Eating Authors: Juliet E. McKenna

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Juliet McKenna

The last week or so has been a bit tumultuous for our little corner of the genre community. There have been petitions and commentary and nastiness and apologies and I have to say, whatever other merit (or not) any of that has had, it’s been pretty tiring too. Which is why, in part, it is such a delight to have Juliet McKenna here today, as she is most definitely one of the good ones! She’s one of the authors behind The Write Fantastic, an initiative to promote the literature of the fantastic, and though most of what I write falls on the SF side of the line, I’ll happily get in line to say “thank you, Juliet.”

She also continues the long tradition here at EATING AUTHORS of writers who have had snails slip into their most memorable meals, but I’ll let you read about that below.

Instead, let me remark that one of the things that fascinates me about authors like Juliet who have written multiple books for multiple series, is how readers discover their works or where they choose to start. Do you jump in with Irons in the Fire, the first book in her series The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, or with Southern Fire, the book that opens the The Aldabreshin Compass. Do you begin way back with The Thief’s Gamble, her first novel and the first book in her series The Tales of Einarinn, or start with the much more recent Dangerous Waters , which opens her latest series, The Hadrumal Crisis?

LMS: Welcome, Juliet. Would you please share your recollection of your most memorable meal?

JEM: I must have been around nine years old, so this would have been in the mid-1970s. Whether I was eight, rising nine, or going on ten, I honestly can’t recall. But it was Easter and we were visiting friends in France; a family we’d got to know through one of my mum’s colleagues at work. Their elder son was much the same age as my older brother and he used to come and stay with us, and we had holidays with them, not far from Paris.

Dangerous Waters

It was Easter and the whole family was gathered together. Monsieur and Madame as they were to me and my brother, Louis and Yveline to my mum. Their sons, Patrick and Franck. Madame’s sister, Tante Alice and her English husband Ken. Their grown-up children; Derek and his Italian wife Mireille, Patricia and her Dutch husband Gerard. I can’t remember if this was when we met Gerard’s German nephew – perhaps that was another time. You get the idea though. The idea of families linked by blood and marriage across borders that were no more of an obstacle than lines on a map. Where travel from country to country was a casual undertaking, as Derek and Gerard discussed which of the routes they preferred to use, driving through the Alps. A meal where four (or possibly five) languages were being spoken around the table. Most people were fluent in at least two, quite often three and able to get by in another. This fascinated me; a child raised in a United Kingdom secure on its own island, and with grandparents, at least on my English side, who would whole-heartedly agree with that famous, if alas apocryphal, newspaper headline: ‘Fog in Channel. Continent Cut Off’.

Irons in the Fire

Though of course, back then, barely thirty years before, deciding who got to draw those lines on the map had seen Europe ravaged by war. Travel from country to country had been a matter of life and death. Those who had lived through that cataclysm were also at the Easter Sunday table. Grandmère and a great uncle and his wife, though I have forgotten exactly where they fitted into the family tree, if indeed, I ever knew. My brother and I were much more interested to learn that we must be polite and not get rowdy around the gently smiling, little old man, because he had a steel plate in his head. Because when the Second World War broke out, he had been living in Alsace. After the Nazis invaded, he had been conscripted into the German Army, since the alternative was being imprisoned or shot. Later he had been very badly wounded when the tank he was in was blown up in the fighting after D-Day. Waking up in an Allied hospital, he’d been given the choice of joining the Free French or becoming a PoW. So he joined the French Army.

The Thief's Gamble

Well, that was an adventure story to equal anything in the ‘Battle’ and ‘Commando’ comics that endlessly rehashed WWII on the newsstands for lads like my brother at the time! But it made me stop and think a bit more deeply about those stories. About the ordinary, harmless people swept up and carried along by violence in the service of political ambition, through no fault of their own. How different the war must have been in Europe, when Them and Us couldn’t be so readily marked by the dividing sea. When a young man, through no fault of his own, could end up fighting on both sides. He wasn’t trying to be a hero. He was just trying to stay alive. With the benefit of hindsight nearly forty years later, I have no doubt that this encounter contributed to my lifelong fascination with history.

Was the meal memorable for anything gastronomically? Oh, yes. The main course was roast lamb and haricots verts, still one of my absolute favourites. The starter? Escargots. Snails. This was the first time I’d encountered them on a plate rather than a garden path. I did give one a try, out of genuine curiosity. It was… horrid. The garlic butter was fine but the chewiness and the texture? No, not for me. But could I decline the rest of my serving without causing offence? I still remember how relieved I was to see Monsieur smiling and saying I didn’t have to eat them if I didn’t like them, and Madame asking if I’d like palm hearts instead? Again with the benefit of hindsight, I’m pretty sure that’s why I’ve never insisted any child must eat what’s put in front of them!

Thanks, Juliet. I’ve never had the pleasure of one of those multi-generational, extended family and friends, mixed languages meals, but I’ve dreamed of them more than a few times..

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!



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