If you enjoy a good romance accompanied by some great wine and food, you’ll really dig Charles Blackstone’s Vintage Attraction. It’s a book about the complexities of wine, quirky loves, the pitfalls and joys of celebrity, and conflicted identity. Both the protagonist, Peter Hapworth, and his famous love interest, Isabelle Conway, are bound up in culinary inquisitions that act as narrative parables for their relationship. I laughed a whole lot, found much to relate to in Hapworth, and enjoyed some interesting lessons on wine. Charles was kind enough to sit down at Entropy and answer some questions on fortune cookie love, being a lit sommelier, and how wine changed his writing.
ENT: You describe Isabelle Conway in terms of food: “Her eyes were the color of coffee beans… Her long hair was wound into a shimmery bittersweet chocolate.” What’s the intersection for you between food, romance, and writing?
Charles Blackstone: For these characters and the writing of this story, food and romance is very intertwined. Hapworth is hungry at the outset of the novel. He’s hungry for experience, hungry for inspiration, and hungry for love. (Are those even mutually exclusive categories?) To extend the metaphor, Izzy, too, though perhaps sated professionally, is also hungry for love and for someone with whom she can share this inherently shareable world. And given the nature of her profession, and Hapworth’s desire to immerse himself in it, a lot of their relationship, their perceptions of themselves and each other, will necessarily have food and wine functioning on some symbolic level. In the early days, when things begin to get difficult, the meals are tense, wine gets drunk in uncomfortable excess. When the relationship’s course rights itself again, the meals and the drinks are more romantic.
ENT: There’s a line where Hapworth observes: “It never ceases to amaze me how badly people misinterpret insignificant gestures,” and you mention the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as well as a subway transfer. What is it about human nature that causes it to seek significance even in insignificance?
CB: That’s a good question! I think it’s comforting for most people to find significance in insignificance, hope against reason. Maybe the seeking is a way of managing the unmanageable aspects of life? Both of these characters are very much optimists in a world that lends itself to pessimism. They’re both people who connect to fantasy in spite of, or because of, the very real “real world” in which they live, and yet, because they’re so entrenched in reality, their ability to romanticize only goes so far. The chances of having a Craigslist missed connection ad recipient actually see the post and respond to it must be infinitesimal. And yet people still post them by the millions. And many others read the ads to silently cheer along the unlikely. It’s a phenomenon to explore in prose. Also, I think fiction itself is about seeking significance in the insignificance. Certainly for an artistic, writerly narrator like Hapworth, the minutiae of life, both consciously and unconsciously, is extremely important to him.
ENT: Before reading Vintage Attraction, I actually had not known that the book was partly autobiographical. At the same time, fiction gives the freedom to, well, create. How much of Peter Hapworth is/isn’t you?
CB: I think with any point-of-view character I write, no matter how near to me or how far from me, I’m always playing the part of the character during the course of writing. It’s the only way to achieve an authentic voice and perspective. I can’t see things the character wouldn’t see, can’t think things the character wouldn’t think. If I enter into the story, the telling is going to be inauthentic. Even when a character I’m writing shares a lot of things in common with me, I still feel after a certain point I’m channeling someone else, and I am. Regardless of the similarities between Hapworth and me, experiences we had in common, he only exists on the page. The fact that I must conjure him on the page makes it all a creation. And I also think I give an autobiographical character the most of my life, the most “real” details, at the beginning of the story. They’re a launching pad. That was the case with Hapworth. The manner in which he discovers Izzy, how he approaches contacting her, the email he sends her, her positive reaction, all of that comes from my life. But from there, more elements that are “pure invention” begin to accrue. (I hasten to say “pure invention,” because many of those elements are taken from the lives of other people I know, so I’m not really producing anything, really, from nothing. I don’t believe that ever really happens in anybody’s prose.) Again, though, regardless, it’s all pure invention to me, since none of it existed on the page until I got it there. (And as real life becomes intangible, as it will inevitably do, all that’s left is what’s on the page.)
ENT: In some ways, the culturation of wine could be an analogy for the growth of the main character. How would you say wine has changed your writing?
CB: Wine definitely brought about this story. I didn’t know much about the restaurant business or the wine industry before a certain point in time. Whatever I’m writing at any particular time reflects where I am in the world. When I was in college and grad school, I wrote stories about guys who went on dates and didn’t understand why they went badly, or about guys who wanted to be writers. That’s where I was in the world. I knew nothing of marriage, of professional life. I lived alone and watched TV and ate pizza (and drank probably very terrible wines). Now that I’m older and have experienced more consequential things, I’m able to write about such things. Hapworth is actually seven years older than I am. My protagonists before him were largely the same age as I was at the time I was writing them. I don’t really see him as older, though. He’s very much an adolescent at the outset.
ENT: There are parts of the narrative that remind me of the neurotic quality of Woody Allen’s films and there’s also mention that Hapworth describes Hemingway’s Garden of Eden as a “lifetime favorite” which he devours at a Dunkin’ Donuts. What, if any works (which includes films, books, essay, paintings), were inspirations for you?
