Yes, David Leite is the founder of Leites Culinaria and the multiple award-winning food essayist. And I know him as my warm, generous, and loyal friend. We have stayed at each others’ homes, met each other’s partners, and even had pastries in Paris last year.
If you don’t know him yet, David wrote an award-winning cookbook on Portuguese food. He won several James Beard and other awards. He’s been a correspondent and guest host on The Splendid Table and Martha Stewart Radio, and appeared on The Today Show.
Now he’s accomplished a huge goal, and I couldn’t be more proud. He’s written a memoir, Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression. It’s an honest, courageous and funny book about growing up undiagnosed with bipolar disorder, being obsessed with food and cooking, and coming out as gay.
Here’s our interview about writing memoir, the role of food, and getting through the hard parts:
Q. Your fans know you as a food essayist and cookbook author. Now you’ve written about being bipolar and coming out. How did you ensure your current audience would be interested in these new subjects? And how will you find a larger audience for this book?
A. The idea for the book came from The David Blahg. The posts are fun, humorous essays, so people already know what to expect in my memoir. I took a big risk and wrote a post called Bipolar Disorder and Julia Child, My Therapist. A woman wrote to me and said “I wish my son could have read this before he killed himself.” I realized I wasn’t being shunned. I was being lauded for something people thought was courageous. I was just telling my story, but it was a positive reaction.
Regarding being gay, I’d been writing about Alan (“The One”) for a long time.
Plus I’ve been working diligently on social media to write about mental health and gay issues.
For the second part, this book is about themes everyone can relate to: Friendship and food, family and culture. And that’s what I was most interested in. The goal was to write for anyone who ever felt like an outsider looking in. It’s not about reaching a gay audience or mental health audience.
Q. What is the role of food when writing a memoir, even when it is not a food memoir, exactly?
A. Food played a lot of different roles in the book. It had its own story arc. In the beginning, when it was Portuguese food, it was a nemesis. I fought it every day at the table. I hated inviting friends over. The food of my fantasies were chocolate cake, anything made with Velveeta, the American versions of food. They were my friends.
As I grew, food became fun. It was the great normalizer. When my mom started cooking American food, I could invite my friends over, and it became the great equalizer. It became my nemesis again when I became frightened of food and didn’t want to gain weight.
Later, food became that classic idea of comfort, and then identity, when I started embracing my Portuguese identity. Now it’s the material of my craft and what I do as a food writer and a home cook.
Often in memoir, food is just about comfort, and it’s predictable. If someone’s in trouble, the narrator is going to cook. I fought like hell not to have recipes at the end of each chapter, because I felt they were diminishing the story and the food. It was too much of an “he feels better now that he made this.”
Q. What did you learn about writing memoir that made it so different from writing first person essays – besides the fact that it’s a lot longer?
A. That it is excruciatingly, painfully, hard. It was like crawling on my belly across glass. I’d never written anything longer than 6,000 words, and this is 120,000. I didn’t know how to sustain an arc, when to let a theme in, when to touch back upon a theme. I didn’t know how to give the reader new information but still pluck that theme, or how to make the character grow.
I wrote a cookbook but it was episodic, where the recipes don’t necessarily relate to each other.
Also when you’re really honest, there’s the pain of sitting in those feelings. But while writing, I had to revisit sitting in a movie theatre for weeks (where he had a panic attack– DJ), having to call up those physical sensations and feel confused. It was hard to bring up those feelings again and again, to want to go to your desk.
Q. How did you recollect so much from your childhood? Your story telling is very visual and sensuous.
A. I started keeping journals in my teens. But early on, photographs helped me remember, and stories my family told. I have a very good visual and spacial memory (such as for directions) augmented and verified by photographs. I created a mental inventory of smells and sounds and tastes from very early on: What the kale soup tasted like, the gagging smell of salt cod, and putting my hands in bins of kidney beans. Being a supertaster has a lot to do with it. I have a highly developed sense of smell.
Q. There’s lots of brutal honesty in this book – about, for example, your dinners of bran cereal, your grandiosity when on a high, and your dramatic daydreaming about what celebrities would say to you. Did you worry about what people would think? How did you know how much to reveal?
A. How much to say came from the writing and rewriting. When I was bored, I knew that I had gone too far.
It was really important to me to break this notion that readers think I have this wonderfully perfect life. They know the kindness, humor, generosity and warmth. I wanted people to see my narcissism, my bitchiness, my cruelty and my grandiosity. I wanted to show a full picture of me. It seems to have worked. People relate to either being with people like me or being like that themselves.
Q. Have your parents and your partner read the book? Were you concerned about how they would respond?
A. Alan has read the book and he loves it. My parents have not read the book and my mother is mortified that she will be seen as the worst mother who ever lived. I’ve assured her that it is not the case, but I will sign a book and send it to my parents. It’s really out of my control as to what they will do.
Q. What do you say to people who want to write their story but who wonder, “Why should anyone care?”
A. If you write it with honesty and insight, people will care. Why does anyone care about an old fat crazy queer? What I’m finding out is that people do. They can relate, even if it’s not their story. It’s the power of words, the power of story. There has to be a story there where you’re not holding back. You’re only as interesting as your secrets.
Q. What is the most important thing for people to know about writing memoir?
A. You have to carefully plan your writing life. Don’t do what I did. I isolated myself for two years, and I turned my back on my friends. I had nothing left at the end of the day to give to anyone else, because I was raw.
If I had to do it again, I would only write for a certain number of hours a day. Then I would live a life and partake of it fully.