Adam Schell

A Conversation with Adam Schell

Q: You’ve been a college football player, a professional chef, and are now a yoga teacher. How have those pursuits influenced your writing?

A: I think football taught me how to prepare, being a chef taught me how to wing it, and being a yoga teacher taught me to trust – all skills intrinsic to writing a good novel. People often think of football players as meatheads, but in the game, they are some of the most prepared people you’ll ever meet. In other words, like a diligent writer, they do their homework. Chefs prepare too, but often, especially in the world of catering where I spent the majority of my cooking career, things don’t go as planned–sauces break, deliveries get stuck in traffic, the hostess decides she’d like to change the menu at the last minute. Here, like the writer who has meticulously mapped out his plot only to find it inconsistent to the desires of his characters, the truly exceptional chef has to adapt his ingredients and plans to meet the twists of fate and whims of his diners. And finally, the insightful yoga teacher has to trust in the creative spirit with his craft, just as the author does.

Q: Food and sex feature prominently in TOMATO RHAPSODY. How would you describe the relationship between them in your novel?

A: Well, eating is about the best thing to do when you’re not having sex, right? I think food and sex are very similar in that they are both intensely sensual experiences and are often used as a replacement for one or the other–especially in literature. What I tried to do in TOMATO RHAPSODY was to use food as a means to develop and heighten the romantic stakes for Davido and Mari. The lovers don’t spend that much time with one another and they only make love twice, but the way they deal with food – Mari with her olives and Davido with his tomatoes – becomes a romantic projection of their desire for one another. Mari kisses a tomato before she ever kisses Davido, and Davido’s creation of tomato sauce is tantamount to a seduction of Mari.

Q: Are any of the characters in the book based on people you know? What are the origins of some of these colorful characters?

A: I can’t say that any of the characters in TOMATO RHAPSODY are entirely biographical, but many of them are composites of people I’ve known over the years. In a nod to full disclosure, I’ll admit that the attitudes towards religion and culture expressed by Nonno and Davido pretty well parrot mine and my father’s. Chef Luigi Campoverde is based upon a couple of chefs I worked with, one in particular who was a cowardly, near-kleptomaniac with a heart of gold. The Good Padre is drawn from some of the spiritual teachers I’ve had. The nastier parts of Giuseppe took motivation from some rather unpleasant football coaches I had over the years, and the sweeter parts of Benito are based upon a longtime childhood friend who was also one hell of a hilarious, slovenly glutton. Signore Solo Coglione got his name, not his demeanor, from a childhood run-in that my brother had with a haughty goose, which thankfully didn’t prove as calamitous for my brother as it did for Coglione.

Q: How much of your story of how the tomato came to Italy is based on fact?

A: I can say with near-confidence that a not insignificant portion of TOMATO RHAPSODY is based in fact, or at least a close approximation. What is certain – more or less – is that the tomato came to Spain via Christopher Columbus’s expeditions in the New World. It was on the coast of what is Honduras today where Columbus first encountered what is believed to have been a tomato – a small fruit eaten by the native peoples, usually mashed with chilies. In the Nahuatl language which dominated Central America in pre-Columbian times, it was called the tomatl. In one of his journals, Columbus mentions sharing a “spicy red soup of sorts,” (the forerunner of gazpacho?) with a group of natives.

From Spain the tomato somehow made its way to Italy, and this is where the story of TOMATO RHAPSODY comes in. The theory is that Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition brought the tomato with them as they immigrated to Italy. Because the tomato evoked the Love Apple from the Garden of Eden, Italy reacted to it with great suspicion. Food historians posit that the tomato was cultivated and eaten, especially by the Jews of a small Tuscan city called Pitigliano, shortly after its introduction in the early 16th century. However, the first mention of the tomato in an Italian cookbook does not appear until 1692.

Q: What challenges did you face while writing in rhyme? Why did you choose to write in an “old world style” and set your book in a bygone time?

A: I set the story at the time that the tomato is believed to have first arrived in Italy, so that was easy. The Rhyming, however, emerged rather suddenly. First, a little history: Modern Italian is primarily a centuries’ old blend of Latin and Etruscan – the ancient language of Tuscany – which unlike Latin, but similar to ancient Greek, Irish Gaelic and the Basque language, was a largely rhyming form of speech. The blending of Latin and Etruscan was not an easy integration as the more rural regions of Tuscany were slow to give up their rhyming manner of speech. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Florentine scholars occasionally noted the countrified style of speech common to small villages and hill top towns: Etruscanato Antiquato, Antiquated Etruscan, they called it, and that’s what I was aiming to capture the spirit of in TOMATO RHAPSODY.

In terms of the novel, it was not initially my intention to render the villagers’ dialogue in a style approximating Antiquated Etruscan – that snuck up on me. In fact, it wasn’t my idea at all, it was Giuseppe’s. (Giuseppe is the tale’s villain if you haven’t read the book yet.) Early on in my writing process, in one of the first scenes between Giuseppe and Benito, Giuseppe started speaking in rhyme, and Benito answered him in rhyme. And from there, I just had to listen to how these characters wanted to talk to one another. It wasn’t always easy, in fact most days it took a great deal of concentration, and likely added an extra year or so of work on the book, but it felt entirely right.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It’s called Food of the Gods, and it’s something of a prequel that follows the pre-Italy years of the character Nonno from TOMATO RHAPSODY. Here’s the one-sentence pitch: Food of the Gods is an epic story of love, adventure, friendship and the bittersweet revenge that brought the Spanish Empire to its knees and chocolate to the world.

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