September 2004

Liz Miller

features

An Interview with Poppy Z. Brite

Poppy Z. Brite's books tend to make you sweat -- if not from the descriptions of humid New Orleans summers, then from the hot peppers and hot sex her characters relish. After establishing herself as a distinctive voice in gothic horror with Lost Souls, Exquisite Corpse, and Drawing Blood, Brite has recently turned her focus to the somewhat less gruesome world of restauranteurs with the food-nerd delight Liquor, about two young men and their quest to open a New Orleans restaurant where liquor flavors every dish.

Interviewed via email, Brite recommended some LA restaurants, discussed avoiding the gay fiction pigeonhole, explained why no one should ever adapt A Confederacy of Dunces to film, and made me crave some gumbo.

What are the difficulties of creating an unique setting for the reader, like the kitchen of a restaurant?  How do you balance authentic, necessary details with the need to not bog down the reader with too much information?

Mostly you trust your instincts and resist the advice of early readers who want you to explain every non-generic term in the manuscript -- "What's a toque? What's 'in the weeds'? What's St. Charles Avenue?" I don't want to leave the non-cooking/non-New Orleanian reader in the dark, but I hate being too explain-y, and I think most people are capable of reading for context.

In the book, Liquor's menu is one designed to please the locals, not the tourists in search of gumbo -- when you were writing, were you focused more on the locals or the tourists?

I certainly wanted to write a book that was honest about New Orleans without explaining it to death, so much so that the first draft contained references absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't lived here for several years. I think the book is more accessible to non-New Orleanian readers now, but I still get a special thrill from locals who tell me they recognize the city I've written about as their own. So many of the novels and movies set here are inaccurate and clichéd to the point of being offensive, and we appreciate anything that gets it right.

NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu calls Liquor "perfect New Orleans lit" on the back cover. How would you define "New Orleans lit" -- is there more to it than just location?

There's a lot more to it than location.  Reams and reams of silly fiction is set in a self-consciously "decadent," unrealistic, and relatively uninteresting fantasy New Orleans. I feel that I was guilty of that in some of my early work, and obviously plenty of readers liked that version, but I've become more interested in trying to write as honestly as possible about the city. Andrei is very kind, but I don't think I've written any "perfect New Orleans lit"; however, it is something to strive for.

So what would you consider the recipe (man, I bet you're up to your ears in food puns) for the perfect New Orleans book? Does it already exist?

Yeah, I think A Confederacy of Dunces is probably the perfect New Orleans book.

In what sense?

It's the only book I've read that gets the city 100% right without overexplaining. Everyone talks about Ignatius, the literally-larger-than-life protagonist, and while he is a wonderful character, I feel that the heart of the book is in its supporting characters.  They're the people you see and hear on the street every day, and they are the reason I have no interest in seeing the movie that's being made from the book -- there is no way Hollywood can get these characters right, and I don't care to see them turned into embarrassing "New Orleans" stereotypes.

How closely is food identified with New Orleans culture, in your view? Could someone write New Orleans lit without, for example, mentioning gumbo?

I don't think I mentioned gumbo in Liquor, actually, with the exception of the "Deconstruction of Gumbo" appetizer in the Chapter of Shame (about the restaurants that opened and closed while Liquor was in progress).  I chose to mention it in this context because, while it's a great local dish and one we do eat quite a lot, it's also a big New Orleans cliché -- in terms of both food and metaphor, for instance, describing the city as "a gumbo of musical styles" or "a gumbo of races" or what have you. It's so ubiquitous that it's almost meaningless.

Yeah, I mentioned gumbo for almost exactly that reason -- it was the first dish that came to mind, clearly demonstrating how brainwashed I've been by the clichés. Is there a meal that better demonstrates New Orleans culture? Or can one meal really do that? (I know I'd never say that clam chowder in a sourdough bowl is everything you need to know about San Francisco, after all, despite the cultural resonance.)

