Everything Is an Excuse For an Adventure: Q+A with "The Telling Room" Author Michael Paterniti
By Matt Haber
"A story is time itself, boxed and compressed," writes Michael Paterniti in his new book, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese (Random House). Paterniti's story is a doozy. Somehow, he manages to bring together Roman-era caves in a Spanish town that time forgot, a gentle giant cheesemaker-turned-truck driver bent on revenge, a magical cheese, and a dreamy grad student in Michigan who grows up to become an award-winning journalist who dedicated years of his life to understanding those caves, the giant, and, of course, that cheese.
Paterniti, a correspondent for GQ, has traveled to places like Cambodia to write about the Khmer Rouge and Japan to tell an amazing story about the 2011 tsunami, but at the heart of almost all his work—especially in The Telling Room—is a fascination with storytelling itself. At one point in The Telling Room, Paterniti describes himself as "someone given to tilting the most quotidian events into a Viking epic," an impulse readers will sense from the very first page the book. At times, The Telling Room reads like a fairy tale, as Paterniti moves his family to a town where farmers talk with animals, one resident might be able to fly, and where his hero, Ambrosio Molinos, once created a cheese that could bring back forgotten memories.
We sent a few questions to Paterniti, who lives year-round in Portland, Maine with his wife, writer Sara Corbett, and their three kids. Here's what he had to say.
Q: You once drove cross-country with a retired pathologist and Albert Einstein's brain for a Harper's Magazine story (that later became a book) and to report The Telling Room, you moved your family to rural Spain so you could be closer to your subject. What do these trips provide you as a writer?
A: Escape! Escape from your writing desk. Escape from your own limited thoughts. Escape from the recycling and unpaid bills, from the chockablock rush of modern life. Writing and travel seem indivisible to me now. And these trips—the process by which you uproot yourself, pack a bag for some adventure ahead, and hurtle across an ocean to lose yourself in the dusty highlands of Spain, not knowing what lies ahead—become a vital way to break the gravitational pull of your everyday life, in order to pass through some seam that allows you to see the universe in a completely different way, to enter these worlds and stories as a kind of babe in the wild, resonating to every bright color and strange note.
In the case of The Telling Room, I found a tiny village, Guzman (pop. 80), living out of time, like a fable, and I found a man there, Ambrosio Molinos, who embodied the ideals of our collective, lost agrarian past. He made his food by hand, he spoke to the animals. He constantly evoked the ghosts of the past, from El Cid to Queen Isabella. And there was just this other little thing: He wanted to murder his best friend for stealing his family’s world-famous cheese, called Paramo de Guzman.
There’s this one line of poetry by Paul Celan that I think says it all: “Discus starred with premonition, throw yourself out of yourself.” That pretty much sums up what the act of travel really means to me: a chance to revolve out of one’s life, to throw yourself beyond what you know into some other world, to reinvent yourself there as you search out your destiny.
Q: In 2001 you wrote about El Bulli Chef Ferran Adriá for Esquire in a piece that introduced millions of people to his style of cuisine. That trip to Spain also brought you face to face with Ambrosio Molinos, the man whose mystical cheese inspired your book. What is it about these men—both isolated, eccentric, monomaniacal— that attracted you? And is it difficult translating their sui generis processes into words?
A: Wow, I think your description of them is perfect. In retrospect, it seems crazy that I met these two on the same visit. Ferran has spent his life obsessed with the future of food, inventing that future, while Ambrosio occupies the other end of the spectrum, living stubbornly and wondrously in the past, evoking and reinterpreting it to keep it alive in the present. They really are polar opposites, or counterpoints, but connected as you say by very similar impulses. They both stand at the edge of their own frontiers. The challenge of translating their processes and philosophies was something I never thought too much about because I was so enthralled by them.
I was equally riveted, for instance, by the exact obsessive steps that led Ambrosio to make a beautiful bottle of wine, or a glorious piece of cheese, as I was by the exact details of his murder plot. With both Ferran and Ambrosio, I felt I was in the presence of great minds, straining and struggling against the status quo. Their process, then, became their art and legacy, their attempt at perfection and immortality. And that mesmerized me.
