Spotlight: Kate Christensen on Foodies, Cougars and Making it as a Woman in the Boy’s Club of Serious Literature

Kate-Christensen

Christensen (c) Michael Sharkey

by Melissa Henderson

After devoting the first chapter of Salted’s new book column to the entire oeuvre of PEN/Faulkner award-winning novelist and all-around badass Kate Christensen, it was a no-brainer to spotlight her in our regular feature about women we think rock. And in anticipation of the forthcoming paperback launch of Christensen’s recipe-stuffed memoir, “Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites,” out May 6, this week’s Spotlight is brought to you in a delectable long-form interview, the better to be savored like, well, a fine meal.

Christensen, frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, O, Elle, the Wall Street Journal and Gilt Taste, is the author of several bitchin’ novels, a very popular blog and the aforementioned food-tastic memoir. About that. We read it, we loved it, we were moved, we were inspired—and then we just got hungry. The obvious solution was to hunt the poor woman down and wrangle a date for Long Distance Dinner & Drinks with Kate Christensen. Oysters shucked, bubbly cracked, credit card bleeding out on the cheese plate, we got our muse on the phone—and this happened.

Quick, what are you eating and drinking?

Let me just say that I’m in New Hampshire in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. I wanted oysters too, but the local market has sorry specimens at best. Instead, I’m armed with non-crunchy, phone-friendly, high-fat snacks—cheese and olives—and I have my glass of 2012 Rio Madre Rioja right at my elbow, alongside the bottle.

That’s very encouraging. OK, dirt first. Your recent interviews focus on the traumatic childhood aspect of your memoir, but I’d like to get a bit more immediate and woman-centric, if that’s cool. Like, say, the fact that your boyfriend is 20 years younger than you.

Oh, thank God! Because everyone just wants to talk about how my father hit my mother and how I was abused in high school and no one ever asks me anything about Brendan. You know, it’s curious. I feel like having a relationship with a man 20 years younger is gradually becoming less scandalous. Just in the five years we’ve been together, I’ve felt this sort of relaxation. And maybe it’s that we—to everyone who knows us—have become sort of more normal. At first, there was this sort of—I mean, a lot of my female friends were just fine with it, if a little envious—but there were other people, especially men my own age, who were just appalled. I think it showed how insecure they were with the whole situation and how they couldn’t tolerate the fact that I was actually sleeping with someone 20 years younger or more than they were and not apologizing for it. I had a friend that I’d known for a number of years who was this notorious womanizer and who had just broken up with a woman much younger than him—and not for the first time. I told him about Brendan, and I said, “I’ve just fallen madly in love with a guy, and he happens to be 27″—and I was 46 then, almost 47. My friend said, “I wouldn’t tell anyone that if I were you.”

Really? Like, just try to get away with looking younger, kinda thing?

Yeah! He said, “I don’t think you should tell anyone how young your new boy is. I wouldn’t brag about that. I think that’s kind of embarrassing.”

Did anyone bandy about the word “cougar”?

Um, yes. Oh, yeah. Brendan and I actually have this whole fantasy of a TV reality show called “Cougar Kitchen,” where he’s wearing nothing but an apron, and I’m in a negligee and smoking on the counter and bossing him around. Like, I’d say, “A fine dice—fine!”

Do you ever feel extra pressure to stave off the aging process as a result of dating a younger man?

See, nobody’s asked me about this. Like, what is it like as a woman to be with a guy who’s just coming into his prime as I’m turning 52 and arguably exiting mine? First of all, many of my literary heroines married or had love affairs with much younger men: George Sand, George Eliot, Anaïs Nin. And I always had this feeling that being a writer or a novelist was sort of an amulet, which of course is false. It’s not true, but it’s something I pull around with me to give me confidence, that the allure of the writer is so strong that men will overlook wrinkles and sags. However, that’s neither here nor there, really, because what I learned from an early age was a fear of aging, which I think all women share. But I feel like I might be more nervous about aging with a man my own age.

Why’s that?

Because the differences between Brendan and me are something that we celebrate, and it’s something that we think is really sexy.

Christensen and her beau, Brendan Fitzgerald.

Christensen and her beau, Brendan Fitzgerald. Photo by Giulia Fitzgerald.

Have you ever considered Botox or anything like that?

God, I used to obsess in my 40s about getting work done. I would Google facial fillers and laser treatments, just determined to do it. A couple of my friends did get Botox, and I was a little horrified, because my mother never got work done, and I could feel her disapproval whenever I talked about getting work done. She said, “Oh, why would you do that? Just eat right and get enough sleep. Just be yourself and they’ll love you.” And now I really believe that. The older I get, the more I feel it, and the truer it seems and the less I panic.

So that’s a no to plastic surgery?

