I reviewed NC writer Ashley Warlick’s most recent book, The Arrangement for the Post and Courier and will post that as soon as it’s live. In the meantime, I reached out to Ashley, who teaches at the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte NC where I went to grad school. I was non-fiction and she is fiction so unfortunately I never took one of her classes, but I have every intention of making the trip from Charleston to Greenville, SC to visit her newly opened bookstore, M.Judson.
Q: Where did the inspiration for this book come from? The story seems like a great fit for you because of your background as an editor of edible Upcountry. What drew you the most, the story of the woman or the story of the food/cooking?
A: The inspiration for this book came from Joan Reardon’s biography, Poet of the Appetites. I picked it up at a bookstore when my son was just 6 months old, and read it with the kind of focus you seem to get in that time of life, often late at night, awake with an infant, keeping your own time. I knew some of MKF Fisher’s work from my interest in food writing, but I was instantly caught by this part of her history where so much seemed in confluence: her marriage, her passions, her beginnings as a writer. She seemed to be making so many impossible choices, and there was so little Reardon could go on to reconstruct what happened. There was story here that could only really be imagined. So it was the woman, her audacity, that drew me initially. Her appreciation for food was one way I felt I recognized her.
Q: Tell me about the research that went into this book. The characters are so fully realized I would love to know more about the work that went into crafting Mary Frances, Al, Tim and Gigi. How accurate are the descriptions of their lives? This is not a biography after all but was it important to you to closely follow the actual events of their lives or did you want their stories to be the inspiration or jumping off point for The Arrangement?
A: After I finished Reardon’s biography, I read everything Fisher published: her collections of essays, her journals and letters. I went through with a stack of notecards, writing down what seemed vital and making a timeline. So the summer she and Al lived with Gigi, the trip to Europe with Tim and his mother, the stretch of time they all lived in Switzerland together, ending with a visit from her parents—all that stuff happened.
I did want to follow the map of actual events, because her chronology seemed so painful and pressurized to me. To have unraveled her marriage this way, and with such audience, all while also focused on her budding career… When you read the essays she was writing at that time, she seems so controlled. So confident. And there was almost always a complex and dangerous drama developing underfoot.
And that’s the thing about a writer like MFK—she was truly artful when it came to crafting herself on the page, and it’s that ability to streamline that I think made so many of her choices possible for her. She could write about being a young romantic wife in Dijon even at the same time she was recognizing the end of her marriage and her love for someone else. She could dial in to the subject at hand. I would argue that most good writers can do that. So in a way, it was her skill that sustained her.
Q: One of my favorite descriptions of food that is so sensual and passionate is on page 67 when Fishers stands alone in the kitchen and finds a crate of avocados: “She split one along the pit and took the salt center and a spoon, stood in her nightdress in the window’s blue light, scraping the flesh from its skin and sprinkling it with salt…..” it wasn’t about being hungry, it was about being alone. This seems to the central theme of the book and one that I think will speak to many readers. The whole notion of women wanting and being ‘hungry’ and trying to find their voice. You’ve written this so beautifully into a story of marriage and friendships of people in the 1930-40’s yet it feels like a contemporary story. I’m not sure much has changed and I wonder if you can speak to that? Did this story feel contemporary to you? Are women writers still facing the same challenges Fisher faced all this years ago? If so, what advice would you offer to women writers trying to take their writing more seriously than a “hobby”?
A: Yes. This story seemed incredibly timeless to me. And while, of course, this is a woman’s story, I think all artists face challenges when it comes to finding our voice, to carving out time, and taking ourselves seriously. Those are struggles between you and your work, and they’re gender universal. (Women in the artistic marketplace are another issue. I’m still trying to figure out how it is that most of the media attention for books in this country goes to men and most of the people who buy books in this country are women.)
As for advice, it gets pretty simple. Don’t treat your writing like a hobby. It’s a practice. Write every day, thirty minutes, an hour. Carry a notebook, and respect your thoughts as you have them. When you feel like something is finished, give it to a smart reader and listen to what they have to say. Read, and wonder about what the books you love are doing, how they’re doing it. But also live a big life. I don’t think you can be a smart and sensitive writer without experiences to write from. So have babies and dinner parties and risky conversations and lose things that are important to you. If you write every day, balance will come.
