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What I'm Giving | December 11, 2013 0 comments
In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily... Continue »
Idiot's Guide to Book Topicsby Trevor Corson
My first book, The Secret Life of Lobsters, had sold well. This was inconceivable. I'd spent years dodging the inevitable question at cocktail parties, "So, what do you do?" The answer, "Well, I'm writing a book about the sex life of a crustacean," had usually led my interlocutor directly to the topic of basketball, which I knew nothing about, because I'd spent the last three months in the zoology library reading papers such as "Urine Release in Freely Moving Catheterized Lobsters (Homarus americanus) with Reference to Male Dominance Fights and Mating Behavior."
But when The Secret Life of Lobsters was published, I discovered that sex and violence (and pissing) really do sell books. My dream had come true. Now I was in New York to talk with my editor about a second book.
At my book signings, people had already begun suggesting topics. "You should definitely do your next book on the sex life of clams." "Have you considered nematodes? They are very cool. They're basically these underwater worms." A friend of mine was already writing about slime eels, so that was out. "How about The Secret Life of Crabs?"
The secret life of crabs had been done. When I was seven years old, William Warner's 1976 book on the Chesapeake blue crab, Beautiful Swimmers, won a Pulitzer Prize. It's a sore point with me. In all of human history, only one Pulitzer is ever going to be awarded for a book about a crustacean. Under those circumstances, it doesn't seem fair that one of the two contestants got an 18-year head start.
Anyway, I had bigger plans than a book on clams, eels, or crabs. I didn't want to get typecast "Oh, look, it's Seafood Guy." After all, I was a wide-ranging journalist. In addition to my work with commercial fishermen and marine biologists, I'd spent five years living in and writing about East Asia.
Sitting in my editor's office, I tossed out a book idea about the potential for military conflict with China, then told him about the fascinating years I'd spent living in Buddhist temples in Japan, drinking single-malt Scotch with priests and learning their secrets. "There was this one priest," I said, already imagining the cover of the new book, "who got arrested after playing mahjong with the yakuza "
My editor frowned. He interrupted me. "Would all this interest readers of The Secret Life of Lobsters?"
My editor was making a point about how a writer sustains his readership, by bringing them along from one book to the next. Now it was my turn to frown. The conversation ended in a stalemate. I forced myself to think about clams.
On the bus back to Boston I felt dejected. I leaned against the window and stared into the night. My Japanese language skills alone had taken half a decade to master. I wasn't going to give in to Seafood Guy without a fight.
Sometime over the course of the next, oh, two seconds, I developed an idea for a book proposal that any idiot could have mustered: sushi. It was the obvious compromise.
Figuring out how to tell the story of sushi was more difficult. Would I focus on the natural history and marine biology of the myriad creatures that compose sushi? Or would I focus on a cast of human characters who interacted with these creatures? In The Secret Life of Lobsters I'd been able to do both but then I'd had only one critter to worry about.
I faced another conundrum. The Secret Life of Lobsters had been an American story from start to finish. Sushi is wildly popular in the United States, but ultimately it's a topic from a foreign land. I needed a way to ensure that American readers could relate to a story about a Japanese meal.
I poked around and discovered that in 1998 a sushi chef from Japan had set up an academy in Los Angeles to train sushi chefs in the U. S. Many of his students were American.
I flew out to L. A. The academy was housed in the back of a sushi restaurant near the beach. The guy who ran the place was a Japanese ex-hippie who'd arrived in the U. S. with no training. In the late seventies, he'd taught himself to make sushi on the job while serving Hollywood celebrities. He'd become one of L. A.'s hottest chefs, but now he was spiraling toward bankruptcy. The academy's chief instructor was a former competitive body-builder of Yugoslav descent who'd served time in the Royal Australian Air Force. He strutted around the classroom like a samurai drill sergeant.
The current crop of students was an odd lot, too. Five of the eight were Caucasian, two were of Southeast Asian ancestry and one had come all the way from Japan (which seemed mysterious). A couple of the students were women, including a 20-year-old Irish-Italian girl who'd never held a kitchen knife in her life. There was also a Danish beauty who'd given up a career as an actress and model to become a sushi chef. The guy from Japan turned out to be a former Japanese rock star in hiding.
I rushed to Staples and bought five blank notebooks. I hung around the sushi academy every day, and around the sushi bar and kitchen every night. I wrote down everything that everyone did and said. This went on for three months, eight or ten hours a day. In the end I filled 36 notebooks.
The classroom and sushi bar turned out to be the perfect location for combining a story about human characters with the natural history and marine biology of fish, octopuses, squid, seaweed and, yes, clams. (Still bitter about the Pulitzer Prize, I ignored the crabs.)
In addition, I dusted off my Japanese language skills. I read a couple of Japanese books on the history and culture of sushi, and became friendly enough chatting in Japanese with the Japanese chefs that they let me do things that were unheard of like stand behind the sushi bar in a chef's jacket during dinner service, in front of customers, with my pen and notebook in hand, so I could watch them work.
The book that resulted from all this is a nonfiction documentary account called The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket. It contains a compelling human drama, plus everything you never knew about sushi and the sea creatures that compose it. It's a thoroughly American story, showing how sushi has taken root in this country, but it's also a surprising food tour of Japan, and includes a visit to the world's largest fish market in Tokyo.
I'm proud of the book. And, because I was able to pursue my interests, I've reconciled myself to being Seafood Guy. For now.