No f–king way. No way. But I also feel like women stay younger, and men really get old. I’ve known so many older women who’ve stayed vital and interesting and sharp and good-looking and in-shape and sexy well into old age. And I have a lot of role models for that. My mother is one of them. The septuagenarian sex scene in “The Great Man” was inspired by my mother’s hot 65-year-old sex scene on a sailboat in Baja. He was a guy she had liked way back in Arizona in the ’70s, a fellow psychologist and a sweet hunk of a man. Forty years later, they’re both single finally, and he invited her down to his sailboat in the Sea of Cortez. Like, “Liz, just come down for a week. We’ll sail around, we’ll drink beer, it’ll be fun.” And they were, like, naked all week. That novel was dedicated to her, because everything I learned about aging I learned from my mother.

Wow.

Yeah.

In the wake of “Blue Plate Special,” a lot of interviews refer to you as a “foodie memoirist.” How do you feel about that and the term “foodie”?

It’s so horrible. Foodies are obnoxious. If I’m trying to do anything with food in my book, it’s to not be a foodie. I felt like I was writing the anti-food memoir in a way, because there’s so much about eating disorders and substance abuse and hunger and poverty and not knowing how to cook. It’s almost like it gives me a rash to think about food snobbery. How dare anybody be a snob about food. I mean, I get cooking as an art, and I love it. I love food as a celebration of life and the deliciousness of the concept. That’s all fine. But I just have a knee-jerk reaction, which is that I’m a girl from Arizona who grew up on hot dogs. I think the word “foodie” comes from the ’90s and that yuppie surge of baby boomer excitement about French food arriving at our heathen shores and embracing it in a way that’s all about consumption and all about snobbery and nothing really about enjoyment. It’s all about the “bestness” and who found the little artisanal shop, who knows that little restaurant that just opened around the corner.

So, if you’re not a foodie, what would you call yourself?

I’m just an eater. I’m just hungry. I like food. I don’t really care if it’s really high or low. I just want to have fun. And you can have as much fun with a hot dog as you can have with the best oyster in France.

In your memoir, you talk about body obsessions and crash diets. Has that shifted for you?

It shifted through my 30s into my 40s. And now, at the ripe old age of 51 and a half, I’ve gradually come to inhabit my body in a way that I’m comfortable with, but it’s taken decades. It’s taken a lot of ups and downs and slipping and sliding and feeling sad and feeling old. By no means do I get up in the morning and look in the mirror and love what I see, but I also forget about it for long hours during the day. I forget about what I look like. And to me, that’s freedom, to not even think about it.

What essential tips would you give a budding writer?

The thing that really rocked my world as a writer was after I had my MFA and I’d been living in New York for while and I’d been trying and trying to write—I couldn’t get anywhere, and I was writing such earnest crap. I’d thought I had to be Faulkner. And part of that was the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and part of that was me feeling my 30th birthday looming and feeling like I had to become great all of a sudden. And this pressure to be great made me unable to write anything that had any juice at all. And the writing was technically good—I wrote classic, Carver-esque stories—but they were bad. They were just bad. They didn’t have any life in them, they didn’t have any originality. I think I started to get pissed off enough in life, I felt this well of rage rising in me, and also this sort of rebellion against this good girl, earnest, mealy mouthed way of writing that I could no longer tolerate. And one day I just started writing my first novel, “In the Drink,” in this welter of, “I want to just write what I want to write.” And it felt like busting through a hymen. There was blood, there was a little pain, but it felt so good. And I was like, “Finally! I am a woman! I am a writer!” It was this moment of glorious freedom to just write whatever the f–k I wanted. And I feel like young writers should give themselves permission to be pissed off and in a bad mood and just write that. Write straight into that.

And how about trying to actually make a living at it?

Contrive to win a major literary prize? No. Be humble, actually. Pride has no place in the writing life. It’s a frequently humiliating line of work, and that won’t end. You will never be a rock star unless you’re Junot Diaz or Jhumpa Lahiri, and so few of us are. There’s always someone willing to write a nasty one-star review just for you or to call you overrated at a neighborhood barbecue or to ignore your book in a list of the best books of 2017 or… anyway, stick your neck out. Help other writers, say yes to things, become part of a writing community. We all have to stick together. And when you have friends in the business, things come your way. Being open, generous, polite and humble is always a good idea. Also, to quote Cheryl Strayed: write like a motherf—er. Write straight into what you’re most afraid to say. That will connect you with readers, and they are the whole point of the endeavor. If you want to make a living at writing, write the truth and nothing but the truth—and behave yourself at parties.

Do you ever feel it’s harder to be taken seriously as a woman writer, even one who’s won a PEN/Faulkner?

