Camille Aubray is the author of the new novel Cooking for Picasso. She has written for the TV dramas One Life to Live and Capitol, and has taught writing at New York University. She is an Edward Albee Foundation Fellowship winner and a former writer in residence at the Karolyi Foundation in the South of France.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novel, Cooking for Picasso?
A: Ever since I was a writer-in-residence at an arts colony in Vence, I’ve returned to the French Riviera again and again, enchanted by the incredible light and the infinite shades of blue sea and sky—and of course Pablo Picasso. You can’t turn around here without bumping into a Picasso exhibit, and there he is with those dark eyes staring at you and daring you to ask him a question. Well, I started asking!
And while exploring Picasso’s story, I learned about a fascinating episode in his life: in 1936 he was in such turmoil (mostly from juggling too many ladies all at once!) that he stopped painting—until finally he sneaked away from Paris to the Côte d’Azur and, under a different name, rented a villa. No one really knows what he did during this mysterious interlude, but it inspired him to pick up his brushes again.
Furthermore, among the artwork he created during this interval, there are two paintings of an unidentified dark-haired woman peering into a mirror. All this fired up my imagination. Wandering past the busy fishermen’s boats, the inviting cafés, the farmers’ markets bursting with seasonal food, I visualized a young woman on a bicycle, carrying a basket of delectable Provençal specialties to the house of a mysterious patron who didn’t want to interrupt his work to go searching for lunch.
Q: Pablo Picasso plays a big role in the novel. What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history when introducing an actual historical figure into the novel?
A: I wanted Picasso to be unabashedly Picasso, not just a generic male hero in a romance. So I delved into multiple sources to distill the essential aspects of his personality.
It helped that I’d found this one particular historical incident in Picasso’s life as a springboard, because that started the clock at 1936. Since nobody knew for sure who the model was in that pair of paintings, it left me free to invent a truly fictional heroine, Ondine, who has ambitions to create through cooking—especially when she’s called upon to serve one of the greatest artists of the 20th century!
Ondine gave me a way to evaluate what happens, even nowadays, to women who get involved with famous, wealthy, powerful men.
Q: Why did you decide to write about three generations of women?
A: I realized that, in order to see the impact that such a “sacred monster” can have on your entire life, I had to follow Ondine through the decades, where, tantalizingly, she continues to cross paths with Picasso.
In exploring Ondine’s experiences as the years go by, I naturally thought about how this might affect her daughter Julie, and even her American granddaughter Céline, who feels compelled to find out what really happened when her Grandmother Ondine encountered Pablo Picasso. Creating this trail sparked the mystery which lies at the heart of the novel.
It also led me to examine how we react to our parents’ lives, how deeply this influences the choices we all make. Some of us prize independence as Ondine does; some prefer to rely on their spouses, as the daughter Julie does; but many of us today are like the modern American granddaughter Céline, who’s still trying to figure out who she really is and what she really wants in life.
Q: What sort of research did you do to write the novel, and was there anything that surprised you in the course of your research?
A: I’m just naturally curious, so I did a lot of research for Cooking for Picasso, including going into the kitchens of Michelin-starred chefs at top restaurants on the Rivera. People say that my novel made them hungry for all the great food with amazing ingredients they’d never heard of before!
One of the many surprising things I learned is that some chefs love to paint during their rare “down time.” A good example is Jacques Pépin, who was kind enough to write a “blurb” of praise in which he said that Cooking for Picasso made him homesick for his mother’s coq au vin.
He invited me into his home, not far from where I live. There in his kitchen among his pots and pans—and beloved dogs—we talked about food, art and Picasso. Jacques loves to paint in the adjacent studio he has there.
And of course, I did extensive research on Picasso’s life and art, which was how I learned about the 1936 event that sparked the whole novel, as well as other touching incidents that I use throughout my book.
I found Picasso’s art to be warm, witty, affectionately human, and readers have told me they like the way I describe it. The man himself was full of surprises and contradictions, which made him a wonderful character to work with.
Q: The book’s characters include artists and chefs. What do you see as the role of creativity for these characters, and how do painting and food preparation complement each other in the novel?
A: Creativity is liberation. My heroine Ondine loves to express herself through cuisine, but she’s been under the thumb of her parents who own a local café.
Once she starts cooking for Picasso, however, food becomes a sensual language between them, while she learns from him about the courage and the risks that creative people must take in order to produce something original; and this frees her to chart her own course in life.
As for her American granddaughter, Céline is a freelance make-up artist who, when painting the faces of actors in horror films, uses her brushes and pots of paint to express her feelings about the more monstrous aspects of humanity. But she finds the cooking class she signed up for with a temperamental chef to be deeply and personally challenging.
You know, in France and southern Europe, people don’t separate art from life, and life from food, and nature from all of it! Art and cooking have much in common, after all—the use of color and texture and composition to make something new from ordinary ingredients, which produces a sensual and liberating effect on anyone lucky enough to experience it.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It’s a secret! But I do like to unearth historical incidents that aren’t generally well-known.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love hearing from my readers, so if people would like to arrange an event, or just get in touch, they can contact me directly at my website, where they will also find photos of some of the places and things that inspired Cooking for Picasso.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb