Interview: Will Storr, author of The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone

I was very lucky to review THE HUNGER AND THE HOWLING OF KILLIAN LONE for Library Journal, and its author, Will Storr, was kind enough to answer a few questions about his unique, and uniquely wonderful book. Please welcome Will to the blog.

willstorrI really enjoyed THE HUNGER AND THE HOWLING OF KILLIAN LONE, and am so glad it’s finally available in the US! It’s such a wonderful mix of dark faerie tale, cautionary tale, and even mystery. What first inspired you to write the book?
Someone told me about a person (I’ve still no idea who it is) who’d inherited a large house in Wales that had a herb garden that was used for food for the local King. They’d discovered ‘lost herbs’ in it. That set my imagination off. As a journalist I’d also written a story about life as an apprentice chef at the famous restaurant at the Sydney Opera House. I did a few days of double shifts under the brilliant and tough chef Guilaume Brahimi, who himself had trained under Joel Robuchon who is a notorious perfectionist and demanding. Despite how hard the shifts were – and despite seeing poor young apprentices in tears and walking out -I found the experience completely thrilling and never forgot it. Those two separate experiences kind of came together into the novel.

The book goes to some very dark places, especially detailing Killian’s heartbreaking childhood and also his torment in the hands of the kitchen staff. If it had been film, it would have been hard to watch, and just reading it was tough. Do you have to decompress after writing that kind of material?
There’s certainly a dark mood that hangs around after writing some of that material. If you’re really immersing yourself into those characters and imagining those scenes, I suppose that’s inevitable. But, for my day job, I write in depth newspapers pieces, often about people who have been through far worse than anything that happens in this novel. I suppose that’s given me quite a thick skin, over the years. Maybe some of the darkness in the book is some of that coming out.

hungerandhowlingI had a feeling that your experience as a journalist probably has helped you to cope with some of that. How do you think your journalism career has helped you in writing fiction?
In a way, it was actually a hindrance. I’ve wanted to be a novelist for a lot longer than I wanted to be a journalist, but many years of writing for newspapers had really jammed into my brain the tell-not-show form (or maybe it’s tell-and-show) which, of course, is the opposite of good fiction. I actually think the fiction has been far more beneficial to my journalism than vice-versa.

Also, I think continual proximity to people who have had extreme and often dark experiences made me lose touch a little with reality. I was genuinely surprised, following last year’s UK publication, when a lot of reader reviews began showing that people found the book disturbing. One said it made her feel “physically sick” (although, I hasten to add, she did give the book a good rating!). I honestly thought it wasn’t so dark.

It was fairly dark, but it was in a very insidious way, and a few of the scenes between Killian and his mother were particularly heartbreaking. I think I may know which scene that reviewer is referring to, but I really thought it was necessary to convey Killian’s journey, as hard as it may have been to read. Part of its darkness, for me, lay in watching a relative innocent lose that innocence in such heartrending ways. On a lighter note (maybe), will you tell us a little more about your time in the kitchen, and what you learned while researching the book?
-The great insight to me was how Chef Guillaume Brahimi instilled loyalty in his cooks. It was remarkable. Most of them seemed terrified of him. (As scary as he was – and he was – I was told that he was on ‘best behaviour’ when I was there.) Under this relentless barrage of pressure and shouting, you started to just crave his approval. You just pounced on the slightest glimmer of hope that he might be pleased with you and if he actually said anything positive in your vague direction you just floated with happiness. It’s one of those insights that makes journalism so valuable. I think the natural thing would be to assume that if someone is horrible to you, you’d resent them. That might be so in an office environment, but not in a fine dining kitchen.

In contrast, Chef Michel Roux at La Gavroche was just the nicest man. It was a bit disappointing. When I told him how surprised I was about it, he looked a bit dismayed and said something like, “If you ask the guys in the kitchen they’ll tell you I can really blow my top.” I think he took it as an insult.

On a (definitely) lighter note, what are a few of your biggest literary influences? If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
-I think the writer I most identify with on a personal level is John Fante. Catholic guilt, neurosis, failed love – it’s all there. But, for me, the perfect novel is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It has intellectual depth, amazing characterisation, profundity, it’s incredibly moving – and it combines all that with a gripping plot. I’m a firm believer that good literature doesn’t have to be slow to be ‘of quality’. If a book takes 100 pages to get into – that’s a flaw. If you have to push yourself through it – that’s a flaw. I know thousands disagree, but I think it’s the writer’s job to create a world and a set of people that are compelling. You’re not let off that job by telling yourself you’re ‘literature’.

hunger3I absolutely agree with you on that! What are you currently reading, and are there any particular books that you’re looking forward to this year?
-I’m just halfway through the George Saunders book, Tenth of December. I have to confess, I’m thinking of giving up. He’s clearly a genius and I love the way he exposes human thinking in all its irrationality and absurdity, but I look for some emotional heft in my stories. I want to be moved. Next on my pile is Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I bought because I’d heard it was a kind of fairy tale. I don’t know anything about books coming out this year – I’m a bit reactive.

I know you’ve traveled extensively, but is there somewhere you’d like to visit that you haven’t yet been?
-Oh, loads! Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru, Bolivia, Iceland, Alaska, the US Deep South and the Arctic Circle are all on the list. My favourite city is Istanbul. I go once a year to write (and worked on the novel there for a bit).

What’s next for you?
-I’m currently at the very early stages of two new book projects, a non-fiction one and another novel. The non fiction world is much harder to negotiate because true stories cost a lot of money to tell. My next novel is going to be a thriller, but I want to make it a love story too – with the love story as important as the thriller.

Keep up with Will: Website | Twitter

Killian Lone comes from a long line of gifted cooks, stretching back to the seven­teenth century, and yearns to become a famous chef himself. When he starts an apprenticeship under Max Mann, the most famous chef in London, he looks set to continue the family tradition. But the reality of kitchen life is brutal. Even his fellow apprentice, Kathryn, who shows Killian uncharacteristic kindness, can’t stop his being sucked into the vicious, debauched world of 1980s fine dining, and gradually he is forced to surrender his dream.

Then he discovers a dark family secret—the legacy of an ancestor who was burnt as a witch for creating food so delicious it was said to turn all who tasted it mad. Killian knows he can use this secret to achieve his ambitions and maybe, finally, to win Kathryn’s affections. But is he willing to pay the price?

This is Killian’s confession—a strange tragedy about love, ambition and incredible food . . .

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