example, I have learned never to apologize for feeling things as strongly as I do.

Five great books about food:
Reading about food cheers me up like nothing else. During dark nights of the soul or dark days of the heart, I cannot feel depressed or lonely when I'm reading these books:

My Life in France by Julia Child
The Kitchen Book and the Cook Book by Nicolas Freeling
The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher
Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Patterson

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Kate Christensen is the author of Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites and six novels, including The Astral. The Great Man won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has written reviews and essays for numerous publications, most recently the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Tin House, Elle, and Open City. She also has a new column in the Wall Street Journal, "With a Twist."

Books mentioned in this post

Kate Christensen is the author of Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites

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