Juliet Wittman on Stocker’s writing, inspiration and cooking


Let’s start with full disclosure: Juliet Wittman helped Westword for decades, more recently working the rhythm of the theater. However, she did more than report and criticize; she was acclaimed for her memoir Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals, was an editor at Boulder Camera, and taught writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. But above all, she herself is a writer; during a workshop in Aspen, Margaret Atwood told him to “go ahead and write”. She did it. Wittman will launch his character-driven, culinary novel, Storage kitchen, at the Boulder Book Store on February 6.

Ahead of this event, we sat down with Wittman to talk about the creative process, Graham Greene, and how a novel – and a career as a writer – is built.

Word from the West: You are starting your new novel, Storage kitchen, in Boulder this week. What was the inspiration for this novel? Where do all these characters come from?

Wittmann: A few years ago I started my writing day with a guest from the wonderful book of Ursula Le Guin Leading craftsmanship, something like “Describe a chaotic scene with a lot of characters and action.” I started to describe Stocker’s cuisine, and the words flowed. I laughed as I wrote. I enjoyed the exercise so much that I came back to it the next two mornings, and by that point, Stocker was there, almost complete as a character, even though he was still in outline. I didn’t know his past or his thoughts. The first page is almost exactly what I wrote that first morning, cleaned up just a bit.

I thought about writing a series of small pieces: Store cooks a lobster. Stocker dismisses a deputy. Stocker’s daughter comes home. Stocker falls in love. I saw them as comedy sketches. But although I love irony and think I have a good sense of humor, I am not a funny writer. As I wondered how someone as stubborn and impervious as Stocker could love and Angela walked past her driveway, the narrative grew murky.

And why place him in the restaurant business?

The restaurant setting was instinctive. I’ve always been obsessed with food – not so much haute cuisine or whatever is all the rage, but with the stories that food tells, the fact that a piece of food is never just itself: a pizza, a potato or a dumpling has all kinds of meanings – cultural, historical, personal. Store knows it. And he also believes that sharing food is what makes us human. He imagines the first hominids sitting around a fire, baring their teeth in a gesture that means “I’m friendly. I won’t attack.” Stories are told there, perhaps the old and the very young are helped or accommodated in some way or another, ceremonies arise, and possibly cultures and civilizations. So although Stocker is a secular little bastard, he considers his work sacred.

The character of Stocker probably came to me because of TV shows about obsessive, mad bosses like Gordon Ramsay, and the wonderful arrogant protagonist played by Lenny Harry on the 1990s English sitcom. Chief. I took many classes at what was then the Cooking School of the Rockies and watched the action in the kitchen – where, however, all of the chefs were quite sane.

So much goes on in a professional kitchen, so many tasks, so many complicated calculations, so many very different lives intertwined. I love big cities like London and New York, the hustle and bustle and variety, and the food is kind of a metaphor and microcosm of it all.

Click to enlarge COURTESY OF JULIETTE WITTMAN

What’s your writing process? Each writer does it differently; what is your approach?

I always wish I had been one of those people you read who, despite having full-time jobs, is up and at their desks writing at five in the morning for two or three concentrated hours. I am much more sporadic. At first I tend to write in small bursts – I always think of Jackson Pollock throwing paint against a wall. Sometimes I write a paragraph, sometimes a scene, sometimes just a sentence or a word. As time goes by – months or years – I focus more and more, and after a while I get lost in the story, writing for hours, trying to distinguish form, taking a scene or a piece of dialogue and putting it somewhere if not to achieve thematic and narrative unity, figuring out where I need to write a transition.

Your memory Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals won the Colorado Book Award and was a finalist for a National Book Award. How does the process of writing a dissertation differ from the process of writing Stocker Kitchen?

