When you write a novel, how much of your life experience do you give to your characters? And how much of that experience do you fictionalize?
This question came up during two panel discussions with WNIJ Book Series authors last week. One panelist, Katie Andraski, described how she transferred her experience as a publicist to her protagonist in The River Caught Sunlight.
Another, Charles Blackstone, borrowed from his courtship and marriage to a TV wine and food expert. Before publishing his latest novel, Vintage Attraction, Blackstone was a professor at University of Illinois-Chicago who fell in love with Alpana Singh, host of WTTW's Check, Please!
His novel's main character, Peter Hapworth, is also a UIC professor who falls for a restaurant wine steward, or sommelier, named Izzy Conway -- who also has a show on television.
Just as Singh took Blackstone to the nation's top restaurants and wine bars, Izzy introduces Hapworth to the world of wine and gourmet food.
The real romance, like the fictional one, began after Blackstone watched Check, Please! for the first time. "I felt somehow that we could know each other," the author tells WNIJ. "Or should. And then I sought to get on the show -- which I didn't get to do," Blackstone laughs. "But I did get to meet her, and we began drinking wine together."
Like Singh, Blackstone's heroine hosts a weekly program. During each taping of Vintage Attraction, Izzy sits at a round table with three guests, drinking and discussing wine:
The first time I saw Vintage Attraction, shortly after discovering I was getting cable, I was struck. Izzy was answering in medium shot a complex question about how it is white wine can be made from red grapes, and somehow it felt like she was talking directly to me. Absurd as it was to think, I was suddenly overtaken by the notion that she and I could know each other. I didn't know how. I didn't know why. It just seemed possible. She was a conceptualist just like I was, but her ideas were more than just fancies, bound to the province of dreams. She was taking it somewhere, doing something with what she dreamt. Isabelle Conway wasn't just pouring wine into people's glasses. She poured wine into consciousness, into the world.
Soon after, Hapworth emails Izzy and she replies with an invitation to an event she's hosting at the Metropolitan Club. When he arrives, Hapworth watches Izzy introduce wines and match them to dishes prepared by a bistro owned by her employer/manager, a corpulent and haughty chef named Dominique.
Hapworth, in a slightly worn blazer, looks out of place among the pinstripe-suited guests. But he succeeds in charming Izzy and not offending Dominique. After the event, they invite him to a meal at Smith & Wollensky's, where Izzy becomes more and more attracted to Hapworth. The two ditch Dominique and find a small wine bar where Hapworth shares his latest restaurant concept:
"Picture a tiny space," I told Izzy. "Like a New York bar, something you'd find in the East Village, but really concealed, hidden to keep the tourists away. Maybe like only ten tables, mostly for two people, and a bar, but with only four or five seats. And all the tables have little tea-light candles, nothing bright anywhere, everything soft..."
"Romantic," she finished. "That sounds like a perfect place for wine."
"Yeah," I said. "I actually came up with this one tonight, during the tasting. When you talked about the Zinfandel and the lava cake."
"Dimly lit, people sitting close to each other," she prompted. "What kind of food?"
"It's a dessert place. Little pastries, petit fours, macaroons, and hazelnut tarts."
"And port," she added. "Do you have a name for it?"
I beamed. "That's pretty much how I always start." Remembering the instant it came to me, a moment in which I was gazing up at Izzy's electric performance, swirling my glass of Zinfandel offhandedly, almost finally, nearly, maneuvering with precision, brought a similar pulse. Her rapt eyes and mouth further swelled my heart. The captivated attention she paid made me feel as though she were one of the audience and I the one mesmerizing the room. "The naming is the best part," I was able to tell her in a steady voice.
"So, what is it called? The suspense is killing me."
In. Like. Flynn. Unfortunately, the irony of the dreamed-up name becomes apparent after their whirlwind courtship. The two marry and buy a loft condo in the Pilsen neighborhood, and then the former lovers reappear. Pacer Rosengrant, a disgruntled hipster-intellectual, contacts Izzy ostensibly for coaching as he prepares for the Master of Wine exam. Hapworth's ex-girlfriend, a former student named Talia, exerts her influence as well. Each interloper re-ignites old flames, and the nascent marriage fractures. As Hapworth and Izzy grow further apart, they seize upon an unexpected invitation to a wine and food event in Greece, which becomes the make-or-break moment for them.
In the novel, wine becomes a symbol for discovering and rekindling love. The author admits, however, that he was slow to appreciate wine. "I began consuming it on a regular basis," Blackstone says, "in large quantities in grad school, at readings." His job as a reading series coordinator involved buying wine for events.
"The purchasing rationale," he says, "was not varietal preference or food pairing or mood pairing, but how big the jug was."
Things changed after he started dating Alpana Singh, but not right away. "I was entirely prepared on our first restaurant date to end up spending a car payment on a bottle in an effort to impress her," he says. "We ended up having dirty martinis that night."
But slowly, wine made its way into their conversations and glasses. Blackstone says Singh taught him the differences between varietals and regions, and that expensive wines aren't always the best:
"Her favorite wines are those from emerging regions that don't end up costing a lot to enjoy on a regular basis at home."
While their marriage ended in 2014, Blackstone dedicates his book to Singh. You'll have to read to the end of Vintage Attraction to see what happens to Hapworth and Izzy.
For her part, Singh told the Chicago Tribune that she recognized many elements in the story, but insisted there was no affair with a "Pacer Rosengrant" character -- which brings us to the second question I posed at the top of this article: How much from a novelist's life should he fictionalize?
At last week's panel discussions, Blackstone said he made up some characters and events to create dramatic tension throughout his story. He also made his protagonist less successful in his academic and literary career to heighten the contrast with Izzy's star power. This blend of fantasy and reality served the novel well; it received positive reviews from the Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, Goodreads and other sites. No doubt, a glass or two of wine also helped with the creative process.
Vintage Attraction is published by Pegasus Books. It's now available in paperback.