a conversation with the memoirist and food writer Elissa Altman
'You have to understand your motivation for writing your story. If it's for sheer entertainment value, don't do it. If it's for revenge never do it. Good memoir comes from a place of curiosity.'
Elissa Altman is one of those writers whose career isn’t easily quantified. She started out as a musician, studying classical guitar, then switched tack and went into food journalism and publishing before becoming a celebrated food writer.
Since then she’s honed her distinctive voice (warm but not sentimental, acutely observant, blisteringly funny) into a succession acclaimed memoirs, as well as many essays and other creative non-fiction. On top of this, she also teaches. I came across her most recent book Motherland while frantically googling mother-daughter memoirs1 while working on my own. Her book, as well as Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Mothers: An essay on Love and Cruelty by the French theorist Jacqueline Rose, became my touchstones for Where You You End And I Begin. I kept them on my desk for nearly two years. I read and re-read them, scribbled in the margins and filled them with post-its. In the end, they formed a little book support group for my own unfinished manuscript, cheering it along. Without them, I’m not sure I would have finished.
So needless to say I was thrilled — bowled over, fangirl ecstatic — when Altman herself not only subscribed to this newsletter but announced herself by in the form of a long lovely and unsolicited comment on one of my early posts about Mother-Daughter enmeshment. I felt like I’d won some kind of contest — the literary equivalent of that fantasy nursed by ever fifteen year old teenybopper, in which your celebrity boyband crush turns up on your doorstep to give you a hug. Anyway, as it turns out, in addition to being a brilliant writer, Elissa is just a generous and lovely person, as you will discover in our fascinating, wide-ranging and at times outright hilarious conversation below.
Born and raised in New York City in the 1970s, Altman attended Cambridge University and the Institute for Culinary Education. She is the author of three acclaimed memoirs and the recipient of many prizes, as well as being an accomplished teacher and public speaker. You can read more about her accomplishments here. Her newsletter, A Poor Man’s Feast, is a nourishment for the belly, brain and soul and I urge you out to subscribe.
Elissa lives with her wife, the book designer Susan Turner, and their small herd of animals, in southwestern Connecticut. When she isn’t writing she’s gardening, cooking, listening to music or walking the dogs. Or reading, obviously, but that goes with saying.
Also, this has nothing to do with anything, but I feel I should also mention that Elissa bears an eerily striking resemblance to my own mother. Then again, it might just be the haircut and glasses.
LM: Elissa. First off, I want to explain how we recently became acquainted (in the virtual sense) after you sent me a very kind, thoughtful note about something I’d written and posted here on Juvenescence. I was bowled over and enormously heartened, both as a fan of your writing and because I know how busy you are. Since then I’ve been reflecting how unusual it is for established writers to offer unsolicited generosity or compliments to others and that even when we do so it tends to be to those in our immediate circle or sphere of influence. Because of this I’ve been trying to follow your example, and it's been giving me a lot of joy… Anyway, my question is this: Was there a point in your career when you decided to make a conscious effort to spread the love in this way? Or were you just born nicer than all the rest of us?
EA: Thank you for your kind words, Leah. It's a complicated question with an equally complicated answer. I don't know that I was born any nicer than anyone else. I do, however, believe that the making of art in whatever form it comes (be it visual or narrative or [fill in the blank]) renders us effectively naked; we bare ourselves in the most profound of ways, and it seems to me that more often than not, vulnerability is met with professional and personal brutality. This is not a new thing: look at Hellman and McCarthy, Capote and Vidal, and so many others.
On the one hand, and certainly given the fact of social media, it's often predictable. It remains shocking, at least to me, that people say the things they do to (and about) each other, and I am no Pollyanna. I have seen writers tear each other down publicly in ways that are head-spinningly cruel. I have been the recipient of that professional viciousness for no other reason beyond the fact that I will not play the cruelty game. I just won't. I am ill-equipped for it on virtually every level.
This does not mean that I'm a pushover, and perhaps one of my most unfortunate personality traits is an inability to forgive people who have used me for professional target practice. Over the last few years, I have been ghosted by swaths of writers I was once very close to, and been the subject of literary gossip that has made its way back to me. I've had workshop syllabi repeatedly "borrowed" by other teaching writers. My response is, as the Buddhists say, to put down my swords and walk away, and not engage.
Certainly, a lot of the nastiness we see in our world comes from FOMO -- fear of missing out --- and an inability to allow other people success. One writer I know absolutely cannot allow other writers to have what they don't; it's almost pathological. Another lives from destructive gossip to destructive gossip. So a few years ago, when I was being used as a human pinata after my last book came out, I remember thinking: I will never be that person. I just can't do it. It's hard enough being a creative, and writers need to be uplifted for their work, not destroyed. This, however, does not mean that I don't experience schadenfreude from time to time.
LM: Your last book, Motherland, is a searingly funny and gutting memoir about your experience growing up in New York City with your single mother (pictured below) who is (rather like my own mother) quite a distinctive character. It was a touchstone for me during the writing of my own book a) because it was written both lovingly and also with unflinching honesty and b) because — and this for me was so very key — you wrote and published it while your Mom was still very much alive. How did you muster the courage to transgress what I now think of as The Mother of All Memoir Taboos — and why?
EA: Thank you. I always knew that I was going to write about us --- not about her alone, but about us together.
What is that famous James Baldwin line: Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating. My mother has appeared in many of my essays, in my first two memoirs, as the subject of a TEDx talk I gave years ago, and as the subject of a year-long Washington Post column about being the gay food writing daughter of a hyperheterosexual, body dysmorphic former-model-television-singer mother who hates food. At a certain place in that column, I realized that what I was writing about was not food, per se, but nurturing and sustenance: how do we sustain someone who resists care and love? And that has always been at core for us: I loved her and needed her to love me back. She has done the best she can, but it has been completely transactional.
The questions in my mind while writing Motherland came from a place of curiosity. I needed to take a giant step back and write myself as a character involved with this person who just can't love; she can't do it. How did that affect me, and the choices I've made, and my emotional impulses? I knew I had to write it while she was still alive because I had to understand the two of us in real time, not from a place of conjecture. She knew I was writing it, and the fact of her clinical narcissistic personality disorder worked in our favor: I actually interviewed her for it, and she was fine with that, because the best thing you can do with an NPD is put a microphone in front of them and ask them to speak. It was important to me that my narrator came through as wildly flawed. My hope was to get to a place of ambiguous transcendence by the end of the book: the narrator finally understands who, exactly, this person is and how damaged she is, and what love and obligation can sometimes look like. But we have no idea what happens next because every day is a wild ride.
LM: Also, now that the book is out in the world and the dust has settled, how do you feel about Motherland in retrospect? Was it worth it? What have you gained and/or lost from the experience of publishing it?
If you’ve read this far you know you want to read the rest — and you should! Elissa is as deeply wise as she is hilarious. But she’s also a writer and like me she has to make a living… it’s not begging to ask to be paid for our work, so c’mon on, be a mensch…