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Today’s guest is Diane Duane! She was a finalist for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 1980 and 1981 after the publication of her first novel, The Door Into Fire. Since then, she has written more stories and novels, including those set in her Middle Kingdoms and Young Wizards universes as well as in established universes like X-Men, Spider-Man, and Star Trek; comics and graphic novels; and scripts, including work on the TV shows Star Trek: The Next Generation, Batman: The Animated Series, and one of my own favorites, Gargoyles. She is a New York Times bestselling author and a two-time Mythopoeic Award finalist.

The Door Into Fire by Diane Duane - Book Cover The Book of Night with Moon by Diane Duane - Book Cover

If there’s any truth to the concept that you can tell a lot about a writer from the books they’ve got in their office, then I’m afraid one of my great passions is instantly obvious to anybody who walks into my workspace (which doubles as the living room in the little cottage where we live). Besides the books on world mythologies and fairy tales, besides the Compact OED and the other assorted dictionaries and guides to other languages…  there are also about two hundred cookbooks.

Food—reading about it, making it, eating it—is a passion with me. (Fortunately one that my husband and fellow fantasy writer Peter Morwood shares.) In this time of COVID, and the limitations it’s brought to many of us on where we can go and how far, a constant theme around here is the thought of what restaurants we can’t wait to get back to when we are free again and vaccinated, and it’s safe to go out (or as safe as it’s going to get). That Xi’an street food place up in Dublin, that Bourgognaise café in Paris, that train-station buffet halfway up a mountain in Switzerland where they do pizza on a rösti base, that wine festival in southeastern Germany in July… Around here, the edible is a constant undercurrent to the readable. After all, we’ve all got to eat. And thereby hangs the issue of a favorite tool for me in fictional worldbuilding: food.

Looking back over the last decade or four, careful examination shows me that food and various issues surrounding it have turned up in a majority of the novels and screenplays I’ve written. In the beginning, its inclusion was mostly unconscious—a side effect of the “write what you enjoy” principle. But eventually I became more consciously aware of its tremendous usefulness in the worldbuilding process in both SF and fantasy, and started exploiting it more purposefully.

Food can be such a gateway to meaning. In already extant cultures, whether you’re familiar with them or not, food will tell you things if you’ll let it. Every culture on this planet has deeply held traditions surrounding eating, favorite dishes, manners at table (in places where tables are an issue, or a thing); deeply held opinions about what it means when people eat one way and not another, or what it means to eat one food and not another. These traditions add depth to all kinds of transactions among human beings, often unexpectedly revealing what they feel is most important in their culture. If your goal is to immerse the reader in another world, it seems to me that similar depths are absolutely worth building into a created culture from scratch, so that you can exploit these resonances to maximum effect—both to make your world feel more real, and to make your characters’ interactions with and inside it feel genuine and organic.

There do seem to have been times when this general approach seems not to have struck fantasy writers as all that useful. For example, in quest fantasy that came out in the third quarter or so of the last century, food culture (not to mention eating) seemed liable to fall out of the worldbuilding picture almost completely. Sometimes food might only come up for consideration when characters didn’t have it (and were starving), had too much of it to describe (when feasting), or were so occupied with strictly action-oriented events that eating was hardly ever described as happening at all. In her satirical “travel guide” The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones (doubtless having read way too much of this kind of thing during her career) went straight to the heart of this problem by describing pretty much all quest-fantasy food as having been reduced to two categories: WAYBREAD and STEW (“…though there are occasional BIRDS, FISH, RABBITS and pieces of cheese”).

At least these days matters have improved somewhat over the… let’s call it “minimalist” approach… that so annoyed Wynne Jones. Leaving aside for the moment their value in worldbuilding and culturebuilding, plainly lots of other writers have noticed over time that meals and eating in written work can be hugely structurally useful. For example, scenes set over the dinner table, be it a small intimate dinner-for-two or a huge extravagant feast, can be a great place to handle exposition (and the characters’ reactions to it). Any such scene comes with easily-imagined, almost built-in breaks for interactions that make large amounts of info—which might otherwise feel “dumped”—a lot easier to swallow.

Spider-Man: The Venom Factor by Diane Duane - Book Cover

Additionally, characters can become incredibly revealing—to each other, or to the writer—over a good meal. (Nor does this necessarily have to do with alcohol, though of course that can help.) Some years back, when writing Spider-Man: The Venom Factor, my first Spider-Man novel, I had more fun than was probably strictly legal by sitting Spidey and Venom down together in a posh Manhattan restaurant, under the supervision of a character based on a very senior restaurateur who in his time had made even Mick Jagger behave himself, and forcing them for just a little while to deal with each other as something besides superhero and supervillain: as—to whatever extent was possible—fellow human beings. That chapter (which Peter and I routinely referred to while I was writing it as “My Dinner With Venom”, and for which I asked him to choose the wines) turned out to be one of the high points of the book for many of its readers, who said they loved the shift in roles and tone.

