I am a white American male, but the central characters of my last two novels are a Muslim-Indian cook and a repressed Japanese Buddhist priest, while my current work in progress is in the voice of a Spanish private banker who is dying. I have never accepted the classic writer’s admonition that we should write only about what is organic to our lives. The joy of writing, for me, is to step out of my mundane existence for a while and to romp around as someone entirely different from myself. Perhaps I have, in the loneliness and isolation that is the writer’s lot, an emotional need to discover what I share with people living in the far corners of the world, in lives very different from my own.
But to convincingly assume the mantle of another culture and experience does require technique. My route into fiction writing is acting, my first vocational love, and when I start writing a book in a new voice I try hard to mimic a character actor convincingly transforming him or herself into a new role. Think Meryl Streep as the Hassidic rabbi in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
I got an important clue about how to go about this transformative process in the dressing room of the great French actress Jeanne Moreau. I was a young man writing about her for the New York Times, and asked la grand dame how she prepared for her roles. She told me she worked first on her costume: Would this character wear a cardigan? Keep a tissue up her sleeve? If she wore a purse, would it be faux leather or crocodile skin? “I always work from the outside in,” Moreau told me.
That remark stayed with me, and when I sat down to write the story of Hassan Haji for The Hundred-Foot Journey, I listened to recordings and imagined talking to my Indian friends to capture the melodic lilt of an Indian voice. But I am a journalist by day, and I knew that if I did too much research at the onset, then the reporter in me would kick in. Focusing on factual accuracy would inevitably shut down the soaring imagination I needed to write fiction. So, initially, I only did enough research to get the voice right, before plotting and writing my novel right through a completed first draft.
It is in the endless rewriting that obsessive new waves of research come to play, lifting the work to a higher plane. In the case of The Hundred-Foot Journey, for example, I coupled my own intuitive and amateurish love of cooking with hard research, spending quality time in the kitchens of top-drawer restaurants like Le Bernardin in New York, the Sugar Club in London, and Khyber in Bombay. I read countless cookbooks and chef memoirs. I uncovered an ancient Roman recipe for bulls’ balls and how precisely besieged and starving Parisians of the 19th century marinated and cooked rats during the Franco-Prussian war. I traveled briefly to India, to tour Crawford Market in Bombay, and went ptarmigan hunting in Iceland, where I learned how the locals prepared their Christmas bird.
Richness and plausibility ensued. In one memoir by a three-star French chef, I learned he always picked the market chicken with the plumpest knees, the surest sign of a tasty bird, he insisted. That whacky tidbit promptly went into my own fictional stew. The point: Such well-researched details slipped into a tale can ground even a most fantastical work in reality, and leave the illusion the writing is not the efforts of a white middle-aged scribbler gone to seed, but the earnest memoir of a young Indian chef on the rise.
Richard C. Morais is the author of two novels, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Buddhaland Brooklyn, and the unauthorized biography, Pierre Cardin: The Man Who Became a Label. The Hundred-Foot Journey was a New York Times and international bestseller, sold in 35 territories around the world, and, in 2014, was released as a Steven Spielberg- and Oprah Winfrey-produced film. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the film stars Helen Mirren and Om Puri. Morais is also the editor of Barron’s Penta, a family and finance magazine. An American raised in Switzerland, Morais spent 17 years in London, where he was Forbes magazine’s European Bureau Chief and his international coverage resulted in six nominations and three awards from the Business Journalist of the Year Awards. He was named the 2015 Citizen Diplomat of the Year – the highest honor granted by the Global Ties U.S., a private-public organization sponsored by the U.S. State Department – “for promoting cross-cultural understanding in all of his literary works.” He lives in New York.