04 June 2010

Guest Post: C. J. West on Food and Characters

On Tuesday, I gave you a teaser for C.J. West's newest novel, The End of Marking Time. What if the Supreme Court decided that it was cruel and unusual punishment to allow criminals to serve long-term sentences? What if they were all released? Michael O’Connor is one of the prisoners who suddenly finds himself free . . . well, sort of.

He tells you his story because he believes you are his jury and if you press the green button, he will be given another chance. Michael doesn't understand what is happening to him because he was the last felon released. He was unconscious while reeducation was introduced and he doesn't believe he can be punished in a world without prison. The mystery of this book is not who Michael thinks you are, but who is sitting in the thirteen chairs behind the window and what fate they will choose for Michael.
The other day, I planned to read the first chapter just to get a feel for the book. I was in Chapter 4 before I knew it. The book will be launched on June 10, and I'm betting it's a hit. Don't miss the launch party on C.J.'s Facebook page. You'll find an events page and more information about the novel. And, of course, you'll have a chance to decide Michael's fate!

C.J. was kind enough to give us some insight into how he thinks about his characters and how every little detail adds up to what we know about the people who inhabit his books. Let's take a look:

Fictional Food and Character?

I found a recipe while browsing Beth Fish Reads and started thinking about what my characters’ diets say about them. This was really great timing because my damsel-in-distress, Gretchen Greene, and Michael O’Connor the protagonist from The End of Marking Time couldn’t be more different. I didn’t set out to portray them through food specifically. When I write a character, I try to convey who they are in every decision they make. Within these two books food plays an important role in defining character, but I didn’t realize this until I started preparing to write this blog post.

Gretchen is crazed about the environment, self-reliant, and feels guilty about any adverse affect she might have on the planet. Gretchen forages and takes great pride when she eats the berries from an invasive plant because she is limiting its spread. She collects acorns, makes flour, and bakes muffins that most people would spit out at the first bitter bite. She wouldn’t think of baking her muffins in paper cups and absolutely never in foil tins. Enduring the bitter taste is one of the sacrifices that ease her guilt.

Gretchen could never eat meat and is deeply offended when others do so in her presence. She wonders how anyone could ask an animal to give its life simply for a day’s nourishment. When Gretchen sees a fast food joint, she sees wasted fuel, improperly treated animals, and tons of wasted paper. Don’t get her started on Styrofoam! Her extreme food choices shape what she does and where she goes and this appears to be painfully limiting until Gretchen and her friends are stranded deep in a swamp.

Michael O’Connor grew up an inner-city kid and wouldn’t know Autumn Olive (small red berries Gretchen eats) from black olives. Michael drinks Coke from plastic bottles and eats a diet heavy in Devil Dogs, frozen pizza, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Michael hasn’t been taught how to cook or even that continually eating out is tremendously expensive compared to cooking his own meals. His food choices show how little he was taught at home, which is the root of Michael’s problems. His juvenile diet is supremely unhealthy and generates an enormous amount of trash compared to Gretchen’s.

Michael’s diet is also a symbol of how dependent he is on society. After Michael is caught, he is confronted for the first time with the idea that he should contribute something to society in order to earn his keep. The idea is completely foreign to him and it seems Michael has never considered where Devil Dogs and frozen pizzas come from, while Gretchen is acutely aware not only of where her food comes from, but every step of its progress from plant to table.

Both characters have conflicts that are clarified by their food choices. Gretchen’s guilt over a past environmental disaster affects her every waking decision. Michael plows through life unaware (or uncaring) of the impact he has on others until he faces the ultimate punishment.

Thanks so much, C.J. I really do notice food and other such details when I'm reading a novel, and the way they make me feel about a character is fairly subtle but permeating. I am fascinated with how these little points about a character can be so informing.

Be sure to check out C.J.'s website and don't miss the launch party!

The End of Marking Time at Powell's
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CJ West 6/4/10, 7:29 AM  

Thanks for hosting me today. This idea just seemed perfect for your blog.

I'm glad you are enjoying the book.


Anonymous,  6/4/10, 10:06 AM  

Beth, how nice to have C. J. West talk about food in his novels! Great idea and great story!


L.J. Sellers 6/4/10, 1:22 PM  

As I was reading Michael's story, I kept thinking that his poor diet may have contributed to his lack of good judgment. Now studies show that people who eat processed food have higher rates of dementia. So you're on to something, food and thought are clearly linked, so food and characters should be linked as well.

The Bumbles 6/4/10, 1:29 PM  

As a reader who loves all things character driven, this post was very insightful. I marvel that a writer can create a full dossier so to speak for their characters, in order to represent them truly in the book - even if all of these intricate characteristics are never revealed in detail - it goes toward developing those characters that you just feel a strong response to when reading. Because there is something beneath the surface of the words. Thanks CJ!

CJ West 6/4/10, 2:23 PM  

Well said Bumbles. When we do a good job creating our fictional reality, it stands up no matter what aspect you choose to focus on.

Dorte H 6/4/10, 3:27 PM  

"Enduring the bitter taste is one of the sacrifices that ease her guilt."

Oh, I like that one! 2-3 years ago I said to a colleague that food had turned into the new religion, but he wouldn´t believe me until I told him about a commercial for ecological food I saw in London: "guilt free meals" :D

Dellani Oakes 6/4/10, 3:40 PM  

I never thought about food in those terms before. Interesting choice for character development. I can see using this technique at some point in the future. Thanks for the insight, CJ!

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