An Interview with Erin McGraw, author of Slant’s Debut Novel

 

better

Better Food for a Better World by Erin McGraw is a wrenching satire exploring the boundaries of fidelity and commitment, friendship, and business. We talked with Erin about the development of the story, the characters, and her writing process. You can buy the book here!

 

Interview with Erin McGraw

1. Better Food for a Better World is set in a northern California hippie-town whose citizens are trying to lead green, responsible, and intentional lives. What kind of comment were you trying to make on our culture’s pursuit of good?

A few years ago, when San Francisco mandated curbside recycling of kitchen waste, a friend who lives there told me neighbors were being encouraged to rat each other out if they spied eggshells or coffee grounds in the regular, landfill-bound trash, holding up the miscreants for public scorn. I was both horrified and amused. That’s the kind of issue my characters in Better Food would have understood perfectly—how funny it is and how awful. I have no problem with kitchen-waste recycling. I wish that was an available option where I live. But it’s distressingly easy to move from enthusiastic support of a civic value to the decision that we should enforce that value, even if it means jamming it down somebody else’s throat, because the civic good is always more important than somebody else’s throat. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recycle kitchen waste, or that we should give up on civic betterment. Society wouldn’t be worth having if we didn’t exercise those impulses. But we should also exercise restraint, particularly when the urge to lecture somebody else rises to our lips.

2. The nucleus of this novel is relationships, the three couples interacting with each other and attending a support group together. Why are relationships so crucial to your narrative?

This is a book about relationships—the expectations we bring, the ways we fall short, the way communication between partners dodges or dips or generally goes wrong. Most of the characters in the book simultaneously expect other people to read their minds—because we all do that—and feel the need to explain themselves, often in ways at odds with the facts. One person acting by herself can be kind of interesting, but two people in tension are automatically a lot more interesting. I don’t think any reader ever wanted Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” to be any longer.

3. Why did you choose an ice cream shop as the business shared between the friends?

Well, it is a business, with balance sheets and sales projections and all, but it still seems frivolous, doesn’t it? An ice cream shop is such a cheerful place. It seems impossible that dark thoughts could be entertained there, and so it was an ideal place for me to situate my six characters with their extremely dark thoughts. Also, I had a lot of fun with the details, though I probably did eat more ice cream than was strictly necessary while I was writing this book.

4. What is your relationship like with the characters? Did you connect with any one of them more than another?

Every character I write is ultimately me, one way or another, but there are parts of myself I like better than others. I’m crazy about Vivy, the impulsive, smart-mouthed, easily bored character who keeps stirring up trouble whether she means to or not, and I have a huge soft spot for her fundamental generosity, something the other characters don’t necessarily see. But I’m not sure I could like Vivy so much if she weren’t balanced by David, the grave, careful gardener who has the purest idealism of all of them. And David, in turn, is offset by Sam, the graceful, elusive charmer who refuses to let himself get pinned down. Each of the characters is modified by the others, which is another reason the book stresses relationship. This is my experience of life, too. Some of the people I most adore in social situations become a little insufferable one-on-one, and some people I would just as soon not have a private conversation with are invaluable at a meeting or a dinner party.

5. Fidelity is an important theme in this book. Why did you choose to explore it so extensively, for it comes up not only in the context of marriage, but friendships and business too?

I wasn’t very deep into the writing of this book before it became clear that Sam and Cecelia were making eyes at each other, so the issue of fidelity announced itself early. I already knew there would be misbehavior in the company; isn’t that the first thing everyone thinks, when we hear about a group of friends going into business together? “Uh-oh. Somebody’s going to be let somebody down.” The interest comes not because we’re surprised at the action, but because we want to see how exactly the betrayal will go down. All of these people—not just the couples at the store, but everyone engaged in Life Ties, the support group the couples attend—have made commitments to each other that are reinforced by nothing except promise. It seems to me self-evident that those promises are going to be put to the test.

6. Your prose is illuminating, provocative, and pointed, but also very, very funny. Why did you choose to make this a comedic novel when it is clearly so drawn up in drama as well?

I don’t know any better way to write about what’s serious than to make a joke about it. If I get too stern, I get ponderous, exactly the sort of tedious, pious, insistently earnest person Better Food mocks. Making a joke allows everybody a little bit of breathing room. While we laugh, we can gather ourselves, think about the issues, and ideally see the essential subject from more than one angle. That’s a lot of bang for the buck, especially if you happen to like comedy, and I do.

