Monday, July 9, 2012

Charlotte Wood on Love & Hunger

We asked Charlotte Wood to tell us how people have reacted to her book Love & Hunger, which is Walter's first selection for the Universal Heart Book Club. This is what she had to say:

The process of writing a book, as every author knows, is an experience lived at one remove from life. Even if you have discussed the ideas with writing friends or a publisher, then with editors and so on, none of you knows what will happen when the book is finally sent out into the world.

I have been surprised and delighted by readers’ responses to Love & Hunger – not least because it’s a book that fits between genres. Not quite a memoir, not quite a cookbook, it’s hard to see where it might go on the bookshop shelf. Happily though, booksellers of all kinds have embraced it, and it is reaching readers, many of whom have written me beautiful letters and emails since it was published in May.

My original idea for the book was that it would be entirely about “cooking for the hard times”, as one radio interviewer phrased it. I thought of writing a very practical, impersonal book of recipes – simple, warming nourishment to make for people when they’re ailing, or grieving, or broken-hearted. But as I wrote, the book grew both wider in scope and far more personal than I expected.

It became a discussion of everything I knew and loved and wondered and discovered – and that I am still learning - about cooking and what it means in my life, symbolically, emotionally, intellectually.

Charlotte Wood's own Chicken Brodo

Cooking for the hard times remains an important part of the book – one of its four sections is called ‘Consolations’, and it is one that many people have responded to most warmly, with its chapters on the solace of soup, on cooking during chemotherapy, comfort food, and my own experiences of the beautiful gestures of my family’s neighbours and friends through the sickness and deaths of our parents, made through food. I refuse to ignore life’s sadnesses and losses, because I think that is when some of the most profound moments of human existence take place. And I think one of the reasons people have responded to this part of the book particularly is that in wider society there is often a kind of relentless insistence on “being positive” at times like this – when in fact sometimes what is required is an acknowledgement that fear and grief is justified, and nothing can help but love. And delivering a chicken pie to someone in grief or distress can often say more about the presence of this kind of love than any words.

At the same time, I hope Love & Hunger is, most of all, a quietly joyful book.

Once I found the voice for the book I discovered that this kind of writing gave me a freedom to be extremely personal, yet outward-looking, to the people and times and places that have made my life what it is. There are none of the constraints of fiction, which depends so crucially on matters of craft and a sort of tightrope walk in the imagination - and also on a deep and often lonely solitude for the duration of its creation. By contrast, the whole time I was writing Love & Hunger I felt a great ease and warmth, as if I were writing a series of letters to my friends.

Some of the most affecting responses for me have been from people who say the book has given them a kind of nourishment for the spirit. So many readers have told me they had felt inadequate in the kitchen before reading Love & Hunger, but now feel it has given them a way in to cooking, and to a confidence that moves far beyond the mere making of food – that through my book they have found a way of connecting with other people, and, for some, even a kind of self-acceptance.

One of the most touching examples of this was the comment on my blog left by ‘Nadia’:

“For the older women in my family, food has always been the enemy. It has been nice reading about how it can be used to connect with others. In recent years I have been moving towards this philosophy, after starting out being terrified of cooking (it might go wrong, etc. Double stress if guests were invited). I definitely have not been a great host creating a warm atmosphere as you describe – after a few awkward attempts after first leaving home, I had stopped entertaining as it was too stressful. I have progressively become a more confident cook and reading your book has solidified the kind of relationship I want to have with my friends and family and how this can be aided by giving the gift of food …  Reading you makes me think of being a real person in the kitchen and in life.”

For more on Love & Hunger visit the website:

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