And those larger feasts, too, when they come up, can routinely be evocative of other cultural depths that the writer wants to hint at. For example, I’m writing this during the Passover/“Holy Week” period, when for some of us the intersection of food with cultural history—old triumph or tragedy, the challenge of sacrifice or of sudden life-changing contact with the divine—slides noticeably into the foreground. At such times it’s hard not to start thinking about what similar (or very different) practices there might be in a culture one’s thinking about building.

A whole spectrum of possibilities spreads itself out, with endless options to recall own-world cultures or differ from them. Are there perhaps food-based traditions of worship now abandoned or forbidden, or lingering though their meanings are near-forgotten (like the “ear of grain reaped in silence” of Eleusis, of which at this end of time we know absolutely nothing else)? And then the issue of how viewpoint characters may react to these comes up, in terms of the more urgent issues taking up the day-to-day business of their lives. Are the old ways a nuisance, or a source of secret curiosity? Are they a source of amusement, or of horror—something that haunts a character’s nightmares (or dreams)? In any case, such cultural backstory can be buried as deeply as the writer needs, to best serve the narrative. It doesn’t have to show at all… or can be suddenly exposed in an offered cup of wine.

I went a little way down this road in my first novel, letting a meal in a riverside tavern veer toward the numinous (though mostly in retrospect). In The Door Into Fire, the questing characters almost accidentally discover that the innkeeper of the isolated hostelry they’re visiting at the edge of the lands men know is in fact the Goddess who made the world… taking this opportunity to say goodbye to them as they walk into deadly danger, because (while they live, at least) She may not get another chance. And what they discover about Her there over dinner—besides some individually telling points about themselves—is that She’s a pretty fair cook.

Dinner was cold eggs deviled with hot whitefruit and marigold leaves, roast goose in a sour sauce of lemons and sorrel, parsnips roasted in long-pepper butter, blanched fern-fiddles tossed in smoked bacon fat, and winter apples in thickened cream. [One character] made a lot of noise about the eggs and the goose, claiming that the powerful spices and sours of Steldene cooking gave him heartburn; but this didn’t seem to affect the speed with which he ate. There also seemed to be an endless supply of wine, which the company didn’t let go to waste…

And of course thereafter the dinner conversation turns casually to local news, and recent politics, and directions on how to get quickly and safely through nearby terrain (because doesn’t it usually?). Even in other universes, a good meal has a grounding quality to it, reminding one of the things that matter: needs satisfied, life behaving at least something like normally, family and/or good friends close by.

In such times as we find ourselves in at the moment, it seems to me this might be something we need more of. (Even if lockdown conditions do start people looking more closely at some of those mealtime spreads, and demanding ingredient explanations and recipes… because as we’ve recently seen, when you can’t travel, the urge to cook at home can get unexpectedly strong.) That reassuring quality of the shared table, even if only on the page, of a however-imaginary food culture with its own quirks and specialties that sound like they might be fun to try… and of comfort food that doesn’t even have calories? Sounds tailor-made for where we are (and where we will be, I fear, for a while yet).

I hope more of my colleagues will, in the long term, sit down at this end of the creative “table” and help themselves to the buffet. Meanwhile, locally speaking—I’m half afraid I’m going to wind up adding one more cookbook to that shelf in my office; and it won’t be “mine” just because I bought it…

Diane Duane has been writing science fiction and fantasy for more than forty years. She is a two-time Astounding Award nominee for The Door Into Fire, first novel in her Lambda Award-winning LGBTQ Middle Kingdoms universe, and multiply award-nominated for her groundbreaking Young Wizards science/fantasy series, the eleventh volume of which is now in progress. She has additionally written novels and screenplays for many major licensors, including the DC and Marvel Comics-based universes (Spider-Man, X-Men), and properties as widely (and bizarrely) assorted as Scooby-Doo, Duck Tales, Gargoyles, Transformers, and Barbie: Fairytopia. She has also written for Star Trek in more forms than anyone else alive. As a result of all this, she is a holder of the “Faust” Life Achievement Award of the International Association of Tie-In Writers. …Her most recent work has been set in the Middle Kingdoms, where she’s in progress on the third of a “prose miniseries” of novellas and short novels, Tales of the Five. Book 3 of the Tales, The Librarian, will be published during Q2 of 2021 via Lionhall Press at Ebooks Direct, the independent ebook store she shares and manages with her husband Peter Morwood. (And who knows…maybe, sometime in 2022, that cookbook will turn up there too.)