Read It Forward

Five Authors Jenni Fagan Would Invite to a Dinner Party
The author of The Sunlight Pilgrims picks her dream dinner dates.

First published by Read It Forward
BY JENNI FAGAN • 4 DAYS AGO

If you could invite five famous authors—dead or living—to dinner, who would you choose, and what would you serve? Today on Read it Forward, novelist Jenni Fagan hosts the dinner party of her dreams. Salut!

Gertrude Stein
I wish I’d spent time at Gertrude Stein’s extraordinary salon in Paris. She is a big influence on me. I would want to hear stories about all the painters she knew, how they arrived at automatism, what were the most banal and ordinary things she can recall of the surrealists, and who was the bravest? Also, I’d ask her if she ever used her wife Alice B. Toklas’s cookbook.

Nick Cave
I am a fan of Nick’s prose and I truly adore him as a musician. A dinner party made solely of writers would be dreadful, so we need at least one person who can get on the piano, involve us all in a sing-a-long, and have us waltzing on the patio before dinner. And is it just me, or would he have the best jokes and stories? I’d want to know how he found all those eras and musicians, from no-wave and punk, to garage rock and lo-fi. And if he played The Ship Song at the end of the evening, I could, in all honesty, die happy.

Leonora Carrington
I love Leonora for everything really—her painting, her prose, her politics, her astonishing life. I also love her quotes about writing: “The task of the right eye is to peer through the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope,” or another favorite, “People under seventy and over seven are unreliable if they are not cats.”

Reinaldo Arenas
Reinaldo Arenas once said, “There’s just one place to live—the impossible.” He also said, “I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.” I would want to know everything; about his years incarcerated for being a gay man in Cuba under Castro’s regime; his move to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and his departure from Cuba on a boat for criminals, disabled or gay citizens; his lovers, his mother, his relationship to landscapes. His uprootedness and dislocation speak to me profoundly.

Helen Oyeyemi
I happen to know that Helen Oyeyemi is not only one of the best writers of our time but also, the most charming dinner guest. The first time we met she told me about a clock in Prague that can tell the time on the moon, how she had grown obsessed with keys and also what was great and good in Korean horror movies. I’d polish my teapots and serve an array of teas in the early morning before they all went home, which I know she would appreciate.

~Menu~

Pre-dinner drink:
The Paloma—a Mexican cocktail: ingredients—1/4 mezcal, 1/4 fresh grapefruit juice, wedge of lime & 1/4 soda, kosher salt, crushed ice. Run lime around the rim of the glass, dip in salt, mix your ingredients, add ice.

I am sure it is best to start a dinner party with drinks and dancing so you are more ready to sit, chat, eat later in the evening. Leonora Carrington spent most of her adult life in Mexico City, so I am hoping she might like this spirited start to the evening.

Starter:
In honor of Reinaldo Arenas, I would make Cassava bread, made from cassava flour (great if you are Paleo), and serve with tapenade on the side and a piri piri sauce for dipping.

Selection of Spanish Tapas (vegetarian for Nick Cave)—black olives, Ajillo mushrooms, Habas ala Catalana (smothered broad beans with sausage), Espinacas Con Garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas), Alubias Verdes con Ajo (green beans with garlic).

These would be small dishes that are easy to pick at—just to take the edge off our Palomas and prepare us for the main course.

I’d also hope Reinaldo might bring a few nice Cuban cigars for later, I’m sure he’d appreciate a smoke on the patio late at night, as would Gertrude for that matter.

Main:
I’d like to cook a meal that is easy to serve and enjoy—so we can focus on chatting. I’d make paella, the first would be a vegetarian version and for the second, I’d add seafood and chorizo.

Ingredients: Fresh saffron from the market in Istanbul. Garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper, mushroom, peppers, chorizo, olive oil, scallops, black Irish mussels, free-range chicken, onion, tomatoes, peas, calamari, Calasparra paella rice.

Dessert:
This would not happen until much later. I have a feeling that after the last two courses, we’d all wander down a dark country road, have a look at the Milky Way in a starlit sky, have a few games of pool, or darts at the local pub—then head back to play music and dance. The garden would be lit by fireflies in jars. We’d have a selection of the finest Parisian patisserie cakes and I’d ask Gertrude about her favorite baker along the rue de Fleurus. I bet you she’d say Picasso had a sweet tooth.

And when all the food has been eaten:

Helen Oyeyemi lives in Prague and I’m sure she’d oblige with a bottle of plum brandy (Slivovitz—she knows where to get the good stuff) or perhaps a small absinthe, especially if we were on the cusp of an aurora that night, which I’d hope we would be. She’d be setting up a little outdoor cinema on the lawn, talking Nick Cave through the greatest Korean horror movies of all time, the porch would be wide and the weather mild, perhaps a stream nearby and a swing on a tall tree in the garden. I imagine Gertrude having a snooze on the porch under a blanket. Reinaldo telling me stories about the Cuban revolution and the grit of Hell’s Kitchen, and how his first novel was smuggled out of prison and over to Paris, the only place he could publish it at the time. Leonora would reminisce about founding the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico, her love affair with Max Ernst, running away from an asylum and creating a novel about her psychotic experience. We would discuss the extraordinary way she paints. Psychic freedom. Automatism. Surrealism. Keys. Clarity. Mirrors. We would chat all night in the garden where a rose, is a rose, is a rose.

Featured Image: Rawpixel/Shutterstock.com

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The Sunlight Pilgrims

So I was in the garden with some friends talking about the moon. It turns out the earth came first (did everyone know this but me?) and the moon was just a hunk of matter that broke away from the earth — I like to think this bit of matter was so impressed with itself — so taken with its own beauty that it created the most flattering light to illuminate and admire — to hold an adoring mirror up to itself each day.

