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Make Lunch, Write a Book

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.)
Lunch at the shop cover gallery 2
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?

The John McPhee Reader

John McPhee’s work appears in nearly every writing class I teach. I offer it as a prime example of the carefully constructed and compelling narrative, though I have little interest in the subjects he writes about. I was never curious, for example, about the geology of the Grand Tetons or the intricacies of cattle brandingContinue Reading

Writing, Italian Style

They’ve gone. They’ve packed their laptops, narratives and memories of a week together on the Amalfi Coast. Here, they read and critiqued (with love) each other’s work. They laughed and cried and hugged and, when parting, swore to stay in touch. We all ate meals so irresistible it seemed we could raise funds for theContinue Reading

Writing LBJ

An hour before the curtain of “All the Way” at the Neil Simon Theater, two middle-aged women walked past the marquee and saw the oversized photograph of Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson. “Look,” said one. “It’s Mr. White. I didn’t know he was on Broadway.” Referring, of course, to Cranston’s breakout role in “Breaking Bad”Continue Reading

Amalfi Calls Wally Again

That’s Wally Lamb and yours truly looking at something in Praiano. Our gazes are upwards, obviously, so it’s not likely we’re peering at the unrepentant goat that ate Suzanne’s silk scarf. It may just be that we’re admiring the hillside town itself where Wally, Suzanne and I spent  a week last March with the firstContinue Reading

A Toast to Billy Collins

About thirty minutes before the reading by Billy Collins on Wednesday evening, the gates closed at Hill-Stead Museum.  No more cars could be accommodated. It was another poetry traffic jam in Farmington, Ct. By then 1,600 people filled Hill-Stead’s sunken garden. As they awaited the former U.S. Poet Laureate, another 96, many in party attire,Continue Reading

Carolyn Forche and Col. Gaddafi

The subject of the nefarious Colonel did not come up right away. First, there was more digestible dinner conversation in the hour before Carolyn Forche’s recent reading at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. Though she is known  especially for exposing human rights violations, Carolyn recounted a very different phenomenon –a new form of, well, ghostContinue Reading

Not Writing Excuses

Usually, the excuses are along the lines of: I don’t have time to write. (Translated: I’d rather watch the George Zimmerman trial.) I’m not sure I can do it. (Translated:I have a thin skin.) I’ll get around to it someday. (Reality: Someday never comes.) But here is something different, a humanitarian excuse. It is fromContinue Reading

Writing Eulogies: ‘Infidelity’ Version

Jerry Price’s daughter, Heather, called recently with news about her dad, my only close friend from the Vietnam War. He had suffered a severe stroke, and then, as the days passed, his condition deteriorated. He died last Monday at a hospice in rural Missouri. Heather asked if I would write a eulogy. I complied, ofContinue Reading

Jodi Arias, a Memoir

Exclusive excerpt from the Introduction of “Just Jodi,” a memoir to be published in June 2015: There is a law about not profiting from the sales of books in which a criminal describes her crimes. But then this book isn’t my fault. Over the years people have said to me various words — using nounsContinue Reading