By Anita Malhotra
Acclaimed New York Times bestselling writer Mark Kurlansky is best known for his meticulously researched and entertaining histories on topics that may at first seem mundane but become springboards for fascinating journeys through time and across continents.
Kurlansky has written extensively about food (including cod, milk, salt, oysters and salmon), as well as places (Havana, the Caribbean), peoples (Basques, Jews), cultural moments (1968), ideas (nonviolence), and more.
Starting his career as a playwright, he became a foreign correspondent in the mid-’70s, writing for several major American newspapers while based in Paris and then Mexico. He began writing non-fiction books in the early ’90s, achieving his first major success with Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), which was both a New York Times and international bestseller.
Kurlansky has written 33 non-fiction, fiction and children’s books, including four more international bestsellers: Salt,1968, Food of a Younger Land and The Basque History of the World. His latest book, Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate, was published in March by Patagonia.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Mark Kurlansky, who was at his office in New York City, by phone on April 28, 2020.
AM: Salmon is your 33rd book, and you’ve written about fish several times before. Why did you choose salmon as a topic this time?
MK: In 1997, I wrote a book about cod at a time when the northern stocks on the Canadian Grand Banks had collapsed and people for the first time were thinking about issues of overfishing and fishery management. Actually, when I was a commercial fisherman in the 1960s it was all fishermen ever talked about, but now the general public was becoming aware of it.
And over the years since then, it became clear to me that overfishing and fishery management was only one of many problems – maybe even the least of the problems. I thought that salmon was the perfect way to make that point because as an anadromous fish, on the land and in the sea, everything that we do to hurt the earth hurts salmon.
AM: What are some of the issues that are highlighted by looking at the loss of salmon around the world?
MK: It’s bad farming practices, urban sprawl, deforestation, pollution, pesticides, dams, climate change – especially climate change. Basically almost everything we’re doing wrong to the earth.
AM: Is one issue more important than the others?
MK: I’d say climate change is the most important, for a few reasons. If we’re talking about a fish that can’t live or reproduce in water that is warmer than 68 degrees, clearly there’s a problem. Alaska this summer had a very warm summer and it had very large salmon runs, but many of them died because the water was too warm.
In addition to that – maybe even more important than that – is the issue of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide loves water, so about a third of carbon dioxide on the land ends up in the ocean, which makes the water less productive for organisms.
So things like zooplankton and small fish like capelin no longer grow to the sizes they used to. What this means is that there is less food for sea animals to eat. The oceans, particularly the Atlantic, are losing their carrying capacity. And if the oceans can’t feed the animals in it, it’s all over – it’s just cataclysmic.
AM: You have said in previous interviews that we can learn from the current pandemic in terms of addressing climate change. Could you elaborate on that?
MK: I look at the way people, societies and governments are dealing with this pandemic and how they’re willing to do absolutely anything that has to be done, including shutting down the economy. And I think about climate change, which is actually a far more dangerous problem than a pandemic, and we have failed to make people understand that drastic things have to be done to stop this. I’m not sure why we haven’t got that message across, but we haven’t.
AM: Is there a strategy that you’d recommend to change that?
MK: We have to change the entire notion of economic development. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have economic development. We should. But we have to figure out ways to do it that don’t destroy the planet.
AM: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
MK: I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was in the third grade, which is basically after I learned how to write. I’m not sure why, but it’s what I always wanted, and I’ve never veered from it.
AM: What were your early experiences writing in the third grade?
MK: This is very funny – I wrote a novel about a fish, which I don’t have any copies of. One thing I’ve learned from the life of Ernest Hemingway is that you’ve got to burn all your early unpublished work before you die.
I wrote a lot when I was a little kid. I’d get a writing assignment and the other kids would turn in three pages and I’d turn in 60 with illustrations.
The teachers were not pleased by this because they said, “I’ve got to read all that stuff.”
AM: Was there anybody else in your family who liked to write?
MK: No. We were all big readers and we all talked about what we were reading. But I was the only one who was writing.
AM: Did your parents find it strange that you were always writing?
MK: Yes, this greatly bothered my father. I remember he used to say, “Why don’t you go outside and play some baseball?” This was ironic because sometimes I did, because I loved baseball. My father, on the other hand, never went outside and played baseball. He was the most un-outdoors person I’ve ever seen. But for some reason he was very bothered about me locked away in my room writing.
AM: Where did your interest in food come from?
MK: My mother was a housewife, and in my memory she spent almost all her time cooking. I grew up in this house with a ridiculous excess of food. She liked to bake, and at any given time there’d be two pies, a few cakes. Maybe that had an influence.
I lived in Paris for about 10 years and worked around Europe, and I was very struck by the way Europeans wrote about food – particularly the French, the Basques, the Spanish, the Italians – in a way that Americans didn’t. And I thought that there should be more about food history. So I started doing that. And then everybody started doing that.
AM: Your books are on a wide range of topics. How do you narrow down your choice of subject matter?
