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Velvet Party Dresses and Foie Gras: A conversation with Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver looks exactly as I pictured she would, from her leopard print cat-eye glasses all the way to her mother's vintage leopard print pumps. The first-time author (who appears at The Harvard Book Store on Feb 28) of Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood, arrives at Upstairs on the Square (her mother's restaurant of 30 years) to a chorus of hellos from the front of house staff. She is eloquent and polite, and fits right in among the jewel-tone walls that encircled her childhood. We choose a corner table, nestled alongside the evening's staff meal, and talk inspiration, why she doesn't cook, and how Harvard Square has changed since the wistful days of Upstairs on the Pudding.

How long did you have this book kicking around in your head?

I wrote the very first draft when I was a senior in college at Bennington, which was actually right after the Pudding closed, which I think accounts for the very vivid physical memories and details in the book. I think they were very fresh to me in that initial recollection. Then I ended up putting the manuscript away for a number of years, and I only went back to it about two years ago, and reshaped it a bit. Now, here I am!

Why did you shelve it back then?

I think at the time I thought it needed more distance than I was able to give it at 21. I'm actually very pleased that the book is being published when I'm 30, which has made it ten years to the time that the Pudding closed. The book is deliberately nostalgic and romantic in tone, and that was an aesthetic decision. This is also the 30th year we've been in business, so that just works perfectly.

What is like coming home now that you live full-time in New York? Is it even more jarring than it was for you in college?

I must say that when I get off of the redline into the iconic center of Harvard Square, which used to be the site of The Tasty and all that, and being greeted by a Starbucks and Pinkberry and ATMs everywhere kind of strikes me with sadness. The effect it creates, to my mind, as someone who grew up here and feels very sentimental about it, is one of sort of coldness. I would say that for me it's definitely a wistful experience.

You mention in the book that as a kid, you were often stuck between the adult world and the kid world. Do you still feel remnants of that, now that you're an adult?

That's interesting. I have always been a young person who loves the company of adults, and was always very interested in their world. I grew up with a lot of very interesting grown-ups, lots of colorful characters. Although I have many wonderful friends who are my own age, but there is a way in which I've always felt off-tempo from the rest of my generation. I send hand-written notes, I love French stationary, those kinds of things. I don't know if that's how I'm wired, or if it's a legacy of a childhood spent with so many grown-ups. I like a mix of generations around me.

Was it the observatory role you played as a kid in the dining room that lead you to be a writer?

I always wanted to write and I was always very bookish. I could always be found in the dining room with a book in hand, reading by candlelight, that kind of thing. Harvard Square is a great place to grow up if you are a bookish person, it's really such a literary city. This was really the ideal upbringing for a writer, first of all because it was vivid and sensuous and fantastical. This isn't a portrait of a particularly relatable childhood, but an exotic one, which I hope is part of the books charm. The fact that I was alone a good deal, naturally made me into an observer I think. Excellent preparation for being a writer. And I really think that an appreciation of solitude is really a great thing.

What was the most challenging part of this whole process for you?

The memories were fairly immediate and came back pretty easily, but I think structuring a memoir is enormously difficult. Real life does not have a structure. In a novel, you can impose one more readily than a memoir. This book actually began as a series of vignettes, almost like small prose poems, so it began in sections. I wanted this book to be a small and kind of jewel-like book, and it doesn't tell you everything. With time I was able to massage the vignettes into more conventional chapters.

Is it strange seeing your life on the page?

Not particularly, actually. On the whole, I think it's a fairly emotionally restrained book. I want it to be an affectionate portrait of the characters in this world, and I hope the people who are in it feel the same.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from people?

Some people are disappointed they're not in it! But there were so many characters that drifted in and out in our lives, so it's hard choosing a collection. People have been so excited about it, though. It's such a local book, and I think there's been a good deal of nostalgic recognition. I hope it strikes a chord with people.

So I hear you're not a foodie?

It really surprises people. People always think I'm going to be a wonderful, deft cook, and will often tell me that they were intimidated to invite me to dinner. I'm so grateful to be invited to dinner! I have kind of a guilt-free stance on this subject. I live in a great Mediterranean neighborhood in Queens that has fantastic and plentiful cheap food everywhere, I'm really very lucky. So I largely eat out, but I have the highest respect for people who can cook. I think it's a wonderful thing that enhances people's lives, professionally or at home. I'm not a food writer, but I think that people who like food writing will like this book because it is full of food and luscious descriptions of food. But for me, describing the food is the same as describing party dresses. It's about a beautiful, lacquered kind of world.

How would you describe your style as an adult, with all this background in mind?

I do wear dresses almost exclusively, and that is probably connected to my childhood at the Pudding in which I wore party dresses in the dining room. I like getting dressed up, I like the festivity of getting dressed up. I like cinch belts, I like heels, I like cardigans, sundresses...my mother is very glamorous, so I enjoy that.

Do you think you still have a sense of that childlike romanticism in your life now?

I think one tries to maintain a sense of pleasure and whimsy and openness and surprise in one's life. I do believe that a certain intensity is lost with the loss of childhood, and depth of feeling and depth of observation. I almost think that this book is unusual because it is a romantic portrayal of childhood. It's less colloquial than most memoirs, and that was definitely a stylistic choice, because it's a world of velvets and pink linen and pewter chandeliers. It's all part of the texture.

Would you ever trade it for a more conventional childhood?

Absolutely not! Never.

Charlotte Silver reads from Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood at The Harvard Book Store on Tuesday, February 28, 7pm. For more information, visit harvard.com/events

 

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