Where did the idea for Cinnamon and Gunpowder come from?
Cinnamon and Gunpowder has humble origins. It began with me lying on my living room floor in an awkward position. I was following a Yoga DVD and I was bored. I’d heard the same music, the same breathy voice telling me to breathe into my knees dozens of times. Any program you have to watch over and over again is going to start to chafe.
I thought, “This thing needs a good story.” Then it came to me in a flash. I imagined an aerobic workout video series, an adventure, where the viewer is kidnapped by pirates and forced to labor on their ship. In the early routines the workout is light: rowing, hauling invisible buckets of water, that sort of thing. Did I mention that it was a musical? And a love story? I envisioned a long operatic drama with each routine getting harder as the story unfolds. It would be campy and low budget but it would have you coming back every morning to see what would happen. You’d be so invested in the story, you wouldn’t even notice that you could see your abs for the first time since college.
But, like most epiphanies, it melted in the harsh light of reality. I knew I was never going to make an exercise video. But the story I had started to put together was pretty good. When I realized that the narrator was a cook, and the pirate was a woman, I thought, “Dammit, that’s too good to let go. Now I have to dedicate the next couple of years to writing this novel.”
Part of what fascinates me is the moral ambiguity that they can represent. Sometimes the only distinction between a pirate and a privateer was a certificate from a king. They might be doing the same things but the pirate would be hanged and the privateer would be celebrated as a national hero. The labels we give people in wartime can make things confusing later. After all, our founding fathers here in the US, with their tea parties and guerrilla warfare, were certainly considered pirates and enemy combatants and any number of terrible things by the British. In Cinnamon and Gunpowder the Captain Hannah Mabbot honed her skills as a privateer before realizing that she’d been unwittingly supporting the corrupt opium trade. Her conscience is actually lighter when she’s flying the pirate flag.
Everyone loves an underdog.
Exactly. We like to see people buck the system.
Pirates were also examples of alternative social structures. When you throw the law out the window, other social hang-ups tend to go with it, glass ceiling included. Pirate societies offered some of the earliest examples of civilizing practices as disability compensation and profit sharing. Some pirates were downright democratic. That’s why female pirates could rise in the ranks. If they were respected by the crew they could end up in leadership positions. You didn’t become a pirate captain because some senator bestowed the title upon you; you became captain because your comrades respected you, or feared you, or thought you were right for the job. As soon as you lost that respect you’d be out of a job. There’s a great book on the subject: Villains of All Nations by Marcus Rediker.
I don’t want to be glib. It’s easy to romanticize but we have to acknowledge that villains are real. In researching this book, I sat down with a nautical historian who was very generous with his time and wisdom. He was eloquent and patient with my ignorant questions about how many people could fit on a schooner and how long it would take to get to China. At the end of our interview, he looked me in the eye and said, “Pirates are dog-sh*t.” I think he is tired of seeing pirates depicted as heroes. And here I’ve gone and written another pirate with a heart of gold, though I hope to have done some justice to the culture of violence. After that meeting, I knew I couldn’t get away with a cartoon. I had to write a truly complicated anti-hero, someone we fall in love with despite what we know about her brutality. It was one of the biggest puzzles of the book for me.
Cooking is an important part of Cinnamon and Gunpowder. Where did you learn to cook?
I’m almost entirely self-taught. I learned how to make food go a long way from my mother who sometimes had a horde to feed, and her food was always good. I grew up near Mexico and learned how to make tamales, and nopales, and Mexican rice from my friends’ mothers.
My real culinary education began when I became a vegetarian after reading Gandhi’s autobiography in high school. It took me a while to figure out that I wasn’t as fond of asceticism as he was; food is one of the biggest loves of my life, so I had to get creative. While my diet has varied over the years, I find I’m always tinkering and trying to make something really good from unlikely sources. Whether it’s a chicken pot-pie for a gluten-free friend, or a vegan chocolate pudding, I take a lot of pleasure in finding solutions to culinary hurdles.
Of course, that fueled my writing of Cinnamon and Gunpowder. The narrator, Wedgwood, has similar hurdles to jump but the stakes for him are much higher.
What’s the best and worst meal you’ve made?
I don’t really like to follow recipes so occasionally my attempts can fall flat. But when I knock it out of the park, I feel like I can take credit for making the world a better place. A good savory pie can do that. Recently I made a goat-cheese and bay-leaf ice-cream. Sounds iffy, right? Nope, delicious. Like something they’d feed the oracle-tending virgins at an ancient Greek temple. I’ve also had my share of failed experiments. Shortly after college. I was trying to put together something with tuna and orange juice. This isn’t such a bad idea theoretically: high-quality tuna, seared quickly, with maybe a kumquat reduction drizzled over it sounds pretty good. But I think I was using canned tuna…and maybe frozen orange juice. I’m blushing even saying it. I was just a kid—what did I know? Something chemical happened and the kitchen filled with an industrial solvent smell than chased me out. It was a genuine abomination. I hope you have more questions. I can’t end this interview on that note.
What is an average day like for you?
Two fresh eggs in the morning and then I haul my book bag to my favorite café, Julie’s Tea Garden, about a mile away. If you like tea, this place is a wonder-palace. I’ve become a fixture there; it’s where I wrote a lot of Cinnamon and Gunpowder. I have to work with my internet connection disabled because I’m too vulnerable to the siren call of the web. After that, I head home, read correspondence, run errands, and try to finish my day in the gardens, either turning compost or filling potholes the chickens have dug. I usually throw something together for dinner with my sweetheart, Melissa–a curry or stir-fry– and then, if I have time, my favorite recreation is, I’m not ashamed to say it, board-games with friends. Not Monopoly, we play the good stuff, Settlers of Catan, that sort of thing. The geeks out there know what I’m talking about.
So it’s true you live on an experimental urban farm?
It is, though that makes it sound like a well-planned undertaking, when really it’s a suburban house with chickens in the backyard and cabbage instead of grass. In addition to the gardens, we’ve got lots of projects going on all the time, like gray-water and rainwater catchment, hosting a beehive, repurposed ‘urbanite,’ vermiculture, that sort of thing, but what makes the whole thing “experimental” is that we don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re learning as we go. For example, we were thrilled to see that kiwi vines grow happily in our yard, but a little less thrilled to see that the vines were so vigorous that they were tearing down the fence we had trellised them against. We learn something every day.
On a whim I thought I’d try to train our chickens to gather when I whistle. I’d been told chickens were stupid and I figured it would take months of training. It took two days—they come running.
What do your neighbors think?
They’ve been very supportive– even when our yard looks like a tornado hit it. It helps that we offer the occasional egg or honey bribe. The kids of the neighborhood know they can come feed the chickens whenever they want.
I was weeding in the front gardens when someone from several blocks away approached and asked if we had bees hidden in the backyard. I admitted we did—I was worried someone had gotten stung, but this person was very happy to see his lemon tree pollinated. “I knew someone had established a hive nearby,” he said.
“How did you know it was us?”
He pointed to our yard, with its blueberry and pineapple-guava bushes, tufts of lemongrass and grafted pear trees, persimmon and rosemary and said, “Who else could it be?”
ELI BROWN is the author of Cinnamon and Gunpowder. He lives on an experimental urban farm in Alameda, California. His writing has appeared in The Cortland Review and Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader. His first novel, The Great Days, won the Fabri Literary Prize.