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Michael Paterniti on storytelling (part 2): William Burroughs’ final months, Mitterrand’s last meal, and magical cheese

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Today we bring you Part 2 of a discussion on narrative nonfiction with long-form storyteller Michael Paterniti. (If you just tuned in to the conversation, you might want to check out Part 1.) A six-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, Paterniti won the prize for feature writing for “Driving Mr. Albert,” which became a book by the same name. He is at work on a new book, about cheese. He visited with Narrative Writing instructor Paige Williams’ class and other Nieman Fellows in November. This excerpt has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

Paige Williams: We’ve talked a lot about reconstructing scene without exposition and how to handle remembered dialogue, that kind of thing. What’s your philosophy on that? For instance, how do you handle recreated dialogue?

Michael Paterniti: There’s a scene in [“Driving Mr. Albert] where I went to see the writer William Burroughs. I was in Lawrence, Kansas, with Dr. [Thomas] Harvey, who had done the autopsy on Albert Einstein, and he and Burroughs were friends. Burroughs’s keepers asked that I not bring a tape recorder or write anything down. I said that’s totally fine. He was sort of near the end. He died like three months later. He was still doing his methadone and his vodka, and he was fantastically crazy through that whole visit. It was great and heartbreaking.

But what I did was – and I did it for myself – as he would talk I kept going to the bathroom. And going to the bathroom, I use that all the time. I do it to see maybe what’s hanging on the walls in someone’s home. It’s a great way to just take a moment. And in this case, because I didn’t have any paper, just a pen, I wrote on my hand. I wrote trigger words, just repeating what he’d said, and then I’d go back out.

Afterward, I went back to the hotel room and wrote everything he said, the scene. I had promised I wouldn’t use it, but I did write it, and he did die, and I did get in touch afterward to say, “I’m gonna use this,” and they said, “Fine.”

Williams: Some of the fellows are interested in doing books and some have already published very good books, so we’ll be talking about moving from the article stage to the proposal phase and then to the full book. Was it sort of a no-brainer that the Einstein piece would become a book?

Joshua Prager: A no-brainer? Pun intended?

[Laughter.]

Paterniti: In this case I wrote for Colin Harrison at Harper’s. I wrote 25,000 words and they ran it at 17,500 words or something. I remember being at the Noho Star and Colin reading these 18,000 words back to me as we’re sitting there to edit, and when he finished I said, “Okay,I think we’re done, this one’s done.” But then people were interested in it as a book and as we started talking about it, it occurred to me how much more I wanted to know. That was a good sign. My editor at the time, Susan Kamil, a very good editor, really loves memoirs, so she really wanted this parallel story about myself and Sara, my wife. That’s one of the little subplots: I leave her in this moment when we aren’t really sure if we were gonna stay together. And it was all true, but I sort of felt like if I want to write a memoir, I’ll write that.

For the Einstein book, there had to be a character that was me, and from the magazine piece to the book there had to be a much stronger me. I remember thinking many times during the writing of the book that I’m never going to do another article that becomes a book. And when that one inevitable snarky reviewer came along to write, “This was better as a magazine piece” – there’s a little part of me, with my current book, where I said, “I’m not going to do this first as an article, I’m just going to eliminate the exercise of having compressed it. I want to allow it to be a book in my mind and then figure out how to make it the book rather than move between the two forms.” For a lot of people the Einstein book really works, but I don’t know that I will ever do that again.

Williams: So tell us about the new book – cheese and the cave in Spain.

Paterniti: So, yeah, I was in Barcelona in 2000 to write about this chef, Ferran Adrìa, this molecular gastronomy guy. He invents foods, he invents these foams; according to many he’s the greatest chef in the world. He’s an artist and sees himself as an artist, and he works with all these scientists who help him in the kitchen. Eight years earlier, I was in the MFA program at Michigan and when I graduated I was waiting for all the job offers to flood in, but nothing came. And so I went to this deli in Ann Arbor called Zingerman’s

Philippa Thomas: Great deli.

