Eating Authors: Russell Davis

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Russell Davis

If things go as planned, about the time this week’s installment of EATING AUTHORS posts, I’ll be sending in the completed revisions of the BARSquel to my editor. And I do so with both relief and regret. Sequels are tough, particularly when the first book in the series was something I’d been mulling over for more nearly three decades and this book came together, from conception to completion, in a couple years. I think fans of BARSK will like this one even more, though you’ll have to wait until next summer to judge for yourself. It definitely replaces it’s predecessor as the best thing I’ve ever written. Which is how it should be, but man, I am exhausted! And alas, no rest for me, as I need to jump back into writing mode and finish the revisions on the new Amazing Conroy novella so that publisher has it in time to release next month. And after that I have two collaborations, a game proposal, and another novel or clamoring for my attention before month’s end.

I don’t expect any sympathy for the abundance of writing awaiting me. It just means that I’m moving further along that continuum from dilettante (where I don’t think I’ve been for some years) to working writer (which is how I like to think of myself). And that’s a good thing. That’s also about as good a segue as I’m going to get to introducing this week’s guest, Russell Davis.

I’m really happy to say that I’ve known Russell for years, but I can’t say I know him well and we’ve only met face to face a few times. It all began while he was the president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and I was stepping up to take over as the organization’s Election Officer. I continued in that role for about eight years and under several other SFWA presidents, but working under Russell gave me my first glimpse of how that particular sausage gets made and I was impressed by the attention and thought that I saw going into his decisions. It was a great introduction to my own service to the organization, and over the years I’ve come to appreciate it more and more.

On the other hand, it took forever to get him here, so no more flattering words for him!

If you’re not familiar with his name, there’s still a very good chance you’re read him anyway, because not only is Russell the very definition of a working writer (see, there’s the segue connection!), he’s also a master of disguise, or at least of pseudonyms. You can find him writing under such names as David Cian (Transformers novels among other things), Garrett Dylan (spy novels), Jenna Solitaire (the Daughter of Destiny series), Christopher Tracy (TV movie novelizations) and several more. It’s inspiring. But then, that’s just how he rolls.

LMS: Welcome, Russell. What’s the best meal you can remember?

RD: This is an incredibly difficult question for me to answer, which perhaps explains why I’ve struggled with responding to the ever-patient Lawrence with my reply. It’s difficult because I grew up in the restaurant business, from the time I was eight and taking trash out of the kitchen of the Holiday Inn where my mom worked for $1/can until I was in my late 20’s, and finally escaped. Mostly. Sort of. That’s a long and different story, but the point is that I’ve eaten out in a lot of really excellent restaurants, and I’m no slouch in the kitchen, which means I’ve had quite a few meals at home that were pretty damn fine, too. And there’s been any number of memorable meals at the homes of friends and relatives, where the food was good and the mood celebratory.

So… picking the best one? Not so easy.

Murder Ink

I could tell you about my mom’s slow-roasted English prime rib, or her pheasant stroganoff – both of which we had one year when I was hosting a Super Bowl party. There was a sort of pot-luck brunch I recall where everyone had to eat standing up because the entire table was covered with food and a Bloody Mary bar that looked like it was straight out of a magazine. There was a lunch at my first WorldCon, when I sat with George R.R. Martin and he let me pick his brain for about forty-five minutes on world building in fantasy novels. There was one, really excellent meal and company, at the Fairmont in San Francisco, where I learned that Bob Silverberg knows almost as much about wine as I do (though he’d tell you the opposite), and that Len Wein can draw a Batman on the back of a bar napkin (which I still have, framed, and I’m not giving it back, no matter what). That was the night I learned about Mary Robinette Kowal’s voice talents, which she could use to make a really good living, if she ever decided that writing and puppetry weren’t working out. (Seriously, she could launch her own “I’ll record your voice mail message,” business and make serious bank.)

And isn’t that the trick, really? The best meal sort of implies the best food, but sometimes, what makes the meal is the company, even when the food is, at best, forgettable. I’ve been in the publishing industry for a long time, and have had the pleasure of sharing meals and drinks with people I long admired, and some have even become friends. There are fine memories there that I’ll no doubt be mining for many years to come.

But the best meal… forced to pick, the one that really stands out to me was at Harrah’s Steak House in Reno, Nevada. I ate there several times over the years I lived in Nevada, including on my wedding night. But in order to understand what made Harrah’s special, you must understand that before I ever went there, I met the head server at a gourmet coffee house event and he personally invited me to come to the restaurant. His name was Bong. James Bong.

