The Rumpus Interview with Eli Brown


Eli Brown recently released his second novel, Cinnamon and Gunpowder, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It takes place in the early 1800s and focuses on an elite chef, who is kidnapped by a pirate and forced to serve a luxurious meal once a week to the ship’s captain, a ruthless woman who goes by the name Mad Hannah Mabbot. He also has a crowd-funded project called Feasts of Tremang waiting in the wings. Part cookbook, part encyclopedia, Feasts presents the traditional dishes and culture of a fictional land.

Brown, who lives with chickens in Alameda, sat down with me. We discussed, among other things, his creative process and his past days as a legitimate expert martial artist.


The Rumpus: How did Cinnamon and Gunpowder originate?

Eli Brown: The inspiration for the story came from my boredom with a yoga DVD series. I was following a Rodney Yee yoga series video, and I had been doing it for a week and was already bored with it. He was repeating things. There was the same music. It repeated the same kind of airy voice: “Breathe into your knees, breathe into your knees.”

I had a thought that what yoga and aerobic DVDs need is a good plot to keep us coming back every morning. I had a vision of a maybe twelve-episode space opera, where you would be doing exercises along with a plot. Maybe someone is kidnapped by pirates and made to carry buckets of water, row boats, and pull ropes. In the beginning, the exercises would be lighter and near the end of the series, you will have built up core strength and exercises would be more difficult. And what would keep you coming back is that you would want to know what happened to these people. And, maybe it would be a musical. And, I was thinking, Oh, I know someone who could do the camera work. I know someone who could do the music.

Rumpus: You mean you were going to make your own yoga DVD?

Brown: Initially I was thinking, I’ll sell it on iTunes. I’ll get fit and rich! But, well, reality imposed itself and I gave that up, but the story that I had come up with was good enough for me to keep thinking about it. And, when I realized that I could have that kind of kidnapped-by-pirates adventure and fold food into it, I knew I had to do it.

Rumpus: In the official description of the book, there is a comparison to Scheherazade, but we have talked about this before, and you say that Scheherazade wasn’t on your mind at all.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Brown: It wasn’t. The story wasn’t modeled after that. But, I can see where they are similar, of course. The crux of the plot—that you have to perform what you are good at in order to save your own life—shares that with Scheherazade, and also the seriality of it. But, honestly, something that was more of a conscious influence would be old Iron Chef television episodes. I haven’t seen the American version, but I used to watch the Japanese ones. And what they do there is give the contestants an ingredient and say, “Do what you can.” And that premise is interesting to me, and then to have the added weight of a sword over your head is what drove the plot.

Rumpus: Each night, Scheherazade must tell a story. In your novel, the chef must produce a meal. Is there another comparison there? Can meals stand in for narratives?

Brown: I think of food more like a painting than like a story. Meals are related to stories inasmuch as we tell stories over meals.  But, meals are where we meet. It’s the setting. It’s not the plot. Meals are like painting, in that you have a palette that you work from. You have these flavors and aromas and they have to go together well, and there’s no such thing as a bad flavor, just like there’s no such thing as a bad color. Bitterness is not, per se, negative. It’s how that taste is combined with other things in the meal.

I studied visual art as a young man, and the way I put together a meal is like how I put together colors and composition.

Rumpus: If preparing a meal is like preparing a painting, how do you go about painting?

Brown: I’m fond of color. If the colors are right, I can enjoy abstraction. I like representational art too, but mostly I am interested in composition and color, and these days I am doing watercolors, mostly because I don’t have the space to do heavy, messy stuff. But the real comparison between painting and cooking is that you have a limited set of elements that you can combine, and in their combination you have infinite possibilities—infinitely recombinant. And, they can go wrong as easily as they can go right.

