MAINTAINING THE BUZZ

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others.

Successful restaurants, or so I’ve read, can go downhill overnight. The public can be fickle, on one side, and the operation itself, on the other, can implode. Oh, the stories we could tell!

In my new novel, What’s Left, her parents’ generation takes bold steps to anticipate changes in American food tastes. They brazenly agree to slightly re-position their landmark burger-and-fries restaurant (now called Carmichael’s Indiana) and the bar (the Taverna) while adding two new venues, one upscale (Carmichael’s Starlight), the other vegetarian (Bliss).

~*~

Though I cut this from the final version, I still love the taste of it on me tongue:

And the new Carmichael’s Stardust usually offered something daring, for our neck of the woods, depending on how we were feeling and how adventurous our customers were responding. Lamb shanks, anyone? Artichokes? Cornish hens? Brussels sprouts? We were expanding their horizons.

~*~

Well, that would have been pretty daring for the mid-’70s! We’ve come a long way since, something I’ll assume the Stardust menu has pursued. Vegetarian, meanwhile, has become both stricter and more innovative through its vegan adherents. I’m not at all surprised to find how often our meals fall into its range, even without trying. As for a late-night gathering spot? The Taverna strikes me as a step up from a typical bar. Makes me think, in fact, of the late lamented Barley Pub here in town.

Think of your own tastes. Which of the restaurants would be your first choice?

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AS LONG AS WE’RE PLAYING MOVIE DIRECTOR

Imagining a movie version of my new novel, What’s Left, who would you like to see portray Cassia’s great-grandfather Ilias?

He’ll have to be gentle, wise, even shrewd, as well as an excellent carpenter.

~*~

Baklava Kymi, Greece, photo by Mari Beika via Wikimedia Commons.

In the family, Cassia may have had food like this.

A WORKING MOTHER, ALL THE SAME

Cassia gets her name from the flowering acacia tree. The honey locust is a related species.

Bella is a grandmother Cassia never meets in the flesh in my new novel, What’s Left, but she’s a vivid figure in the granddaughter’s life all the same.

Bella comes to be the colorful face of the family restaurant, Carmichael’s, a woman who seems to know everybody in town and brightens their lives as soon as they walk through the door.

She may be the mother of five children, but somehow she manages to juggle both work and family – perhaps thanks to the older generation’s active support.

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JUST TRY TO PICTURE THEM

In the (still imaginary) movie version of my new novel, What’s Left, who would you cast as Cassia’s great-grandfather and his brother — our Aristotle and Pericles (Ari and Perry)?

~*~

The man behind the counter of this diner in West Frankfort, Illinois, is its proprietor, Gus Vardas. Photo from Kim Scarborough via Wikimedia Commons.

In my novel, the family restaurant could have been like this.

WHO CHALLENGES THE BOSS?

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others.

In his prime, as his parents and their siblings recede from the business, Stavros is free to operate largely as an autocrat.

Is that really such a good thing? Or does his wife, Bella, keep him in line?

As my draft once explained:

He’s not only preserved Papou Ari’s concept of our own Mount Olympus, he’s expanded and upgraded its holdings. The once neglected in-town blocks are gaining new panache.

~*~

I doubt Stavros would have seen his position as nearly so liberated. He probably would have seen himself hedged in by suppliers, prices, customers’ expectations, health inspectors, taxes – oh, can’t you just hear him rattling off a long list?

Imagine yourself as the boss in your own dream job. What would that be? And what policies or practices would you do uniquely your own way?

BARNEY ON THE BURNER

Her uncle Barney undergoes a remarkable awakening in my new novel, What’s Left. Instead of going to college, he stays home and soon finds himself fully responsible for managing the kitchen of the family restaurant.

He has, though, tasted the social upheavals in the wider world and quietly rebelled at the strictures of his parents. The status quo is endangered.

The return of his older brother, Dimitri, changes everything. Barney is pressed to expand the menu into dishes drawn from unfamiliar cuisines, flavors, and ingredients, and that requires mastering more demanding techniques and advancing his ability to taste subtle nuances. All of that puts him at the center of intense debate and experimentation, abetted by his wife, the lively Pia, plus the family circle of Graham, Nita, Yin, and Cassia’s father, even before their business expands into related food fields including a bakery, a brewery, and a natural foods grocery.

It’s a lot to put on his plate, but I know it can be done. Barney has that kind of curiosity, for one thing, and a tongue to match.

As Cassia discovers, in a passage that’s evaporated from the final version:

Barney’s into astrology and palmistry, through the grandmothers. When I ask about drugs, all I’m told is, Not the hard stuff. And even with the Buddhism, for him, hippie is about the music, more than anything else – as you’d hear in Carmichael’s kitchen, night and day.

~*~

Let’s get back to basics. Imagine yourself sitting down with this group for a night off. They’re phoning an order for home delivery. What’s your favorite pizza? Why? Who do you think wants the one with anchovy?

~*~

Kore in Acropolis Museum. (Photo by Ricardo Andre Frantz via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this.

CHARACTER OR ACTION DRIVEN?

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

A common question for novelists asks whether their book is driven primarily by the development of its characters or by the actions of its plot. It’s not one that had been front-and-center for me until my newest work began taking shape. For one thing, my previous fiction all falls under the category of Experimental, and, for another, I’ve usually been of a contrarian nature. Maybe the earlier stories were more event or episode driven than action propelled, and characters added whatever they had. As I’ll say, up till now. Or, as I might add, a journalist is more concerned about what’s happened than the motivations of the individuals involved.

My new novel, What’s Left, was initially envisioned as a kind of post-hippie history – an update flowing from the ending of my first published novel, in fact. But then it began turning into a different kind of history, going back further to her immigrant great-grandparents. Well, at that point the story could develop either way, based on the characters or their encounters. What clarified the direction for me was my decision to have her father vanish in an avalanche halfway around the globe, which precipitates her obsession to know just who he really was. And that made it character-driven.

As she discovered more about her father – and her colorful, extended family – I realized I wanted to know more about Cassia herself, starting with her reactions to the clues she was uncovering.  In the end, What’s Left is about her, told in her voice from age 11 into her early 30s. As for the history? It’s bound to be in her blood.

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