Doug Bauer is the author of What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death, just published this month. University of Iowa Press acquisitions editor Catherine Cocks asked him a few questions about the book.
CC: What’s behind the title, What Happens Next?
DB: First, I simply liked the common application: the question a reader continuously asks as a story unfolds. But there’s also the far more essential story of one’s life unfolding. Here, it’s age that increasingly becomes the story teller, the omniscient narrator, supplying the plot surprises. Obviously, we’re not the reader of this story. We’re the main character, who asks even more imperatively, “What happens next?”
CC: Woven throughout these pages are what you call the “dual calendars” of your own mortality and that of your aging parents. What did you figure out about the experience of growing older that might help others in the same situation?DB: As we age, we are increasingly two separate selves—our internal self, which has at least the chance to remain what I’ll call “youthful,” staying alive to learning, to experience, and so forth; and the physical self, which does not have that chance. (I sometimes think of the body I see when I look in the mirror as some terribly unfortunate costume I’ve been forced to wear over my actual body.) The more we’re able to accept that separation, the better the possibility of accepting the terms that time ruthlessly insists on. So much easier said than done.
CC: You had a wonderful mentor in renowned food writer M.F.K. Fisher. How you come to meet her?
DB: I describe our meeting in “What We Hunger For,” one of the sections of the book. She was assigned by Playboy magazine, where I‘d recently been hired in the early ‘70s, to go to New Orleans and write about the food. We spent a magical week eating and talking and wandering the city, during which I gained seven pounds and she, as she claimed in a follow-up letter, lost about the same amount. But I gained much more than weight. I gained her unlikely—I was twenty-six and she was sixty-two—and irreplaceable life-long friendship.
CC: Quite a lot of food writing today (like Michael Pollan’s latest, Cooked) celebrates cooking and mealtimes as occasions for bringing fragmented modern families together. In What Happens Next, though, you show how both can express tensions in a family that seems outwardly to embody the ideal we are being urged to strive for. What should we make of this apparent contradiction?DB: As M.F.K. Fisher’s writing pioneered, food and eating can be used metaphorically to talk about other matters in the lives of those doing the eating. A section of my book, “What Was Served,” uses the daily meal my mother served my father, grandfather, and me as a boy as a way of writing about the family’s history and the tensions that were also being silently, invisibly “served” with the food, passed around the table. And in another sense, my mother was “serving” me, that is, was acting in the service of my well-being, by keeping me ignorant of family difficulties.
What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death by Douglas Bauer