Sensory Overload: Cooking the Books with Walter Jon Williams

Picture, if you will, Walter Jon Williams standing at a stove, stirring a pot. He catches sight of you and waves you closer. The smells coming from the pot are amazing.  You are somewhat surprised; what you know of Walter Jon Williams is that he is a ninja-writer, capable of navigating between the worlds of his twenty seven novels and three story collections with flair.

To find him in the Cooking the Books kitchen, wearing a bold Hawaiian shirt and offering you a taste of gazpacho, is a touch breathtaking. But it shouldn’t be. Walter Jon Williams has been making his readers hungry for as long as he’s been writing. And if you look closely, you’ll see that he uses food to connect his characters, to share details about his worlds in subtle ways, and to draw demarcation lines between things real and things virtual.

So pull up a chair at the kitchen table.  Walter Jon Williams has some things to say, and they are as nutritious as they are delicious.

Let’s talk a bit first about your reputation as a writer who makes his readers hungry.  So many of your stories contain sumptuous descriptions of meals. Has this had any unusual effects?

WJW: A few years ago, I discovered I had this reputation for writing about food and about characters who appreciated good food. That I’d written descriptions of food some people found too tantalizing.  So I decided to do the opposite thing in creating Lord Gareth Martinez for the Dread Empire’s Fall (Harper Torch & Voyager, 2002-2005) series.

Martinez is completely food deaf. Food is just something he has to do three times a day to stay alive. He doesn’t appreciate it. But he’s in an aristocratic society where displays of consumption are huge. He’s expected to have the right décor and the right chef to feed his guests.

In the series’ third book, Conventions of War, Martinez’ chef fires him.  The chef can’t stand cooking for someone who doesn’t appreciate what he’s doing.

So Martinez is the exact opposite of a Walter Jon Williams character.  I’m not sure anyone else got the joke, but I loved it.

In your novel Implied Spaces (Night Shade Books, 2008), the desert world’s food is very simple – mutton, dried morsels of fruit and meat, water. In contrast, the city made of glass and diamond boasts meals like fresh oysters, wine, and seafood.  What do these contrasts reveal?

WJW: Well, the first world is an arid environment with limited technology. The characters in that world are traveling from one oasis to the other, and the oases mean food and safety. They are the difference between life and death.

In the city, which is a more modern world, food is abundant.

In both worlds, food, and the act of eating together, are important socially.  Food is one way by which people encounter one another.

The worlds of Implied Spaces are created worlds, like simulations but more visceral. Can you starve to death there?

WJW: Yes, sure – although, because it’s difficult to die permanently in these created universes, you’ll be resurrected sooner or later.

In the city we’ve been discussing, your main character, Aristide, asks his companion, Daljit, “May I give you dinner?” The unusual phrasing caught my eye. Can you explain it?

WJW: He’s offering, and the dinner is a gift.  ‘Will you have dinner with me?’ reverses the dynamic— it’s asking, rather than granting, a favor.  May I give you – it’s an offering.

Aristide, also known as Pablo, had at one time a great deal of power, but chose to walk away from it— though he’s cleverly left the door half-open just in case he needs to use that power again.

He’s content to let others carry on his work, but if the situation calls for it he will offer his services.  It’s like giving someone dinner— it’s a gift from him, a favor he’s willing to offer the universe.

You see, Aristide is a retired philosopher king, and something of a Confucian. In Confucian thought, once you learn the correct principles, you can do anything. Write a poem, command an army, create a world, create a meal. He’s kind of that guy. Has spent a thousand years learning to be himself. He’s living a life of self-cultivation and waits until a situation arises in which he can make the gift of his person.

In many of your stories, we see a lot of food, but not a lot of cooking.  Given that cooking is a sensual process, what place does that have in a virtual space?

WJW: I think that virtual food is unnecessary.  I think it will become – if there is virtual food at all — play food.  It’s going to be engaging and delightful and surprising, instead of nutritious and satisfying. Food will become more of a toy.

It’s sometimes like that in the real world now, if you go to certain restaurants.  Edible helium balloons?  A lovely, delightful, tasty toy, but I suspect they lack nutrition.

Though food’s social function may be satisfied by something else in virtual reality.  Though personally, I find Facebook a very unsatisfactory banquet.

In some stories, such as your Nebula-winning novella “Daddy’s World,” food is a dividing line between the real and the virtual.  The family in that story eats rushed fast food meals before they go into the virtual space to have a “real meal” with the young boy.

WJW: The story, for those readers unfamiliar with it, is about a young child growing up in a virtual world without knowing it. He’s got a controlling parent who insists on raising him in a “normal family” – where normal has been strictly defined.

The boy’s parent has expectations about how a normal family behaves; meanwhile, the needs of the other child in real world are being neglected. She’s living a very different life – that’s a big source of tension. She has to live her real life, which isn’t as attractive and ideal, and then live it all over again for the benefit of her sibling. Food is just one aspect of that.  It’s an oppressive, totalitarian regime dedicated not to wholesomeness, but to control.

