[[peter-salmon]]Kabita Dhara interviews Australian author and former editor of our Readings Monthly newsletter, Peter Salmon, about his pitch-black satirical debut novel, The Coffee Story.
Teddy Everett, the head of the Everett and Sons Coffee company, is telling his ‘coffee story’ from his deathbed. As his story progresses, the reader becomes aware of how unreliable Teddy’s narrative is, and how unlikeable Teddy himself is. Of course, the idea of the main character being an anti-hero is not unusual, but what do you think having this kind of protagonist, as opposed to a traditional hero, allowed you to do creatively?
I like Teddy! I don’t agree with everything he says or does, but then again, neither does he! When I was writing him, I didn’t think in terms of ‘hero’ or ‘villain’. I wanted to create a character who was brutally honest – who tells the things about himself that most of us keep secret. It’s that dark river that runs under our public persona that interests me. And given that Teddy is dying, he’s got nothing to lose by telling the whole truth.
Even though Teddy is dying, and anger and guilt seem to be at the heart of his story, there is a lot of (dark) humour in Teddy’s storytelling. How important was the use of humour in writing your book?
I didn’t necessarily set out to write a humorous book – quite simply, the book grew out of finding Teddy’s voice, and Teddy, bless him, tends towards the scabrous and scatological. If there was one element I wanted to be deliberately ‘comic’, it was the form of the book itself. I have a bit of an aversion to the ‘well-made novel’ (whatever that may be – discuss!), so I liked having a central character who was oblivious to novelistic convention – he does tend to give away important plot points at inappropriate moments, and to break off from key moments in the story to chat about more, ahem, elemental concerns …
Although Teddy’s story unfolds in a number of locations – America, England, Cuba – it is your depiction of Ethiopia that really stands out in my mind, so much so that it is like another character in the book. What sort of research did you do?
Too much – I actually ground to a halt at one stage as the temptations of showing off my extensive knowledge of Wikipedia started to overcome my desire to tell a good story. This was particularly tempting with Ethiopia – a country with a rich past, condemned to be viewed by the West through the prism of the 80s famine. But, in the end, I consciously put aside all my research and let the story tell its own truth, only going back afterwards to make sure there were no glaring errors. This seems to me to be the trick – to do the research, but then wear it lightly. But gosh, I know a lot of stuff – you don’t want me sitting next to you at a dinner party.
Coffee, its production and consumption, obviously plays a major role in your novel. There are beautifully evocative passages describing the roasting and grinding and preparation of the perfect cup of coffee, and some of your characters have an encyclopaedic knowledge of coffee. Where did your particular interest in coffee come from? And how do you brew your perfect cup?
Legend has it my first words were ‘cup coff’ so it was obviously there pretty early. And working at the wonderful Readings in Lygon Street cemented the love. It really is the best drink in the world. As for the perfect cup, the best coffee I’ve ever had was the coffee I had in Harar recently – a superb coffee is taken for granted, and any family that beckons you to join them will always have a glorious cup for you. I hate tea, by the way. Just so you know.
Teddy leads a cosmopolitan life, right from a young age when he moves to Ethiopia. This migration profoundly affects the family and its fortunes. How did your move from Australia to the UK affect your writing and the writing of this book?
Not greatly, as much of the work was done before the move, but I think the one key thing that informed my final pulling together of the book is the loneliness that comes from no longer being around your friends. Teddy is, essentially, a man without friends and his life has been one long conversation with himself. I’m not quite at that stage, although, having said that, now I’m wondering if I wrote these questions myself and am going mad. Best not to think too much.
Even as Teddy rails against his father, he is in some ways following in his footsteps. How do you think Teddy’s family inheritance, financial and otherwise, affects his own development? And do you think family inheritance is impossible to escape?
Absolutely. It fascinates me – how much of our hard-fought personality is in fact passed down to us. Even those things we inherit which we attempt to reject – it seems to me that they are part of the prison of our personality too. Basically, I wanted to fill Teddy with an almost Proustian sense of inheritance, and then watch him squirm. Endless fun.
You have a very distinctive style. Which books and writers do you think have influenced you stylistically? And which books and writers do you look to for inspiration?
As I said, I’m not a lover of the ‘well-crafted novel’ – I like a book that is not afraid to digress, to obfuscate, and do the odd thing that annoys the reader. I really like the strange … Books like Memoirs of My Mental Illness by Judge Schreber, and The Robber by Robert Walser (best opening lines ever – ‘Edith loves him. More on this later.’). Plus Proust and Henry James, both of whom are far stranger than they are given credit for. But I guess if there is one book that informs The Coffee Story more than any other, it’s The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow – frankly, I owe him most of the royalties. Don’t tell him though. Please.