Let's start with full disclosure: Juliet Wittman has been contributing to Westword for decades, most recently working the theater beat. She's done much more than reporting and criticism, though; she gained acclaim for her memoir Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals, was an editor at the Boulder Camera, and taught writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. But first and foremost, she's a writer herself; at an Aspen workshop, she was told by Margaret Atwood to “go forth and write.” She did. Wittman will launch her culinary- and character-driven novel, Stocker's Kitchen, at the Boulder Book Store on February 6.
In advance of that event, we sat down with Wittman to talk about the creative process, Graham Greene and how a novel — and a writing career — gets built.
Westword: You're debuting your new novel, Stocker's Kitchen, up in Boulder this week. What was the inspiration for this novel? Where did all these characters come from?
Wittman: Some years ago, I started my writing day with a prompt from Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful Steering the Craft, something like, “Describe a chaotic scene with a lot of characters and action.” I started describing Stocker’s kitchen, and the words just flowed. I was laughing as I wrote. I enjoyed the exercise so much that I came back to it the next couple of mornings, and by then Stocker was there, almost complete as a character, though he was still in outline. I didn’t know his background or his thoughts. The first page is almost exactly what I wrote on that first morning, cleaned up just a bit.
I thought about writing a series of short pieces: Stocker Cooks a Lobster. Stocker Fires a Sous Chef. Stocker’s Daughter Comes Home. Stocker Falls in Love. I saw these as comic sketches. But though I do like irony and think I have a sense of humor, I’m not a funny writer. By the time I was wondering how someone as hard-headed and impermeable as Stocker could love and Angela was walking past his alley, the narrative was becoming shadowed.
And why set it in the world of the restaurant industry?
The restaurant setting was instinctual. I’ve always been obsessed with food — not so much with haute cuisine or what’s trendy, but with the stories food tells, the fact that a piece of food is never only itself: A pizza, potato or dumpling carries all kinds of meaning — cultural, historical, personal. Stocker knows this. And he also believes that sharing food is what makes us human. He imagines early hominids sitting around a fire, baring their teeth in a gesture that means "I am friendly. I will not attack." Stories are told there, perhaps the old people and the very young are helped or sheltered in some way, ceremonies arise, and eventually cultures and civilizations. So although Stocker’s a profane little bastard, he sees his work as sacred.
The character of Stocker probably came to me because of TV programs about obsessive, crazy chefs like Gordon Ramsay, and the wonderful arrogant protagonist played by Lenny Harry in the 1990s English sitcom Chef. I took a lot of classes in what was then the Cooking School of the Rockies and observed the action in the kitchen — where, however, all 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 intertwining. I love big cities like London and New York, the bustle and variety, and the kitchen serves as a kind of metaphor and microcosm of all that.
What’s your writing process? Every writer does it differently; what’s your approach?
I always wish I were one of those people you read about who, despite full-time jobs, are up and at their desks to write at five every morning for two or three concentrated hours. I’m a lot more sporadic. At the beginning I tend to write in short bursts — I always think about Jackson Pollock hurling paint against a wall. Sometimes I write a paragraph, sometimes a scene, sometimes just a phrase or word. As time passes — months or years — I get more and more focused, and after a while I lose myself in the story, writing for hours, trying to make out the shape, picking up a scene or piece of dialogue and putting it down somewhere else to achieve thematic and narrative unity, figuring out where I need to write a transition.
Your memoir Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals won the Colorado Book Award and was a finalist for a National Book Award. How did the process of writing a memoir differ from the process of writing Stocker’s Kitchen?
Memoir is easier because you don’t have to think up a plot. And it’s harder because you can’t make stuff up. You use fictive techniques to select and re-create scenes and dialogue. If you can take a time in your life that seemed entirely formless and chaotic when you were living through it and create structure, meaning and a kind of harmony there, you’ve accomplished what needs to be done, both for yourself and — you hope — for the reader. Still, I think novels are much, much harder. With memoir, you can assume the reader will empathize with the story to some extent because he or she will have had a similar experience or know someone who has. I don’t think many of the readers of Stocker’s Kitchen will have worked in a professional kitchen or slept curled up beside a cow. In fact, I haven’t done these things. So you have to imagine, and imagine so well that the reader can be there with you.
On a personal note, writing Breast Cancer Journal was a much more tentative experience. I didn’t really identify myself as a serious writer then, or even know if I was capable of producing around 300 pages. I’d tell myself every morning, 'Just write something, even if it’s rubbish. Just put words on paper.' The goal isn’t to write a good book, just to end up with a pile of pages. That freed things up a bit.
Much of your writing history is in journalism; can you talk about how that sort of writing shows up in more creatively focused work? Did that experience inform what you're doing now in ways that surprised you?
I did worry for a while that newspaper writing would ruin my prose— I’d get too attached to snappy short sentences and instant readability — but now it seems to me that those things just represent more tools in the toolbox. It’s interesting to alternate short and snappy with long, run-on sentences, brief scenes with long ones.
Plus writing a lot — and having to write to deadline — is like practicing five-finger exercises on the piano or working at the bar for dancers. It hones mind and body. The more you write, the better you get, unless you get lazy and start tossing things off without any thought.
As a reporter, I’ve interviewed politicians, prisoners, chefs, 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 story The Third Man is one of my favorites, both in book form as well as movie. What influences can you see from Greene in your writing?
I loved him. Graham Greene opened up 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 bombardment. Atmosphere, and murky politics. Also Vienna. I actually heard the zither player with his haunting music from the film The Third Man one summer in Kitzbuhel.
I found his rather jaundiced view of the world convincing, and though I’m not religious, his ideas about Catholicism moved and astonished me: the alcoholic whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory who risked his life to bring the mass to people in a place where Catholics were persecuted, and through whose tainted voice and body grace could still flow; the young ruffian in Brighton Rock, who slashed people with razor blades but clung to the hope of redemption he found in the couplet “Between the saddle and the ground/ He mercy sought and mercy found.” I’ve never thought of this before, but so many of Greene’s protagonists were heavy with sin, and so much of his thinking was about evil and redemption — and I do see a connection there with Stocker.
You've taught writing at CU. What's the lesson about writing that you try hardest to communicate to your students?
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The thing I cared most about was students finding something they really wanted and needed to express, and then expressing it with all the honesty and eloquence they could muster. I wanted their writing to be free, daring, but also disciplined. We often spent a couple of class periods with George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, because I like concision, brevity, straightforwardness and lack of pretension. Also, everything he has to say about the way language can be used to distort reality in politics is so utterly relevant today.
You grew up in London. What brought you to Colorado, and what's made you stay?
I loved London, and I still do. It was the most wonderful place to grow up, even during the gray post-war years, and even when you didn’t have much money. My widowed mother remarried when I was seventeen, and we came to the 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 I’ve now lived here my entire adult life.
I came to Boulder for graduate school and met my husband, a true Coloradan, here. I can’t say I fell in love with the town instantly, but Boulder is very seductive and very beautiful.
Juliet Wittman will be at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street in Boulder, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 6. Admission is $5, which gets you a voucher that can be used to buy Stocker's Kitchen or make any other purchase at the store that day. For more information, call 303-447-2074 or go to boulderbookstore.net.