Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Diane Goodman: Food for Thought

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Diane Goodman, author of Party Girls (Autumn House Press), discusses how her work has evolved along with her personal and professional involvement with food.

When people ask me what my first book of short stories, The Genius of Hunger, is about, I say it’s about lonely women in grocery stores. I moved down to Miami 12 years ago, I didn’t know a soul, and I spent a lot of time by myself in the markets. I started writing about it, about this peculiar kind of loneliness taking place while I shopped for food, for something familiar and comforting. This book is, I think, also about the universal need for community and for communicating, and then the actual genius of these hungers—how they propel and compel us to fill them.

Once I got myself settled here, I opened a catering/personal chef business, and then something else remarkable occurred to me that created the foundation for my second story collection, The Plated Heart. Cooking, feeding people, is such an intimate, nurturing gesture, but I was doing it for strangers in their homes; I was a stranger in their homes. The dynamics that emerged from that conflict were endlessly interesting to me in terms of writing stories that examined what it was like to prepare and serve food in strangers’ homes—how much you saw of their lives, how little you actually wanted to know, how it seemed as though you were supposed to provide comfort and yet you were not because you were an employee. I was a hero if the meals/parties were a success, a villain if they were not, and much of the time a person whom they talked to and ordered around all day but never really saw.
A hero

But then I became a more accomplished caterer with a thicker skin and my focus shifted from the service perspective to the surprising fragility of my clients. In the world, they were rich and powerful; in their homes, they were insecure and frightened. The pressure they put on themselves to throw the perfect event, the personal issues that arose from merely wanting to throw a party, made me sympathetic to them and made me feel more powerful. My new book, Party Girls, still focuses on food, on cooking and serving and trying to please. But in this one, the focus is on the hostessestheir odd, kind of secret worldand on when a party is not just a party but a pressure cooker (pun intended) constantly threatening to explode.