Libations in Literature: Cooking the Books with Laura Anne Gilman

Author Laura Anne Gilman visits Cooking the Books armed with a diet coke, a mug of coffee, and… if we go past 5pm, and you’re of age, a few tips on how to make a perfect gin and tonic.

She’s here to discuss libations in literature. The topic is particularly apt: Laura Anne is not only a connoisseur of fine wines and beverages, but also the author of the Vineart War and the Gin & Tonic mystery series as well. There’s also a lot of caffeine in her Cosa Nostradamus series, as well as other works, which we will discuss shortly.

A discussion of libations encompasses a range of beverages, from water to wine, and beyond. Can you talk about why these drinks are important to narrative?

Writers write a lot about meals and great big feasts, especially in epic fantasy. But when you look at our society, when people gather outside of those feasts, we meet over coffee or we have drinks. It’s a very social thing.  We eat, and we drink water in order to keep our bodies going, but we also drink in order to sort of smooth the passage of conversation. 

If you want to schmooze someone, to get information, you buy them a drink. If you want to get someone drunk so they’ll do something stupid for political reasons, this also requires libations. You don’t do it over a hamburger. It’s always struck me as an aspect of storytelling that tends to get overlooked. Everyone deals with the traditional food aspects of storytelling, but look at how many scenes take place in bars and coffeehouses, taverns, and tea houses.

Can you give us some examples?

First of all, Tolkien – almost every time we see the hobbits, they’ve got half pints of beer in their hands! If you read hardboiled mysteries or urban fantasies with a bit of noir — someone is going to walk into a bar at some point.

I read a lot of Asian-set mysteries, especially historical ones. In those, you will get tea being served, or being referenced , and if you read any traditional English “cozies” – the certainty of those is that someone is going to serve tea at some point. It certainly happens in Sherlock Holmes, with the ‘cuppa.’

It’s a trope that is useful as opposed to just being fun.  Really, if you think about it, you will be hard pressed to find a book that doesn’t have drinks.

How much do you think that percolates through science fiction and fantasy?

Try to find a single epic or historical fantasy book that does not have at least one tavern or bar scene.  For science fiction: The spaceport bar is a standard – [Spider Robinson’s] Callahan’s! And it’s hard to forget the visuals of the cantina scene in Star Wars….

Again, we’re going back to a social aspect. Callahan’s is a gathering point. Where can you make people meet, both by design and accidentally?

The spaceport bar nails that moment of communication. Where else would you talk to strangers? And talking to strangers is what starts or ends most stories.

Let’s talk about this in relation to your stories. Do you tend toward coffee and tea stories, or bars and taverns?

In my urban fantasies, the Cosa Nostradamus books (the Retrievers series, the Paranormal Scene Investigations series, and the new Sylvan Investigations stories),  it’s been pointed out to me that characters drink an awful lot of coffee. They are drinking in cafes and in diners. Especially in diners. I guess I’m a Jersey Girl.  In a diner, when you talk to people, you’ve got a mug of coffee in front of you.  The worse the better, for the sake of the scene.

Before we started this interview, I was working on a scene where my characters are sitting there with coffee and a briefcase between them… I love caffeine.  It may reflect my necessity but it is also something that fuels modern society.  Coffee, tea, soda…

The Vineart War is more of a historical epic fantasy. It is actually very different in that the entire basis for the society is wine magic. But the magic is not the alcohol, itself, but what’s in it. Wine is used in a very different sense. It’s an agricultural magic. Everything depends upon what happens to the grapes. The soil and the water; the making and using of the alcohol.  Which again goes back to a sense of wine especially being a social thing. It’s not something you drink to get drunk. It’s something that you use in order to facilitate.  So The Vineart War, for all that it’s about alcohol, is actually a deviation from how people usually see it. It connects everybody.

The vines connect all the strangers, all the countries.

