Thursday, May 23, 2013

Erin McGraw's "Better Food for a Better World"

Born and raised in Redondo Beach, California, Erin McGraw received her MFA at Indiana University and has lived in the Midwest ever since. Along with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins, she teaches at the Ohio State University and divides her time between Ohio and Tennessee.

Her newest novel is Better Food for a Better World. Before that she published The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard (a novel), The Good Life (stories), The Baby Tree (a novel), Lies of the Saints (stories, and a New York Times Notable Book for 1996), and Bodies at Sea (stories).

Here McGraw dreamcasts an adaptation of Better Food for a Better World:
Full disclosure: I hardly watch any movies. There are a lot of reasons for this, including laziness of an almost heroic degree, but the sad result is that I can't discuss the differences between Tilda Swinton's performance in We Need to Talk about Kevin and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, because I've only seen Michael Clayton. I can do a little better with Daniel Craig, because my husband has a soft spot for James Bond. So when I cast my book with A-list actors, I'm not casting out of hubris. I'm casting from a narrow base of knowledge.

That doesn't stop me from ferociously imagining my characters inhabited by humans, though. At some not-quite-pinpointable place in a book's composition, I start draping an actor's flesh around my character. It's easier to envision a scene if I can imagine the particular human beings walking through it, and when a book has a lot of characters, as Better Food for a Better World does, I need to imagine specific hair and voice and mannerisms to keep myself sane.

The book involves, Big Chill-style, three married couples who were friends in college. Pooling their money and energy, they start an ice-cream store in a college town in northern California. Because they are in California and because the book is a comedy, they also join a marriage support group, Life Ties, a kind of riff on 12-Step programs that becomes alarmingly intrusive. Life Ties members think nothing of lecturing one another on how they should behave--in public, at home, in bed. Life Ties members mean well, but they are nosy and bossy. Life Ties drives Vivy Jilet, my main character, nuts. She's a high-spirited person, impulsive, equipped with a smart mouth that sometimes gets her in trouble. It's obvious, isn't it? Julia Roberts. Gotta be.

Vivy is married to funny, easy-going Sam. He's smart, but he doesn't like getting mixed up in things, and it's hard to get the man to commit. If a meeting is called for Wednesday morning, Sam will not say ahead of time whether he'll be there or not. He always comes, but he doesn't like to tie himself down. He's that guy. In other words, he's Robert Downey Jr.

Vivy and Sam are counterbalanced by the other two couples who are their partners in the ice-cream store. Cecilia and David are earnest, dependable people--they believe in Life Ties, and they believe in their store's slogan, Better Food for a Better World. David spends a lot of time sourcing ingredients that are organic and harvested in worker-friendly conditions. Cecilia tries not to mourn the career in music she'd hoped to have, but it's not easy to trade out Mozart for Very BlueBerry Ripple. I'm seeing Elisabeth Moss and--don't laugh--Matt Damon. Really. He knows how to make earnestness interesting.

The other couple, Paul and Nancy, are more combustible. They're the self-appointed guard dogs of everybody else's life, and they are the people who give idealism a bad name. They're comic, but they're also frightening. Honestly, this is embarrassingly obvious: David Duchovny and Renée Zellweger.

Some other characters, such as Teeny Marteeny, the plump contortionist, and Fredd, the musclebound juggler, will require the casting skills of a specialist. I hope I'm allowed to watch auditions, though. I love to watch performers perform, which is exactly why this exercise is such wistful fun.
Learn more about the book and author at Erin McGraw's website.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Erin McGraw & Max and Sister.

The Page 69 Test: Better Food for a Better World.

--Marshal Zeringue