Having basic understanding of what colors complement each other, knowing something about the color wheel, or knowing how too salty or too sweet might combine in a bad way, but that if you add a little spice to it you can bring it right back, warm it up maybe, the same is true for color. And you can establish a base or a background for a painting in the way that you can establish the background for a meal. If you’re going to serve something savory, for instance, over a bed of rice or over a bed of greens, you’re making similar kinds of choices, where you are establishing a foundation and then adding to that until you reach a kind of balance.

Rumpus: Do you think of writing similarly?

Brown: I do. Writing is similar with the exception that with narrative, chronology is important for the story. There is a cause and effect present in reading a story that that doesn’t resonate with eating. I understand intellectually that there’s chemistry in cooking, but when I am enjoying a plate of food, I don’t have that sense of time or causality. I’m just enjoying the whole thing right now, not thinking over, This was in the past and this is now. I mean, even if I am eating this piece and then another, part of the pleasure in eating for me is sinking into this “now” state. It’s all in front of me: all the flavors, all the aromas, all the colors.

Rumpus: There’s a filmmaker and film theorist, Peter Kubelka, and he thinks of cooking as the first art. He compares cooking to filmmaking. And he argues that the enjoyment of the food is partly in its history. He used to hold these elaborate meals for his film graduate students, and would say things like, “This butter is fantastic. You can taste the grass that the cow, whose milk it came from, was eating.”

Brown: Well yeah, you can… if it’s good butter. Well, these days you can’t necessarily.

Rumpus: But, that’s a different idea than you’re meaning. It conjures an entire chronology in the bite.

Brown: I see what you mean. Even that experiential moment, I wouldn’t experience narratively. I think of it as all here, present. The cow’s with us. The grass is with us. I don’t think of a before/after, conclusion thing.

Rumpus: It does seem like you set up very specific parameters, maybe limiting yourself Iron Chef-style, within which you were going to write. You put one of your main characters on a pirate vessel with limited access to necessary supplies, utensils, ingredients, and basic resources required to make elaborate meals. And in that way, you set up limits for yourself as the writer of the story, as well. Does that make you identify mainly with the chef, as you are both similarly constrained?

Brown: Of all the characters, I was struggling with the chef most. His pain and fear I was in touch with. But, I didn’t identify with him in principle. He is something of a foil for others in the book, and in particular for the ship’s captain, Mad Hannah Mabbot. Her politics and her struggle and her goals in life are the ones that I think most people who read it will relate to. She is the one that people will be drawn to. She’s the spark. And Wedgwood [the chef] is the one that resists her and gives her a platform on which to speak.

Rumpus: What are Wedgwood’s fears? I mean, there’s the clear present one—the fear of being killed—but it seems there’s a more abstract cultural fear that he experiences.

Brown: His exposure to the world is rather narrow. He grew up in an orphanage, and as a young person he worked as a cook. He hates ships, so he hasn’t travelled much and he has narrow-minded ideas about women, sexuality, how economies in the world should work. And, all of these principles are challenged while he’s on the ship. Most immediately, he’s in very cramped confines with people from many different places and classes. But, more than that, he’s forced to reexamine the assumptions that he has about the relationship between England and the rest of the world and specifically China: where his tea comes from, how it gets there, why England has money, what happened in Europe following the Napoleonic wars, with fields salted. He sees good people struggling and he has to come to terms with that.

Rumpus: This takes place in 1866. Right after the American Civil War ends. Is that important?

Brown: The Civil War isn’t particularly. That’s the backdrop against which these events are taking place. I am drawing from the actual dynamics of the East India Trading Company and other real historical underpinnings, but I think people who are interested particularly in historical novels would find things in this one that are inaccurate. I was more interested in the story itself, and I am sure I got things wrong here and there.

Rumpus: So, does Wedgwood stand in for the Old Guard, the “white man under assault”?

Brown: Well, yes. That’s an interesting way to put it. As I have been talking about it with people now that it’s out, I realize that it’s a kind of coming of age story. That it’s about the development of a consciousness. Although Wedgwood is not a young man, I think of this book as, in part, centered on his growing. So, he moves from an adolescent perspective, from a kind of privileged and naïve perspective, to something that’s broader, much more complex, more muddied, but also more mature.

