Anne Elliot, my comrade from my Zoetrope days, tagged me in a post a while back, one associated with the so-called Next Big Thing Project that asks writers to describe a work-in-progress or a book nearing publication. As writers don’t need much more prompting to start talking about themselves, I’ve answered the following set questions.
What is the title of your book?
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I read an article that got me thinking for the first time about the importance of artificial sweeteners to the processed, ready-made foods of the post-war era. For example, you can go to the frozen aisle and buy a chicken-fried steak with a side of gravy that tastes just like grandma’s, but it’s only because some chemist in a lab coat has added just the right notes of flavor to your meal (and let’s be clear, this chemist is a genius — the canvas of the latter-half of the 20th Century being one inside our brains, where the neurons fire in the dark). If you took these additives away, your dinner would be a tasteless lump that you might not be able to identify in a blind taste test. Food, like farming, I saw, is not a fixed term — its definition depends on you. And are you willing to trust your health to an illusion?
Into which genre does your book fall?
I’ve heard it described as straddling the literary/commercial divide. It may be commercial because there are dead lab monkeys in it. It may be literary because maybe the monkeys aren’t really dead? Maybe it’s all just in his mind? Publisher’s Marketplace announced it as being in the GENERAL/OTHER category. If I could get into a public spat with Oprah about this (and generate a million sales as a result) I’d say, rather gracelessly, that I was writing in the “high-art literary tradition.” And if someone said dead or possibly-not-dead monkeys don’t exist in such a tradition, I’d point them to Pynchon, and then say monkeys-alligators, same thing.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
My main character, David Leveraux, is a walking British affectation, owing to a childhood spent partly in England. Back in the day, Kevin Kline would’ve been perfect. Readers who get to the end of the novel might agree with me when I say Ben Stiller might work (not the penis-caught-in-a-zipper Ben Stiller, the one who wants an Oscar). A low-key Steve Coogan would probably be great, too.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
More than twenty years after failing to blow the whistle on the side-effects of a new artificial sweetener, a flavor chemist wonders if he is to blame for the anxious, depressed, and weight-obsessed state of his family and American culture (with stops along the way in Hitler’s Germany, Nixon’s America, and pre-Y2K US of A).
How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About seven years. With interruptions along the way to write a collection of stories, a couple of screenplays, and a dissertation on grotesque literature of the post-war age.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Fast Food Nation got my thoughts going; the opening scene from Don DeLillo’s White Noise jump-started the prose.