Well, first off, I didn't mean to imply that there is anything wrong with gumbo -- it's a quintessential and frequently wonderful New Orleans dish. I don't know of one meal at one restaurant that could demonstrate New Orleans "cultcha," but I'll make an attempt to compose a hodgepodge meal that showcases my personal favorite indigenous dishes:

One dozen raw oysters on the half shell (CASAMENTO'S)

One pound of boiled crawfish and half a dozen boiled crabs (SID-MAR'S)

Shrimp and Tasso Henican (COMMANDER'S PALACE)

Redfish "on the half shell" (cooked with skin on one side) with stewed tomatoes and cheese grits (DANTE'S KITCHEN)

Assortment of sandwiches: oyster loaf (CASAMENTO'S), roast beef po-boy (PARASOL'S), muffuletta (CENTRAL GROCERY), cochon de lait (suckling pig po-boy) (FOOD BOOTH AT JAZZFEST)

Bananas Foster (COMMANDER'S PALACE)

Cream of Ice Cream Snowball (HANSEN'S SNO-BLIZ)

I could not actually eat all this food at one sitting, but I'd enjoy sharing it with three or four companions. There is also a roasted duck dish from a certain restaurant that I'd include if I didn't strongly dislike the owner. Our duck dishes are underrated.

Dining well is an absolutely essential part of most New Orleanians' lives, but one of the things I hoped to do in Liquor was show that we're about more than gumbo, crawfish, and po-boys. Nor are we a "Cajun" city -- to get good Cajun food, you have to visit other parts of Louisiana. New Orleans cuisine is Creole rather than Cajun. Liquor's menu certainly has some local touches, but as Rickey, the chef, says, the food is eclectic French-influenced -- not Creole.

Damn it, but this interview is making me hungry. I'm sure you hear that as often as you hear bad food puns, these days.

The only food jokes and puns I mind are the really inept ones, like the critic who said, "One waits for a Mafia tie to rise up and add some oregano to the French cuisine." Uh, no, actually one doesn't as a rule.

A chicken-or-the-egg-esque question -- did your relationship with a chef lead to your interest in food, or was your interest in food already piqued before you met your husband?

I'm from New Orleans! I've been interested in food and restaurants since I was three years old! I've certainly learned a great deal from my husband, though, and could never have written a book like Liquor without him and the people he introduces me to and the stories he brings home.

Since you were three?  Is there a story there?

Not really -- that's just how old I was when I first dined there with my parents. Owner Ti Martin recently told me about a mynah bird that lived in the courtyard then, though I don't remember it -- they had to get rid of it because the cooks taught it to say "Dirty bitch" to the elegant female patrons.

Unlike some restaurant-focused books I've read, the dishes described sound like things people would actually eat.  How do you go about creating fictional food -- or is it not fictional at all?

Some of the food in Liquor is food I've really eaten filtered through a veil of fiction. In other instances, it's food I dreamed up because I would like to eat it. I don't like silly fusion food, and I especially don't like "humorous" food writing by people who don't know what they're talking about. For example, I usually love David Sedaris, but he wrote one piece about "pretentious," "fancy" restaurant food that fell completely flat for me because he was writing about food that couldn't exist -- "reductions" of things that can't be reduced and such. It's as if I tried to write a piece lampooning wine, or modern pop music, or something else I don't much care for but know very little about:  it would come off as shrill and bitter, not witty.

Yeah, I remember reading that story -- the satire didn't quite work, and shrill was exactly the result.

So, along those lines, two food questions: What exactly are cheese straws [an often-made favorite of protagonist Rickey]? Because they sound DELICIOUS.

They're not specifically a New Orleans thing, as far as I know. They're a flaky, savory pastry item made with cheese and lots of butter.

And how did the Napoleon Death Mask originate? Camembert ice cream and all.

Hell if I know. I remember that it came purely from the sordid depths of my ridiculous mind, but I don't recall how I happened to come up with it.  Probably a remnant of my days as a candymaker -- I worked with all sorts of chocolate molds, though never a Napoleon mask.

When I read Drawing Blood, the vivid descriptions of corpses and gore really crawled under my skin, and the food described in Liquor had a similar effect, though with opposite results (I'm hungry just thinking about pecan-crusted gulf fish). But death is still a part of Liquor, from the murder in the walk-in to the Napoleon death mask dessert -- do you find that there's a relationship between food and gore? As a writer, is there a connection between describing brain matter and filet mignon?

