My favorite book of 2011…yes, I know the year’s not over yet, but I’m pretty sure nothing I read in the next three months is going to top Aftertaste by Meredith Mileti. Page-turning story, exquisitely crafted prose, characters you want to meet…and of course, FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD! But instead of me going on about how much I love this novel (both times I read it) I thought I’d let the author speak for herself, so here is my interview with Meredith Mileti:
1. The dictionary defines Aftertaste as “what is left at the end.” How did you choose the title and what does it mean to you?
In gustatory terms an aftertaste can be good or bad, either a lovely surprise or a bitter disappointment. I think the same is true for life. Sometimes what you taste initially develops into something quite different, often revealing a surprising endnote. It seemed a nice way to describe this defining period in Mira’s life. Things don’t always turn out the way your first expect.
2. I love the way Aftertaste is constructed. Can you talk about how you devised the structure and how you fitted the story into the five courses?
I am an early morning writer, so by the time lunchtime rolls around I am ready for a break. One day during the writing of an early draft of the book, I was eating my lunch and mulling over an issue with one of the supporting characters. I thought the plot was getting too complex. I said to myself,” No, you’ve got to keep this story line simple. It is really just the side dish to the story.” It got the wheels turning. Having the meal as a framework actually helped guide the rest of the novel.
3. Mira has a theory about cooks versus bakers. Is that Mira’s theory, or yours? Which are you?
Mira’s theory is that bakers are more rule-bound than cooks. They respond to order and precision while cooks are more creative and thrive on improvisation. I think that’s a bit oversimplified. I’m actually both a cook and a baker, although I think perhaps I’m more of a natural cook. I often have trouble following directions. The exception is bread. I love making bread. In particular, I love that moment when the gluten reaches a certain level of development and you can actually feel the dough come alive under your hands. It thrills me every time.
4. At one point in the story, Mira tells us that she believes her only chance for happiness is in a kitchen, a place where things both tragic and wonderful have taken place and that it is really, the only place she knows how to be herself. Is there a room in your house where you feel most yourself?
I love my kitchen and I do feel very much myself when I’m in it. Next to my office, it’s where I spend most of my time. It’s painted orange, my favorite color and we have a big, comfy couch in there that is perfect for sprawling. I love to work in there while my husband or kids lounge around reading or chatting with me. It’s also one of my favorite spots in the house for snuggling up with a book.
5. Tell us a little bit about your process. What does a typical working day look like for you? Are you an organized, linear writer who plans everything and then writes to the plan, or do you need to discover the story through writing it?
I get up around 6, (earlier, if I’m deep into the work or if I have a looming deadline) make some coffee and settle into my office. I try not to check email or any other social media. I just dive in, and usually spend a few minutes rereading and tightening what I’ve written the day before. The first draft of Aftertaste was very much a journey of discovery. I really didn’t know the characters yet and was sometimes surprised by what they did. Subsequent drafts involved shaping and tightening the story in a much more structured, linear way. I have found that I can’t skip around and write later scenes before I’ve worked out the previous ones.
6. When I initially read Aftertaste, I could hardly believe it was a first novel. The graceful prose and spot-on pacing seem more like the work of a veteran craftsperson. How long did it take you to write the book, start to finish?
Thank you so much for the lovely compliment! I wrote the first chapter about ten years ago while I was writing my dissertation in developmental and educational psychology. I put it in the drawer and didn’t touch it for several years. Eventually, I picked it back up and began chipping away at it a couple of days a week. As you might imagine, I didn’t get too far too fast. It really took me about 3 years of full time writing and rewriting to produce the draft of Aftertaste that sold.
7. Rewriting, to me, is where the real writing comes into play. How do you view rewriting? Do you normally rewrite short sections as you go along or blast out a whole draft, then go back and revise? What kinds of ideas did you initially embrace and later drop or change?
I couldn’t agree with you more. I do some revising as I write, but most of the work takes place after I have a whole draft to work with and most of the work for me has been cutting. In early drafts I included things that as the writer I needed to know, but weren’t necessarily critical for the reader. A big part of writing a book, for me, anyway, is deciding what to leave out. I view the process of rewriting a little like sculpture. My draft is a big block of marble that contains the essential story. I have to chip away until I reveal its form and then polish and polish until, hopefully, it gleams.
8. There are some pretty specific worlds portrayed very believably in this book—the New York food scene, the business of running a restaurant, the financial machinations of the syndicate that Jake gets involved with, and of course the knowledge and sensibilities of a professional chef. Do you have personal experience with any of these métiers or how did you research them so you could write about them so convincingly?
I don’t have any personal experience working in restaurants unless you count a very brief stint as a fry cook at the campus grill during my college years. By interviewing several professional chefs and reading several non-fiction books—including Heat by Bill Buford and Michael Rhulman’s wonderful series of books (The Life of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef, etc.)— I gained some understanding about what kind of person is driven to become a chef, and what kinds of demands—physical, as well as emotional and intellectual—the work entails. And the demands are many. Early on in the writing, I took a cooking class with my father in Florence. The teacher, Sharon Oddson, was a Canadian ex-pat and chef-owner of the wonderful Trattoria Garga in Florence. She was very helpful in teaching me about what in particular in takes to be a successful woman chef. For the legal scenes and the syndicate sub-plot, I was lucky to have a built-in consultant. My husband is a partner in a big international law firm.
9. Are there any similarities between cooking a meal and writing a novel?
I think there are lots of parallels between cooking a meal and writing a book. I take great pleasure in planning a menu, determining the theme, carrying it all the way through from the start of the meal to the finish, pairing flavors, and deciding which flavor notes to draw out in each course. I followed many of the same steps in planning Aftertaste. What is the theme, and how am I going to convey it through the plot, action and characters? Which characters will provide which of the ingredients necessary for a good story and how will they work together to reinforce the theme? In order to keep things flowing in the kitchen and on the page you have to be organized. That said, I think there can also be a lot of spontaneity in both writing and cooking. Give it a taste and see what it needs. Throw in something unexpected.
10. Do you prefer to cook or eat out?
They are very different experiences for me. While I always enjoy eating interesting, well-prepared food, and everything that goes along with the experience of dining out, there is something I find deeply satisfying about cooking a meal. It’s certainly about the sensory experience of getting your hands in and preparing food, but more than that, it’s about nurturing the people you love with the gift of good food, thoughtfully and lovingly prepared. It’s one of the ways I express my feeling for my friends and family, the people I care most about.
11. I smiled when Mira talked about the celebrity interviews in the back of Bon Appetit. I used to flip straight to the back of that magazine to read that page first. So…tell us, Meredith, what three things can always be found in your refrigerator?
A jar of my homemade salad dressing, salad greens and a block of Parmigianno Reggiano. We are big salad eaters!