Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Shaun Smith

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Shaun Smith

Former chef, veteran journalist and fiction writer Shaun Smith dug deep into his own literary past to put together Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs (Tightrope Books), a collection of 55 of his published pieces, including book reviews, interviews and magazine features. The selected pieces are drawn from Shaun's wide publishing history in the Globe & Mail, Toronto Life, on CBC.ca and many more outlets. From Bret Easton Ellis to David Sedaris and from pig roasts to sushi, Shaun explores the love of food and of books and the controversies that inevitably arise around both.

Today Shaun speaks with Open Book about what a great novel and great cooking have in common, his most controversial review and his idea of a perfect meal.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Magical Narcissism.

Shaun Smith:

This is a “greatest hits,” if you will. From 1995 until 2012, I worked as a freelance journalist in Toronto, producing more than 400 articles during that time. I wrote on a variety of subjects, but the two mainstays were books and food. I reviewed novels, non-fiction titles, children’s books and cookbooks (I used to be a chef). I wrote profiles of authors and publishers, as well as articles about the publishing industry, and essays about my own experiences as a novelist. Wearing my former chef hat, in addition to cookbook reviews, I wrote restaurant reviews, I interviewed chefs, and wrote about food from some of my travels. The 55 pieces in Magical Narcissism constitute what I hope are the best pieces from those years.

OB:

The pieces in the book represent work from over a decade of writing for various publications. How did you decide what to include? And how did you find the experience of re-visiting your work after a long period of time had passed?

SS:

When you are selling yourself as a professional freelancer, it can be useful to point to a significant body of work, so I had been fairly careful about maintaining an archive of my articles on my website. Also, because the work tended to be fleeting — newspaper and magazine articles — I didn’t want to potentially face the day when I would have to go hunting for 400 articles. Out of vanity I would sometimes dip into that archive and re-read stuff I’d written earlier to see if it stood up. From that process emerged a large group of favourites which eventually grew into this book. Looking back, it felt nice to be able to touch them up here and there and to revert a few that had originally been cut short by editors due to space considerations.

OB:

Why do food and books work so well together as a theme for conversation and controversy? How do you find them similar?

SS:

This is a really complex and fascinating subject. I think the French food scientist Hervé This (who was kind enough to write a foreword for my book) pinned it down when he said that cooking can be — in descending order — about love, art and technique. The same is true of writing. Truly great cooking, juts like a great novel, is imbued with a kind of “spirit” that lifts the work above itself and above the world, taking you along for the ride. It moves us emotionally and can even change us. We know a great novel can do this, but great cooking can as well — change your perspective on the world. In a sense, that kind of writing or cooking is beyond conversation and only a fool attempts to debate its merits. Controversy comes into play when the work strives to achieve such an elevating level and is celebrated (or hyped by the publicity machine) as doing so, but in truth only achieves a level of clever artistry. Here is where the critic enjoys breakfast, lunch and dinner. Unfortunately people are often afraid of criticism, so there again controversy can emerge, but it’s of the most insipid kind. Writing and cooking that are merely technically good are usually not worth discussing.

OB:

Is there one piece that feels representative of the book to you, or one piece that stirred particularly intense reaction from readers? If so, why do you think that is?

SS:

Representative? I don’t know, but my favourite work in the book is the title piece, “Magical Narcissism,” a review of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Lunar Park. I think it’s my strongest piece of non-fiction, so I guess it’s representative of my abilities as a writer on a good day.

Reaction? My review of Craig Ferguson’s novel, Between the Bridge and the River, got some of his fans roiled up enough to call for a letter-writing campaign. (Oh no, not letters!) They even posted my home address on a web forum. Sadly, nothing came of it. As to why it got them riled up, I can only assume they lacked critical faculties, because it really is an awful book.

OB:

What would constitute a perfect meal for you? What would you eat, where and with whom?

SS:

Let’s start with where, because a meal in a prison cell cannot be great no matter who cooks it. There is a hotel called Balcón de la Cuesta (Balcony in the Hill) in Asturias, Spain, outside the town of Llanes (a tourist trap to be avoided) which overlooks both the foothills of the Sierra de Cuera and the Cantabrian Sea. I would dine there on a balcony of a suite with my wife, Shannon, while our little daughter, Maude, slept in a huge soft bed inside. We would drink a 2004 Rioja Gran Reserva and dine on whatever the hotel’s chef was inspired out of love to make for us.

OB:

What were you reading while you worked on this project? Is there a relationship between what you read and what you're writing? Are there types of books you avoid while working on a long project?

SS:

For the past two years I have been reading epic fantasy and science-fiction works such as Dune, Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials to better understand that terrain. Right now I’m working on a novel that has nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy. But I have an idea to write something of that genre, so I am leaping ahead in my reading as preparation for that project. When I get to the writing, I will probably stop reading science fiction and fantasy for a while.

OB:

And what are some of your favourite recent reads?

SS:

After reading Watership Down it was difficult to pick up another novel for quite some time.

OB:

What are you working on now?

SS:

A secret.


Shaun Smith is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009. As a journalist he has published hundreds of articles and reviews on books, food and other subjects with such publications as The Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, CBC.ca, Toronto Life, Quill & Quire, Chatelaine and ELLE Canada. A former chef, he cooked in such noted kitchens as Scaramouche, The Senator, The Rosedale Diner and David Wood Food Shop. Since 1995 he has worked widely as a book reviewer and publishing commentator, and also as a cookbook columnist, food writer, restaurant critic and cookbook reviewer. In April 2011, he was inducted as a Fellow into the Ontario Hostelry Institute in recognition of his work as a food writer, book reviewer and commentator. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs was published by Tightrope Books in June 2013. Visit him on the web: http://www.shaunsmith.ca

For more information about Magical Narcissism please visit the Tightrope Books website.

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