“Write what you know”. It’s one of the classic Rules For Writers. But what if what you know isn’t all that exciting? We can’t all be secret agents, or cops, or even emergency-room doctors. How do you take “what you know” and turn it into something someone would want to read? Obviously, it can be done – the phrase “Legal Thriller” should be an oxymoron, but somehow, people really do take a profession that primarily consists of deciding what arcane phrasing to use on the next brief, and turn it into a source of high drama.
Of course, using that example, you could say that you make “what you know” interesting reading by showing only the interesting bits (mostly criminal lawyers in the courtroom, not so many real estate attorneys drafting deeds) and unrealistic depictions of even those (if you want to see how all of those Hollywood courtroom antics would go over in an actual courtroom, watch My Cousin Vinny). But what if even that’s not enough? What if you want to write things that you have no experience in, like running into cockroaches from the Outer Dark and their reanimated servants on the subway platform?
In his 2000 book On Writing, Stephen King answers this question so: “I think you should begin by interpreting “write what you know” as broadly and inclusively as possible. If you’re a plumber, you know plumbing, but that is far from the extent of your knowledge; the heart also knows things, and so does the imagination.”
The example he uses is a plumber who happens to be a science fiction fan: perhaps this person could write a story about a plumber on a spaceship. Surely those big generation ships are going to need them. Sound unlikely? Apparently Clifford D. Simak did something very much like that with his book Cosmic Engineers.
My example would be Get Jiro, by Tony Bourdain.
Tony Bourdain is a chef, television personality with the Travel Network, and writer. What does he write? Cookbooks? Memoirs of life in the food industry? Travelogues? Yes, yes and yes. But he also writes fiction. In the case of Get Jiro, post-apocalyptic science fiction.
The setting is “Los Angeles, or something very much like it”, in the indeterminate near future. Sports, film, TV, music – all current forms of entertainment – have “fragmented and died”. All that remains is food culture. Chefs are the new power. While official government apparently still exists (we see two cops in a comically tiny squad car who in no way interfere with the shenanigans going on around them), the city is effectively ruled by two powerful chefs, who serve double duty as crime lords: Bob and Rose. Bob, the more traditional chef, leads a mafia-style organization, while Rose leads a loose coalition of vegan, locally-sourced, health-food, and otherwise hippyish food producers. While both are unquestionably villains, you don’t have to read between the lines very much to see that Bourdain considers Bob to be the less evil of the two. While Bob is unquestionably a brutal thug, he also “knows good, knows it very well” (in terms of food, not morality, that is), and doesn’t hypocritically pretend to virtue. In any case, between the two of them, with their vast chains of restaurants and food stores, control of ingredient distribution, and armies of street soldiers armed with weaponized cooking utensils, they make life very difficult for the independents, with whom our true sympathies lie.
(Bourdain also displays significant hostility for certain types of food consumers. The over-fattened masses who swill down quantity instead of appreciating quality are clearly committing a sin against food. Similarly, those who eat inauthentic knock-off foods – California Rolls seem to be a pet peeve – are ignorant poseurs. Finally, breaches of “Sushi Etiquette” piss him right the fuck off. Seriously. A character is murdered after committing a string of such breaches, and the murderer – Jiro himself – retains his anti-hero status. Fortunately, Bourdain is helpful enough to give us a quick lesson in Sushi Etiquette, so we can avoid such a fate ourselves.)
One of these independents is the titular Jiro, an undocumented immigrant with a mysterious past who came to LA six months ago and set up a sushi restaurant in the “outer ring”, where the poor, the immigrants, and the working classes live walled away from the wealthy in the inner rings. In those six months, his restaurant has gained quite a reputation (apparently the rice is exquisite, which is a detail the casual consumer might miss), and one day his shop is visited by three douchebags. The douchebags commit multiple breaches of sushi etiquette, until one makes his last mistake by ordering a California Roll.
The police are surprisingly unconcerned about a sushi chef beheading a customer for bad manners, but that doesn’t mean it goes unnoticed. Jiro’s victim was Bob’s primary connection for Chilean produce. Rather than being angry, as you might expect, Bob is intrigued by this mysterious stranger who took out a tough operator so easily. He can always use good cooks who are also good fighters, so he begins to look into it. And what Bob is interested in, Rose is interested in.
In other words, Get Jiro is a crime story…about chefs. Bob receives news of his ally’s death from one of his men while teaching his sous chefs how to make a veal dish. Rose has an underling killed, bled out, and fed to the pigs because he sold Tomato Caprese in January. Bob courts Jiro by serving him a meal of rare, expensive elvers while discussing the kind of restaurants that make him proud, and the kind of crass eatery that he has to run in order to fund the ones that make him proud. When he needs to reconnect with The Street after said gourmet meal, Jiro gets some Dac Biet from a street vendor. When he needs advice on how to deal with the two “families” who are competing for his services, Jiro visits his wise old mentor Jean Claude…who feeds him a fine French meal, lovingly prepared while we watch, as they talk. When Jiro is being tortured by a Bob’s henchmen, he’s not only beaten, but force-fed a particularly vile meat substitute.
Honestly, it’s like someone made an entire book out of the “cooking in prison” scene from Goodfellas, and the scene in The Godfather where Clemenza gives Michael a lesson on preparing spaghetti sauce. It shouldn’t work. But it does.
It works because Tony Bourdain is writing what he knows. More specifically, he’s writing what he loves and believes in. We are able to accept the outlandish premise because we can feel the truth at its core.
Clifford D. Simak did it with plumbers in space. Tony Bourdain did it with gangster chefs. More than one person has made lawyers interesting. Write what you know and trust it; it will work.