Interviewed by Valerie Waterhouse
Read Hege Lepri’s fiction piece, Culinary Bliss
Valerie: Like the recipe for pomarola (tomato sauce), your story is on a slow burner, with the punch coming towards the end. Was this deliberate?
Hege: Yes, this was a story born out of the my own experience: how the act of cooking traditional food from scratch is a slow, meandering process, often slower and more meandering than you planned for, and frequently clashes with the demands of modern city life. When I went back to edit the story, it occurred to me that this ‘meandering’ seems to be built into the midlife years of women’s lives, when many of us try to find out what the hell we’re doing and where we’re going, while continuing to perform repetitive household and work chores. And sometimes that brings radical changes or sudden epiphanies.
The story revolves around Elisabeth Badinter’s feminist diatribe: Le Conflit, la Femme et la Mère (The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women). Are women becoming ‘slaves to green fads’? Or is sustainable living empowering?
I think we have to live with the tension between these two. My choice has been to try to ‘green’ my own life and nurture sustainable relationships, but I can’t escape the fact that this has hampered my career, and possibly also dampened my outward political engagement. But I do think living sustainably can be empowering.
Any other inspirations behind the story? Apart from Badinter?
The first two drafts of this story had completely different titles (Canning Season and Gastonomica). It was during my third go at it that I saw a slight resemblance with a short story by Katherine Mansfield: Bliss. That story is almost one hundred years old, but it guided me both to this title and to the feeling I wanted to linger at the end.
Rereading Mansfield’s Bliss, I was struck by the similarities between it and your story: potential adultery being intimately entangled with a euphoric viewing of a tree. Do trees, in general, have a special significance for you?
It’s funny you ask that; for some reason my writing frequently has a tree or a forest figure in it. It is one of those mystical things that appear from out of nowhere and has to be part of what I’m writing. I grew up north of the Arctic circle with a subarctic forest behind my house and the Norwegian sea in front, so these natural elements, forests and oceans, have a special meaning to me.
The protagonist of Culinary Bliss is obsessed with her sustainable lifestyle, yet her husband, daughter, friend and even the exchange student all seem to be laughing behind her back. Is sustainable living in fact ‘sustainable’? Or is it an unrealistic solution to the problems of the modern age?
That depends on what you mean by ‘realistic.’ Sometimes what seems ‘unrealistic’ in terms of economic gain and time spent in the present becomes the only realistic and sensible action if the timeframe goes beyond this month or this year.
Climate change is only mentioned once in passing, yet is present as a submerged force behind your protagonist’s decision to live a sustainable life. Most climate change fiction ends up being apocalyptic: was it your intention to write a story in which climate change informs the ordinary, the human and the everyday?
I wanted the story to be both about the looming threat of climate change, and climate change as a metaphor for an outside threat you can’t control but that you feel in your bones constantly. To achieve that I had to concentrate on the mundane details that reveal this threat.
Is climate change something you write about often? What difficulties does writing about it present? Why have so few modern fiction writers tackled the subject, do you think?
The difficulty in writing fiction about political issues is that it easily ends up sounding preachy. Literary writers don’t want to write political pamphlets, and literature labelled as ‘useful’ frequently fails to move the reader. This is something I struggle with too, and I cringe and sweat when I start editing a first draft. But environmental issues are so much part of my life that the theme frequently weaves itself into a story anyway. So yes, I’ve written dystopian stories where rising sea-levels figure prominently, even if the core of the story is something else, in one case about the relationship between a father and son. And I’m currently working on a piece about a young mother struggling with breastfeeding during the hottest summer of the century, where the heat and fear of the future are becoming characters.
Your story displays a healthy cynicism towards food bloggers. What are the pros and cons of writing so obsessively about food?
Like most obsessions, the main risk is missing the bigger picture. But obsessing also leads to deep knowledge of a subject, the kind of deep theoretical and practical knowledge that is a rare commodity in superficial times where everything can be googled, so retention of knowledge seems obsolete.
Do you write or blog about food yourself? Do you regularly read any food blogs? Any favourites you’d like to recommend?
Many years ago I had a blog (for about 20 seconds), but I wasn’t focused enough to be a food blogger. I stopped blogging completely after I finally found my way back into literary writing. But I do read blogs for inspiration, in various languages. Here are a few:
Returning to Mansfield’s Bliss, I was surprised to find the following, which I had completely forgotten: ‘Why Must it Always be Tomato Soup? It’s so deeply true, don’t you feel? Tomato soup is so dreadfully eternal.’ Would you say the same could be said of pomarola?
Yes, pomarola, is one of those staples that hold people together: it’s repetitive, banal, inescapable, but also eternal. In my case, it connects me to younger versions of myself, and to other women who taught me their recipes. It’s what I resort to for last-minute dinners, but also use to enhance elaborate dishes.
Mansfield was probably being ironic, but, it has to be said, there is something deeply blissful about tomato sauce/soup! I know what you mean about the meandering years of women’s midlives, too, Hege… heading off right NOW to find a pomarola recipe…