Rumpus: But Wedgwood grew up in an orphanage. He’s not necessarily privileged, although he aspires to be part of the privileged class. Why did you make him that way? Why isn’t the kidnappee someone who grew up with a silver spoon—the lord of the manor, for instance?

Brown: A few reasons. There’s the Joseph Campbell idea that all stories are about orphans. At the beginning of every epic or hero’s journey, you lose your parents or are thrown out of your village or something severs you from your community so you can take that journey. And Mabbot, Wedgwood, and all of the characters on the ship are orphans of a kind. For Wedgwood, this is true of his childhood, but Mabbot comes and re-orphans him, when she kills his employer, who he has familiar ties to.

It was important to me, too, that he be a servant of a kind, that he’s not unfamiliar with hard work; that he’s familiar with serving, but that he would balk at serving certain kinds of people. One of his early revelations with Mabbot is that he has spent his time serving people who didn’t appreciate his cooking because they were so wealthy that everything had come to them. His food was just another thing that had come to them. But, in serving Mabbot, he is serving someone who has to take everything she wants. She can’t wait for things to come to her. Everything she gets, she has gone after aggressively. So her appreciation for the things she has is greater. In spite of himself, he finds himself enjoying serving her, because she values his food. His type of food is scarce, and she’s not sitting in a castle with a silver spoon.

Rumpus: Do you think of the novel as allegorical of our current moment?

East-India-CompanyBrown: Its politics are still appropriate, but I don’t think of the story as allegorical. I didn’t set out to write a story about corporate hegemony. But its critiques of corporations as harmful to individual freedoms, or harmful to poorer nations, for instance, still hold true.

One of the things that surprised me in researching the novel is that some of the nastier methods for gaining control…when I think of malevolent organizations, I thought that we had reached a pinnacle recently with Blackwater or other merchant militant organizations…but the East India Trading Company had massive power and standing armies. In some way, that these problems are not even close to new is a relief, but in other ways, it just shows how much more—just by sheer tradition—that we have to dig ourselves out of.

Rumpus: As you say, Mabbot is the spark. She’s a magnetic character, but she’s also incredibly ruthless and violent. It’s ambiguous whether or not the novel is on the side of “by any means necessary” as far as her actions are concerned. Should people like her use whatever means they have to beat the system or their oppressors?

Brown: Those are the questions that I think are interesting about pirates in general. I’m interested in how pirates are culturally positioned. We love them, but they are villains. In some ways, they are clowns. We dress our kids as pirates on Halloween. But, on the other hand, we are afraid of them and what they mean, and they’re real and can be ruthless and brutal. So, who gets called a pirate, who declares themselves a pirate, what they do that’s illegal and whether that would be considered legal if it were done under other auspices—the difference between a privateer and a pirate is often just a piece of paper. If the government gives you a piece of paper, you are a privateer doing the exact same things as a pirate, but when you come home you are a hero, and are given a house, and you can retire wealthy. But, if you didn’t have that piece of paper, you would be considered a pirate and you could be hunted down and anyone could take your head for a reward.

So I’m interested in the way that certain actions become crimes, and in what ways they are inherently wrong or how it is legality that makes them wrong. Mabbot is certainly about those grey areas for me. I don’t want the book to be an excuse for violence, and I don’t think that it paints a pretty picture. But, Mabbot herself has grown up amidst some violent experiences. She digs herself deeper, but she also yearns for redemption. She is trying to cure some of the worst ills.

A question in the book is, “Who’s a villain?” I don’t want there to be a pat answer for that, but I am interested in the question.

Rumpus: How did you first get into art and writing, and why’d you make this your career?