Memory is easier because you don’t have to imagine a plot. And it’s harder because you can’t make things up. You use fictional techniques to select and recreate scenes and dialogue. If you can take a moment in your life that felt totally formless and chaotic when you lived it and create structure, meaning and kind of harmony in it, you have accomplished what needs to be done, both for you. – even and – you hope – for the reader. Still, I think novels are much, much more difficult. With memoirs, you can assume that the reader will sympathize with the story to some extent because they have had a similar experience or know someone who has gone through it. I don’t think many readers of Stocker Kitchen will have worked in a professional kitchen or slept curled up next to a cow. In fact, I didn’t do these things. So you have to imagine, and imagine so well that the reader can be there with you.

On a personal note, write Breast Cancer Journal was a much more temporary experience. I didn’t really identify as a serious writer at the time, nor even if I was able to produce around 300 pages. I was like every morning, ‘Just write something, even if it’s rubbish. Just put words on paper. The point is not to write a good book, just to end up with a pile of pages. It freed things up a bit.

Much of your writing history is in journalism; can you talk about how this kind of writing manifests itself in more creative work? Did this experience influence what you do now in a way that surprised you?

I feared for a while that newspaper writing would ruin my prose – I would stick too much to short sentences and instant readability – but now it seems to me that these things are just more tools in the box. tools. It is interesting to alternate short and catchy sentences with long lines that follow one another, short scenes with long scenes.

Plus, writing a lot – and having to write on time – is like practicing five-finger exercises on the piano or working at the dance bar. It refines the mind and the body. The more you write, the better off you feel, unless you get lazy and start throwing things away without thinking.

As a journalist, I have interviewed politicians, prisoners, leaders, immigrants, and soldiers, and learned so much about other lives. It’s always important to get out of your own head sometimes and look through someone else’s eyes.

You mention Graham Greene as one of your influences. His history The third man is one of my favorites, both in book and movie form. What influences do you see from Greene in your writing?

I liked it. Graham Greene opened the world to a rather lonely child, and I learned from him about Haiti, Vietnam and life in my own city, London, during the Nazi bombing. Confused atmosphere and politics. Vienna too. I actually heard the zither player with his haunting music from the movie The third man a summer in Kitzbühel.

I found his somewhat yellowish worldview convincing, and although I am not religious, his ideas about Catholicism moved and amazed me: the alcoholic priest of the whiskey in Power and Glory who risked his life to bring mass to people in a place where Catholics were persecuted, and by the voice and body of grace from which could still flow; the young thug in Brighton Rock, who slashed people with razor blades but clung to the hope of redemption he found in the verse “Between the saddle and the ground / He sought mercy and found mercy”. I’d never thought of it before, but so many of Greene’s protagonists were laden with sin, and a lot of his thinking was about evil and redemption – and I see a connection with Stocker.

You taught writing skills at CU. What is the writing lesson you try to communicate the most to your students?

The thing that interested me the most was for the students to find something that they really wanted and needed to express, and then expressed it with all the honesty and eloquence they could muster. I wanted their writing to be free, bold, but also disciplined. We often spent a few periods of lessons with George Orwell Politics and English language, because I like conciseness, brevity, frankness and lack of pretension. Moreover, anything he has to say about how language can be used to distort reality in politics is very relevant today.

You grew up in London. What brought you to Colorado and what made you stay?

I loved London, and I still love it. It was the most wonderful place to grow up, even in the gray postwar years, and even when you didn’t have much money. My widowed mother remarried when I was seventeen, and we came to the United States to join my stepfather, who was a professor of engineering at the University of Delaware. The culture shock was intense. But when I returned to England three years later, I didn’t feel at home there either. I came back and have now lived here my entire adult life.

I came to Boulder for my graduate studies and met my husband, a true coloradian, here. I can’t say I fell in love with the city instantly, but Boulder is very alluring and very beautiful.

Juliet Wittman will be at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street in Boulder, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 6. Admission is $ 5, which gives you a voucher that can be used to purchase S
tocker kitchen or make any other purchase at the store that day. For more information, call 303-447-2074 or visit boulderbookstore.net.


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