When author Stephan Eirik Clark read Fast Food Nation in 2001, he didn't know it would inspire him to write a fictional account of the food industry.
"Flavorings were like gravity or electricity — something that was all around me but that I had never paid any attention to," Clark tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And as soon as I read that book and its chapter on food product design, I started to ask myself, 'How important are these to the foods?' I started to question if I was really eating food or just the idea of food."
Clark started asking himself all sorts of questions that led him to write his novel Sweetness #9.
"With these molecules, you can make something taste like grass or roasted chicken, and what is it covering up? What is it supporting? What is it enhancing?" Clark says. "All of these questions and philosophical ideas that sprang out of this simple industry just went off — and I found myself deep into a novel."
Sweetness #9 takes a satirical look at over two decades of food wars, family life and American culture.
The main character, David Leveraux, is a flavor chemist who starts his career in 1973 at a company whose new product is an artificial sweetener called Sweetness #9.
His job is to test the product on lab rats and monkeys and monitor the health effects. He reports a lot of side effects that are covered up by the company.
Sweetness #9 soon becomes the artificial sweetener used in diet drinks, and many other foods, and is also marketed in little packets for use in coffee and tea. When Leveraux sees Americans overcome by the symptoms he found in the lab animals — like obesity, rage, depression — he feels personally responsible for not having blown the whistle on the manufacturer.
"It's not an anti-flavorings novel," Clark says. "It does, I hope, look at it in a way that includes the complications and the contradictions and the good and the bad."
On his main character
I read a lot of books about heroes or people who are very right-minded, and I didn't want to write a book that was going to be looking at what is right with food, where somebody was righteously talking about, "This is what food should be." I wanted somebody who, like most of us, puts his faith in the American food system and slowly begins to question it.
He's in the middle of the industry. He's making these flavorings, and he hasn't paid much attention to it until things start to happen to his family and his wife and his child. And he has to start to question, "What am I doing and what are we eating?" If he was somebody who was more heroic, who knew the answers from the start, he wouldn't have had any change to go through.
On a new kind of family drama
I wanted to write a family drama, but I didn't want to write the same old family drama that we've all seen. So I wanted to first set it in the world of food because it allowed me to use a new vocabulary, a new language and a new metaphor system to talk about family dysfunction. And then I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before, so the son speaks without verbs. That was a great challenge for a writer — how do I write somebody who can't use any verbs? That was fun.
On alluding to Lolita in the footnote with the line, "You can always count on a flavorist for a fancy prose style." (The Lolita quote is: "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.")
Nabokov is perhaps my favorite writer, Lolita perhaps my favorite novel. It too is a memoir told by somebody who is looking back on what he's done. [Protagonist] David later on does question whether or not he is a murderer, if not a literal one than a metaphorical one. He's been responsible for helping launch this sweetener into the American food system, and he doesn't know if it has caused untold number of problems — perhaps causing anxiety, apathy, obesity; perhaps causing some things that have led to premature deaths. So he feels a little bit like a murderer — and I think that's a literary way to first allude to that early in the novel.
But also, at the same time, a flavorist is someone who is very much interested in artistry, so he wouldn't have a plain, unadorned prose style. ... It's a very creative field with all of these notes, like a musician would have notes — a little bit of vanilla, a little bit of butterscotch, put a little dark chocolate note in there, and the arrangements of these flavors is what creates these subtleties of something that's good rather than just something that is a bald and unappetizing flavor.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In introducing my guest, I have to mention the Colbert bump because my guest recently got it. As you may know, the publishing company Hachette has been in bitter negotiations with Amazon over Amazon's pricing of e-books. Amazon retaliated by delaying delivery of Hachette books and not making new Hachette books available for preorder. Colbert is published by Hachette and objects to what he describes as, Amazon's unilateral embargo against the publisher, which is especially harmful to first-time authors. To fight back, he asked his viewers, the Colbert Nation, to use an independent bookseller to preorder the Hachett book "California," Edan Lepucki's debut novel. After turning her book into an instant best-seller, Colbert asked Lepucki to choose another first-time author about to be published by Hachett and give that book the Colbert bump.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")
STEPHEN COLBERT: OK, is there another Hachett author that you'd like to bump here tonight to tell the good people out there maybe they should take a look at?
EDAN LEPUCKI: Yeah. I'm reading Stephan Eirik Clark's book, "Sweetness #9," which is so good.
COLBERT: Is this a new author?
LEPUCKI: It's a debut novel.
COLBERT: Debut novel called "Sweetness #9" by Stephan...
