At a time when authors seem increasingly to be specialists, Mark Kurlansky is a determined do-it-all man. And to prove it, having made his name with what one of his publishers, Walker's George Gibson, calls "niche history" (Cod; The Basque History of the World) he has just ventured into fiction for the first, but not the last, time.
The new book isa collection of stories, The White Man in theTree, and is the first fiction hardcover to come from Washington Square Press, whither Kurlansky followed his cherished and long-term editor, Nancy Miller. It was she who inherited Kurlansky's first book, which revolves, like the stories, around the Caribbean where the author has spent much of his time: A Continent of Islands, it was called, and back in 1992 it represented part of an effort by its publisher, Addison-Wesley, to get further into trade publishing. Unfortunately--or rather luckily, as it turned out in the end--Kurlansky's editor there quit two months after taking him on, and he's published with Miller, through three changes of house, ever since.
Kurlansky is a big, florid-faced, cheerful man with graying hair and a bristling mustache, who has just become, to his proud delight, a father for the first time in his mid-50s. At a lunch his publisher gave to launch his latest book recently he was on tenterhooks lest he be summoned to the birth, which proved to be still 10 days off. Now he is so besotted with baby Talia (Hebrew, he says, for "dew") that he is falling behind on his work. "I pick her up at 7 a.m., and the next thing you know it's 11, and I haven't done a thing," he says ruefully.
It's a matter of particular concern, since he feels he's already "a little overdue" on his next book, which is another of those niche ones for Walker: Salt¸ scheduled for publication next year as the latest in a series of one-thing-leads-to-another books: Cod led to the principal fishermen of that , Basques, which in turn led to a consideration of what helped the cod become a worldwide food staple.
Food is important to Kurlansky, and continues to figure in his book of stories (in fact, White Man contains a glossary to some of the Caribbean dishes described with zest therein). "I had a traditional Jewish mother, and I ate and ate. I would eat absolutely anything; I always wanted to see what it tasted like. At one time I made an exception for pizza, but that's changed, too, and I can now say there's nothing I won't eat. And I'm never sick." That's not to say that in his passion to try native foods he hasn't had some fearsome confrontations. In Alaska, interviewing one of the last Eskimo speakers of pure Inuit on earth, he was offered a soup with fish eyeballs floating in it. ("No wonder there are none of them left.") Then there is the Icelandic delicacy of fish left to rot in the ground for months, and a Philippine must-have dish of duck eggs that contain tiny embryos....
Now, however, especially in the U.S., he sees a massive sameness creeping into formerly distinctive regional foods. "Everyone wants to put those new Asian spices in. In the Basque country I can still tell what province I'm in by what I'm eating." Seated with PW in a small Italian restaurant in Chelsea, he noted with interested approval that squid "en su tinta" (in its own ink) was on the menu, but settled for a less adventurous pasta dish.
Born in Hartford, Conn., Kurlansky remembers always wanting to be a writer: "I was already working on a novel in grade school. But I didn't know any writers. My dad was a dentist in a blue-collar neighborhood, and the kind of people we knew worked in insurance, or in local factories." He was a theater major in college (Butler University in Indianapolis) and thought at first he would be a playwright, even having a work done Off-Off-Broadway. "But there was no way to make a living as a playwright unless you were Arthur Miller." So after supporting himself for a while cooking in restaurants, "I went back to my other fantasy: to be a newspaperman."
A Newspaper Career
He feels his newspaper career, in which he migrated between the coasts, worked for a time with the Herald Tribune in Paris, covered the Caribbean for the Chicago Tribune for seven years while also stringing for other papers, has been "unusually fortunate," adding "I don't think I ever really paid my dues." He was able regularly to visit Spain in its last years under Franco, got to know the Basque country well, later became something of a personage in the Caribbean and laid the groundwork for his first book. He is glad now to be relieved of regular journalism, however. "I don't know how people manage to write for the papers forever. It needs immediate and unremitting enthusiasm, and that runs out after a while."
A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny in 1992 was followed three years later, also for Nancy Miller at Addison-Wesley, by the book that remains Kurlansky's favorite among his works, although he acknowledges it is "probably my least successful in terms of sales." It was A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry and came from deep in his gut. "As a post-Holocaust kid, growing up in a neighborhood with a lot of Jewish refugees, I had got the idea there were no Jews left in Europe. But I found in my European wanderings that many of them had gone back and rebuilt their lives. I wanted to tell their story."
