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
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
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
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
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
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
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.