Westword theatre critic brings her debut novel to Tattered Cover on May 13
Westword theatre critic and now novelist Juliet Wittman has never worked in a kitchen, and yet her favorite stories always seem to have something to do with food.
On an ordinary Lyft ride just last week, Wittman’s innocuous comment about the weather prompted a wild tale from her driver, a black man from Georgia who told Wittman it’s so hot and humid back home that his mother recently found a 4-foot alligator on the family’s back porch. “My God, that’s really scary. What did she do?” Wittman asked. Well, his father killed it, naturally. “And then what?” Wittman had to know.
“My mother cooked it.”
For what remained of the ride, Wittman learned how to skin and cook alligators, squirrels and rattlesnakes – no extra charge!
“That was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had,” said Wittman, who was born in London and lives in Boulder. Her widely praised debut fiction novel “Stocker’s Kitchen” has just been released by Beck & Branch, and she will be reading excerpts with local actor Luke Sorge on Monday night, May 13, at the Tattered Cover Book Store.
“This book starts with the fact that I am obsessed with food, and one of the reasons is I just love the stories behind it,” said Wittman, who believes what food you like to eat is a dead giveaway into what kind of person you are. “I also remember events in my life by what everyone was eating at the time. I pick up a piece of strudel and remember my mother stretching dough over the kitchen table. I think an item of food is never just an item of food.”
So naturally, food is at the heart of “Stocker’s Kitchen,” a novel born not out of practical experience but rather a writing exercise from a book called “Steering the Craft” by Ursula Le Guin. The assignment was simple: “Create a loud and noisy place, with a lot of desperate voices.”
Wittman immediately found herself in Stocker’s Kitchen and meeting all of the damaged, eccentric characters populating it. She imagined a Sous-Chef yelling at his mother into the phone. A motherly waitress. An insecure young actor feeling her way in New York City. An elegant pastry chef and a terrified chef’s protege.
And carrying on at the center of this fever dream was the titular chef-owner of Stocker’s Kitchen. “Stocker is short, fat and vulgar, a cross between Gordon Ramsay and every other bad-tempered chef you’ve ever heard of,” Wittman said. “He’s racist, he’s sexist, he’s foul-mouthed and he runs a very greasy kitchen – from which emerges brilliant food that nurtures, soothes and inspires.”
He’s just not, Wittman says politely, altogether nice. “But I think all of my characters are very human and, on some level, very vulnerable,” she said. “I think that each one, in his or her own way, is searching for some kind of redemption. I think a lot of people can relate to that.”
In the story, Stocker’s hard-edged self-confidence falters when he falls in love with a young, half-Vietnamese woman named Angela. Not to overcook the food metaphors here, but: These two are profoundly and implacably hungry – and not for food.
When Wittman started that writing exercise, she had no intention of writing a novel. But just like that, she had a full menu of colorful characters dancing in her mind. She had to give them full life. “I was laughing and having such a good time,” she said. “It was a really fun morning.”
Wittman, both an investigative journalist who worked at the Boulder Daily Camera and Colorado Daily and more recently a retired instructor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, is both a foundation and something of an enigma in the Colorado theatre community. She is now in her third decade producing up to four reviews each month as a freelance contributor to Westword, making hers the most consistent and ongoing critical voice in the state. But her close adherence to journalistic ethics has demanded that she keep a respectful distance from the people she writes about, and that has largely prevented her from developing personal bonds and biases with individual theatre artists. Even after all these years, Wittman can walk into a theatre without most people having a clue who she is. And that’s been by design.
Wittman has been more forthcoming in her writing about some of the more adventurous details of her life, like when she lived on an anti-war commune in San Diego that was once targeted by bombers – and, more poignantly, her battles with cancer. But few of her readers have any inkling that she is a longtime theatre artist herself who studied acting while growing up in London. That she has worked in radio, off-off Broadway, summer stock and repertory theatre. That, after moving to Colorado for grad school at age 29, she appeared in theatre productions at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Nomad Playhouse. That she founded her own feminist theatre company. That she taught theatre at the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility. “The inmates were allowed out of the prison several times to show their plays in Boulder, Colorado Springs and at Denver’s Changing Scene, where Al Brooks served them cappuccino in tiny, elegant cups,” she said.
Wittman has had essays and short stories published in literary magazines and won several journalism awards. Her memoir, “Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals,” received the Colorado Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
She sat for a wide-ranging interview about her new book, its origin and Wittman’s place in the Colorado theatre community, conducted by a fellow journalist and former theatre critic who spent many of the same years reviewing theatre in Colorado alongside Wittman. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
John Moore: So, Juliet, what’s it like for the reviewer to be reviewed?
Juliet Wittman: Scary. I was reviewed when I used to act around Boulder. It was always frightening. It can be very painful when you get a bad review, and that’s something I’m deeply conscious of every week when I write. I’ll never forget when a woman who reviewed my breast-cancer book said it was so self-absorbed and narcissistic and altogether awful that reading my book was worse than going through cancer.”
John Moore. Ouch. But still … finalist for the National Book Award.
Juliet Wittman: Comes with the territory. Fair is fair.
John Moore: Well, the reviews for ‘Stocker’s Kitchen’ have been lovely. One said: ‘I love how the author takes a troubled soul and develops a character we want to know, someone we root for and suffer with and learn from.’
