CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
MATTHEW GAVIN FRANK
The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: With nonfiction, how do you decide what elements of reality to frame and incorporate?
Matthew Gavin Frank: I see the essay as a testing ground—as an excuse (or obligation) to test the parameters of the things we either clearly or hazily call facts. To see how much a fact can take before it breaks or morphs into something else. To undress a fact of its swagger and bravado. To place one fact next to a seemingly dissimilar fact and to watch how they react, collide, repel, couple, bump-and-grind through their blue jeans like moony teenagers, kiss each other goodbye on couches and in hospitals like long married couples. Is there magnetism? Electricity? Aversion? What happens, for instance when we take fact of the hummingbird’s heart and wedge it into the nethers of a ten-gallon hat?
My favorite essays are struggling toward something, not presuming certainty. More often than not, certainty is boring. And false. Certainty often obscures a kind of truth, rather than illuminates it. For me, the writing process is akin to walking through some meadow (how’s that for mooniness?), trying to follow what I think may be the main thread of the essay, and picking up all of these ancillary burrs on my pant cuffs that demand engagement, and the imaginative alchemy required to associate them with what I may be mistaking for the main thread. As a reader and editor, my favorite essays want to capture something, track something toward what they likely misperceive as truth; scratch at one particular thing (while examining it through the lenses of various other things), until its gooey inner holiness, or horror, begins to leak out. And honestly, what narrative structure, whether journalistic or creative, lyrical or memoir-ish, is equal to the task of supporting the Truth? Eventually, all narrative structures disintegrate in the face of this illusory Truth and fail, and it’s all the writer can do to faithfully represent the truth of this failure, and the wonderfully digressive journey toward said failure.
RR: You’ve spent a good amount of time traveling and dining. How have these experiences shaped your understanding of appetite?
MGF: I recently spent a series of months traveling throughout Newfoundland, researching my forthcoming book, PREPARING THE GHOST: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (forthcoming July 2014 from W.W. Norton/Liveright).
First of all, traveling seems to intensify appetites of all sorts— the desire— however occasionally misguided— to glimpse a microcosm of another culture via its food scene, and to then research the evolution of said food scene— the events and celebrations and desperations and bloodshed and plagues and sex and love that informed it. Traveling seems to intensify one’s penchant for self-reflection and self-pity, for loneliness, for the shoehorning of one’s own life into some larger socio-cultural context. And all of these actions and desires— while traveling especially, and snapped out of one’s comfort zone— are again likely misguided and obsessed with all the wrong beautiful things, and thereby terribly, heartbreakingly human. And worth shuffling through on the page, via multiple drafts of course.
When I was traveling through Newfoundland, I forced myself to girdle these obsessions; to focus on the first-ever photograph taken of the giant squid (in 1874 by St. John’s, Newfoundland Reverend, amateur naturalist, and all-around madman Moses Harvey). The photo rescued the beast from mythology and finally proved its existence, changing the ways in which we engaged the construct of the sea monster, and forcing us to create a new mythology. To take the photo, Harvey transported the squid from one bay to another, and then finally to his home where he proceeded to drape it over his bathtub’s curtain rack so its full size could be displayed. It’s a book-length segmented essay onto which so many ancillary burrs attached themselves—meditations on pain and saxophones and weather and ice cream.
At its center, though, is a question of appetite. Why we feel the need to make myth of some narratives (or facts—like the giant squid), and not others. And: why, eventually, are we compelled to kill our myths and invent others? And why are certain things—again, like the giant squid—the recipients of our desire to keep them in the middle zone, between myth and reality, ever-fluctuating between the two—its role as myth and monster killed then resurrected, killed then resurrected, one tentacle here, another there, spread-legged and immodest? And why does monstrosity permeate so many of our myths; the need to see our myths as Other, and thereby, perhaps, as our possessions. We use them until we use them up. What sort of hunger drives us to do this, and what sort of appetite are we trying to satisfy?
RR: Your book Borolo is a memoir centered around food. How do you take something as apparently simple as food and cast it into a larger project?
MGF: I think food is apparently complicated. I’m working on this new book project called Foood: 50 States, 50 Essays, 50 Recipes. (Yes: 3 Os). “A Reception for Perloo” is part of this project. At the risk of sounding totally overblown, I’m trying to cobble together this spastic, lyrical anti-cookbook cookbook of sorts that also may be a fun and digressive revisionist take on U.S. history. Something like that. I’m trying to concentrate on the small events—beautiful and horrific and mundane and extraordinary— that we glossed over when we originally (and then subsequently) attempted to set down regional definitions. Each essay begins with this line of questioning: What does South Carolina mean? What does perloo mean? What ancillary subjects will I have to engage in order to stalk both food and state toward the blurry answers to these questions? The Rhode Island essay, for example, is concerned with Clear Clam Chowder and the Cognitive Psychology of Transparency—how we think and react differently to things we can look through rather than look at. The Louisiana essay deals with the intersection of Crawfish Etouffee, bad weather, and autoerotic asphyxiation.
RR: As you’re both both a chef and a writer, what parallels have you found between cooking and writing?
MGF: Both in the kitchen and on the page, one can find the energy derived from that attempt to uncover the perfect bridge ingredient between two seemingly dissimilar things. Again: it’s that testing ground. That trial and error.
I knew a guy who once apprenticed in the kitchen of the now-defunct temple of gastronomy, elBulli, in Catalonia, Spain. This apprenticeship involved twenty-hour shifts, on your feet, no breaks except for a small family meal at the end that you eat standing up. Six days a week. Ferran Adria, the chef and owner, did this one dish with sea anemone, which can be poisonous if improperly prepared, and rabbit brains. During the seasonal closing, the staff spends months dreaming up their tasting menu, and then they serve it for the entire season. This guy’s job, day in and day out for like six months, was to go through this pile of rabbit carcasses, split them down the middle, and extract their brains. It’s great. Every morning, he would show up to this pile of dead rabbits and start splitting skulls. He found the whole thing rather repetitive. But there were these heated discussions and experiments during the brainstorming process he found fascinating. What is the perfect ingredient necessary to bridge the flavors of the anemone and the cottontail Leporid cerebellum, and to what degree must this ingredient be manipulated toward “perfection?”
If I remember correctly, the ingredient(s) in question was salsify poached in a saffron-infused milk, and then seasoned with thyme and alder-smoked salt, then pureed—half the puree turned into a crispy brittle, and the other half aerated into this foam. But I may be remembering this incorrectly. My memory often sucks, which is another good quality for an essayist, I think, because it forces me to fill in the gaps with speculation that, over time, becomes, to me at least, the truth.
RR: How did you find a way to make this segmented essay work cohesively?
MGF: Is it cohesive? Goodness, thanks. I’m still not convinced. OCD? OCD.
Matthew Gavin Frank’s work in Issue 1.4:
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (forthcoming July 2014 from W.W. Norton: Liveright), Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and the chapbooks, Four Hours to Mpumalanga and Aardvark. He teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish liver ice cream. It paired well with onion bagels.