CB: Certainly Woody Allen and Hemingway were inspirations for me. It was actually The Great Gatsby that I read in an uncomfortable chair at a Dunkin’ Donuts when I was in college. Joan Didion also comes to mind from that time. Some of the most important films for me, the films that influenced my literary aesthetic, came out in the early and mid-90s, the auteur period revival, as I like to call it. Hal Hartley, Whit Stillman, Nicole Holofcener, Noah Baumbach, Eric Schaeffer. These days I still pretty much only ever actively seek out a movie if one of these writer-directors has made it. My great-grandmother Janet Sobel was a painter (a self-taught outsider who became important in the 1940s and is said to have influenced Jackson Pollock and set him off dripping), and I sat beneath a painting of hers in my living room for much of the revising of Vintage Attraction. I like to think she was kind of watching out for me as I worked.
ENT: One of my favorite scenes in Vintage Attraction is the marriage proposal and Isabelle’s response through a fortune cookie: “Now is the time to try something new.” Can you talk about how and why you decided to frame the sequence in this way? (unless it’s all based on what really happened)
CB: I didn’t propose with a fortune cookie. I’d actually gone out and gotten a ring. I was definitely a little more established in the world at the time I proposed to my sommelier than Hapworth is when he proposes to his. I had to account for his lack of establishment though, and it seemed to me that he wouldn’t have been able to get it together to have a ring. I also was trying to exaggerate the spontaneity of how quickly things come together for them for dramatic effect. Neither really thinks about too much that doesn’t have to do with love in the early chapters. I feel like actually thinking far enough ahead to get a ring wouldn’t have been something either of them would have done.
ENT: “Only three percent of the countless thousands of worldwide examinees ever became master sommeliers.” Is having a discerning palate something you’re born with or something you can learn?
CB: It certainly helps if you’re born with a predisposition to taste well. I think a lot of people that go far in wine (and in culinary) have a predisposition. But you also hear about a lot of people who didn’t grow up around food that do end up working in it. I’ve always noticed that master sommeliers are really good cooks. Perhaps part of that has to do with their restaurant background, and part of it has to do with their relentlessness when it comes to pursuing challenges to mastery. Also, though, wine deconstruction and analysis is largely about taste, texture, and smell. Smell more than anything. Anyone can build a scent memory bank, theoretically. It’s just about being aware and trying to take in as much as possible, and, with any luck, being able to keep it in your head forever.
ENT: Being the managing editor of Bookslut, you read a whole lot of reviews and in some ways, serve as a sommelier of literature. What effect has that had on your own writing?
CB: A lit sommelier! I love that. And am going to have my business cards updated accordingly. I think reading reviews and working with publicists and being in the business of publishing reminds me on a daily (possibly hourly) basis of that publishing is a business. When I knew nothing of the industry, I think I could write a lot more spontaneously. Now, I’m less likely to embark on a big project (or a small project) without really believing that it’s viable in the marketplace. I’m also more inured to reviews that I get. I know how very subjective reading is and how if a reviewer isn’t particularly smart or sensitive, her response to the book and the subsequent review is going to reflect that.
ENT: If you were to describe your memories of Greece in smells and foods, what would they be?
CB: A lot of seafood. A lot of wine. There were also a lot of herbaceous scents everywhere. Fennel and anise. There was one dessert that I loved, a semolina cake soaked in simple syrup called revani. It’s very easy to make and yet I never see it on menus in Greek restaurants here in the States. Disappointing. Spanikopita, too, we ate a lot of on the trip. Ouzo, of course. Every protein and vegetable and product was so fresh and vibrantly flavored. This question is making me hungry.
ENT: In an old interview, you described yourself as a “relentless reviser.” In retrospect, is there anything you’d like to change about Vintage Attraction?
CB: I haven’t really gone back to read the book, aside from passages here and there I’ve delivered at events, so I don’t know. I’ve always said, and I think others have also said, that the only way to “finish” writing something is to stop writing, so that’s what I eventually had to do with this one. I had a couple of thoughts about things I didn’t do and have recently thought I could have done, but I’ve forgotten what those are now. I’m happy with how it turned out, though. And I’m glad to hear that the readers are happy with it, too.
ENT: What forthcoming books are you looking forward to reading?
CB: 2014 is already showing signs of being a really exciting year for books. I’ve begun reading advance copies of Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out, Michelle Wildgen’s Bread and Butter (another novel set in the restaurant business!), and Kody Scheer’s story collection Incendiary Girls. I bet Gary Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure will garner a lot of good attention. And the second installment of Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini’s YA trilogy House of Secrets will be a bittersweet arrival in March.
Chicago-native Charles Blackstone, one of Newcity’s Lit 50 in 2012 and 2013, is the author of Vintage Attraction, a novel published in 2013 by Pegasus Books and distributed by W.W. Norton & Company. He is also co-editor of the literary anthology The Art of Friction (University of Texas Press, 2008) and the author of The Week You Weren’t Here (Dzanc Books and Low Fidelity Press, 2005), a novel. His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology, Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. Blackstone has written essays for Chicago Sun-Times and The Millions. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. Blackstone is managing editor of Bookslut, an internationally acclaimed book review publication and blog.