Q: I was surprised by how long it took Al to figure out what was going on right under his nose. Tim told Gigi about the affair and yet Mary Frances lied to Al for a significant amount of time. The choices they made seemed naive, first with their decision to have Al and Mary Frances move in with Gigi and then again when they all moved to Switzerland together I wondered if Tim and Mary Frances were simply so in love that they weren’t thinking logically? Was this challenging to write? Did you struggle to empathize with the decisions that were made? Was there a part of you that was tempted to change the course of events?
A: I don’t imagine anyone was thinking logically. That’s what was so fascinating to me. We know from Fisher’s biography that these things happened in the order they happen in the novel, and that they lasted about as long, but on paper, it’s almost impossible to believe. Trying to imagine the various psychologies that would allow for this chain of events was clearly a job for fiction.
In some ways, Mary Frances and Tim were easy. They were in love, and Tim fostered her creative life in a way that she desperately needed. But trying to excavate Al’s deeper emotions was more of a challenge. His father’s death became a central turning point for me, as well as his inability to continue working on his epic poem in the face of MFK’s developing talents. Grief and jealousy are such powerful emotions. I think they allowed him to preoccupy himself, to look the other way. It was interesting to me that Tim told Gigi about Mary Frances. What’s interesting, of course, is that the story that opens the book—that MFK and Tim went out to dinner, that she lied about inviting Al and then later appeared in Tim’s bed— it’s Gigi’s story. It’s what Tim told her happened. When you take a few steps back, it’s a husband’s story. He’s confessing, but he’s also saying he was played and even kind of preyed upon. Later in life, MFK told another story, that Tim and Gigi were already going through their divorce and she simply sat down next to him one evening and confessed her love. And that shows me something else about MFK Fisher, but I don’t think it shows me the truth. The truth is somewhere in between.
I also tried to understand MFK’s decision to stay married, not to leave Al and just run away with Tim. I don’t think she feared the scandal; she knew plenty of divorced people. Her sister Anne had recently divorced, her close friend Gloria. So I began to look at the flip side of that knowledge, that maybe these women made an unattractive case for divorce…Finding empathy was a challenge, yes, but a truly satisfying one.
Q: The love between Tim and Mary Frances is so intense. You wrote: “There was nothing like an empty city at night, and nothing Tim wanted so much – a black lakeshore, a blank canvas, this. It felt as if he’d left Mary Frances and turned off all the light on the world.” Does intense love that like still happen today or do you think they were products of their time where passion was hidden and secretive?
A: I do think love like that happens today. I think it’s a product of pressure and secrecy, of particular chemistry and sheer want. It’s also true that their love traveled a tragic arc, and didn’t have to weather time or the mundane, or even much influence from other people. They lived an isolated life together, which is also a kind of secrecy, privacy. It became one of the larger questions of the book for me, how a person who wrote so much about herself still seemed to have so many secrets. I think it’s because she wanted them. I suspect the intensity of those secrets fed her in some way.
Finally, a few general questions:
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a book that began as an exploration of another historical marriage, that of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington of SC’s Brookgreen Gardens fame. They married late, and not for the usual reasons of family and security— Anna was 40, and in the 1920s, the highest paid female artist of her time. The novel in progress has come to be framed differently that The Arrangement, though, through the eyes of a woman who’s researching the Huntingtons, and from the very modern perspective of her own creative life and its pressures.
Are you going on tour? Where can readers find you?
Yes! My schedule is posted on my website, www.ashleywarlick.com.
What is your favorite meal to cook? and what is your favorite meal to eat?
I love to cook, and I love a challenge in the kitchen, and so often I’ll start with something like fresh ricotta or diver scallops or black radishes and decide how to treat that ingredient best. And then, what flavor goes with it? What starts the meal, or ends it, and what do we drink with that? My favorite meals to make myself are three or four courses, each thing fitting into the next. But that’s for fun. For real life, I make some pretty great meatballs, mac and cheese, twelve-year-old boy food. I am not above opening a bottle of wine and a slab of cheddar and calling it dinner either.
My favorite meals to eat are all reflective of the moments and the people I share them with. I think that was something else I really understood of MFK Fisher, her respect for the power, and pleasures, of the table.