In another story, “Incarnation Day,” the main character is completely overwhelmed by, among other things, the smell and taste of real food. It’s a near reverse of “Daddy’s World.”

WJW: I think my moral with both stories is that virtual reality is a really terrible place to raise a kid.  The story is in fact almost an extension of “Daddy’s World.”  This is a situation where parents have almost complete control over the child: children are viewed as property until they are downloaded. Parents can modify their child, or terminate the child if they decide the program is irredeemably defective.

People are messianic about virtual space. I think they’re fun places to visit. I visit them on my Xbox all the time. But I don’t think they do all the things we need to live, nor are they likely to.

Meanwhile, “The Green Leopard Plague,” which is the title story to your latest collection (Night Shade Books, 2011), features a moment of biological transformation that is primarily driven by the need for nutrition.

WJW: Yes, “The Green Leopard Plague” is an extended comparison and contrast story. Parts of it take place in a very near future, and parts take place in a radically transformed future. Again, briefly for your readers, the story is about a character (a mermaid) in the far future hired to research period of lost time in the early 21st century. Specifically, the character is researching one historical figure, and their two stories are told in parallel.

The far-future mermaid is searching through ancient electronic records to find her quarry.  Her search traces the emergence of a biological transformation: a papiloma virus capable of transforming humanity and other animals into photosynthetic creatures. The transformed creatures can’t get all their nutrition from photosynthesis, but they do get a substantial supplement from it, and if you’re starving, it can make a big difference.

In the near-future half of the story, a character takes the idea of starvation a little personally and threatens to release the to end starvation in the world.  In the far future, we see the consequences of those actions played out. That is a future where biological transformation is very common.

A future with no starvation seems like potentially a very positive future.

WJW: I’ve developed an attraction for very complex future worlds in which most things go right. It’s easy to imagine a future where things go wrong. I’ve done that with Hardwired (Tor, 1986). It’s more of a challenge for me now to imagine a world with no war, poverty, or death.  What could go wrong with that kind of world?

That’s what a lot of my recent stories are about. Having that kind of advanced world doesn’t solve all your problems.  It makes your problems a lot more cosmic.

You have a new story coming out in Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin’s Rogues anthology (Bantam Spectra, 2014) – can you talk about that a bit?

WJW: The story, “Diamonds from Tequila,” has the same narrator, Sean, as my novel Fourth Wall. Sean is a broken-down former child star living in Hollywood scuffling for work. He has pedomorphosis, which means he’s retained childlike features into adulthood. Nobody wants him as lead in romantic comedy.

He’s down to reality television, that’s how bad it’s got. He’s participating in phony mixed martial arts program called Celebrity Pitfightyer.  Anybody who does that has hit rock bottom.

Then he’s hired to do special project for Dagmar Shaw, a game designer. Strange things happen, people start getting killed.  Sean has real secret he needs to keep to avoid getting found out.  He’s a character devoted to delusion and self-deception.  During course of project, Sean does become prominent media figure.

The requirement for the anthology was that we use a familiar character who is a rogue. Sean fit the bill perfectly.

In a previous Cooking the Books interview, author Saladin Ahmed mentioned Taos Toolbox and Rio Hondo as great places for both writing and eating. Could you give us an overview of the creative cooking that goes on in Taos?

WJW: Rio Hondo has been running for fifteen years. I started it with Sage Walker, who is a world-class cook.

We hold the workshop at a mountain lodge that is very isolated. There’s no way to have everyone to get their meals without making a big trek to the nearest town, which is Taos, NM.  So we decided we’d cook for everyone.

I thought, ok, chicken on grill, easy stuff. Then Sage showed up in the morning with freshly baked brioche and I realized I needed to up my game.

Then other Rio Hondo participants started asking, “Can I cook on Wednesday?” and “Can I cook on Thursday?” They were paying me to cook for me.  So that started the tradition of sharing our fiction and sharing our food at Rio Hondo. 

Have there been any memorable meals?

WJW: There are too many to think of.  One meal I do every year, because the one year I didn’t do it, people noticed and said something, is a black roux gumbo with chicken and Andouille sausage.  It’s wonderful and smoky and very bad for your arteries. Chef Francoise Auclair le Vison ran a legendary Cajun restaurant in Albuquerque, NM, in the 1980s. She was kind enough to share her recipe with me.

Every time I make it, the fire alarm goes off. It requires a really dark roux, which is even more challenging.  If you cook it for one second too long it’s burnt and the roux has to be just this side of burnt. It tastes just amazing.

I’ve got the menu list from Rio Hondo this year. (See Below.)

And what about at Taos Toolbox?

WJW: Taos Toolbox is a master class that I do every year in Taos Ski Valley lasts for two weeks. There, I teach writing with Nancy Kress, and she is a superb teacher. At the workshop, we aim to bring your fiction to the next level.  I see a lot of fiction that is almost wonderful.  My particular mission with this workshop is to release the inherent wonderfulness of people’s stories.