A writer I met through Granta (Helen Oyeyemi — read her books) recently informed me that time is different on the moon and there is a clock in Prague that tells you what time it is on the moon. I love this! I want a clock that tells me what time it is on the moon. I don’t care if it is absolutely useless to my daily life down here — on the subject of Prague — why didn’t they just keep her as the lovely Bohemia? What happened to Siam? Or Babylon? Rhodesia. Of course, ex-colonial, other such things, just — pretty names you know.

If I had to choose the sun or moon — well, I’d be a creature with glowing eyes and a serious vitamin D deficiency. I don’t know why I think of these things. There is a chapter in my current novel entitled dinosaurs vs robots. The working title of my new novel is The Sunlight Pilgrims. I will walk around with it. Think about it. Is it right? The characters in my novel know the moon is cold as bone — the head of a pin never danced upon by angels and yes, they are moon gazers as all good characters should be but in all truth they’re seeking light. Not a flattering muted light. One that is clear as early morning where you can see every line, every flaw, and you can feel the earth and all its voices and sorrows and insanity and beauty but all you can do is brush your teeth and make a cup of tea and begin your day.

I am beginning to realise that for me the process of characterisation (in novels) involves a series of eradications. Taking the author out of it. Taking me out of it. My characters have absolutely no interest in my wants and what they are focused upon is becoming themselves. This is highly useful.I am grateful for this kind of tidal effect — the editing — a wave that keeps coming in and going out and eventually it leaves the right shells on the shore? Okay that’s a clunky sentence and there is no such thing as a right shell but this process of refining the rough edges makes a grain of sand of unique.

Metaphor much?

🙂

Anyway, the characters are in a place where sunlight is going to break away (unreliable novelist confused by rain outside) or it already has. Can you tell I have not been talking about The Sunlight Pilgrims? That’s why I’m being more evasive than a politician with a murky past. I’ve not let anyone see my new novel yet, nobody has heard anything from it, it is just me and the words and that is how I like it. I keep telling my agent — another few weeks — I will send it over and I will and something else will happen then and it will begin to make its way in the world and define itself. That’s what novels do. It is not quite ready for that process yet though and neither am I but I will need to stop this rewriting at some point and you know (wo)man up — grow a pair — click send.

I got my first ‘kill fee’ this week. I felt most grown up. A jobbing writer. I was asked to write an article which a newspaper had entitled ‘girl in care’ and try as I might I just couldn’t seem to deliver what they were looking for. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not been a ‘girl in care’ for nearly twenty years now — JESUS — I must be prehistoric right, or perhaps that part of my life is prehistoric and I’m not too keen on the triggers that trawling back through it brings. A film director (my life is getting strange) recently said — well — you wrote a book about a girl in care, you know, people are going to ask about your life in care. He has a point. So do I. I’m a writer though, not a celebrity, even although an ex of mine texted recently and said he saw my grinning mug at some conference (on a huge poster) he said you’re a celebrity now — nada — I’m a word pilgrim! These two things are different!

I will get better at disclosing my space, time, location though (as Burroughs advised) articulating the old without it impacting so much on now — speaking of film directors — it looks like the film adaptation is imminent for The Panopticon. The offers I really want to consider are in at the same time and I am excited about placing Anais & co with the right people (unlike shells there is such a thing especially in film) to take her to the screen. It’s a lot like sending your kid off to university in some remote country called chance — hoping you’ve done what you can to give them some kind of future.

I am off to London this week for a party at Fortnum & Mason where the winner of The Desmond Elliott prize will be announced, one of the other authors told me he had a dream where I had won and he was furious at me, could not even look me in the eye. He said his dream self is clearly more competitive than he is. It’s anyones chance and I just want to enjoy an evening to remember, champagne, canapies, see friends, I hear there is a hamper for each of the shortlisted authors and I have really liked hearing about Desmond Elliott as a person, he sounds like my kind of care leaver.

Last week it was my first official Granta reading at York Festival of Ideas and I had a great lunch beforehand with some writer friends who showed me around York. I’ve not been there for years but I really liked it, great bookshops, pretty streets — so many drunk people! It was the races that weekend and I arrived on ladies day. My next Granta outings will be at Edinburgh Festival and then it looks like I am going to Bangkok in October with the British Council. The title for that blog will be very easy — Burntisland to Bangkok! I need to get a wee camera and a phrase book and bribe my toddler with tales of elephants and promises and it will be hard to not be with him for more than two days (our longest yet) but I’d like him to be proud of having a working mum and know that despite my lack of high school education I went onto find and pour my life into something that makes me happy.

I’m currently reading Straight White Male by John Niven, which I love, already, he is one of the funniest and most caustic of writers — while still being tangibly, insanely, humane. Also I hear there is a good film out about the life of Elizabeth Bishop, can’t wait for that. What about the lack of great horror films in the last few years! I love a great horror, perhaps I should write one.  Other than that I’m having a Scottish season in literature again, revisiting old works, ordered the few Alan Warner books I’ve not read — trawling to catch up on things I’ve missed.

This month I also ordered Iain Banks last novel The Quarry, and some of the other ones that I’ve not read. I loved his interview in The Scotsman, his last interview where he explained his cancer was the result of a cosmic ray, a bad ray out in the universe whose origins were old as millenia. An extraordinarily gifted human being  — I am inspired by his ethic and his work and I will continue to learn from it and be a fan for a long time to come. He has certainly left enough novels and poetry and music behind to make sure this is possible and every-time I drive across the Forth Road Bridge (I live near there) I will salute him — the powers that be must sort out their cultural compass and name the new bridge, or rename the old one — the Iain (M) Banks Other The Bridge Bridge — it has my vote for sure.

Salut, salut, Jx