What We Talk About When We Talk About Suet: Cooking the Books with Charlie Jane Anders

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Charlie Jane Anders’ short stories will delight you, her monthly San Francisco reading series Writers With Drinks — if you are lucky enough to be nearby — will change your worldview. And this month — her novel All The Birds in The Sky — is poised to reboot the dividing line between fantasy and science fiction.

We’re so pleased that Charlie Jane was able to answer questions for Cooking the Books — especially the important ones about dumpsters and suet — and we hope it whets your appetite for this fantastic new novel.

So pull up a seat, grab some pizza, and welcome Charlie Jane to Cooking the Books!

CtB: What are Patricia and Lawrence’s favorite foods when they’re kids vs. when they’re adults? Did that develop naturally or were you using the shifts to show character changes?

Charlie Jane Anders: Laurence’s taste in food doesn’t seem to change that much as he gets older. He seems to eat rather a lot of pizza, both as a child and as an adult. At least, whenever he’s eating food of his own volition, it almost always turns out to be pizza.

But Patricia, as a child, pretty much eats whatever she can get her hands on, what with her parents constantly locking her in her room. As an adult, it’s mentioned a few times that Patricia is eating vegan food. I pictured her being a somewhat flexible vegetarian. She works in a bakery, so she handles butter and eggs in her job, and she’ll eat eggs and dairy if other people are cooking for her. But most of the time, when left to her own devices, she’s vegan. Her tendency to eat vegan is mentioned quite a bit, in the second half of the book. I actually thought a fair bit about exactly how the grown-up Patricia
balances her need to be nice to her roommates with her desire to avoid exploiting animals. This is one of the things she’s figuring out, now that she’s living in the city as an adult for the first time.

Hot sauce and chili powder are used both as a slow-burn torture medium and as a catalyst for change — what do you think it is about spicy food that offers this range of opportunity?

Charlie Jane Anders: There was originally a lot more of this in the book. Patricia’s family lives in an old spice warehouse when she’s growing up, and I had an idea that all those lingering spices sort of help Patricia get outside herself and access her magic. And then when Roberta, her mean sister, puts way too much hot sauce onto Patricia’s food, this causes her to have her most powerful magical experience yet. It’s sort of a silly, but also kind of horrible, moment. (People have been comparing this stuff to Roald Dahl, which is surprising but kind of awesome.) But later on, Patricia finds that the spicy-food thing doesn’t automatically work to activate her magic powers, because life isn’t that simple.

Dinners with family — especially Leonard’s family, but also with Patricia’s family of choice (as well as in her room) — come up several times in All the Birds in the Sky, often with disastrous outcomes. Would you talk about the risks and rewards of dining with family?

Charlie Jane Anders: There’s a bit which I had to cut from the book, purely for length reasons, where Patricia is a grownup and she’s preparing organize her first ever dinner party. And she thinks back to when she was a kid and her parents would have these incredibly stiff dinner parties, with their over-achieving friends. Patricia would serve everybody, wearing a starchy dress, and her sister Roberta would stand in the corner playing the violin while everybody ate. It was torture. Patricia really, really wants to have a fancy dinner party as an adult, to banish the memory of this awful thing. But of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

The lunchroom: Who you sit with and adjacent to, as well as who you don’t sit anywhere near — is a familiar dread for many on the outskirts in high school. This structure sometimes perpetuates and also changes in adulthood…. how and in what ways might technology mediate that? Or make it worse?

Charlie Jane Anders: When I was revising this book, I talked to some kids who are in middle school, as well as some teachers and other staff from middle schools. And one of the things I found out was that lunchrooms are not the same now as they used to be, or at least as I remember them. At least, not in the Bay area. There’s not a bunch of small tables, which allows things to be segregated into the “cool kids” table and the “jock” table or whatever. Instead, I kept hearing that it’s just one long table, and girls occupy one half and boys the other. This is probably intended to reduce cliquishness, but probably does not work. I still pictured Laurence and Patricia sitting near each other, at the ends of the boys’ and girls’ sections, respectively.