Yes.  The title of the third book is The Shattered Vine.  The vine connects everything, similar to the Tower of Babel, where you had the one language that was shattered. In The Vineart War, you have the one magic that was shattered so that nobody could have too much of it. They have to work together if they want to use it. And the vinearts, who are the makers of the wine, produce the magic, but aren’t actually the ones using the magic. There’s a co-dependency there.  I was playing with a lot of aspects of alcohol as a social mechanism, without actually using the alcohol aspect of it.

In that world, it’s very unusual for anyone to get drunk. If they do, it’s not on wine, they use beer.  There is also a passing reference to whisky magic in the books. But it’s a whole different mindset to them. Alcohol is not about inebriation.

In the Gin & Tonic mysteries, which you mentioned, the entire setting is the bar, Mary’s, in Seattle.  Teddy Tonica is a bartender there, and a lot of the discussions that people have occur at Mary’s.

Ginny, Teddy’s partner, would very much like to be a noir dame. She has a signature drink, a gimlet. There are bits of story where characters interact around alcohol.

I guess I have overall a pretty positive view of alcohol – used wisely. It’s a thing, it’s a tool. But if you ignore it, you undercut the reality of a scene. You can have a teetotaler society, but having a teetotaler society is still acknowledging the existence of alcohol, or the existence of caffeine for that matter.

If you say, ‘They can’t have that,’ you are saying they can’t handle that.  Even in the Vineart War’s world, there’s an awful lot of dependence on a substance that translates as tea.  It’s what people do.

It’s really hard to write a society where there’s not some variant of that and it’s almost always liquid.

When you create your characters do you give them signature drinks?

When I’m creating characters, I don’t tend to write out what they’ll be like. I tend to write the scene and what they enjoy comes out in the scene. Then I’ll say, “Well yeah, of course.” Ginny is the only one who has a signature drink because she was, in my mind, the one who would decide that all she was going to drink was gimlets.  She’s a little fussy and very controlled and likes a certain image. And she’d say, “This is what I drink.” If she were to do something else, people would say, “Who are you and what have you done with Ginny?”

Characters might drink tea or have a diet coke addiction or something like that, but that comes out of the scene, not out of my thinking, “This is what the character will be like.” I know a lot of people create their characters like that. Even when I was playing dungeons and dragons, I couldn’t.

Do you think of yourself as more of a bartender or a patron?

I’m definitely a bartender sort. Even when I am attending parties, I will find some way of helping out.  It’s easier to observe and interact if you have some way of interacting with people.  I like the structure of interaction.  The joke is in my family I’ll be the one opening bottles of wine and making sure glasses are filled. I’m the family sommelier. Simply because I’m good at it. I worked in a wine store and ran tastings. I’ve even helped bartend at SFWA parties.

I’m very much an introvert and to get over it – which you have to do in order to survive in this industry – I like to help. Helping out gives me something to do. Plus, I’m a Virgo, everything has to be orderly.

Seattle, the city where the Gin and Tonic series is set, is far from your home in New York. Would you talk about libations in different locations?

I have a rule when I travel: I have to try something different, every time I go some place. That’s a little difficult to do with drinks. First time I was in Dublin, there was a lot of drinking. The dead dog party (after the convention) was at a lovely pub where participants go every year. There were all these lovely beers that I couldn’t get at home. So I was ordering half-pints –something that you don’t see often where I live, which I learned I prefer – and getting shit from the bartender. She was mocking me.

So I said, “I’m slightly built and want to try everything,” – I worked that, and she was ok with it. And I learned that Guinness tastes much better in Dublin than it does in the States, no lie.

In Italy, I would have cappuccino and pastry at 10 am. In the UK, I’d have a quick beer in the afternoon.  These are things that shift regionally. In France, I would go in and lean against the bar in the morning and have a croissant and coffee – you don’t sit down and have breakfast. The cultural differences are fascinating, and I often find myself bringing new habits home.

Even in Seattle versus NYC, there are noticeable subtle differences. Seattle has something called, I think, ‘dealers’ choice.’ Bartenders can allow dogs in. I don’t think that’s true in New York City. But because each city can make its own rules, that makes it different.