Well, it's all just part of the world, isn't it?  For me, the most disturbing thing about death is the pain, fear, and loss involved -- not the sometimes-messy physical results.  Of course those physical results are interesting to me, but after Exquisite Corpse, how much farther could I go with that?  One problem I see with some of today's young horror writers is that they seem very concerned with "topping" each other and even "topping" their own goriest efforts. That doesn't interest me at all, which may have been one factor in my moving away from horror over the past several years.

One thing I really enjoyed about Liquor is the depiction of Rickey and G-Man as "an old married couple" -- right off the bat, it's clear they're the closest of buds, but the fact that they're lovers as well isn't made explicit until later on.  Did you deliberately downplay the sexual nature of their relationship for these earlier chapters, and to what effect?

For them what wants it, the story of their early, more intense relationship is told in my novel The Value of X (Subterranean Press).  By the time Liquor takes place... well, since their relationship at least somewhat mirrors my own, I don't want to imply that they take each other for granted or aren't passionate about each other, but by the time you've been together that long, you'd better have more than sex or you're in trouble. This is the point being missed by readers who lament Liquor's lack of hot sex scenes, probably because they aren't old enough to understand that a passionate relationship could be about anything other than sex. In a novel like Drawing Blood, explicit sex scenes are necessary because the characters are discovering each other and learning about themselves.  In Liquor, they'd just be beside the point.  It wasn't my intention to hide the fact that Rickey and G-man are a couple -- you know that by the end of the first chapter -- but I did want to show that they live in a world, the macho kitchen world, where they're not apt to parade their relationship.  They're not closeted by any means, but they don't advertise either. So far, gay readers seem to really like that fact; it's only the little girls with sticky panties who are disappointed by it.

Hee.  Will the little girls with sticky panties be satisfied by Value of X, then?

God, I don't know what will satisfy them. Value of X doesn't have a great deal of sex, and as one particularly brilliant Amazon review points out, nothing transgressive and no surprise dismemberments.

No surprise dismemberments? Man, what's the point?

I know, I know.

Rickey and G-Man, in most of the publicity I've seen, are referred to as "lifetime friends and down-and-out line cooks," which doesn't seem quite cover just how close they are. Have you encountered resistance to your gay themes among editors and readers? What are the difficulties in publishing a mainstream novel that features two gay men in love?

In more than a decade of publishing novels, I've never encountered any resistance to so-called "gay themes" (and I don't know that Liquor contains any "gay themes"; it's just a story about regular folks in New Orleans, some of whom happen to be gay). I mean, I've never had an editor ask me to make my characters straight or anything. However, the sad and stupid truth is that if a book is advertised as "gay fiction," most straight readers will avoid it. I already have a large gay readership, and Liquor has gotten good word of mouth in gay bookstores, publications, etc., but there was no
way Three Rivers was going to consign it to a ghetto by emphasizing the characters' sexuality in the publicity materials. I wish it didn't have to be that way, but I understand their position.

I've seen you touch on this on your blog, but for people who haven't read it -- what kinds of experiences have you had with readers who weren't expecting the central relationship in Liquor to be between two men?

A couple of readers have expressed surprise, and one was puzzled by the characters' not fitting the "homosexual personality type" (whatever that may be), but only Kirkus Reviews critic Donald Newlove has even come close to being ugly about the characters' sexuality. Even then, it was just a matter of dismissively describing them as "two gay cooks," as if that were the only trait that mattered about them -- which, in his world, I guess it may be. I can't worry about readers who are unable to see past this not-terribly-important fact of the characters' lives, but fortunately they have been even fewer with Liquor than they were with my previous books.

Will there be books beyond Value of X about Rickey and G-Man?

Yes, there will be at least two additional books, probably more. The Big D, which takes place a couple of years after Liquor, is already written and will be published in March 2005. I've just written a detailed proposal for the next book, and a brief one for the book after that. I've never been any good at writing proposals, synopses, and such before, but with these characters, the stories just seem to flow. I really am having more fun with them than I've ever had with any other bunch of characters.