How do books come about? The most common way is when a writer gets an idea and then slaves over that idea for anywhere from ninety days (the remarkable achievement of memoirist Carlos Eire, in “Waiting for Snow in Havana”) to a decade (Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”) or more. Another method of creation: Make lunch.
That’s what Peter Miller does in his bookstore in Seattle. Every day, he invites his staff, guests and customers to sit down in the back of the shop and pause for a mid-day meal. Not a meal plucked from the ready-made section of the grocery store, but a meal lovingly created by him with fresh and healthy ingredients. This ritual at Peter Miller Books, near the famed Pike Place Market, became the inspiration for Lunch at the Shop, recently published by Abrams.
The publisher launched Lunch at the Shop with, well, a lunch held in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, at a restaurant called The Upper Crust. And it drew editors from Hearst magazines, Saveur, and other nattily dressed attendees. The lunch consisted of dishes made from a few of the book’s 50 recipes, and I would go into them here except this isn’t a cooking blog. (Just know that the fried chicken sandwich with avocado was good enough to stop conversations.)
I sat next to the chief publicist of Abrams, and we talked about positioning “Lunch at the Shop” in the marketplace. That is, it isn’t really a cookbook, and isn’t a memoir. It’s a book about how to live a civilized life. A great idea, but an idea that causes practical problems. When you go into a bookstore (if you still go into bookstores), you see sections marked “Fiction” and “Nonfiction” and “History” and “Poetry” and so forth. You don’t see sections called “How to Lead a Civilized Life.” That’s what happens to some good books — and this is one of them. They don’t fit convenient marketing categories. But this one will find its audience, I’m sure. I recall a similar problem twenty years ago when I helped edit “My Old Man and the Sea,” by David Hays and Daniel Hays. Many publishers rejected it because they didn’t know if belonged in the sailing section or the family section. My suggestion that it be put in the best-seller section eventually proved prescient. It stayed on the Times list for 14 weeks. Whether this will happen to “Lunch at the Shop,” even considering its considerable merits, is yet to be seen.
In his remarks, author/book merchant Peter Miller talked about the idea of the book coming out of what he does every day. And that something as basic as making lunch became a book inspiration. The old Write What You Know maxim.
For every writer there is a lunch equivalent. There is some passion that the writer has developed but may not honor in the way Peter Miller honored his workday passion. Lunch. What a revolutionary literary idea. What’s yours?