Juliet Wittman: I’ve had comments that I’ve taken to my soul to remember and re-remember on the dark nights because they’re so lovely.
John Moore: I have found that a lifetime in journalism has staunched my ability to write creatively because of the need to be literal and factual at all times. Do you find novel-writing to be similarly difficult, or did you find it to be an escape from literalism?
Juliet Wittman: What I love most about writing fiction is you can make stuff up. And in fact, you’re supposed to make stuff up. It’s much freer. But at the same time, it’s more difficult because you have to invent the dialogue. If you are a good journalist, all you have to do is quote someone accurately.
John Moore: After all these years, what do you see as your place in the local theatre community?
Juliet Wittman: Well, I’m sort of part of the community and sort of not. I’m constantly in this liminal space between. I’m obviously very involved with the community in that I know people’s work intimately. I know a few actors somewhat, but I don’t go to their parties. I heard a critic for the Village Voice once say that the role of the critic is to create a buzz around the event. To create a dialogue. I think reviewing is very important to bring visibility. But mostly you’re an observer. You’re there to say, ‘This is what I saw. This is what I think.’ You’re there to contextualize a bit.
John Moore: Do you think your role in the local theatre community has changed with the continuing diminishment of arts coverage in the mainstream media? You’re just about the last person standing.
Juliet Wittman: I think it’s really hard because I’m just one person and I can’t get to every show. As you know, I’m just a freelancer. It’s not a full-time job. And I think it’s really sad because back when you were reviewing for The Denver Post and Lisa Bornstein was at the Rocky Mountain News and Mark Collins was at the Daily Camera, the artists got a richer perspective on what they’ve done. I don’t want to be the sole voice. I just think it’s lonely. I can’t call you up the next day and say, ‘John, are you crazy? That was a great production. Why didn’t you like it?’ There’s nobody to do that with now.
John Moore: So how much longer do you want to keep doing it?
Juliet Wittman: Oh, boy. You ask loaded questions, don’t you? I don’t know. I’m not young. There are nights when I think: ‘Why the heck do I keep doing this?’ And then I see something I find really exciting, like Caroline, Or Change at the Aurora Fox. When I was in my teens in London there would be this red velvet curtain that would slowly sweep open, and that moment in the theatre was pure magic. I still feel that sometimes. I’ll be sitting at the Denver Center or at Curious Theatre and there’s that moment when things go dark and then the stage lights go up and a whole world opens up.
John Moore: What’s happening on May 13 at the Tattered Cover?
Juliet Wittman: Luke Sorge and I will be reading alternating chapters from my book. I read the chapter in which Stocker meets his nemesis. And then Luke reads the chapter where Stocker’s pastry chef, Jon, meets his lover, Keith. I thought it would be really nice to have a man reading that chapter. Jon is very thoughtful and intelligent and educated, and I’ve always felt Luke is one of the most intelligent actors around.
John Moore: You have spent so much of your life advocating for the work done by this creative community. Now you have produced your own book. Do you hope or expect those same people you have been supporting all these years to support you in return by coming to your reading or buying your book?
Juliet Wittman: Well, we scheduled this event on a Monday night in the hope that more theatre people will be able to come. And it is deeply meaningful to me that we’re doing this at the Tattered Cover on Colfax, which was Henry Lowenstein’s theatre. I think of Henry with so much admiration and affection that just being there will be wonderful. If I look out in the audience and see theatre people, that would fill me with a certain kind of joy. It would be like closing the loop or something. Of course, I will be sad if then they walk away muttering something like, ‘I’m sorry I came.’
John Moore: Yes, that would be awkward.
Juliet Wittman: But just remember – I’ll be coming to your show next week! [Laughter.]
Former Denver Post Theatre Critic John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theatre critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Stocker’s Kitchen: A Book Talk and Signing
- When: 7 p.m. Monday, May 13
- Where: Tattered Cover Book Store, 2526 E. Colfax Ave.
- Cost: This event is free and open to the public
Can’t make it to the event? To purchase the book, and to request an autographed copy, please click here, and be sure to mention you’d like an autographed copy in the comments portion of your order.
An excerpt from ‘Stocker’s Kitchen’:
‘Stocker began cooking for Angela, and his food changed. His new dishes were filled with a coruscating energy, almost roaring with life. It was all there, the rejoicing, the nourishment, the songs of the small green frogs courting their mates in the velvet darkness of a spring night. If his pastas could have leapt from their plates and capered, they would have; the small parcels of fried dough he liked to fill with savory surprises were so buoyed by the heated deliciousness within that they almost needed to be weighted down. The green energy of herbs pricked through his entrees. It was as if he were taking the foods apart, freeing the molecules and allowing the air between to vibrate. No one could say how he did it, but to eat these things was to feel a rush of joy, a sense that life had never been so full, the heart rising, breath quickening, memories unanchoring themselves from nooks and crannies of the brain and standing forth with startling clarity: old loves and deep quiet pleasures, moments of understanding—as when the jumble of black marks printed on a page cohered for the first time, and the child cried, I can read. I can read. The touch of a loving hand on your hair at bedtime, or falling asleep in the back of a car leaning against your mother, the hypnotic forward movement into the dark, the blurring as your eyes drifted shut, the comfort of her warm body. And Crystal, setting down the heavy plates before her customers and standing back, deferential and proud, because she knew what she was offering was ambrosia.’