He spent a lot of time talking to the returnees and hearing "some horrible stories that I knew I wasn't going to use, because that's not what the book was about." Despite such problems he felt the book succeeded. "The timing was right; it came out at a time when Communism was falling apart and people had reached an age when they were willing to talk." The book, however, did not get the attention he had hoped for; the New York Times didn't review it--"essential for a book like that"--and it soon went out of print. Kurlansky longs to get the rights back and republish it, though he is finding that unexpectedly difficult. He has another agent now, Charlotte Sheedy, and is convinced the book could find a better home.
'Could You Do Something Smaller?'
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, which remains the author's best- known book to date, had curious beginnings. He was between agents at the time, and was talking to a London publisher (who shall remain unnamed) who had been interested in A Chosen Few but said (Kurlansky going into a creditably plummy English accent): "It's too thick. Could you do something smaller?"
Since the time he had worked on commercial fishing boats as a young man Kurlansky had developed great affection for fishermen and their way of life, and, coupling this with his knowledge of Spanish fishing, thought there might be a book in the significance of cod in the world maritime economy. The London publisher was interested, but when Kurlansky asked for an advance "there was a lot of hemming and hawing." Meanwhile, Nancy Miller had gone to work for Walker, where George Gibson, fresh from the huge success of Longitude, was looking for "good small books." He gladly signed Cod, and when the original British publisher-to-be "got on his high horse" about it, the book was sold there to Cape instead, and made a big success in the U.K.
The Basque book followed naturally from it, since cod was a staple of the Basque diet and economy. "I thought about places where cod was key, and they were high on the list. I'd thought for a long time about doing a Basque book, and when George asked if I wanted to do it, it was great--something I'd always dreamed about." It was also the first time he ever had a two-book contract, for the Basque book and Salt. "I've always been dubious about such contracts. It's tricky--you never really know who your contract is with." But on this occasion "it was a nice position, to be able to put the books together "
And he enjoyed continuing to work with Nancy Miller. "It's an ideal working relationship. I wouldn't say we actually argue, but we do a lot of debating of points. She challenges me--she's always asking me to expand and explain--and we both feel free to be ridiculous if we want to be. And people who get used to working with me know how much I change as I go along. George knows the manuscript he reads at first isn't the one he's going to be publishing, which can sometimes be a comfort!"
When Miller moved to head up Washington Square Press, Pocket's trade paperback line, and was looking for a book to launch a hardcover fiction line there, she naturally thought of Kurlansky, to whom fiction was no novelty. "I'd done occasional short stories, but I don't like publishing them in literary magazines; they treat you too much like college boys." Both fiction and playwriting, he feels, have helped to sharpen his nonfiction writing. This thought leads him to muse briefly on academic writing. "In the course of my research I've read a lot of incredibly bad books--mostly by academics. I'm puzzled as to just why their writing is so terrible. These are smart people, after all. Maybe I had an answer in one reviewer, who said of my work that I didn't seem to have to answer to anyone. Perhaps that's the secret!"
Now the story collection is out of the way--the stories in White Man are a sunny bunch, poking gentle fun at Caribbean folkways and the ways in which natives and visitors interact, or sometimes fail to, liberally larded with local food lore--the fictional dog is thoroughly off the chain. Kurlansky has done a children's book for Putnam, Cod: A Fish Tale, all about the largest school of fish in the world, and what became of it. It's illustrated with his own pictures, in fact, as was the grown-ups' Cod, and he reveals that he dashes off water colors wherever he g s. "I had this fantasy of being an artist too, and started making sketches in my notebooks."
With all this activity going on, it's not surprising to learn that Kurlansky is also working on a novel--has been doing so, in fact, since before Cod--and hopes to have it ready by next fall. And after the dilatory Salt there's another, bigger book on his docket, also to be written for Miller at Washington Square, for publication two years from now: 1968: The First Global Year.
This is an ambitious notion that reaches back to his early days in journalism, when he was struck by the "ripple effect" of the various youthful outbursts of revolutionary activity that broke out that year all around the globe, from Berkeley to Chicago to Paris and the Far East. "I think it was the first time the impact of international media created such an effect," he says. "The impact of the Vietnam War on TV made everyone recognize the importance of visual media. Remember demonstrators in Chicago, yelling: 'The Whole World Is Watching!' It's the first time that was really possible." But there's still a long way to go in the research, and plenty to fill his time between now and then.
Kurlansky is somewhat bemused by the fact that, like some bestselling novelists, he seems to have a new book coming out every fall these days, and that is likely to continue: "Next fall will be the third in a row," he notes. There's something else about having a body of work behind you. "You start looking at yourself and your prejudices, as they show up in your work. I never thought of myself as a Francophile, but I just discovered I haven't done a book that d sn't have France in it somewhere." Perhaps it's only appropriate for one who thinks so much about food.