We’re chatting with Crystal King, author of the historical fiction debut, Feast of Sorrow, out April 25!
Please describe what the book is about.
Set amongst the scandal, wealth, and upstairs-downstairs politics of a Roman family, Crystal King’s seminal debut features the man who inspired the world’s oldest cookbook and the ambition that led to his destruction.
Share a teaser sentence or two from your novel.
On a blistering day in the twenty-sixth year of Augustus Caesar’s reign, a young chef, Thrasius, is acquired for the exorbitant price of twenty thousand denarii. His purchaser is the infamous gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, wealthy beyond measure, obsessed with a taste for fine meals from exotic places, and a singular ambition: to serve as culinary advisor to Caesar, an honor that will cement his legacy as Rome’s leading epicure.
Apicius rightfully believes that Thrasius is the key to his culinary success, and with Thrasius’s help he soon becomes known for his lavish parties and fantastic meals. Thrasius finds a family in Apicius’s household, his daughter Apicata, his wife Aelia, and her handmaiden, Passia whom Thrasius quickly falls in love with. But as Apicius draws closer to his ultimate goal, his reckless disregard for any who might get in his way takes a dangerous turn that threatens his young family and places his entire household at the mercy of the most powerful forces in Rome.
What do you want people to know about your book?
It’s about food and feasts, love and loss, and the glamour and grit of ancient Rome.
What did you learn about yourself while writing this novel?
I learned that I could finish a novel! I had always written shorter pieces, non-fiction articles and poetry. The idea of writing hundreds of pages seemed so daunting. When I wrote the last word of my first draft I cried. I still remember it, sitting in my local library, alone on a cold winter day, the last word bright on the page.
What was your timeline from drafting to publication?
I’m not entirely sure I want to admit this! The actual drafting of the novel took about five or so years (off and on, mostly on weekends). Then I spent three years finding an agent and from signing with Touchstone to publication it will be 18 months. Hopefully, now that I’m established, things will go much faster. I’d love to have a new book out every 2-3 years.
What is your favorite part of writing (drafting characters, making up scenes, plotting, developing emotional turning points, etc). Why?
I love plotting and outlining. Writing historical fiction means that I have to tie in actual history with what is made-up and make sure it all fits together. I did my Masters in Critical & Creative Thinking and as part of my thesis I developed a series of exercises for writers in the middle of their work. I use a lot of those exercises to help me push through plot holes and I find that process to be sheer fun.
Briefly, where did the idea for your book come from?
I was writing a very different book, set in contemporary times, about a chef who owned a magical set of knives. I needed an origin story for those knives and around the same time I came across the story of Apicius and how he died. I wrote a scene for the other novel, thinking that would be the origin story but after I wrote that scene I realized that was the better story. Some of that scene still remains, late in FEAST OF SORROW, and the idea of those knives carries into the second book I’m writing. Maybe I’ll go back to the original idea someday.
When do you do your best thinking about your work in progress?
I am a big believer in incubation. I might go weeks not writing but I’m always thinking of my story in progress. Sometimes when I have a really sticky problem to solve I do my best thinking when I’m driving. I’ll put on classical music and talk to myself in the car. “Okay Crystal, what will Apicius do about his mother?” And then I will run through all the possibilities out loud. People driving near me probably assume I’m on the phone, which I suppose is better than them thinking I’m crazy, which is closer to the truth.
Share something people may be surprised to know about you?
Most people I know are surprised to find out that I spent my high school years in Idaho. The state seems so distant and remote from Boston where I’ve lived for nearly twenty years. I still have family and friends back west.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
It all goes back to Dorothy Parker. None of the other writing advice matters as much as this one: “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” Of course, it goes a bit beyond the seat—you have to be fully present when you get to it, ready to write, even if the words don’t want to flow. Something on the page is better than nothing on the page.
I’m working on a novel about a Renaissance Italian chef, a man named Bartolomeo Scappi. He was the chef to several popes and had a cookbook that came out in 1570 and was the bestselling cookbook for nearly two hundred years afterward. It’s a mystery, with a bit of romance and a whole lot of food.
What recipes have you made from the Apicius cookbook?
There are many of them. My husband and I make Parthian chicken regularly for dinner. We recently perfected a sweet and sour dill sauce for fowl and I’m also rather partial to Roman fig cakes. I’ve made honey water and honey cakes before and there is a wonderful goat milk bread that I also make from time to time. Recreating the recipes has been a lot of fun!
FEAST OF SORROW