There are a few essential things that make us human.
Take away sex and you fill a man with desire.
Take away breath and a man suffocates.
Take away food and things start to get serious.
After I read The Man Who Couldn't Eat, I wanted to know even more. So I reached out to Jon Reiner for an interview. And I'm thrilled he accepted.
Lisa Steinke: What is your favorite thing about your memoir?
Jon Reiner: Seeing the book in print with an elegant cover on it. I've written for my entire adult life, mostly fiction and drama, and struggled to get published. As my editor told me, "You almost had to die to get published." Did "suffering for my art" have to be so literal? There's also another side to this. As John Berryman famously said, “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”
LS: What was your highest point while writing your book? Your lowest?
JR: There have been many high points, but, certainly, the offer from Simon and Schuster/Gallery shares the summit. For me, that was a validation of something I had believed in for decades. There weren't necessarily "low" moments, but there were many hard ones. I had to revisit incidents that were emotionally painful and work to open up my personal conflicts on the page. Not that I'm putting myself in his league, but I was reminded of what was said about Eugene O'Neill when he was writing "Long Days Journey Into Night." He would emerge from his writing sessions with eyes bloodshot from crying. At times I felt like that.
LS: How did you come up with the title of your book?
JR: The credit goes to David Granger, Editor-in-Chief of Esquire. When I was first writing this story as a feature essay for Esquire, he began referring to me as "The Man Who Couldn't Eat," or so I was told. From then on, it stuck. I've never had a nickname, so this will have to to be my "Ringo." When I handed in the book manuscript to the publisher, I suggested the title "Nothing By Mouth," but everyone preferred "The Man Who Couldn't Eat." I can't argue with enthusiasm. Fifty million Elvis fans can't be wrong.
LS: If you could see one famous person (living or dead) reading your book, who would it be?
JR: Richard Burton. What can I say; it's an obsession. For a fuller accounting, please read: http://www.npr.org/2011/07/14/137149219/raising-hell-in-dramatic-richard-burton-style
LS: What is the last book you read? What is the next book you want to read?
JR: I'm a methodical (i.e. "slow") reader, and I've recently finished reading two books that were holiday gifts: "The Finkler Question" by Howard Jacobson and "Life" by Keith Richards and James Fox. I hadn't intended to read them in tandem out of any thematic consequence, but as it turns out both are wickedly funny and vividly evoke the the influence of popular culture on their London protagonists. I'm currently about 100 pages into another book I was slow to get to, Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom." It's rare that I'm not a little behind the curve on releases.
LS: What's the best compliment you've received about your book?
JR: I was proud that Publisher's Weekly singled out the quality of the writing as "fearless and singular." For Father's Day, my wife and two sons gave me a T-shirt with "Fearless and Singular" printed on the front. The shirt is the color of the pea on the book's cover.
LS: What was your favorite food before you were fed intraveneously for three months and what is your favorite food now?
JR: The hot pastrami sandwich, lean on a club roll with mustard, from Katz's Deli in New York has had my number since that meat was first laid on my tongue as a six-year-old. The sandwich -- appropriately -- gets a prominent amount of play in my book. Shockingly, however, I now love the miso soup that I make every day for lunch: A tablespoon of miso, a sprinkling of wakame flakes, a chopped scallion, cubed tofu, and a cup of boiling water. It's flavorful and healthy. Forgive me Katz's, I have sinned. Though, I did succumb to the pastrami there on my birthday in June.
LS: What is the #1 thing you want people to learn from reading your memoir?
JR: First and foremost, my name. As I said, this has been a long time coming. Aside from that, I hope people think it's a well-told story and enjoy reading the book. I didn't write it as a lesson.
LS: Nook or book?
JR: The Nook-book fault line runs right through my marriage bed. My wife, Susan, has become a huge fan and reader of ebooks. I've had my hands on e-readers, and I've read an ebook or two, but I'll go to my grave holding on to printed books. I won't argue with the technological marvel and convenience of e-readers, but, for me, they lack the tactile experience of reading a printed a book, opening it in your hands, thumbing the pages, pondering the cover, smelling the paper and ink and the place where the book is housed or where it has traveled. It's part of the total experience of reading, and the romance. And, really big books make great weights for pressing cabbage salad.
LS: Are you working on another book? If so, can you give us any hints?
JR: I am. In fact, it's a story that's been with me for years, before the incident that led to "The Man Who Couldn't Eat." I'm calling the book "Chutes and Ladders," and it's a story about what happened to me, many of my friends, and tens of millions of people who suddenly found ourselves laid-off and unemployable at a time in our lives when we believed we'd be at the zenith of our careers. What do we all do next?
To learn more about Jon Reiner, visit his website.
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