God, yes. Oh, yeah. But I think we’re on the brink of making that change. I feel like there’s been so much going on, especially on social media. There’s a huge community of women novelists, and we’re just not taking it anymore. We’re going to the streets, figuratively. We’re going to social media, which is the new “streets,” and really protesting. But I think a change is coming about. It’s like literary feminism. It’s never happened before, and there’s this thing in Elle Magazine that just came out—and I was part of it. It’s a bunch of women writers saying who they think are great women writers. And it’s this big piece in a major women’s magazine. And there’s just one after another, after another, after another of these things. I was thinking the other day, “God, if I were a male novelist, I’d be a little nervous right now. I would feel like my turf is being threatened.” Because it is. And really, it’s about time. But through my career, I’ve really felt it. I’ve really felt it. We have to work—again, it’s that old saw—so much harder to get a fraction of the respect and attention as men.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a novel about a sex-crimes investigation at a fictional boarding school in Maine, and I’m writing a non-fiction book based on M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” called “How to Cook a Moose” about food in Maine and eating at the end of the world and how we can still find joy while the world goes to s–t around us. Which is a question I’m urgently engaged with all the time.

Anything else people should know about Kate Christensen, celebrated author?

Honestly, I’m just a goofy hermit in 10-year-old boy clothes meow-singing at Brendan and calling my dog, Dingo, spacker nicknames and agonizing over my books and hoping a few readers like them.

Any meow songs in particular?

My current favorite is the theme to “Star Trek: Voyager.”

If only this were a podcast. So, what’s for dinner tonight?

The spicy chicken thighs and Japanese yam fries are in the oven, the chard’s ready to steam, the insanely addictive White Trash Fancy Sauce (tastes a bit like McDonalds’s Special Sauce) is good to go. What are you making?

Um, I’ll have what you’re having!

—————————————–

Spicy Chicken Thighs and Japanese Yam Cottage Fries with Chard and White Trash Fancy Sauce

  • 3 tbsp peanut oil
  • 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 tbsp each harissa and jerk spices, mixed
  • 2 large (or 3 medium) Japanese jams, cut into wedges
  • 1 tsp each cumin, smoked paprika, dried basil, salt and black pepper (or to taste)
  • 8 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3/4 cup chicken broth
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 bunches red chard, chopped coarsely
  • 1/2 cup each ketchup and mayonnaise

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Pour 1 tbsp peanut oil into a glass baking dish. Empty the package of chicken thighs into the dish, use a fork to coat each piece of chicken with oil, and arrange them so each piece lies flat. Sprinkle the chicken with the mixture of harissa and jerk spices. Turn the thighs in the pan with the fork, and do the same to the other sides.

Cut 2 large or 3 medium Japanese yams into wedges. Pour 2 tbsp peanut oil onto a cookie sheet. Toss the yam wedges in the oil until they’re coated. Sprinkle them with cumin, smoked paprika, dried basil, salt and black pepper. Turn the pieces, and do the same to the other side.

Bake the chicken until tender and cooked through and the yams until soft and browned on the face-down sides, about 40–45 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop 8 cloves of garlic, and put into a large pot with 3/4 cup chicken broth and 2 tbsp olive oil. Wash and chop 2 bunches of red chard. Put the chard into the pot, bring the broth to a boil, turn down the heat, cover and steam ’til done to your liking, about 8 minutes. Stir well.

In a bowl, put 1/2 cup each of ketchup and mayonnaise. Mix well. This is your White Trash Fancy Sauce. Eat the chicken and yams with this sauce, either drizzled on top or used as a dip, with plenty of chard on the side.

Serves 2 people, with plenty of leftovers.

Kate Christensen’s Book Tour Itinerary

May 2014

6 – Tulsa, OK – Booksmart Tulsa: talk/Q&A/signing
7 – Iowa City, IA – Prairie Lights: reading/Q&A/signing
8 – St. Louis, MO – St. Louis County Library: talk/Q&A/signing
12 – St. Paul, MN – Common Good Books: reading/Q&A/signing
13 – Libertyville, IL – Cook Memorial Library: talk/Q&A/signing (evening)
15 – Brooklyn, NY – Community Bookstore: in conversation w/ Rosie Schaap
20 – Bath, ME – Patten Free Library: reading/Q&A/signing
21 – Portland, ME – Portland Public Library: reading/Q&A/signing
22 – Portsmouth, NH – River Run Bookstore: reading/Q&A/signing

~

Melissa Henderson is a freelance journalist and copy hack who’s managed to crowbar stories into the Los Angeles Times; its now-defunct alt-weekly, Brand X; and various other publications no one’s ever heard of. She’s also currently v busy not working on a book of her own. In general, she responds well to threats, deadlines and people willing to pay her bar tab.

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