Writers Should Examine Everything, Even the Supermarket

Because I had been born in West Germany and spent my most formative years in England, near which there were no Norwegian churches, I was not baptized until after my family had relocated to Marin County, when I was eight or nine years old.

After the ceremony, the pastor and many others drove away with us from San Francisco to the condominium where we lived, about 30 miles north.  While the adults had coffee, cake, and conversation inside, I went outdoors with the pastor's son to jump my green bicycle (popular in England, ridiculed here) over the speed bumps that snaked in and around my home.

It didn't go well. I can't remember if I rode with reckless abandon, or if the roads were slick with rain that afternoon, but at some point I was thrown over my handlebars and down onto the pavement, where I landed teeth-first.

I came inside and stood there silently, blood streaming from my mouth as everyone turned to look. And what did the pastor think when he saw me? I've always imagined he felt a personal failing, as if acknowledging the baptism had not held? Because to me this event took on the power of a Biblical story, albeit one updated for a more modern age. How could God do this on the day I was supposed to be have been joined to Him?

Within an hour or two, I was in the offices of an orthodontist in South Marin, breathing in laughing gas and then being fitted with two metal caps over my front teeth—these to hold the composites in place. I looked like Jaws from the James Bond movie, and as I also was very short and had an incredibly thick English accent, this made settling into my new school and culture extremely difficult.

Having been raised for so many years in England, where there'd only been one or two channels on the TV, and usually nothing to watch anyway, I didn't catch any of the cultural references that were being bandied about on the playground. When a boy "called me out," I thought they were asking me over to play, not fight after school. And how could a "yard duty," rather than understand this, "bench me" for being "smart”?

There was so much I didn't know. The difference between Deputy Dawg and Huckleberry Hound? Dear Lord, in a world that religion could no longer explain, such questions held a strange power over me. I felt as desperate to answer them as Jack Gladney felt the need to unpack the meaning of "Toyota Celica." And so like the protagonist in my novel, I became a student of the culture, no different than the professors in DeLillo's Department of American Environments.

Other novels have certainly been influential. During the 13 on-again, off-again years I spent on Sweetness #9, four books routinely sat on my desk.

Lucky Jim was there for its mastery of comic timing and scenic writing. White Teeth for the manic brilliance of its prose and the way the author could balance so many narrative threads and time-lines. Lolita (Did my fictional memoir have a precursor? She did, indeed she did.) for its sheer wondrous artistry, the novel a playground of prose, full of allusions and metafictional sleights-of-hand.

White Noise, though—it was something more. It was getting at what I'd always wanted to get. It was full of American yearning, a kind of Pilgrim's Progress for the 20th Century. It held up everything for examination, even the supermarket.

And so after I read Fast Food Nation and began to become intensely curious about the role artificial flavorings and other food additives play in our lives, it was only natural that I would reach for White Noise and re-read its opening before typing the first lines of my debut novel. Those lines are now in the middle of the book, not even at the start of a chapter, but they were enough to propel me into my story.

Rather than starting my novel with a professor of Hitler studies watching the arrival of a new cohort of students to the College-on-the-Hill, I imagined a flavor chemist, dressed not in a black academic gown, but a stiffly starched white lab coat, as he stood at the window of his office and watched a group of school children spill out of a long yellow bus. They were crossing the street and moving in beneath the tricolored sign over the front door, there on a field trip to tour the halls of FlavAmerica, the flavor creation lab that would become my own Department of American Environments.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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