Originally published in Willow Springs 66
From the author
Notes on “International Cooking for Beginners”
I think the first inkling of “International Cooking for Beginners” came from a class on fiction writing that I taught at Arizona State University. One of my students was a little older than the rest of the class, and he had a hardened look about him. He dressed simply in dark t-shirts and jeans, and was unfailingly polite, but his voice was craggy and smoke-tinged, and he rarely smiled. He wasn’t a big guy by any means, but he was solid, compact. The definition of tough. I was struck by the corded muscles that stood out in his forearms and their tattoos, green, time-blurred shapes that intertwined with each other. Thinking back now though, I’m not sure if there were any tattoos, or how many there might have been. My mind might have just inserted them because it seems like they should have been there. I tend to do that, embellish the past with invented details that make it seem more interesting. In fact, I guess I consider it my job as a fiction writer to smudge that thin line between “fact” and “fiction.” In any case, this student made an impression on me, and that was before I’d seen any of his writing.
After he turned in his first story, I realized he’d had a life before entering my classroom. And of course this was something I knew about my students, something I still know, that everyone has a history. Everyone comes from somewhere and is shaped by the things they’ve done—or haven’t done, but wish they had. But this was one of the first times it hit me viscerally. His experiences were so far from mine. He was writing fiction, of course, not autobiography, but he was an expert in areas I’d only ever seen, distorted, on television or the silver screen. Those areas included prison (he once set the class straight on the key differences between prison and jail) and drugs, and he challenged my writing aesthetics in remarkable and unexpected ways because his prose wasn’t just interesting content-wise, it was damn good writing, too. He went to Columbia for an MFA after marking time in my class—must be close to finishing up there now—so I’m not the only one who was impressed by his work. In any case, it was thinking of this student combined with a desire to write something set in Saratoga Springs, New York, where I’d done my undergraduate degree, that resulted in “International Cooking for Beginners.” My student is not faithfully transcribed in the character of Arthur, but impressions of my student certainly informed Arthur’s initial development. The story required a considerable amount of research and imagination, too. For one thing, while I love to bake and am a champion eater, I don’t consider myself all that great a cook.
This story was a departure from my previous work in that it depended a lot on form, but the way those two disparate ideas from my past (my student and my college town) had to ferment awhile before I could connect them and get a sense of the logic they might make in proximity to each other, that mystical sort of synaptic accident is pretty typical of the way I work.
Notes on Reading
My longtime affections as a reader are divided pretty equally between Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, and Shakespeare. But that doesn’t begin to cover the writers I’ve fallen in love with over the years, the ones that make me want to stop reading in the middle of a sentence so I can go revise a story a little further, or pull another one out of the air. I’m a constant reader and I don’t leave the house without a book. I like it when a book makes me forget the time and the year, when the story becomes much more real than the green couch I’m curled up on or the steaming coffee on the end table. The Poisonwood Bible does that to me, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, The Stand, It and The Eye of the Dragon. My mother made me start memorizing speeches from Romeo and Juliet when I was three years old; I still remember parts of them. And in the second or third grade, my father read me The Hobbit in its entirety over the course of what must have been several hundred bedtimes. Every day I’m more and more grateful that my parents gave me that gift: a hunger for language.
Ron Carlson says in his book on craft that reading and writing are different activities because one is reactive and one is creative. He also says “you have to do one in order to do the other,” and I absolutely believe that. I go back to my favorite short stories again and again. “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, “Brownies” by Z.Z. Packer, “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham, “Marzipan” by Aimee Bender. I’m drawn to books with young narrators figuring out how to survive the transition to adulthood like Margo Rabb’s Cures for Heartbreak, which is a funny, quirky and cringingly honest book I’m always recommending to people. I’m also drawn to books so complicated, so intricate and sweeping, that I’m reminded of how much I still have to learn. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those, or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I just read Tristam Shandy for the first time and was blown away. There’s so much out there, and I think it’s wonderful that I have no hope of ever reading it all. The worst fate I can imagine would be to run out of new books to discover.
About Katie Cortese
Katie Cortese received an MFA in Fiction Writing in 2006 from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University. For fiction and poetry she has earned several Swarthout Awards and two Sonoran Prizes, and her work is published or forthcoming in PANK, Passages North, The Superstition Review, The Ampersand Review, NANOfiction, St. Ann’s Review, Zone 3, The Comstock Review, Zahir, Willow Springs, and NewSouth. Currently, she edits The Southeast Review out of FSU, and is at work on a novel set in Italy and Boston in the early 1900s.