In our latest Trip Lit column, reviewer Don George chose Marc Fitten‘s, Elza’s Kitchen, as the Book of the Month calling it a “multi-course lesson in the dreams and challenges of contemporary life in Hungary.” I caught up with Fitten to talk about what it was like for this Brooklyn native to write about another country — and from a woman’s point of view. Here’s what he had to say.
Rhett Register: Your main character is a woman. Did you find it difficult to write from a woman’s point of view?
Marc Fitten: I’m a huge fan of the director Krzysztof Kieślowski‘s Three Colors trilogy. I saw the films a long time ago, but they have haunted me ever since. When I consciously decided to take on this project I call “The Paprika Trilogy,” I thought about those films and came to the conclusion that my protagonists would be women. The most difficult part of the process, in terms of writing women as full characters, is trying to keep myself from projecting my male fantasies about women onto them.
RR: You’re from Brooklyn. Could you talk about the time you spent in Hungary and the challenges of writing about another country’s culture?
MF: Part of the writer’s job is to make the attempt to understand people, to imagine all the motivations and possibilities – good or bad. It is necessary for a writer to get to the heart of the character, the existential crisis, their psychology, in order for the character to ring true. It’s like the Stanislavski method for writers, I guess. I spent years living in Hungary, participating in daily life and observing. In the end, I think I came to understand where the people were coming from. I’m a huge fan of the place.
RR: Your descriptions of restaurant kitchens seem very realistic. Have you spent much time in the food industry?
MF: I worked [as a busboy] in a restaurant once when I was a kid, probably the same time I went to see those Kieslowski films. I pilfered food from the freezer or off people’s plates. I kept the salad bar full. Polished the brass. Swept up broken glass. I was resoundingly invisible and it’s in my scorecard as worst job ever. Mostly because everyone else working there – waiters and kitchen staff – seemed to be living in this other world and I could only watch from the outside. They partied together, slept with one another, shouted at each other. It was passionate stuff and looked like fun. The dishwasher and other busboys were the only people I ever spoke to. There weren’t any busgirls. That job sucked, so I decided to write about it.
RR: Most of the characters in the book are nameless and identified only by their titles — Professor of Meats, Sous-Chef. Why did you decide to go this route?
MF: There are tons of writers out there writing good stories and writing them straight. That’s fine, but I thought that if I was going to write something, I wanted to do more than get the information across. I wanted to create an artifact, a tale that could be told again and again. I thought I should have a style that people recognize — that I should call attention to the words on the page. So, Elza’s Kitchen has this allegorical style, a folk-tale feel. Think of it like this: There’s Goldilocks and Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear. I used the naming convention because I know it works — and nothing’s lost because The Sous-Chef doesn’t have a name.
The other trick is getting a reader to be conscious of this fact, and then getting them to forget it because they find the work engaging. One way to do this is through rich and sensual characters.
RR: You lived in Hungary for more than 5 years in the 1990s. Where would you recommend visiting in Hungary and why?
MF: I’ve been writing this essay about the village of Máriapócs in eastern Hungary. There’s a minor basilica there that has recently been refurbished, and it’s interesting because it is the site of a bona fide miracle. That is, it has the Vatican’s seal of approval. Pope John Paul made a pilgrimage there in the ’90s. It’s completely random, off the grid, and not anyplace anybody would include in their tour package. If you’re a fan of gothic churches and miracles, it’s worth the trek. You can also buy ice cream!
Marc Fitten is the former editor of the The Chattahoochee Review and the Red Hen Press literary translation series. His first novel, Valeria’s Last Stand, was published in 2009. Fitten lives in Atlanta, Georgia.