“Now I am going to write a book. It will be about eating and about what to eat and about people who eat.”
That’s M. F. K. Fisher, near the beginning of Serve It Forth, and when I read it, I felt an electric tingle. “Now I am going to write a book!” Who writes that in their book? The entire line glows with intention and brio, and not only because you know, already, that she has succeeded, because here’s that book in your hands.
I had picked up Serve It Forth and How to Cook a Wolf, another of Fisher’s books, shortly after moving to San Francisco and having my mind blown by California food. For many transplants, particularly those from the avocado-parched Midwest, it’s a dramatic rupture: the knocking down of starchy walls, the opening up of new vistas. (These vistas are composed mainly of vegetables.) So when I encountered Fisher’s books showcased on a front shelf somewhere in the city, I was primed for her: I knew some of the vocabulary and I was hungry for more.
M. F. K. Fisher was waiting, years later, when I began the novel that would become Sourdough, catalyzed by a spooky story I’d heard in a winery up in Mendocino County. I didn’t know much, at first, about the novel’s plot, but I did know how I wanted it to feel, and I knew—or thought I knew—how I wanted it to sound. Very early in the process, I printed out Fisher’s electric line—“Now I am going to write a book…”—and tacked it up beside my laptop. There was my goal, crystallized in a book from 1937: that same energy, that same sense of declaration and execution.
And, in case there’s any doubt at all, here is how the book began for nearly a year: “Now I am going to write a book. It will be about a great eater and a dark table and a woman who learned, at last, to trust her own appetite.”
Homage? Echo? Borderline plagiarism? For a long time, it felt so right. The book’s second chapter opened with my protagonist declaring: “I aspire to become the Millennial M. F. K. Fisher. That’s what I wrote on all my cover letters. I was bolder a year ago.”
But here’s the truth: my character was never the Millennial M. F. K. Fisher, and neither was I. Her backstory shifted. The first line changed. Eventually, I tossed the printout in the trash, because it had curdled into a curse. I couldn’t conjure anything close to Fisher’s voice on the page. I couldn’t sound like the perfect host, generous and knowing and wry. There was no dishonor in my failure, because of course I failed: what we are considering here is one of the all-time great voices, on any subject, in any genre.
And for me, voice is the thing. In a novel, I will forgive any flaw, overlook any omission, if the voice on the page has that sizzling Tesla-coil energy. A book in which nothing happens is fine—it’s great!—if the voice is magnetic. M. F. K. Fisher transformed food writing and she influences it to this day: there’s a mix of high and low that you’ll find in the best food writers, fluency with the farthest reaches of sophistication balanced by a healthy sense of irony. It’s pure Fisher. For me, though, the appeal goes beyond food writing; her style on the page could propel a novel about nearly anything. So, to aim for anything even remotely Fisher-like was . . . deeply aspirational.
I will forgive any flaw, overlook any omission, if the voice on the page has that sizzling Tesla-coil energy.
She stayed with me, though. Even after I had disposed of the printout and taken a different path—searching for my own voice, my own way of hosting—I repeated the line to myself many times. “Now I am going to write a book.” Simple as that. “It will be about eating”—yes—“and about what to eat”—a little—“and about people who eat”—very much that.
In the end, M. F. K. Fisher’s voice wasn’t a destination but a pole star: indispensable for navigation, even if you’ll never, ever get there.
Robin Sloan grew up in Michigan and now splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet. He is the author of Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore.
M.F.K. Fisher is the author of numerous books of essays and reminiscences, many of which have become American classics.