Q: At the center of The Telling Room is a piece of cheese that is said to bring back long-lost memories when eaten. You write at one point (while admitting it "sounds terribly naïve") that understanding this cheese, its maker, and the place it came from was a way to "find innocence again." That's a lot of pressure on a cheese—and on you. Did it sometimes feel like this cheese was a MacGuffin and what you really wanted was a great adventure?
A: Ha! Have you been talking to my wife by any chance? Everything is an excuse for an adventure. This cheese of Ambrosio’s, which came from an old family recipe, was legendary. Ambrosio bought a hundred sheep, and made the first batches in a stable, then aged them for a year in the family cave. He had no business plan, or design for world domination. But he made something magical. And one day he found his cheese consumed by the king of Spain, the British royal family, Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro, who by the way, attempted to buy Ambrosio’s entire supply. I first came upon Paramo de Guzman at Zingerman’s Deli, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1992—and was hooked by this utterly impractical dream I had of one day traveling to the village, to eat Paramo de Guzman there.
Travel is also partly about these dreams and delusions, too, that propel us toward something potentially unattainable. Adventure is what occurs along the way, when we give in to our less-than-rational emotions and thoughts.
A: First of all, I should tell you what a “telling room” really is. In Guzman, which is located on the dusty Meseta of Castile and remains one of my favorite places on earth, there are about two dozen family caves dug into a hill on the north side of town, some that may date back to Roman times, which would be just before the birth of Christ. These caves initially acted as refrigerators, a place where wine and cheese, and that year’s harvest, could be stored. Over time, the people built these little rooms into the hillside above the caves, these cramped hobbit warrens with nothing more than a table, chairs, and maybe a fireplace, translated as “telling rooms.” They would gather in these telling rooms to eat and drink and tell stories. And it was here that they would share their dreams, desires, and histories.
In 2003, my family and I moved to Guzman for a while, and during the course of the summer—and then on many subsequent visits—I spent a great deal of time in Ambrosio’s telling room. In fact, almost every important story that was told to me for this book—the betrayal, the murder story—was told in his telling room. When we returned home, we had an idea to start a nonprofit writing and storytelling center in the mold of Dave Eggers’ 826 program, tailored entirely for our little city by the sea. We had a list of names for it—I wanted to call it Sputnik or something—and my wife (Sara Corbett, New York Times Magazine contributing writer and co-author of the upcoming, A House in the Sky) said we’re really just trying to create a telling room for Portland, a safe space where kids might tell their stories and dreams to a listening audience of peers and mentors. So that’s what we called it. And that’s what it’s become.
Today, we serve about 2,000 kids a year, between the ages of 6-18, have about 200 volunteers, and offer all sorts of cool workshops and programs, taught by local writers and artists. Portland is a refugee relocation center, so we’re privileged to work with a really diverse group of young storytellers—some from Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—who humble us every day. What we’ve found is that a community’s sense of itself—its emotional and psychic outlook—are very much shaped by the stories we tell each other. And we’ve worked really hard to ensure that the voices of our kids are privileged and heard in Portland’s proverbial telling room, too, which has been amazing.
Q: Do you ever turn off your reporter's instincts and travel for pleasure? Where do you go, and are you always at risk of falling into the rabbit hole of another story?
A: That’s the exact question my wife and I asked ourselves this winter: When’s the last time we traveled for complete pleasure, on a beach somewhere, reading books that had nothing to do with what we were working on? We were both in the throes of finishing books, and we needed a vacation badly. Of course, we’ve been lucky to have some great family trips—to Africa, to India—but always connected to, and enabled by, someone’s work, and frequent flier miles.
So, we booked tickets to go to Tulum with the kids. When it came time to go, we left our computers and phones on the bed. The dialogue was pretty funny: “Are you ready to lay down your phone?” “Now step away from the bed.” And then there we were, completely free, in our little palapa on the beach. Of course, you can never truly shut the story brain off. When we were walking the beach at sunrise, there was this sandy, dreadlocked shaman character doing sun salutations completely naked on the beach, and Sara and I both turnedto each other at the same time, and said, “I wonder what his story is?”
Matt Haber is a freelance writer and regular contributor to TravelandLeisure.com.