NYC is a café society – warm weather and windows are thrown open and everyone’s spilling out.  But there are a lot of places where that doesn’t happen – too hot or to rainy – or streets are too narrow.

In New Orleans, there’s no open container law.  You can drink on the street. You do that in New York City? You will be arrested.

And there are some places in the United States that have drive through liquor stores. Brew Thrus? I saw that and thought, “Who thought this was a good idea?”  But it’s a regional difference.

Tell us a bit about your upcoming projects.

Heart of Briar is just out, and its companion, Soul of Fire comes out in October. This is an urban fantasy duology, called the Portals Series. It’s a retelling of Tam Lin.  All of the tropes get subverted in this book. All right, I admit it, there isn’t a lot of drinking in it, but there’s high stress, and the leader is walking around with a mug, and there’s always coffee brewing.

What was really interesting about Heart of Briar, because my heroine is an asthmatic, is that I had to explore all the needs of having water and medication on hand. Which is very interesting in terms of restructuring fight and running-away scenes….

Also coming out in November, the second Gin and Tonic book, Fixed. It’s set in an animal shelter, and stars Gin and Teddy Tonica, and Stacy the assistant bartender. … You just got the title, didn’t you?

Other things coming out towards the end of the year are two Sylvan Investigation novellas – more of the urban fantasy Paranormal Scene Investigation stories – lots of coffee, lots of booze in those. Lots of interrogations over bad diner coffee.

Yes. Everybody’s always thirsty in my books.

If you had infinite time and money, what beverage would you chose over all others?

Depends on time of day and what I’m eating. I am very much a wine person. I have a reputation for scotch, but wine is my relaxation.

Wines are so different. They have so many different personalities. Sauvingon Blanc, Voignier, Nero d’Avola – which is like a Pinot Noir grew balls. It’s perfect with a Bolognese sauce.

You don’t have to match food to wine, they are complimentary – if you pick the right wine, everything gets better.  Red with fish, white with steak – you match texture more than color.

Given everything, I would probably choose an Italian red.  Or possibly a Spanish red.  A lot of fruit, rounded, lingering, something not meant to be drunk alone in a dark room. It’s better with other people.

Wine is communal.

That’s a lovely note to end on. Thank you so much for joining us!  I notice that you’ve brought a bit of a recipe to share with the Cooking the Books audience.

Yes. I can tell you how to make:

A Perfect Gin and Tonic.

  • The Perfect Gin and Tonic starts with the most important ingredient. No, it’s not the gin. It’s the tonic water. Too many people use the cheapest tonic water they can find. That’s always a mistake. You want to find a really good quality tonic that tastes good on its own.
  • Then find a good gin, one you like – preferably not flavored, keep it clean and simple, but if you like flavored gins, go for it. The percentage of gin to tonic for each drink depends on how much you plan to drink.
  • Never fill the glass all the way. Room to breathe, like with wine, and if you knock the glass over it doesn’t spill as much.
  • Then, don’t put lemon in it. Use lime. Lemon is too sharp.  Lime has a more rounded taste to it, brings up the flavor of the gin.

We’ve test-driven this because it gets really hot in NYC in July and August. Gin and Tonics are medicinal in hot climates. The tonic water keeps you from getting malaria.  And the lime keeps you from getting scurvy.

Thank you again, Laura Anne!

Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the popular Cosa Nostradamus novels, the Nebula award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy, and the forthcoming Portals duology (HEART OF BRIAR and SOUL OF FIRE), in addition to a wide range of short fiction from many fine publishers. In 2012 she dipped her pen into the mystery field as well, writing the Gin & Tonic series as L.A. Kornetsky. You can visit her online, and follow her on Twitter.


  1. Fabulous interview!

    Not only does Louisiana have drive through liquor stores, they have drive through daiquiri stands. Like, let’s not even bother pretending you’re going to take this alcohol home, you’re going to actively drink while driving.

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