Crystal King Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Crystal King
Photo: Wayne Earl Chinnock

Crystal King

An interview with Crystal King

Crystal King discusses her debut novel, Feast of Sorrow, and what led her to write a novel about ancient Rome's most famous gourmand

What inspired you to tell the story of the real-life character Apicius, ancient Rome's most famous gourmand? Can you discuss the novel's origins?

I was writing a different book about some fantastical knives and I needed an origin story. During my research I came across a snippet of information about Apicius and how he died. I wrote a scene showing Apicius purchasing the knives to give to his chef, who would then pass them on to his apprentice and the knives would continue being handed down through the ages. But the more I wrote about Apicius, the more I realized that his story was the more interesting one. I wanted to know what would make a man decide to end his life in such a dramatic way. You'll notice, though, that I kept part of the scene in which Apicius gifts the set of knives to Thrasius. The knives may also show up again in the next novel I'm writing.

Why did you make the decision to tell the story from the point of view of Thrasius, his imagined slave and cook?

I struggled with this decision. I began writing the book from Apicius's point of view but quickly realized that if I did that it would be hard to end the book with the same punch. The number one thing I knew about this person was how he died and I wanted to keep the suspense all the way through to the end of the book. I couldn't have done that with Apicius as the narrator. Also, Apicius's life, in my novel, was a series of very tragic decisions. I saw Thrasius as a counterbalance. He is the calm in the storm, the one who holds Apicius together, and, in the end, he is the one who comes out somewhat unscathed.

Since the work is a historical novel, what sources did you consult in order to prepare for writing the book? Can you tell us a little bit about your research process?

After I had the idea for Feast of Sorrow I spent nearly a year only reading books that pertained to my research. I read everything I could get my hands on: anything about ancient food; books about ancient religion, culture, architecture, slavery, politics; and a wide variety of books written in ancient times, ranging from Virgil to Pliny to Cato the Elder. The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston have incredible ancient Roman collections that enabled me to understand what people may have looked like and how they lived their day-to-day lives. I also spent considerable time in Rome itself, talking with guides and historians about the ancient city, particularly the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill, walking in the areas where my characters would have walked. When Apicius and Fannia are rushing to the Curia to free Thrasius, for example, I know the path they would have taken because I've walked those same roads. Many of the descriptions of items within the novel are taken from ancient places and artifacts I have viewed firsthand, such as the tomb where Thrasius uses the curse tablet, the paintings that decorated the walls of the villas, or the many different types of glassware described at the parties. I took a lot of notes and a lot of photos. To write this book I had to truly be able to picture the world and how the characters moved within it.

Then, once I had done all the research, I had to figure out the best way to weave it all into the novel. There are many passages that were cut from the novel because, while they were interesting, they just didn't move the plot along. It's also important not to overwhelm the reader with information, which would be easy to do. And at the same time, I had to paint a world that is quite foreign for many readers. One case in point is that most modern Americans understand slavery in the context of African slavery and the world of Southern plantations before the Civil War. Slavery in ancient Rome was much different, and I had to find the right ways to adjust the reader's expectations when it came to the slaves within the book.

What information about this time period found during your research was the most surprising to you? Is there any facet of society or living that you feel has not changed much since ancient Roman times?

At first, I was surprised to discover that Roman society was so advanced. They had running water, personal hygiene, libraries, universities, advanced architecture, factories, mathematics, etc. So much of that civilization was lost and destroyed with the expansion of Christianity, which deemed anything Roman as pagan and thus heretical. I cannot help but wonder where would our society be now if that advancement had continued. There are many reasons why ancient Rome fell, but in my mind, the thread that runs through from then until now is the ongoing disagreement centered on religion—whose god is the right god?

What role does food play in your own life? Is it simply a necessity or do you share Apicius's enthusiasm for food?

I grew up with a very limited palate, with a childhood diet that consisted of hot dogs, Kraft Mac & Cheese, and other sorts of fast, easy-to-make processed food. When I met my husband, Joe, who sold wine for a living at the time, he introduced me to a whole host of foods I would never have imagined eating (mushrooms, artichokes, funky cheeses, foie gras, offal, rabbit, etc.). Now I'll try most any food at least once. From him, I learned that pairing food and wine was, in some ways, a form of art. From there my interest in food and food culture grew. Later, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Greg McCormick, introduced me to the writings of the famous food writer M. F. K. Fisher, and I was hooked. I loved everything about her work. For me, like so many other people, food is emotional. It is comfort, it is conviviality, and it is also a fascinating differentiator in our culture. I've also learned a great deal from the various chefs and bartenders whom I've come to know in the Boston restaurant industry. You could call me a "gourmand," "food nerd," or "culinary enthusiast," whichever moniker you think fits. I find it funny that many people who are food lovers are picky about the word "foodie," but if you want to call me that, go for it.

If you were attending a dinner with a host as enthusiastic about food as Apicius, what delicacies would you most hope to find on your plate?