Brown: I’ve been doing art and writing forever. I was always writing and drawing, tinkering. I grew up in a small town in Southern California in the Imperial Valley called Brawley, where there wasn’t much to do. It’s down in the desert and very hot. It’s a mix of desert and farm and has a cowboy mentality. And, like most people who grow up in places like these, I needed to figure out how to entertain myself. A lot of my friends got into gangs or drugs. I did a lot of reckless things with friends, like light arrows on fire and shoot them at each other, dodging or catching them. We would ride on the tops of cars as fast as we could. You know, basically things that would horrify me if I knew my nieces or nephews were doing them. But I also spent a lot of time reading and writing and making art. I made sculptures, and if I didn’t have access to clay, I would make little sculptures out of wet toilet paper or ice. I would make jokes, like I would make a sculpture out of toilet paper then attach it to a toilet paper roll, so when someone would use the bathroom and unfurl the roll, this face would appear.

And, I was always writing too, and that continued through college at UC Santa Cruz. Even though I majored in visual art, I always took writing classes. To me, the processes of artistic production are similar, and I think I have always benefitted from critique. I had a kind of innate readiness for critique, because I grew up doing martial arts. My father trained me, and it was mandatory for me and my siblings to take his karate classes. I know a lot of people for whom feedback is a difficult process. For some people, it’s hard not to take it personally. But I grew up sparring with my siblings and if I got kicked in the gut, I didn’t take it personally—I just tried to make sure I didn’t get kicked in the gut again. So when I started getting into these workshops, and people would say, “These things are not working with your story,” I didn’t take it to mean, “You’re a terrible writer.” I just wanted to figure out how to fix it, so I didn’t get kicked again. And there’s a kind of intimacy and trust involved with someone who is willing to give you that valuable critique. I’d rather get kicked in the gut by my brother, who I know is not going to follow that up with a baseball bat, than to go out into the world vulnerable to just whoever. I’d rather someone in a small classroom tell me, “You’re weak at this. You need to develop this character,” than to have the world tell me.

Rumpus: But when do you know if someone is incorrect in their critique?

Brown: Criticizing the workshop environment is popular, but for me, it’s been valuable. If I have a room full of people telling me there’s something wrong with my story, they may disagree with precisely what’s wrong with it, but there’s definitely something not flowing right with the writing. And, you usually have a sense of what’s important to the person making the comment, so in the end I’m still making a subjective decision about how to deal with the criticism.

As an example, someone might say, “There’s something wrong with the plot of your story,” and I’ll look more closely and realize, it’s not the plot, it’s the character development, and I’ll tweak that to make the plot flow better. It’s not a question of whether the person making the critique is right or wrong. This is more about a gestalt that gives me a sense of how things are feeling and where there may be problems in the work. Of course, I am lucky in that I am able to work with people whose opinions and reactions I trust. I’ve been lucky in my agent and editor recently.

Rumpus: Do you feel differently when you sit down to write now? Does it change the way you view yourself, or is there more anxiety attached to the process?

Brown: No. And that is true now, but when I am polishing my next novel, to the point where I am going to try to sell it, I am sure I will have some sleepless nights thinking, Oh, I didn’t make it marketable enough. Will anybody pick it up? Am I a one-hit wonder? But I’m too early in this new novel for that to come up. And there’s a conscious choice. The same way that someone chooses to turn off their inner voice or inner critic or editor, there’s a conscious choice not to listen. Because if I were to allow that anxiety to influence me, it would muddy…it would corrupt my writing process. And I need to keep that stuff distant. At least while I am writing the story.

Rumpus: Well, I’m sorry to bring it up.

Brown: There’s a kind of professional angst that I have and many people have. I wonder simply, How am I gonna pay my bills? But, when I sit down to write, I can’t think about that. I do both worrying and writing in a day, but I don’t worry when I am at my writing desk. Writing is hard enough.

Rumpus: Do you throw out a lot of your writing?