Paterniti: It’s awesome! I was like, “Can I make sandwiches here?” They were like, “No, you’re not qualified.” I saw their little newsletter and said, “If you ever need anyone to proofread your little newsletter…” And so they gave me that job. Ari was the owner and he traveled around the world trying foods. He had gone to Spain and found this piece of cheese that had been made in this tiny village in north-central Castile, on the Meseta, just in the middle of nowhere, 80 people in this village. The cheese maker, Ambrosio, had said to Ari, “This is a family cheese that’s been made for hundreds of years and it’s a magical cheese. It’s a cheese that holds all these memories, which is why it’s the most expensive cheese in the world.”

And so when I realized I was going to Spain I found that village. One Sunday I went over with my buddy, Carlos, who was helping to translate, and we went to this village to have this piece of cheese. And this was just for me – I wasn’t even thinking this was gonna be a book. And we got there and Ambrosio didn’t have the cheese anymore. He’d had it stolen from him by his best friend because this cheese had become world famous. His best friend had bamboozled him out of this cheese.

Williams: Wait, wait –

Paterniti: It’s like a slow-food-Kentucky-Fried-Chicken-thing gone horribly wrong. He’d signed these documents without realizing what he was signing. This was the story he told. And so Ambrosio, the Bohemian artiste, the authentic farmer, had signed away the company to his blood brother and best friend. In our first meeting, in this cave where they used to keep the cheese, he described to us how he was planning to murder Julian. Carlos was translating, and I kept saying, “Wait, he’s going to amputate him?” But that was his plan, and it still may be his plan.

The one thing about Ambrosio: Of everywhere I’ve ever been and everyone I’ve ever spoken to, he is the storyteller. He’s incredible. More than anything, I thought: I need to learn from this guy. I just need to come back here somehow. I thought writing about the cheese would give me an excuse to go back, and we went and lived there for a while. So the book has become about – in many ways, it’s about storytelling. They have these little caves in Spain that they call telling rooms. It used to be in the old days that the cave was built into the hill, and they would tell stories through the winter in these rooms. They’d tell stories of the village and they’d tell all their secrets – everything happened in the telling room. So that’s the name of the book, “The Telling Room.”

Williams: And the name of your nonprofit.

Paterniti: It is, yeah, but not really intentionally. We just wanted to create a telling room in Portland, Maine, to get people to come into this one place and tell their stories. A lot like you guys do here, every week, upstairs. You get to hear someone’s story, and when you hear that story out loud it’s totally different than being alone, reading. It’s a communal thing that happens that’s really powerful and creates this emotional connection between people that sometimes overcomes all the other things that stand between us. So I was really fascinated by this oral tradition. And as the story unfolds, Ambrosio, the epic storyteller, becomes human, and it’s actually been very painful for me because I’m very close to him. His story will change inside the book. There are some things that happen. I won’t go on and on about it but— he hasn’t killed Julian, but in his mind he’s killed him so many times that Julian is dead. And there were 12 cheese makers who Ambrosio had taught, like the 12 disciples, and there was one guy who betrayed him.

Robert Rose: What’s it taste like?

Paterniti: It’s a manchego. But here’s the thing: The cheese they make now, he calls it the soulless cheese, the dead cheese, the cheese they perverted and ruined by buying cheap milk. They tried to cut their costs – it was the go-go ’80s and ’90s and they tried to make the business look really good by cutting costs and riding on reputation after they got Ambrosio out of the picture. But Ambrosio had two tins of the original cheese left in his cave, and one he’s never going to open. That’s for the memory of his father, who died a couple of years ago; but the other one he opened and served us just because he felt like he had to do something for me, just to stop me from coming all the time.

Rose: But did it taste like the most expensive cheese in the world?

Paterniti: In that moment, it was truly the most incredible cheese I’ve ever had. But I think I was swept up in it, I don’t think I was very objective.

Prager: How did you have the vocabulary to describe – I mean even if reading all about cheeses, unless you have a truly educated palate how would you know how to describe it properly, how to enter that world and be equipped to tell the story properly?

