Mark Kurlansky: A Seasoned Book Sense 76 Author

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Mark Kurlansky has become a veritable regular on the Book Sense 76 List. The hardcover edition of his The Basque History of the World (Walker) appeared on the November/December list in 1999; the hardcover edition of The White Man in the Tree: And Other Stories (Washington Square Press) was on the January/February 2001 list; and The Basque History of the World paperback (Penguin) was featured on the March/April Book Sense 76 in 2001.

And now, for the first time ever, one author, Mark Kurlansky, is represented in the fiction and nonfiction categories on the same Book Sense 76 list. Kurlansky's new book, Salt: A World History (Walker), and the paperback edition of The White Man in the Tree (Washington Square Press) are both featured on the January/February 76. Carl Lennertz, ABA senior marketing consultant said, "Often, it's difficult for a writer to break through in different genres, but Kurlansky has clearly built up an indie following. And many kudos to our friends at Walker, who have been so supportive of the independents, Book Sense, and their authors, from Mark to Dava Sobel, to Book Sense nonfiction Book of the Year winner Ross King."

When asked about his recurrent appearance on the Book Sense 76, Kurlansky told BTW, "It's great. It really pleases me. We're talking about the bookstores that I really love and it's satisfying to feel these bookstores are behind me. These are [the bookstores] where I shop."

Kurlansky's books have been widely and admiringly reviewed -- and few readers are able to resist the compulsion to pun on his pithy titles and exotic subjects. Publishers Weekly wrote of Salt, "Throughout his engaging, well-researched history, Kurlansky sprinkles witty asides and amusing anecdotes. A piquant blend of the historic, political, commercial, scientific, and culinary, the book is sure to entertain as well as educate." And Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential, said, "Salt is the fascinating, indispensable history of an indispensable ingredient."

Of The White Man in the Tree, Kurlansky's first foray into fiction, the New York Times wrote, "Kurlansky's bailiwick -- a big one -- is the misunderstandings, misjudgments, and missed connections that accrue between the citizens of different cultures, different races, different everything…. The White Man in the Tree is as rich, complex and delicious as the islands themselves, boiling with humanity."

BTW interviewed Mark Kurlansky, who had just returned from London, where Salt was recently published.

The White Man in the Tree is your first book of fiction and, like Salt, it's a book that takes your reader all over the world and amongst an international cast of characters. How did you become such an encyclopedic writer?

I'm not sure. I don't really think about it. I guess I'm sort of a restless person with a lot of interests. And I've done a lot of things and lived in a lot of places…. I tend to look at the world globally…. I tend to look at things in a very broad way…. I remember a high school teacher saying that to me.

How did you come to write Salt?

I never decided to do that kind of book…. I'm very interested in food history…. I never set out to write history through the prism of a narrow commodity…. What makes it interesting is that it is unusual.

What will you write next?

I'm working now on a novel [for Ballantine] set in New York in the East Village in the 1980s. But even there it's about people I know -- Jews and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans…. It's going well.

I love doing different things. I love the shift…. It really develops you. It's very easy, if you do the same thing, to become a parody of yourself. There's a lot of pressure in publishing to keep doing the thing you do well…. I'm [also] doing an anthology of food writing right now.

There are several recipes from different ages and countries included in Salt, and some certainly seem a lot more toothsome than others. Have you tried them?

God, no! And I don't recommend that you do either…. We actually had some discussion with Cod about having a disclaimer [about the recipes in the book].

The critics have been very complimentary about The White Man in the Tree, but they keep lauding the sunniness of the book and I'm not sure they always adequately address some of the strangeness and literariness of the stories. What do you think?

Well, that's what happens when you write about the Caribbean…. They didn't always analyze [the book] with great literary depth. But readers responded to it the way I hoped they would.

I was glad nobody burdened me with their sense of political correctness…. I mean the whole book is about race and sex. I personally don't think people write about race nearly as much as they should.

-- Interviewed by Molly Sackler