No, I’m not kidding.

The Twilight Zone: A Gathering of Shadows

Bong had been at Harrah’s for years – we’re talking decades here – and had served many celebrities and VIP’s. One evening while we were there, I met Jim Kelly, the great Buffalo Bills quarterback. The restaurant itself is on the bottom floor of Harrah’s casino, and you’d think it would be noisy, but it’s not. The exterior walls are soundproofed – you can’t hear so much as a slot machine – and the booths are constructed of heavy, padded leather that wraps around the table, ensuring a sense of privacy that an open table never does. The regular evening host was a man named Michael, who remembered us by name on our second visit, after Bong introduced us when we came in for that first meal. Part of a great dining experience is the service, and great service is almost priceless when it comes to having an unforgettable dinner. The service and atmosphere at Harrah’s was always first rate.

So, the particular night I’m thinking of was intended to be a quiet date night, celebrating our third anniversary. What happened instead was a dinner experience I’ll never forget. As usual, Michael remembered us and ensured we were seated at a booth, and Bong remembered that I drink Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and had one at the table before I even ordered it.

Our menu selections that night were as follows:
Appetizer: Steakhouse Ravioli
Soup: Lobster Bisque (and if you ever go there, have the bisque – it’s amazing)
Salad: Tableside prepared Caesar Salad
Entrée: Tableside Flambéed Steak Diane
Desert: Crème Brulee

Now, all of that sounds fine – and it was – but what really made the night was the wine and after dinner drinks. Oh, and the group of people sitting at an open table next to ours.

Knowing that I was a bit of a wine snob, Bong had set aside a bottle of Duckhorn Merlot for us – I think it was a 2006 – and it was outstanding. And not too long after we’d cracked the bottle, the table next to us found out we were celebrating our anniversary, and we all shared a toast. Then we started passing wine bottles back and forth, because they had an excellent wine, too. The conversation was friendly, and our two-table group sort of took over one little corner of that dining room. Servers came and went, food appeared and disappeared, laughter among strangers with very little in common except the meal we were all enjoying – and sharing without any hesitation at all.

After dinner, came one of Harrah’s specialties: Café Diablo. This is an alcoholic coffee drink prepared tableside. It consists of several different liquors, orange peel, cloves, and coffee, and if you want to see it for yourself, there’s a video on YouTube. I’m a little bit in love with it, and I’d have it far too often if it was easily accessible, so it’s probably a good thing that it isn’t.

The End of All Seasons

As the evening wound down, I realized that there was wine left in most of the bottles and the other table had also ordered Café Diablo, so there was plenty to go around. I quietly suggested an idea to my wife and the other table, and everyone agreed to my plan. I called Bong and Michael over and requested that they bring glasses and cups for themselves and the service staff so that they, too, could share in the moment and as a thank you for their service. Not too long after that, there must have been close to a dozen service staff standing around our two tables, drinking and laughing and talking with us.

Finally, the check came and when I looked at it, I realized that there must have been some kind of error. There was no charge for our wine, our Café Diablo, or our dessert. I stepped up to the host station and asked Michael and he smiled and said the wine had been paid for by the table next to us, and the Café Diablo and dessert was on the house – gifts for our anniversary. I was taken aback by the generosity. On our way out, we thanked the other table and the service staff profusely, but there wasn’t a single sign of hesitation or regret at the cost.

So, why is this dinner so very special in my memory? Because the food was excellent, the service was outstanding, the atmosphere flawless… but the company, the experience of enjoying a meal with total strangers who had no expectation of us other than to have a good night, was worth every penny we spent. Anniversaries are special, of course, and those dinners I mentioned before… I’ll never forget them, either. But often, as writers and publishers and editors and whatever other “public” hats we wear, we sit down to dinner with our friends and colleagues and there are expectations: of what we’ll say or do or talk about, and of who we are in relationship to the industry we work in or each other. It’s rarely spoken aloud, but it exists nonetheless.

For one night, my wife and I went to a fancy meal, celebrated our anniversary, and had a great time and an excellent meal, and those were the only expectations we had to meet. We didn’t exchange names with the people sitting next to us; we didn’t compare ourselves to each other. We simply enjoyed all aspects of it, and returned home… utterly and completely satisfied. There’s no better meal than that.

Thanks, Russell. You know, I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life, and never been tempted to, until now. If we’re ever in Las Vegas together, I think I’d join you for a cup of Café Diablo without hesitation.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

author photo by Richard Man

#SFWApro

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