MK: It has to be something that tells a great story, because to me storytelling is the key. And the story has to be of some kind of importance. People are always saying about my books, “He picks these unlikely topics and makes you think they’re interesting.” They are interesting. I think they’re interesting. That’s why I have to make you think they’re interesting.
AM: How do you go about gathering and organizing all the material for your books?
MK: I first of all read a lot, as you can tell if you look at the bibliography of any of my books. I’ll read a hundred books or something. And I look at academic papers, which are sometimes painful but have interesting things buried in them.
In New York I have the great advantage of the New York Public Library, which is an unbelievable resource.
When I was doing my Salt book I found a thousand titles on salt in the New York Public Library. All sorts of things, like an original document of the decree of the Assemblée nationale ending the gabelle – the salt tax. Just unbelievable stuff in there.
And then I go to places and, where possible, I interview people. Even if it’s history and there’s nobody left to interview, just seeing the place.
I remember for the Salt book, I went to the site of Carthage in Tunisia. Just looking at that place – and you can still see what the Romans did – I learned more about the Roman Empire than anything else ever taught me. It was brutal, ruthless. So it’s always important to be there.
AM: How do you keep track of the information when you read books?
MK: When I read books I flag everything that’s of interest. I do all the research before I do any writing. And the next thing I do is I spend a few months working on an outline, in which all these flags are put in their place and all the notes from interviews and everything I have is part of that.
Theoretically, all I have to do is follow this outline, but it ends up being much more complicated than that. But it’s a good start.
AM: You’ve also written some fiction. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
MK: I love writing fiction. I actually always thought I’d be a fiction writer. I got into non-fiction because I became a journalist, which is kind of something I did for money, but I loved doing it. And from there I got into non-fiction, and I’ve written much more non-fiction than fiction.
I particularly love writing short stories. I’ve written three collections of short stories. It’s funny because if you just separated my fiction – I think it’s five or six books – that’s not a bad body of work for a fiction writer. But because I’ve written so much other stuff, people always act like it’s a little sideline.
AM: Have you written plays as well?
MK: I was a theatre major in college and I wrote seven or eight plays and had a couple of them produced. I earned enough money from one of them to finance my first trip to Europe. But I became very frustrated with theatre, which is to say I became frustrated with Broadway.
I was in this situation where I wasn’t writing for Broadway anymore and I wasn’t interested in Broadway. There are writers who are content with never being published by a commercial publisher, but I don’t think that’s a good place to be. So that’s why I got out of theatre.
AM: You’re very prolific and these books must be labour-intensive. How do you get all this work done and what is your schedule like?
MK: I work most days from about 9 in the morning to about 7 at night. It used to be more like from 8 to 10, but then I started wanting to come to see my kid and things like that. I work 10, 12 hours a day but I have built-in breaks.
Dog-walking is a good break, and I play the cello. And I have a treadmill in my office. So I have lots of diversions here.
AM: Can you tell me about the book you did with your daughter?
MK: It started off as a game. I’d spin the globe and she’d close her eyes and put her finger on the globe, and wherever her finger landed we would do a dinner from that place. We called it “International Night.”
My daughter is a great ham. She was nine years old and with great fanfare she would announce “International Night” and she used to put together costumes for the country.
Then my editor said, “You ought to do a book about this – make it 52 nights.” At that time we’d only done about 30, and then we had to do 20-something more.
I actually went back and redid a few things because I had to make sure they were all good recipes and worked well, because there’s a greater demand on publishing then there was on just pleasing my wife and daughter. They’re an easy audience. My daughter and I made this stuff together and we had great fun. And we had great fun doing the book tour.
AM: You’ve written some books for children as well. What do you get out of writing for children that you don’t writing for adults?
MK: The thing I love about writing for kids is that they haven’t made up their minds about things. When you write for adults, basically they’ve already decided, and if they agree with you they’ll like your books. So I think most of my readers are kind of musty environmentalist types and I don’t know that I’m converting many people, although I’ve had a few interesting experiences.
I actually got a letter from a guy in the military who said he resigned his commission and got out of the military because of my book on non-violence. So it sometimes happens, but when you’re writing for kids, it’s like cooking for hungry people. They just want to gobble it up.
AM: You do the artwork for your books too.
MK: I illustrate most of my books. I love illustrating. Because of the pandemic I found myself with some extra time. My next book after Salmon is a book about the history of fly-fishing, and I did 12 drawings in graphite and charcoal and ink of different rivers that I’ve fished. And I also did drawings of a bunch of artificial flies.
AM: You’ve said that you’ve learned about yourself through the process of writing. What did you mean by that?
MK: When you create a body of work, and 33 books is definitely a body of work, you learn interesting things about yourself because there are certain consistent things.
For instance, almost all of my books have the theme of survival in one way or another. Now, I never thought of myself as a person who spends a lot of time thinking about survival, but there it is. It’s very interesting to see these patterns.
For more information about Mark Kurlansky and his work, visit markkurlansky.com.