This is a hard question! One of the most amazing dishes I've ever eaten was at Metamorfosi in Rome, Italy. They make a 65-degree sous vide carbonara egg with crispy pasta, fried pork rinds, and Parmesan foam. It was so unusual and it was such a stunning taste in the mouth—I remember thinking that Apicius would have appreciated the wow factor of the dish. I think that a dinner to rival one of Apicius's would have to be made from the freshest produce and meat, with the finest ingredients, and the courses a mixture of the deliciously simple to the types of foods that would be a showstopper today, like that egg.

Have you made any of the dishes from Apicius's cookbook? If so, what dish or dishes are you the most drawn to or fascinated by?

I've made several dishes from Apicius. The Parthian chicken is one of my favorites. My husband is a great cook and we love to try to re-create the recipes. It's been one of the most fun things about writing about historical chefs. It's fun to make recipes that others have interpreted, but it's even more fun to figure it out on our own. As of this writing we're working on the sweet-and-sour dill chicken that is found in Apicius. Without any real instructions or proportions, the process is a bit of an experiment. We've made it at least four or five times now and I think we've almost perfected the recipe. It would be excellent on chicken wings!

You have already been at work writing a new book about another well-known cook. How did Feast of Sorrow influence or inspire your current writing projects? Has this book changed the way that you write?

I'm working on a historical novel about Bartolomeo Scappi, who was the most famous chef of the Renaissance. He was the private cook to several popes and he wrote a cookbook that was a bestseller for more than two hundred years. Both Apicius and Scappi shaped so much of the cooking we know and love today. Yet, what is interesting to me is that very little is known of the lives of these individuals. I love the idea of coming up with stories that are as delicious as the recipes themselves. The second book has been a bit easier to write in that I have a better sense of how to write a book. Feast of Sorrow went through so many edits and I learned a lot about avoiding certain pitfalls the second time around. My second novel won't be nearly so tragic. It's a mystery and a love affair and it's been tremendous fun to write.

As a reader, who are some of the storytellers you find most inspiring and why?

So many authors over many genres have inspired me and my writing. When I was young I loved fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen kept me dreaming. I have never lost my love for the fantastical or the speculative and I particularly love the works of Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, Catherynne Valente, Haruki Murakami, and Mark Z. Danielewski. The idea of someone creating an entire unfamiliar world and making it feel accessible is intriguing to me.

But history has also inspired me in many ways, clearly, as I'm writing in the historical genre. And really, what is history other than storytelling? Plus, sometimes history can be just as much fiction as fact. Two of my favorite books are The Histories by Herodotus and Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography. Herodotus's book is considered to be the first real attempt to write a book of history. Yet what I love about it is that it is full of hearsay as well as myths and legends that the people of that time believed to be true. And Cellini's autobiography is a roaring embellishment of his life as a goldsmith during the Renaissance. He was a tortured but successful artist. He was put in jail for murder but got out by the grace of the pope. He tells you how he single-handedly saved the city during the Sack of Rome but conveniently leaves out all the times he was jailed for sodomy. It's hard to know what is true and what is not and I love that.

One of the best storytellers I have ever encountered is Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. I listened to him speak at a writing conference in Boston a few years ago. He told the story of being in Paris to give a speech when he received the news that his grandmother had died. For the entire hour that he spoke I was riveted. My emotions ran the gambit from high to low. When he was finished I realized that I would remember that story forever, it was that powerful.

Can you recommend some of your favorite books about ancient Rome?

Virgil's Aeneid is still required reading for most Italian schoolchildren. For centuries he has been particularly revered in Italy as their greatest poet, and if you want to become a little bit closer with Italian culture, start there.

I cut my teeth on Robert Graves's I, Claudius, which is a classic. The history is rather embellished in many places, but it's a book that opened up a whole world of interest in ancient Rome for readers.

Other books I've enjoyed a great deal include Kate Quinn's Empress of Rome series, Elisabeth Storrs's Tales of Ancient Rome series, Phyllis T. Smith's I Am Livia, Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, L. J. Trafford's the Four Emperors series, and anything by Steven Saylor, Robert Harris, and Colleen McCullough. David Wishart also has a novel with his take on Sejanus that is a good read.

For pure history, Mary Beard's SPQR is a must. Anthony Everitt's Augustus is a comprehensive view of the life of one of the most famous men to ever live. And Tacitus's Histories and Pliny's Natural History are still very accessible centuries later.

The characters in Feast of Sorrow are fascinated with fortune-telling and divine signs. Have you ever had your fortune told or are there any mystical signs you pay attention to or look for in your own life?

I had my palm read once, many years ago when I lived in Seattle. The fortune-teller told me that I was going to move to a new place soon and that it would be very beneficial for me. That was true—I moved to Boston about six months later. She also told me that I would have two children, the first of which would come in two years. Nope and nope. However, I do have a good friend who practices astrology and she has read my charts a few times. They've always been accurate, even pinpointing the date that my husband asked me to marry him! I'm not sure I would call myself a believer, but I don't entirely disbelieve either.

I do believe that we have control over our own fates. That said, I have always found that in my life when I am working toward my goals—the ones that truly matter to me—all sorts of doors open up. Synchronicity is a funny thing, and I love when the stars align and everything seems to fall into place.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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