Stephan Eirik Clark is the author of the new novel Sweetness #9. He also has written the short story collection Vladimir's Mustache. He teaches at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, and he lives in St. Paul.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Sweetness #9?
A: I learned about flavor additives from my reading of Fast Food Nation. Before this, I'd certainly consumed them -- in great numbers, even -- but I'd never really considered the role they played in my life. Now I could think of little else.
I became obsessed, because this industry, capable of recreating any taste, was both so interesting and philosophically suspect. Was the microwave dinner I was eating as healthy as the roast chicken my grandmother had made me, or was the quality of the food far inferior and only covered up by the wonders of science? I was down the rabbit hole, and there I remained for many, many years.
Q: Why did you decide to set the novel primarily in the 1970s through 1990s?
A: In the 1970s, many Americans still firmly believed in the supermarket. It was an age of Tang and TV dinners, when new ideas were viewed as progressive. It was important for my novel to start here, because my main character, a flavor chemist, is very much a man of the times.
At first he believes there is great value in his work. But by the 1990s, when the organic food movement began to take off and Americans grew wary of the supermarket en masse, he starts to have second thoughts and doubt the value of what he's doing.
Q: You’ve also published a story collection. Do you prefer one type of writing to the other, and why or why not?
A: I prefer the novel, if only because you can remain immersed in one for a longer period of time. The characters I develop are like my friends. I come to know them so well. So how could I be done with them so quickly? It's like killing them in a way. Short story writers may be more inclined to such easy deaths, but I'm not.
Q: Which authors have particularly influenced you?
A: I'll tell you which authors haven't influenced me, at least as it relates to this novel: Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace.
The reason I say this is, oftentimes when someone sees an influence what they're really seeing is a similarity. How that similarity came to be is less certain. Can't two people be alike without knowing one another? I think so each time I'm told my novel was influenced by an author or a work I haven't read.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I spent so many years writing Sweetness #9 that I forgot what it's like to start a new project. Right now, I'm working on a novel about the collapse of the U.S. dollar -- and occasionally cheating on that book with a couple of other ideas that are flying around my head.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: What else should you know? It's not that hard to make your own soup. Do it once -- and this is true of so much cooking -- and you'll be amazed you haven't done it before. Get into the kitchen, people. It's the best room in the house.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb