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Powell's Q&A

Mark Kurlansky

Describe your latest project.
The Big Oyster is the story of a city. Though no one thinks of it this way, New York city was built on the site of a natural wonder, the estuary of the Hudson river. The fact that all the waters surrounding all five boroughs and the other islands such as Ellis, Liberty, and Governor's were all rich in natural oyster beds is only one example of the tremendous riches of the area. When Europeans first came to the area they found an indigenous culture enjoying oysters. The Europeans did the same and throughout New York history oysters played an important role in commerce and culture. The city developed unique styles of oyster eateries and oyster markets including the floating markets on the rivers. Everyone who visited New York talked about the oysters. Dickens, Gogol, José Martí, and Willa Cather were among the many writers who visited and then wrote about the oysters and oyster culture. The only problem was the notion that garbage and sewage could be disposed of by putting it out of sight. Out of sight was in the water, and few thought of what this meant to the oysters, not to mention the fish. In 1927 the last oyster bed was closed by health authorities and New Yorkers have been struggling to get them back ever since.

The Big Oyster — through oysters — tells the story of the growth and development of New York City. It has the peculiar distinction of being a book about both food and raw sewage disposal, a dubious combination. It tells much about the development of the city — its commerce, markets, restaurants, eating habits — and questions the way in which cities are developed. And there are historic New York oyster recipes.


  1. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell
    $8.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

  2. Salt: A World History
    $9.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Salt: A World History

    Mark Kurlansky

  3. 1968: The Year That Rocked the World
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Gather It All Now, Sort It Out Later: The Mark Kurlansky Story

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
I've always wanted to go out with Anna Karenina. The married thing is a drag. Oblonsky is definitely a drag. But there is something very sexy about her, the way she cannot control her passions. I would be a lot nicer to her kids than Vronsky was. And probably in the end she would just turn out to be this rich spoiled married lady, and that is boring — there's the tragedy.

What section of the newspaper do you read first?
The first section of the newspaper I read during baseball season is the standings. The rest of the year I start on the front page. But then, often, it will have a picture of George Bush which is no way to start your day, so I turn quickly.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
I used to love breakfast in Jamaica. That stong gold sun just beginning to warm up while you eat ackee and saltfish with a touch of pepper and papaya and lime, bamie and johnnycakes and... But then again, a good espresso and apple strudel make me very happy.

Why do you write?
Since on most days I spend ten hours or more doing it, I have often asked myself why I write. I have always written, long before I had any readers, starting at about the age of ten. As best I can understand it, I am enjoying a conversation that I have with myself. It is clear to me that writing is about being alone, about wanting to be alone, about craving your own company. Strange, isn't it?

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I have had tremendous conversations with Vietnam vets. Though I was always adamantly against the war I knew many people, friends, who went. It was a dialogue that in time ended, but after my book 1968 came out, Vietnam vets would come up to me after talks, or they'd read the book and would contact me and we'd have these conversations, the draftee and the draft resister. I came to find our views so remarkably similar and full of sadness.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I am very influenced by painters. Matisse could express so much by choosing a few very clear straightforward lines. And his paintings have so much power because he broke all the rules of color. Some composers also, especially Bach who showed the thrilling beauty of perfect mathematical form. spacer

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