Week 33, add oil

Design for a Stage Set #1

Eugène Cicéri, Design for a Stage Set, 1830–90

The beloved restaurant Flora in Oakland has a book club; each selection is discussed over a special dinner designed by the restaurant’s executive chef, Rebecca Boice. Well, the book mostly recently selected was my novel Sourdough, and last week, I attended the dinner!

It. Was. Astonishing.

Look at this menu

(That image is linked to a big-ish version, so you can click it and see the text more clearly if you like.)

Going in, I was full of questions. What were we going to eat? How do you even go about constructing a menu around, or about, a book?? The meal I encountered at Flora that night was so clever and appealing, and so perfectly Sourdough, that I decided to follow up with Rebecca in order to learn a little more about how it all came together.

Briefly, an annotated menu:

Course #1

Rebecca baked the sourdough for this spread herself—her first time!—and she did it using King Arthur starter purchased online. Just like Lois, she played music for her new accomplice. Is this the first menu in history to specify the soundtrack that the sourdough’s starter enjoyed?

Course #2

Rebecca said that, within the first few pages of the novel, she knew she was going to have to try to recreate “the double spicy.” She read closely, searching for clues. She thought Beo’s culture and cuisine felt, in some ways, Greek; in other ways, Eastern European. The mash-up of flavors suggested trade routes; she thought of Istanbul.

Soups at Flora often use a parmesan stock, but Rebecca didn’t think that was anything the Mazg could have produced on their rocky little island. Then, reading the scene with the cave, and the weird wobbling fungus, she found her strategy. Roasted mushrooms supplied the soup’s savoriness.

The accompanying sandwich was, Rebecca said, the menu’s most significant challenge. It had to be spicy… and vegetarian… and red? But then, she said, she remembered: there are no actual rules. So, she just had fun with it. The spicy h’rous sauce was totally new to me; Rebecca explained that it’s made by fermenting peppers and onions with turmeric, for days!

Course #3

Mt. Lassen, way up north near Redding, Califorina, raises farmed trout: homage to the tube-fish of the Marrow Fair. The tomato salad—a mix of many different varieties—was a nod to Horace’s insistence that “nothing is natural!” Tomatoes are a talisman of California summer; they’re also a product of empire, economics, and, ahem, hella genetics. The tomatoes we eat in the U.S. today have made an incredible circuit, from pre-Columbian America to Europe and back, changing at every step of the way. Nothing is natural.

Course #4

If you’ve had pavlova, you know it has a crunchy/spongy texture that matches the novel’s description of… can you guess? This was Jaina Mitra’s Lembas! Except, tasty.

What you can’t know, just from reading this menu, is that these particular pavlovas were WILD constructions, intentionally globular and explosive. This was Flora’s interpretation of the novel’s great “airborne edible event” and honestly, they matched my imagination exactly. The plate looked like a freeze-frame from an ideal movie adaptation.

I’ve focused on the menu here, because I found it such an impressive act of imagination and adaptation. I should add, however, that the book club itself was delightful! Flora was filled that night with interesting people, and they had interesting questions. It was an honor to go from table to table and chat while people ate and drank and enjoyed themselves.

Design for a Stage Set #2

Eugène Cicéri, Design for a Stage Set, 1830–90

Separately, and with mildly uncanny timing, another work of mine was adapted into a very different medium.

The actor and playwright Alex Moggridge teaches high school students in an amazing summer theater program at Berkeley Rep. A few months back, he emailed to ask if it would be okay to adapt my short story “The Writer & the Witch” for those students, on that stage.

Um. Yes. That would be extremely okay.

On Friday night, Kathryn and I found our seats in the theater among all the parents of the actors—a big crowd—and enjoyed three short plays, each about forty minutes long, each with a cast of about a dozen teenagers.

“The Writer & the Witch,” here retitled The Patient Watcher, was the last play presented. The actors wore simple costumes—a few well-chosen capes—and used just a handful of props. There were two or three potent music cues. Nothing else.

The play was amazing. Kaleidoscopic. Alex’s adaptation broadened the story, opened it up, providing more lines for more actors. Characters who are only implied in the text—monks, merchants, secret police—emerged on the stage and became totally human. Two forest monks who revere the cursed writer’s stoicism were the show’s comic stars; they threw themselves onto the ground before him with hilarious enthusiasm (and several loud thuds).

“Great supplication!” one monk whispered to the other.

“I thought so, too,” the other replied.

I’m going to sound like a dork who barely ever sees any theater, because I’m a dork who barely ever sees any theater: do you guys REALIZE what you can DO in this MEDIUM?

My short story goes heavy on fable-y narration and, walking into the theater, I wondered how Alex would compensate for the lack of an all-seeing, all-knowing storyteller’s voice. Here’s the solution. In his dramatization, all the characters became narrators. They toggled back and forth breezily, delivering a line in character and then taking a step, turning outward, explaining neatly what happened next. Sometimes, they would do so in unison—three independent characters turning and speaking suddenly with one voice.

The simple, irresistible power of a group of people saying words together.

I think I might be able to rustle up Alex’s adaptation and post it at some point. It was really truly deftly done; beyond the script, his staging was clever and effective. Midway through my story, the witch returns, riding in a conjured carriage pulled by a conjured horse. On stage, the actors BECAME THE CARRIAGE, forming its boxy shape with arched backs, swiveling to open its doors as the witch emerged, and then—at the snap of her fingers—dissolving and scattering like dragonflies. Teenagers in T-shirts. It was as breathtaking and convincingly magical as any effect from ILM.

You know, of course, about adaptations of books into movies and TV shows.

There is often, accompanying their announcement, a sense of ascension—as if the adaptation is a final crowning achievement, one that is naturally, ideally, hopefully part of every book’s journey. From idea to manuscript to publication to paperback to adaptation—the great chain of commercial and artistic validation! The circle of narrative life.

This is all wrong.

There are so many ways a book can be in the world, so many things it can become. A meal. A play performed once and only once by a crew of irrepressible young actors! To imagine that every book must become a Netflix show doesn’t imagine enough, and, frankly, it serves Netflix far more than it serves readers, or writers, or witches.

Jason Shiga’s comic Bookhunter, free to read online, is one of my all-time favorites. Fans of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and/or library special collections and/or locked room mysteries will find much to enjoy. It is SO nerdy. I’m laughing just thinking about it.

(I have a print edition of Bookhunter that I bought from Jason at a zine fest years ago. One hot day, I was carrying it under my arm, and it absorbed a crescent of sweat that has left its pages wrinkled to this day. That’s a little bit gross, but… isn’t it also a little bit great?)

I am generally dismissive of all-caps creative advice, but this particular exhortation is extremely correct. You must publish the small thing.

Hong Kong, add oil!

Design for a Stage Set #3

Eugène Cicéri, Design for a Stage Set, 1830–90

A record can play in an empty room; a Netflix show can stream while its presumed viewers are otherwise absorbed by their phones. Words, however, cannot do anything without a reader. This is the great consolation, and the great confidence, of writing: that these words I’m typing (now) are being reanimated in a living mind (now).

I know the close third person of free indirect style is the Fanciest and Most Advanced Way to Write Fiction, but I’ll never be able to give up “you” and “I” because they are, for me, the deep magic—so deep it’s still sometimes shocking. How can you and I be so present together right now? Is this really something a universe should permit? I don’t know, but somehow, here we are!


August 2019, Oakland

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