Part two: It was auspicious that Nicole Kelby took time to talk with us on October 28th—Escoffier’s birthday. In the second part of our interview, we learn more about her book White Truffles in Winter, Auguste Escoffier himself, and her work on her new book, The Pink Suit.
Nicole Kelby’s warm and engaging manner make it easy to chat about subjects ranging from her process as a writer to the importance of family meals, from fast food (she admits to the occasional Filet-O-Fish) to Kindle vs. paper books (both, she says).
She has real, hardback copies of various editions of White Truffles in Winter, and shows us a few while talking about her experiences on book tour: “This is the British copy–this is beautiful. They did a beautiful job.” She holds up another edition. “And this–I toured Italy–this is the Italian version. That was really fun, and the American version is different too. It’s really fun to see books in different cultures, and to go to different places, and realize how they value books. When I was in Rome, it was like I was a rock star. I was on all the television, all the radio, I was in the papers, and the same thing will be true when I go to Poland. But in America,” she laughs wryly, “Yeah, you know…we’ve got a lot of writers….”
Nicole originally became interested in Escoffier because of her mother, who had been shot during WWII, and seemed to find comfort whenever she cooked from Escoffier’s book. It was after her mother passed away that Nicole started looking more closely at that book. She was surprised to find that Escoffier was charming and even funny. Then she turned to his memoir.
“There was just nothing there–it was just hardly anything. I thought, ‘Who was this guy?’ Then I found out that Ho Chi Minh was his pastry chef. Well, that sealed the deal. I had to figure out who this guy was. And I think that he was so interesting as a voice in his cookbooks, but it was so difficult to make this stuff. He simplified French cooking, but it’s still doggone complicated. I just kind of fell in love with him then.
“I know that the man I wrote about, it’s not really about Escoffier in a way…It’s not really about the real Escoffier. Because obviously I didn’t really write about him–I just used his words and his way in the world to create this world of the plate.”
White Truffles is a work of fiction based on historical facts, dates, and real people. Nicole shares some of the challenges in that kind of creative process. “Well, the problem was, I got really excited about writing about Escoffier, and then I realized that he had taken all of that money from the Savoy. And that was like, ‘How much? And what happened?’ I started looking at the historical documents and I thought, ‘Oh my god’.
He’d been separated from his wife for thirty years. His wife just took off one day. And some of his recipes are like, ‘Hey baby!’ They’re dirty. They are just flat out dirty!
“So I started thinking– it can’t really be about this man. It has to be about the persona he leaves the world…Because truth is really subjective…And I think this book does look at the idea of what you say about yourself being very telling of who you are. I really took how he saw himself, and built the whole bones of the book on that. Now, the fact that he was accused of all this stuff at the Savoy: I’ve seen the documents, I’m going to have to go with probably true. But at the same time I didn’t want to defame him, because there’s really no need. So I thought about what could he have done, given how kind he was, and how much money he had raised for charity, and all these kinds of things, so I sort of created a construct about who he really was. I mean, you have a moral obligation to tell the truth–obviously, always–in a book. But you also have to be careful.”
We move on to discuss Nicole’s current work in progress, called The Pink Suit, a book about “The most famous pink suit in American history…the suit that Jackie Kennedy wore on the day that her husband was assassinated.” She sparkles with enthusiasm as she talks about the new book, which isn’t really about the Kennedys, but rather the fictionalized story of a real life Irish immigrant named Kate, who did the final fitting and sewing of the suit. In the course of researching this book, she has gathered an enormous amount of information about this unknown seamstress, her neighborhood, and the painstaking process of creating couture garments.
This book sounds very different from White Truffles in Winter, but there is a common theme that runs through all of Nicole’s several books.
“I think there’s a certain broken-heartedness in all of them. I believe that novelists are geographers of the heart…there’s some darkness in there, there’s a definite broken-heartedness. Even if they are very funny and charming, there’s still that. I lost my daughter when she was very young and I’ve never gotten over that. And I think I understand loss in that really profoundly deep way, and the idea of allowing people to overcome loss. When I was a reporter–a television reporter–I was in the field covering all of these shootings and things where I couldn’t change the ending…I was covering these horrible stories. I see everybody on their worst day as a reporter. But when you’re a writer you can rewrite it. You can change it, you can shift it. It might not be the happiest ending ever, but it’s better.”
Nicole leaves us with these parting words: “Don’t forget to read the back part of the book, because I do think the novel is based on the bones of fact. The notes in the back of the book are really important. Let me just finish by reading this. Because I think this is very important for you to think about.
‘Escoffier’s cookbooks, memoir, letters, and the articles about him created the voice of this character but we all know that I did not write about the real man. The elegant savage found in these pages is who we all are when we address the plate. The magician, the priest, the dreamer, the artist—it is our most hungry self. That is the only fact that truly matters.’”
This interview has been edited slightly for readability. Our thanks to Nicole Kelby for taking the time to talk with us.