Paterniti: I think it goes right to thatValery quote. I’ll do everything I can to know how to do that – I’ll do the legwork – but at some point the experience and how you relate it belongs entirely to you. Those details have to become part of you and then they have their own life. And that’s what I try to do more than try to prove that I know exactly how the last molecule of this cheese was made and why it’s the perfect cheese. A lot of things become very symbolic for me in the writing, so if the details are rich enough to construct a universe then perhaps out of that world comes the symbol or metaphor that carries meaning, that carries something I’m trying to say. But I wouldn’t presume to go in and say, like, “I am a cheese expert.”

I’ve struggled more with the writing of the process of making this cheese than anything I’ve tried to write about. So I still don’t totally get it, and sometimes I feel like a fake. If I had, like, a beat and knew exactly how to describe relativity or whatever – I mean you go to D.C. and there are White House reporters who have been there and know the full history, and then you drop in and you’re supposedly going to write a political piece about Bill Clinton? What do you have to say, really? There are people who’ve been there since JFK was there. So I think that’s when I begin to look at this other way of telling a story. I try to educate myself as much as possible, but I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know, or that I’m here too late, like with the SwissAir piece. To me, that’s when it gets interesting. Time plus story is when things get interesting.

Williams: I’m wondering what your argument is for being a generalist. I’m drawn to writers with catholic tastes and who resist the pressure to “find the thread” or to package themselves as a person who writes about such-and-such – I’ve always liked walking into new adventures or completely unrelated stories –

Paterniti: But don’t you think that gives you a different power? When you’re an outsider there’s something you carry with you that’s different. Like with Clinton, there were fine beat reporters who had been waiting for their one-on-one time with him, and I felt really rotten sometimes yukking it up with Clinton and then walking into this room where all the guys were sitting and they’re like, “You’re an asshole, I’ve been on this beat for eight years and you just walk in here?” The only thing that I was bringing to that particular story was this idea that this is not gonna be political. He may say political things but I am gonna go after this as just a story about a man.

Williams: Did you tell them that? That was your stated intention?

Paterniti: Yeah.

Williams: And that was Esquire, which is part of it, too, frankly. Even though he’s the president, he wants to be in Esquire.

Paterniti: Maybe that president in particular.

Rose: How did he respond to the piece?

Paterniti: [Doing very good Bill Clinton impression] “I loved your story.” I heard somebody told him, “Oh, he really got you” and Clinton said, “Well, you should read the Rolling Stone article because that really gets me.” And the Rolling Stone article is a Q&A where Clinton talks for like 30 consecutive pages.

Mark Kessler: How did you decide that the cheese story would be a book rather than an article?

Paterniti: I was literally just blown away by Ambrosio, my book’s hero. And then the minute I started going back to the village, these other strands of stories came. I constantly think of the Chagall painting where the farmers are over the village, kissing in the air. The villagers would tell these stories that were supernatural stories. There’s a story about Manuel, whose grandfather’s bones summoned him one night and he actually took to the air. And everybody in this village was like, “Yeah, Manuel flies.” And I’m like, “Well, what do you mean?” They took me in the fields and said, “This is where he took off,” and then they took me two miles down this dirt track and said, “This is where he landed.” So all these stories started coming up.

Thomas: You clearly have a poker face when you’re interviewing them.

Paterniti: Yeah. And I’m always curious. I mean I was curious sitting across from David Duke when he was spewing all this weird stuff. I’m like, “This isn’t TV, I’m not getting confrontational, you may be completely offending me, and I will get my say” – I mean that’s the deal, you’re the storyteller, you’re controlling that. So yeah, poker faced or open to it as it’s coming. But if someone’s about to jump off a bridge in front of you, you don’t watch it so that you can describe it. When that happened on the bridge, I did tackle him. That’s one of those moments when you’re not a writer, you’re not doing a job anymore. If you’re standing there and seeing something horrible there’s a part of you that has to figure out how you’re gonna act.