We do a couple things different from most workshops.  We will workshop novels.  Clarion is a wonderful short story workshop.  We spend a lot of time with plotting and structure, which is technically very difficult to teach.

Food-wise at Taos Toolbox, we don’t do gourmet feasts, but we do have a caterer who comes in and produces wonderful meals for us.  And we go out to dinner in town with the guest writer over the weekend.

Last year the students decided to throw a potluck, which was wonderful. Suddenly there were tablecloths and napkins and a wet bar and food marching in and out and it was quite delightful and something the students did for themselves and for us.

I should take this time to mention that there are still some places at Taos Toolbox this year, if any readers feel they might benefit, they are welcome to apply.

Do you have a favorite meal you’ve written about?

WJW: I ate at Nobu once and ordered the tasting menu. Everything was just first rate and well balanced and not noisy.  The food wasn’t shouting look at me!  It wasn’t trying to startle or surprise the diner. Instead it was a thoughtful conversation between diner and chef. A very intelligent one. I wrote it up on my blog. It’s my favorite food description because I could go on for as long as I wanted.

And you’ve brought a recipe for us!  Thank you so much, Walter, both for joining us to talk about food in your writing, and for sharing your amazing gazpacho recipes.

Walter Jon Williams’ Favorite Gazpacho Recipes:

Red Gazpacho

Serves 4 – 6

  • 4 or 5 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 1 Serrano pepper, minced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 lemon cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 ripe but slightly firm avocado, peeled and diced
  • 4 cups light beef stock or chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons medium-acid red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • Kosher salt and black pepper in a mill
  • 1/2 cup best-quality extra-virgin olive oil

Combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl. Add the stock, lemon juice and vinegar and stir very briefly. Stir in the fresh herbs and season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill the soup for at least one hour before serving. Remove from the refrigerator, stir, let rest for 15 minutes and then pour the olive oil over the soup and serve.

Golden Gazpacho

Serves 4 – 6

Certain varieties of golden tomatoes have a rich, velvety texture; this soup highlights that luscious quality.

  • 4 or 5 ripe golden or orange tomatoes
  • 3 cups homemade chicken stock
  • 1 small red onion, minced
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Kosher salt and black pepper in a mill
  • 1 ripe avocado, peeled and sliced
  • 4 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh minced chives

Peel the tomatoes and gently remove their seeds. Chop the tomato flesh very finely or pass it through a food mill (do not puree in a blender or processor) and place it in a large bowl. Stir in the stock, onion, garlic and lime juice. Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper. Fold in the avocado and chill the soup for at least one hour. Remove the soup from the refrigerator, ladle into soup bowls, and top each serving with a generous tablespoon of olive oil and a sprinkling of chives.

Copyright 1996 by Michele Anna Jordan, author of the Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

WJWredjacketWalter Jon Williams is an award-winning author who has been listed on the best-seller lists of the New York Times and the Times of London. He is the author of twenty-seven novels and three collections of short fiction. His first novel to attract serious public attention was Hardwired (Tor, 1986), described by Roger Zelazny as “a tough, sleek juggernaut of a story, punctuated by strobe-light movements, coursing to the wail of jets and the twang of steel guitars.” In 2001 he won a Nebula Award for his novelette, “Daddy’s World,” and won again in 2005 for “The Green Leopard Plague.”

Walter’s subject matter has an unusually wide range, and includes the glittering surfaces of Hardwired, the opulent tapestries of Aristoi, the bleak future police novel Days of Atonement, and the pensive young Mary Shelley of the novella “Wall, Stone, Craft,” which was nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, and a World Fantasy Award. He has also written for George RR Martin’s Wild Cards project.

His latest work is The Fourth Wall, a near-future thriller set in the world of alternate reality gaming. Walter has also written for comics, the screen, and for television, and has worked in the gaming field. He was a writer for the alternate reality game Last Call Poker, and has scripted the mega-hit Spore.

You can learn more at his website.

Read more Cooking the Books – The updated library of interviews is here.

Rio Hondo 2013 menu:

Sunday (Walter Jon Williams):

  • Capelletti stuffed with chicken and cheese and served in a lemon-cream sauce.
  • Roast leg of lamb stuffed with mint pesto.
  • Spring salad with balsamic vinaigrette.
  • Ice cream with dark chocolate sauce.

Monday (Michaela Roessner):

  • Tunisian chicken
  • Cheesy polenta
  • Fresh greens with dressing.
  • Chocolate-orange ganache

Tuesday (Rick Wilber):

  • Cuban chicken
  • Baguettes
  • Rice and black beans

Wednesday (Jay Lake):

  • Tibetan momos a la Lake, stuffed with beef or lamb.
  • Green salad with mustard vinaigrette
  • Cheesecake by Mikey

Thursday (Walter):

  • Heart of palm salad with remoulade dressing
  • Chef Francoise’s black roux gumbo with chicken and Andouille
  • Baguettes
  • Bananas Foster flamed with brandy

Friday (Diana Roland):

  • Louisiana boudin
  • Chicken Creole
  • Jambalaya with Andouille
  • Fresh, hot beignets


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