Let’s talk about suet — did you try it? Does it really taste like pizza and brownies?

Charlie Jane Anders: I haven’t actually tried suet! I’ve definitely handled it, when we had a bird feeder in New England. It’s very fatty and gooey. I was trying to imagine how it would taste to a bird, rather than how it would taste to a human.

Witches often seem to love baking… as well as artisanal foods — Patricia’s no different, but she seems to be gentler about it than some. What choices did you make when giving her day-jobs centered around food?

Charlie Jane Anders: I actually tried writing some sections with Patricia at her day job in the bakery, and it all got cut, purely for length reasons. (This book could have been twice as long, honestly.) The “bakery” thing seemed like a plausible job for someone without a college degree that would be recognized in the U.S., and without any real “work” experience, to do. I also thought of Patricia as wanting to find ways to do nice things for people by baking yummy treats. There is a whole section about gooey, crispy morning buns, which got cut for (you guessed it) length reasons.

The importance of pizza to your high-tech characters is pretty obvious — why is that? Just the ease of applying pizza to face or something else?

Charlie Jane Anders: I hadn’t realized until just now how much Laurence seems to eat pizza. In my defense, San Francisco was really hurting for good pizza restaurants until about seven or eight years ago, when we got Little Star and Pizza Hacker and Pi Bar and a few others. So I’m still very excited to have decent pizza at last.  (Not sure when Golden Boy Pizza opened, but it may have been around longer. I only discovered it about eight years ago.)

Dumpsters are another repeated image in All the Birds in the Sky — both characters find themselves inside them. How are dumpsters, like spices, a means of bullying and also transformation?

Charlie Jane Anders: That’s a connection I hadn’t made until now! Laurence gets shoved in a dumpster, as part of his horrendous bullying experience, but he’s also shoved into every other confined space you could possibly find in or around a school. Patricia’s dumpster experience is a lot weirder and more mystical, and sort of comes out of the image of being buried alive.

You host a tremendous San Francisco series called Writers with Drinks — How did that come about and how do you prepare for your amazing monologues? (I love mine).

It’s kind of a long story! I had been MCing other literary events around town, because their organizers were too shy to do it themselves, and I hit on this crazy style of making up weird fictional bios for the readers and performers. And meanwhile, I was getting tired of going to literary events where everybody was in the same genre, and in the same scene together. So I wanted to create a “variety show,” where you wouldn’t know if the next person would be doing science fiction, poetry, stand-up comedy, “literary” fiction or erotica. The fictional bios have sort of evolved over time — they used to be very random and just kind of weird. But nowadays, I put a bit more thought into them and try to make them at least in part an explanation of why this particular reader or performer is awesome, and why I wanted to have them come and do this.

What’s coming up for you, All the Birds in the Sky, and iO9 in 2016?

Charlie Jane Anders: I’ll be doing a lot of appearances for All the Birds in the Sky, and
posting lots of outtakes and character profiles over at allthebirdsinthesky.tumblr.com. And meanwhile, I’m working on another novel for Tor, which is much stranger than All the Birds. Plus I want to write more stories about Jemima Brookwater, the time-traveling hero of my story “The Cartography of Sudden Death.”

Can you provide our readers with a favored or fictional recipe?

Charlie Jane Anders: Alas, I gave up even the pretense of cooking some years ago, when the pressures of working on io9, writing a ton of fiction and organizing Writers With Drinks started to get too hectic. But my favorite recipe of all time comes from Victoria in the Doctor Who story, “Enemy of the World”:

Victoria: We used to have a lovely pudding at home, with lots of
almonds, eggs, lemon peel, candied peel, oranges, cream and, oh it was

Cook: You wouldn’t know how to make it?

Victoria: Oh it’s quite simple, really. You sort of whoosh it up all together!

charliejaneCharlie Jane Anders is the editor in chief of io9.com and the organizer of the Writers With Drinks reading series. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, Lightspeed, Tin House, ZYZZYVA, and several anthologies. Her novelette “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo award. You can find her on Twitter, iO9.com, and at her tumblr.

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