Darcy Frey: So you were saying before that you’ve never struggled so much on a project as on the current book. What’s the main struggle? Was it figuring out the structure or how to tell the story, or…?

Paterniti: Again, I did what I do: four 100-page starts, and none of them felt like they were working. But then I got a little fellowship to go to MacDowell, so I had two weeks away from my family and got into this bubble and I really thought I’d found it. I’d created myself as a double character. This is so elaborate but it sounded so great at dinner when I was talking to other really good writers and poets and artists. And I wrote it like crazy, and I was psyched. It really felt great.

And that all got thrown out. It was too complicated, it was ridiculous, really, in the end, but it unloosed all these words, all this language. And it wasn’t inert anymore. It was alive again. Then I was able to jump on that and ride that back into it. And I went back and saw all those false starts, I was like, “Wait a minute, that was actually pretty good. Why did I abandon that?” I just need to overlay that with language and set up this idea about storytelling. So all that thinking I’d done, all those false starts, started to work. So now I’m on Chapter 11 and the hardest part of it is going between magazine and book work. I can never get quite enough time just to knock it down. That’s also been a huge challenge.

Florence Martin-Kessler: Have you tried to find a unifying thread among all your stories?

Paterniti: I know for a while there I was writing a lot of death stories. I was struggling with that. Especially when you have little kids – it just kind of hit me, my own mortality. But more than that, my need to go deeper there. I don’t think I was consciously saying, “I’ve gotta do a death story,” but I was drawn repeatedly to that, and I still am, kind of. But again that goes to that Walter Benjamin essay where he says in death the story kind of gets released. There’s something very freeing to me as a writer when you come late to the story.

Like with Mitterrand’s last meal, I was totally free to go have that last meal that he ate and evoke him, and create this kind of biography of him, shaping it exactly the way I wanted, to say the thing I wanted to say. That’s a total death story but it’s also a food story, and a travel story, and a little bit of a love story to my wife. And with the giant story, here’s a man who’s growing and is going to die – that’s the big tick-tock – so here’s the blinding beauty of his life as it exists now. I think it gives it that pressure and poetry, and that’s what I really love, when you can find that.

J.S. Tissainayagam: Is it that you’re generally observant or that when you’re on a story you switch over and say, “OK, I have to be much more observant now?”

Paterniti: Probably both, but when I’m on a story there’s a definite intention and intensity. It’s like, “I’m not gonna be back here again and so I’d better get this now” – the way the light is, all the atmospherics. I’m really attuned to that. It’s why I’m there. Information, facts, I can get those later.

Martin-Kessler: Do you take pictures of the people you’re talking to?

Paterniti: I do take pictures and I’ve been doing a lot of Flip stuff. I don’t really do it to package with a story, but just sort of to have it.

 

Michael Fitzgerald: I’m curious how you balance kids and family with the kind of reporting and writing you do.

Paterniti: My wife does the same work, so we switch off. When the kids were young we’d try to bring them a lot. Or we’d save up frequent flier miles and bring them. Once, she was in Cambodia for a story for the New York Times Magazine and I babysat – we had one child at the time – and that’s one of my greatest memories ever, riding on an elephant with Leo in the middle of Phnom Penh while Sara was off getting her important story.

The juggle day in and day out is so tricky. Andit has to do with both of us learning, or beginning to learn, how to allow the other to do whatever he or she needs to. So there are times when that person needs to be off the clock to get that writing done, and they can’t be carrying the guilt of not being at home. You have to just take it off of them for the period that they’re out there, because they’ll be doing the same for you when you’re gone. It would be harder if she didn’t get what I do or if I didn’t get what she does. Everything becomes about efficiency and there’s a little less of the kind of angst-y “This has to do something remarkable and it’s gonna take my entire soul and so I’m gonna need space and a lot of chocolate milkshakes lined up on a table,” or whatever it is that gets you through.

[To see another story from Paterniti, check out "The House That Thurman Munson Built," the latest installment in the Gangrey series of Stories That Should Never Go Away.]




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