Describe your latest project.
My new novel, Tomato Rhapsody, is a romantic fable about a Jewish-Italian tomato farmer in 16th-century Tuscany who shares a forbidden love with the step-daughter of the town's evil olive farmer. However, the novel's more than just a Shakespearean-like romp. Over the course of the tale, the whole history of the tomato is revealed, from Columbus's expedition in the New World where the tomato was discovered and how it made its way to Italy ? in ways both true and not so true. Eventually, a whole village gets involved, including the Duke of Tuscany, a magical, eggplant-colored priest, and a one-testicle'd tavern keep.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
In the early autumn of 1995, I went to Italy to pick grapes. I had been working as a chef at a swanky NYC catering company called Glorious Food, and the owner of the company hooked me up with a friend who swore that his cousin in Italy owned some of the finest vineyards in all of Lazio (the region around Rome). Well, I was 25 and up for the adventure, so I flew to Rome where this friend's distant cousin picked me up at the airport, polite but entirely baffled as to why I would have flown halfway round the world to work at the third-rate vineyard of his uncle who grows grapes for an industrial winemaker in a rather unremarkable region of Lazio ? FOR FREE!
We all know that life can be ironic and serendipitous and often reward great leaps of faith, and that's exactly what occurred. My time working at that funky little vineyard was among the best three weeks of my life. We picked grapes, sang Italian folk songs, broke every two hours to drink espresso and eat pastries and Panini, and finished work by one in the afternoon. (I even got to take part in a huge local wedding.) Yes, the wine was crap and gave me a prodigious headache, but the region's olive oil was unreal! When I left, my still baffled but delighted hosts gave me about 10 liters of home-pressed oil in plastic Coke bottles to take home.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
Well, as a general rule, I think it all depends on whom you‘re lying to. As a husband who often lies to his wife, or tries to (small stuff, nothing scandalous ? believe me), I can tell you first-hand that no married man I know can lie effectively to his wife. Oh, a wife may choose to ignore the lie, but they always know. They always know. Outside of spousal relationships, I would think that writers, writers of fiction, at least, might have the upper hand when it comes to mendacity. Especially if they have time to prepare their lie. I mean, what is good fiction but a lie well told? However, if it's a spontaneous lie, all bets are off; it's anyone's game.
Personally, I'm a huge fan of lying ? just try cross-referencing some of my novel's footnotes ? and I do it all the time. The harmless lie, that is. The kind of lie that is meant to be quickly uncovered and reveal a laugh. I assure my friends about information of which I have no expertise or true insight, I never give the correct score to any kind of sporting event, I make up reviews to movies I have never seen, and I pretend to be “just fluent enough” to translate foreign languages for the benefit of my company.
How do you relax?
Relax? I have an eight-month-old baby. Need I say more? I do take Fridays off to mountain bike ride with some buddies, but I'm usually so guilt-ridden about leaving the wife to mind the baby solo while I scurry off with my crew of marginally employed friends, that the whole affair ends up being quite contrary and worrisome for me. As a longtime yoga teacher and practitioner, I do try to meditate and do some yoga on a near-daily basis.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell was the best book I've read recently, and it was put into my hands by my father. It's wonderful, and I found Gladwell's examination of the hidden factors of success to be very beneficial for new parents like my wife and me. I read it because my dad asked me to and I so rarely do anything my dad asks of me ? from studying Talmud to reading the Wall Street Journal ? that reading Gladwell's bestselling new book seemed an easy way to assuage some guilt and make my dad happy.
Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Ah, man, this is about the hardest question in the world for a guy like me. But if I were to ignore it, I couldn't live with myself. There are so many that come to mind. There's a hotel in Chang Mai, Thailand, called the D2, a very W Hotel-like kind of place, that serves the most delicious breakfast buffet, the perfect amalgam of West and East. Great coffee, incredible fruits (Have you ever tasted fresh mangosteen?!!!), smoked salmon, and poached eggs. But it was how those Western foods combined with the traditional Thai breakfast ? noodle dishes like pad Thai, fried rice with vegetables and fish sauce, topped with a fried egg ? that made it all so delicious. Fish sauce for breakfast? Oh, it was heaven!
Short of a 17-hour plane flight, a six-hour drive by car offers up another delicious breakfast. On the Pacific Coast Highway, in the middle of Big Sur, there's a small joint called the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant, and damn if it's not everything one could ever hope to find in even their most idealized vision of Big Sur. Pastries straight out of France, muffins like the neighbor of your dreams might have made, a frittata worthy of a village cafe in Sicily, and coffee, well, coffee served with all the eco-organic-fair-trade-shade-grown-arabica goodness that one would imagine from well-cultured hippies living in Big Sur. All that and the smell of pine and sea infusing the morning fog and a giant redwood tree beside your outdoor table.
What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Benign, boring, even a bit of a cliché, but I'm kind of a spa whore, especially if it involves a natural hot spring. What is interesting, perhaps, and certainly more indulgent, is all the accoutrement I bring to a spa. Honestly, it scares and intimidates my more macho straight friends. I'll bring half a dozen essential oils for the sauna, Himalayan salt body scrub, Aztec healing clay and apple cider vinegar for mixing up a facial mud mask, and three liters of water infused with holy basil, lemon, and agave. If I'm laying down 25 to 50 bucks for a shvitz (that's Yiddish for sweat), I want to do it right.
Why do you write?
Because it beats picking beans or stretching out rich folks in Beverly Hills. I spent a lot of my life working in kitchens in New York City and, after that, teaching yoga in L.A., and let me tell you, while both those careers offered their rewards, writing is simply a better life.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five books that integrate comedy, absurdity, tragedy, and a touch of magic realism that have over the years inspired me:
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Louis de Bernières's South American trilogy: The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman.