Novelist Marc Fitten will deliver two lectures on writing fiction at 7 p.m. August 13 and 21 at Manuel’s Tavern, 602 N. Highland Avenue. (To register, contact A Capella Books at 404-578-0412 or email@example.com.) Fitten also will appear at the Decatur Book Festival at 11:15 a.m. Saturday, September 1, at the Old Courthouse, 101 East Court Square, Decatur.
A Panamanian-American writer born in Brooklyn and raised in Georgia is an unlikely chronicler of modern Hungary. But Marc Fitten, who spent several years tramping around the Eastern bloc after the fall of communism there, has just published “Elza’s Kitchen” (Bloomsbury, 216 pages), his second novel set in Hungary. Fitten, formerly the editor of the highly regarded literary journal The Chattahoochee Review (published by Georgia Perimeter College), is already at work on the final installment of what he dubs his “Paprika Trilogy” of Hungarian novels.
In “Elza’s Kitchen,” a middle-aged female chef aspires to win international recognition for her locally famous restaurant in the small, humdrum city of Delibab. It’s an ambition that arises for no good reason, Fitten suggests, except a vague midlife malaise and the compulsions of capitalism, new to the country, to grow bigger, richer, more celebrated.
Fitten’s first novel, “Valeria’s Last Stand,” was a rollicking portrait of a stubborn, irascible village woman of an older generation who discovers her lusty side when she falls in love with a local potter. Valeria’s old-fashioned industry is confined to rigorous housecleaning and gardening, and the potter too is a man of the old world, throwing pitchers and platters on his wheel. Fitten’s writing mingles elements of folk tale, farce and contemporary realism to capture the collision of a stodgy European culture and brash new times.
Fitten recently sat down with ArtsATL to discuss his ambitious trilogy and his passion for a small, distant former Communist state.
ArtsATL: What took you to Hungary in the 1990s, and what was it about the country that inspired you to set your fiction there?
Marc Fitten: I was young and wanted to travel and see the world. I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know anything about publishing or the business. All I knew about writers is that when they wanted to write a novel they went to Europe. So that’s what I thought I had to do. Hungary was just an interesting place; it was interesting enough that I wanted to explore it a little bit more. I thought the people were interesting. I thought they had an interesting way of looking at the world. I found it all intriguing. When I returned to the States, the feelings and the sense of the place I had just stayed with me. So I started writing about it.
ArtsATL: What point of connection do you find with the Hungarian women protagonists of your novels: the nasty village hag in “Valeria’s Last Stand” and the successful but still unsatisfied restaurant owner in “Elza’s Kitchen”? Is Marc Fitten, Panamanian-American man, hiding behind these unlikely alter egos?
Fitten: That’s a question that’s started to come up now. The experiment and the plan was to do something along the lines of [Krzysztof] Kieslowski. He’s a Polish director who did these movies back in the early ’90s called the “Three Colors Trilogy”: “Red,” “White,” “Blue.” They’re set in France. I really loved those movies. After I made a conscious decision to write about Hungary, the second conscious decision I made was, “Oh, I’ll do it like Kieslowski. And I’ll focus on women.” Three women, three different periods in their lives, three different periods in the country’s history.
As far as hiding behind the alter egos, I don’t know. The novel for me is about exploring the human condition and understanding human experience and exploring the existential crisis implicit in the human condition. That action of the novel is done through the use of stylized characters. That’s the path I chose.
ArtsATL: You mention stylized characters. Why did you decide to name only the female characters, while the males go by their titles, like the Sous-Chef and the Professor of Sauces in “Elza’s Kitchen”?
Fitten: I wanted to focus on the women and put them in the forefront. I wanted it to seem like a fable or a fairy tale somewhat. I wanted to create a sense of otherworldliness in terms of the style, so I chose not to name the men for the first two books. If I look at the whole trilogy, the trilogy itself is a narrative. It has its own arc. From the first book to the third book what you have is a country that has undergone a transition. You have the oldest generation in “Valeria,” the middle generation in “Elza” and then the young generation in the third book. Hopefully, what you’ll be able to see is that transition from the socialist world to this new capitalist one.
Part of that means the story that had been told can no longer be told. It’s over. Even though the second book is still hiding the male characters behind an allegorical facade, you hear the clanking of the modern world coming in. By the time the third book comes along, you’ll hear the full modern machine. And so the fairy tale will be over; maybe the men will be named. Things will have changed. That’s the big, grandiose plan.
ArtsATL: How do you maintain close enough contact with Hungary to keep writing about it?
Fitten: We visit often. [Fitten’s wife, Zita, to whom both his novels are dedicated, is Hungarian.] We spend time when we go. I keep abreast of the news so I understand how history has changed and evolved the place. I know people there. I’m an active observer.
ArtsATL: What did your work as the editor of The Chattahoochee Review teach you about writing fiction?
Fitten: I learned that you have just that first paragraph to grab a reader. If you haven’t grabbed the reader in the first few moments, you’ve made it harder for yourself. You have to start the story with a gunshot from the first second. You can digress later on, but you have to start with tension.
ArtsATL: Both your novels deal with the tension between tradition and modernity. In “Valeria’s Last Stand,” traditional Hungarian pottery becomes an important metaphor for the past. In the current novel, Elza’s restaurant serves up sophisticated versions of traditional Hungarian dishes like chicken paprika. Did communism, ironically, preserve the past in a way that capitalism can’t? Is capitalism capable only of generating nostalgia now, which the customers of Elza’s restaurant seem to suffer from?
Fitten: Yes, I think. Under socialist rule, the only thing you had were traditions, literally, because you had no other way to do anything. You had to do things the way they had always been done. Capitalism opened [the country] up; new ideas came in. Then you had new ways of doing things and completing things. They were probably more efficient and probably better in a lot of ways. But innovation is always hard on people.
I don’t think the books are making the comment that the traditional is better. The intent was that adapting to a new world is hard, more so than “tradition is good.”
ArtsATL: Creativity is central to both your novels. Elza is a cook who has ventured away from the stove to build her restaurant up as a business and has ambitions of winning a review in a prestigious European gourmet magazine. Valeria is in love with a man who makes pottery, which he sees as a vehicle for self-expression, though the villagers view his creations simply as functional objects. What’s your take on creativity? You seem to value creative practice over a grand notion of art.
Fitten: I value art and I value creativity. I think that the comment I’m making in the books is that, while I value them, and I’m a practitioner of them to a certain extent and feel they should be taken seriously by any practitioner, it’s like talking about a quasi-religious thing. Not to get too esoteric or new-worldy about it, but creativity and trying to create is really the manifestation of the God-self. That really is how I look at it.
If we look at it from the point of view of what is it that God does and what is it that a man is capable of doing, gods create, and if men are made in the image of God, then what they can do to fulfill their purpose is create as well. I like creating. In the books, when people are in the act of creating, they are most at peace. They’re most miserable when they are not creating.
ArtsATL: Since you have a family and a day job in corporate communications, is it a challenge to find the time to write?
Fitten: The time isn’t the problem; it’s the energy at this point. I’m definitely spread thin. But that’s just the way it is — I have to work around it. I’m up early. I was up this morning at 5. It isn’t really a choice. I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t writing.
When I’m writing a book, I write every day. I could add a sentence or a word. You’re writing when you’re thinking about it. The only thing I need is quiet. I don’t need a special place, or a special chair, or a special time. I just need quiet, and then I can get into that place.