Food for thought: The Art of Writing

Food helps with plot lines. Are your characters dieters or gluttons? Because the way people feel about food helps lead story lines. Michelle Lovric has written 50 anthologies, five adult novels, four children’s books, has two more children’s novels in progress. She is also a New York Times best seller with Love Letters, An Anthology of Passion. For Michelle Lovric, food is a substantial part of her literature.

For this Blog Michelle was kind enough to give my readers some food for thought. Here she shows how she has used food, eating and dining to help with character development and unfolding narratives.

How does food play into your writing?

We’re always told that writing about the five senses is a way to deepen the reader’s experience of a novel, and it’s true. This is especially the case in writing for children, who have little say over what they eat, and consequently have very strong reactions to food that they love or hate.

In my adult work, food can work as a stimulant, a soporific or a poison: it has endless plot possibilities.

Do you ever use food to reveal more about a character’s likes and dislikes? As in, food used for character development?

Absolutely. In my third novel, The Remedy, my main character has a sweet tooth, but not a sweet nature. Her sweet tooth leads her into all kinds of trouble. First of all, as a child, she is seduced into thinking that a convent might be a good place for her, because the nuns hang sweetmeats in the trees. She thinks that in a place like that, where sweets grow on trees, she can be happy. It is only later, and much to her cost that she finds out that God does not make such trees.

The Remedy also deals with Quack medicine, and the trope that a spoonful of sugar (whether sugared marketing or honeyed mixtures) helps the bitterest medicine go down.

When researching Carnevale, my novel about Casanova and Byron, I found the two men’s attitude to food very revealing. Casanova loved food, particularly crab soup. He claimed he developed a craving for it while still in the womb, as his mother Zanetta had eaten it while pregnant with him. He also loved overripe cheeses and oysters – rich, strong-smelling foods. He wrote of the delicious intimacy of exchanging oysters mouth to mouth with a lover. And Casanova loved women – really loved them. He was no Don Juan. He was a modern lover. For example, he insisted that four fifths of his own joy in sex came from watching the pleasure he was able to give a woman. And he also thought women had more pleasure from sex than men do, reasoning that ‘After all, the feast takes place in their own house.’ Byron, in contrast, was a constant dieter. He measured his wrists in the mornings, and subsisted on green tea and potatoes or rice with vinegar. He hated to watch a woman eat. And in his letters, he insisted that ‘I rather look on love as a hostile transaction’. And via these two different attitudes to food and sex, I found a way for my main character, Cecilia Cornaro, to negotiate some truths about love.

In my newest novel, I had to imagine being hungry. The last days of the Great Hunger in Ireland are the backdrop to The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters. This is a novel about hair and the fascination with long hair that was partly galvanized by the PreRaphaelite painters but was also the object of intensive marketing campaigns in Victorian England. My sisters go from weevilly Indian meal to rich Venetian food in the course of the novel – and back again. Food is the index of their success and failure.

I also discovered some interesting conditions – for example, trichophagia, a mania for eating your own hair, which can result in human hairballs…

How does living in Italy play into your love of food and how you use it with your writing?

As most of my books are set at least partly in Venice, I always sauce them with Venetian dishes. Sometimes I have to be very imaginative here, as I am a vegetarian. So I have to build taste descriptions just on the smell of sarde in saor or fegato alla veneziana.

But mostly I use Italian food and drink as a personal aid to writing. I have always done a great deal of my best work in bars and cafes!

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