Brown: I do. I write much more than I share. And there’s a lot that I have written that I would never show anybody. And, during revisions, I throw out pages and pages. I’ve heard of people who wait for inspiration to strike and then put that on paper, but I have never met them.

Rumpus: You’ve also written a cookbook. Tell me about that.

Brown: It’s an ethnic, regional cookbook in format and is based on a culture that I invented. It’s full color, something that you would see on a coffee table or in someone’s kitchen. I worked with a photographer for the food pictures. The images are luscious, what they would call “food porn.” And,there are a lot of full color images that are my own documenting artifacts from this culture—the flag, the clothing, money, maps, dolls—those kinds of things.

Rumpus: And you made all that stuff.

Brown: I did, usually using Photoshop. I fabricated everything, because the culture doesn’t exist. I had the great pleasure of inventing a history, region, and people whole cloth. At the same time, I got to indulge my pleasure again with food. I developed recipes that were unique enough to say that this food came from this island and you won’t find it anywhere else. It was a challenge to invent new meals that taste good, delicious enough to put in a cookbook.

Rumpus: The idea for the book reminds me of Borges, with this imagined world with its own rules. It’s simultaneously whimsical and finely-detailed.

Tremanner FlagBrown: Right. I tried to apply academic rigor to something that is both not dry and not real. And when you read Borges, he’ll write about a map or a book or a region, and you want to see the map or book or visit the place. Well, with Feasts of Tremang, I tried to supply all of that. When I describe a flag, then I also made the flag. When I describe a dish, I provide the recipe, and you can actually make the dish, and it’s good! Once the book is published, I want to create a forum where people can supply their own artifacts and stories, and we can find the Tremanner diaspora and let the book grow.

Rumpus: I want to ask about your relationship to martial arts. Are you a bad-ass?

Brown: No, I’m not. I trained from the time I was five until I was eighteen. Very traditional style of Japanese karate. Very bland and incredibly rigorous stuff. There are things that when I was younger, I could do very well. I could do them as well as anyone in the world. And I could probably defend myself?

Rumpus: Like what could you do?

Brown: Particular katas. You know how dancers can see a dancer, like on, say, So You Think You Can Dance?, and they can say, “That person has technical training and that person does not.” I would probably miss all of that stuff. I had technical training, so my forms were incredibly clean, and, one would hope, incredibly efficient.

In college I practiced Aikido for a while, which was a completely different thing. I’m skeptical of the whole idea of a badass. Because I know people who are incredibly well-trained martial artists who still lose bar fights occasionally.

Rumpus: Occasionally? They have three-out-of-five wins?

Brown: Kind of. And the three-out-of-five is over the course of a lifetime. But fighting is messy stuff. Weird factors, like differences between relative arm lengths or sobriety, slippery floors… It’s not as if you can just stand up and say, “Well, I have ten years of training, so I am going to win every fight.” It doesn’t work that way. Boxers who are favored are still knocked out sometimes. They catch an unlucky punch.

So I’m skeptical of the idea of a bad-ass, and even if there is such a thing, I’m not that. I know people who would fit that better than me. But, for me, my training in martial arts has given me access to my body in ways that other people don’t have. I can inhabit my body and know it in ways that other people never do. I used to be a massage therapist and I would work on people who are tourists in their own bodies. For example, I would touch them on the arm, and unless they looked they couldn’t say whether I was touching them on the shoulder or the triceps. Really! It’s just unfamiliarity in the same way that if I were to open the hood of a car, I wouldn’t be able to point to the carburetor.

Martial arts also gave me the ability to focus and to be able to take criticism and feedback. If I had to fight, I would probably be scratching and clawing, like anyone else out there in a panic.

Rumpus: Well, let’s not find out for certain.

Brown: Yes, let’s not.


Featured image of Eli Brown © by Melissa Michaud.

Sean Uyehara is a programmer with the San Francisco Film Society. He watches movies for a living, and still sometimes complains about things. More from this author →