7. The novel takes a few surprising turns, focusing on each character at different points in the narrative. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing Better Food for a Better World? How did it come together for you?

I knew from the start that I wanted to write a book with a lot of characters who were webbed together, so spreading around the point of view made sense. This is something that is interesting to me anyway; when my husband and I come home from a family vacation, he’ll have one version of what happened, I’ll have another, and there will only be a few points of exact concord. Both of us are right. Being right isn’t the issue. What’s interesting to me is seeing how our two perspectives give depth to each other. My rendition of the vacation is fine, and so is his, but if you put them together, you’ve got 3D. A little bit of that is what I hope for with this book. The point isn’t to figure out whose version of events is right, but to see how each version enriches the others. Also, when things really get heated and each character is vigorously voicing his or her opinion, I hope it’s like the wonderful moments in “The Magic Flute,” when each singer is belting out a motif, and all of them together are glorious. I don’t think I ever achieved Mozart, but that was my ambition.

8. Is any part of Better Food for a Better World autobiographic? If so, how do your own life and memories inspire the characters and world of your writing?

I went to college in Davis, California, and my memories of that city, smaller than it is now, are pretty faithfully replicated in my portrait of El Campo. There was an ice cream store like Natural High—doesn’t every college town have at least one of them? I adored college, and I adored Davis, and a lot of my affection for California’s Central Valley and Davis’s green idealism is reflected in the book. Certainly, I knew people like the partners at Natural High. In particular, I knew people like Nancy and Paul. They aren’t portraits of anyone in particular, but they pick up points of people I knew, including both the German shepherd named Garcia and their history with the borderline violent revolutionary organization. America! There’s more amazing stuff going on here, underneath all of our placid exteriors, than anyone can believe.

9. You are a teacher and have been for many years. How does teaching speak into your writing, and vice versa?

I try pretty hard not to inflict my aesthetic on my students, but that’s an exercise that calls for constant work and refinement. Naturally, we all like our own taste, and when you’re in the business of instructing people in the nuances of communication, it’s hard to remember our own taste is not universal. Still, I try, both for the good of the students and for my own good, too. It is useful for me to remember my way of approaching a situation isn’t the only way, and my way of writing a sentence isn’t necessarily the best. I think some of this tension is evident in Better Food than in any of my other books, because the issue of instruction is so constantly returned to. What is Life Ties, if not a great big ongoing tutorial? We may or may not like what is going on in the weekly Life Ties meetings, but they are classes all right, with all of the posturing and power plays that exist in every classroom everywhere.

10. What do you teach your own students about the writing process? What advice do you give them when they tell you they want to be a novelist, too?

One thing I often say that too rarely gets heard is this: It’s more important to want to write than to want to be a writer. I find it illuminating that so many people tell me they want to be writers, but almost no one says, “I want to write.” There’s all the difference in the world. To want to be a writer, I think, has to do with fond daydreams about whatever we think a literary life is—awards ceremonies, and attractive book jackets. To want to write has to do with a desk, a computer, and a chair. It’s useful to keep a grip on this distinction.

The writing process? As far as I can tell, it means getting it wrong most of the time. It means looking with dismay at what you wrote yesterday, which seemed so good when you stood up at the end of your writing session. It means rereading a passage you are particularly fond of with dim, sinking dismay as you start to realize it really has nothing to do with your book, and however much you like it, it’s probably going to have to go. It often means putting aside almost every one of your original ambitions so that another, better ambition can take shape. It means, in short, a daily dose of humility.

11. Finally, how does it feel having Better Food for a Better World as the premiere novel from Slant books?!

Scratch what I just said about humility. This feels great.

 

mcgraw_headshotAbout Erin McGraw

Born and raised in Redondo Beach, California, Erin McGraw received her MFA at Indiana University and has lived in the Midwest ever since. Along with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins, she teaches at the Ohio State University and divides her time between Ohio and Tennessee.

Her previous novels include The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard and The Baby Tree. Erin has also published several collections of stories, including The Good LifeLies of the Saints, which was a New York Times Notable Book, and Bodies at Sea. Her short work has appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic MonthlyGood HousekeepingThe Southern ReviewThe Kenyon ReviewSTORYThe Georgia Review, and many others. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she has received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council and the corporations of MacDowell and Yaddo.

You can visit Erin’s website at www.erinmcgraw.com