A Place to Connect: Cooking the Books with Michael Swanwick and Marianne Porter

Among the things you should know about author Michael Swanwick and his wife Marianne Porter, should you be lucky enough to dine with them: your dinner conversations will never be dull when they are near, they are literary epicures of the highest order, and Michael is a consummate storyteller, offering colorful information that may occasion a Look from Marianne.

Furthermore, Marianne is the author of a recipe for “Metaphysically Areferential Chicken.” More about that in a moment.

That this is the first Cooking the Books interview conducted over a meal (although the meal is sadly not Metaphysically Areferential Chicken), is very fitting, given the subject matter. We have gathered to talk about gatherings, conventions, writing, and how a community comes together.

Michael, knowing what we are about here at “Cooking the Books,” came prepared with his own recipe.

To wit:

Michael: “6 parts gin / 1 part dry Vermouth / 1 fish”

There is a pause at the table.

Michael grins. “I call it the Martuna.”

Marianne gives Michael a Look.

Let’s talk about cons, first: 

Michael: Years back, I was in Baldwin’s Book Barn in Wyeth country (Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania).  Which is that most sensible of institutions, a barn full of books which you are permitted to buy. I chose my books and approached the register.

Ahead of me in line was an old man, who noticed by the cash register a stack of books titled something like Rambles along the Brandywine. “I wonder if I should buy a few more of these,” he said. The cashier said nothing. “I’m down to my last three.” The cashier still didn’t say anything, but it seemed to me he was ringing up the books faster. At last, the man said, “I wrote this book, you know!” The cashier looked up, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. “Oh?” he said. “Yessss . . .” The writer put the book back, leaned his elbow on the counter and began talking. I went myself back into the stacks for a bit longer, and when I returned to the register, the writer was gone, and the cashier was in a decidedly dark mood.

Science fiction conventions – whether you go once, twice, or five times a year, are a place to connect. You meet up with Joe Haldeman. He recognizes that you’ve written something, and maybe even says a few words to you about it. Writers can have their existence acknowledged at a con, reducing the need to buttonhole clerks in bookstores. Conventions serve the purpose of keeping writers well behaved.

But cons can be exhausting:

Michael: They can. Writers spend a long weekend talking about themselves, working hard to impress each other. After which, all you want is to lie down in a dark room and put a damp towel over your ego.

After Philcon, we sometimes have an after-party at our house, and people stand around looking dazed and being nice to one another.

Marianne: It’s my favorite party. The idea was, people who come to Philadelphia for Philcon, from New York or Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, have a long drive back with nothing much to look forward to besides the Joyce Kilmer service area.

So we thought we’d invite friends over for a bowl of soup and a glass of wine or soda. Give them a chance to chat and decompress.

Is it hard to cook for a large group?

Marianne: It is, somewhat, especially with the variations on what people eat.  I keep a list on my computer of who can eat what, the allergies, the preferences.

So I cook soup, and put as little as possible in it.  One soup is meat-based, the other is vegetarian.

One gathering that started at your house became the inspiration for Metaphysically Areferential Chicken:

Marianne: The first Philford Writers’ Workshop (named in honor of the Milford and the Gilford Workshops) was held at our house in 1979.  David Hartwell, Samuel R. Delaney, Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann, and several others attended.  It was a very intense workshop.

During a critique, one writer said that another’s work was ‘metaphysically areferential.’ The author of the work being criticized didn’t think much of the term, as he couldn’t tell what it was supposed to mean. Also, he prided himself on his knowledge of metaphysics.

Six months later, that writer visited again and, as a way of turning the pain into humor, I served him the Metaphsically Areferential Chicken dish that I invented for him.

Michael: A year later, Marianne submitted the recipe to Gourmet Magazine.  They accepted it for publication, but changed the name to “Chicken Marianne.”

Marianne: Even recipes get their titles changed.

How long did the Philford workshop run?

Michael: Three years. The first year was at our house. The next year was at Gardner’s house. I forget where it was held the third year.

We kept quiet about the workshop to keep things simple, but after a couple of years, word got out and more people wanted to be part of it. That’s how Sycamore Hill got started – they created a workshop based on what they imagined Philford was like, but it was larger and much more glamorous than Philford ever was.

Why are communities so important to writers?:

Marianne: I’m an only child. My mother was one of ten children. My father was one of eight. My mother doesn’t quite understand why I’m not closer to my cousins, like she was with her siblings. I don’t have that same connection. I tend to look outside for my community.

Michael: I’m the fourteenth child of twenty-three…

Marianne gives Michael a Look.

Michael (grinning): Second of five children.

Marianne: Cooking and having gatherings is one way to connect, to make community. For instance, the party after Philcon. It’s our way of letting our friends know we like them.

Metaphysically Areferential Chicken – by Marianne Porter

Bone a chicken.  All you need is patience, big shears, and a small, sharp knife. There are lots of descriptions online and in Julia Child. Leave the lower leg bones in place and turn the wing skin inside out.

1 large eggplant
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
1 sweet red pepper
1-2 T basalmic vinegar (reduced is nice)
olive oil

Cube the eggplant into 1/2 inch dice. Salt, and drain in a colander for 1/2 hour. Rinse lightly.

Chop onion, mince garlic, chop red pepper. Mix vegetables, and saute gently until softened. Moisten with vinegar, and stuff the chicken.

Lay the chicken spread out and open, skin side down on your work surface. Mound up the stuffing in place, draw up the skin and fasten with twine or toothpicks or skewers. Place in a shallow pan, seam side down. Pat it into chicken shape.

Roast at 350 degrees for about an hour, basting occasionally with a little oil. When roasted, bring to the table on a platter that has a bit of space (fill in gaps with parsley) and slice like a loaf of bread.

Many thanks to Marianne Porter and Michael Swanwick for sharing their recipes and their stories with us.  We look forward to dining with them again!

photo: Kyle Cassidy

Michael Swanwick‘s first stories, “Ginungagap,” and “The Feast of Saint Janis,” were both published in 1980 – the former in the science fiction issue of the literary journal Triquarterly, and the latter in Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions, vol. 11 and placed on the Nebula ballot.  Since that time, Swanwick has published eight novels, most recently Dancing With Bears (2011, Night Shade Books, 2011); and numerous short stories and collections, including The Best of Michael Swanwick (2008, Subterranean Press). Michael’s awards include the Sturgeon Award (1990), the Nebula Award (1992), the World Fantasy Award (1996), and a string of Hugo Awards (1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004). For more information, please visit his website. Michael’s blog can be found at floggingbabel.blogspot.com. “The Mongolian Wizard,” the first in a series of Ruritanian fantasies, was recently published at Tor.com.

Marianne Porter is retired from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Bureau of Laboratories, where she was the Director of Laboratory Improvement.

More Cooking the Books.

One comment

  1. A delightful interview, Fran! I laughed out loud at the Martuna, and I’m glad you were able to get together with both Michael and Marianne.

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