LEPUCKI: Eirik Clark.
COLBERT: ...Stephan Eirik Clark. Stephan, I'm going to need to ask you to pick two of those three names. You're being greedy. Let's call it just Stephan Clark - we'll call him Stephan Clark, "Sweetness #9." If you're looking for another book to bump, that would be the one.
GROSS: So even before "Sweetness #9" got the Colbert bump, we had booked its author, Stephan Eirik Clark, on our show. And now he is my guest. The book will be published tomorrow. The main character is a flavor chemist who starts his career in 1973 at a flavor company who's new product is an artificial sweetener called Sweetness #9. His job is to test the product on lab rats and monkeys and monitor the health effects. He reports a lot of side effects that are covered up by the company.
Sweetness #9 soon becomes the artificial sweetener used in diet drinks and many other foods and is also marketed in little packets for use in coffee and tea. When he sees Americans overcome by the symptoms he found in the lab animals, like obesity, rage and depression, he feels personally responsible for not having blown the whistle on the manufacturer.
The novel takes a satirical look at over two decades of food wars, family life and American culture.
Stephan Eirik Clark, welcome to FRESH AIR.
So let's start with a reading from "Sweetness #9." And this is toward the beginning when he becomes - when your main character becomes a flavorist-in-training at a flavor laboratory. And he's told he'll be working on testing a new artificial sweetener, testing that on rats and monkeys. So he sees himself as a flavor artist and not so much as a tester, but he's happy to be at this flavor house. So how about the reading?
STEPHAN EIRIK CLARK: (Reading) And how couldn't I be so thrilled? It was a wonderful time to embark upon a career in the flavor sciences, a golden age, I can't help but think now. Just consider, in the 19th century the industry existed solely for the benefit of the baker, confectioner and soda maker, but following the end of the second world war, the profession experienced a great westward expansion as a result of the TV dinner; a Louisiana Purchase that was drawn in the shape of a four compartment aluminum tray. This was added to in short time by the launch of the first domestic microwave; a Sputnik-like event that caused young men such as myself to heed the call of the nation's top food science programs. I was now on the other side of my Master of Science degree and being asked to start in animal testing. But this was in no way unexpected. Animal testing at Goldstein, Olivetti and Dark was like the mailroom at the old William Morris talent agency - even those recruited out of the Ivy League started here.
GROSS: So this is, obviously, like a calling for him in the golden age of the flavoring industry. Why did you choose the flavoring industry as the setting for the novel?
CLARK: Well, I lived my whole life eating these flavorings, and I'd never really stopped to consider the importance of them until reading "Fast Food Nation" in 2001. Flavorings were like gravity or electricity - something that was all around me but that I had never paid any attention to. And as soon as I read that book and its chapter on food product design, I started to ask myself, you know, how important are these to the foods? And I started to question if I was really eating food or just the idea of food because with these molecules, you know, you can make something tastes like grass or roasted chicken - and what is it covering up? What is it supporting? What is it enhancing? All these questions and philosophical ideas that sprung out of the simple industry just went off, and I found myself deep into a novel.
GROSS: Was the '70s a golden age for this like you say in the novel?
CLARK: I think so. It wasn't really until the last 10 years that we started to talk about food and what goes in it. In 1998, when the novel starts, organic didn't have a definition and farmers markets haven't taken off. In the novel, I talk about there being sort of a great awakening in the nation's food consciousness to sort of rival the religious awakenings that we have in our country every now and then. It seems like in the late-'90s this is what was happening and it's continuing to happen today. So in the '70s when Tang was still king, we were just eating and we weren't really questioning.
GROSS: And for anybody who doesn't remember - Tang was a powdered orange drink that was artificially flavored and sweetened.
GROSS: Is that a fair description?
CLARK: That went to space I think.
GROSS: It went into space - exactly. Or at least that's what we were told. (Laughter).
GROSS: It was made for the astronauts. So you've also made your main character someone who, in the 1970s, saw himself as part of the silent majority - or Spiro Agnew describes silent major it that was very conservative. He was afraid the communists were going to take over if we weren't vigilant. He supported the war in Vietnam. He remained a virgin into grad school. Why did you make him a conservative member of the silent majority?
CLARK: Well, I read a lot of books about heroes or, you know, people who - I mean - who are very bright-minded. And didn't want to write a book that was going to be looking at what is right with food where somebody was righteously talking about this is what food should be. And I wanted somebody who, like most of us, puts his faith in the American food system and slowly begins to question it. He's in the middle of the industry. He's making these flavorings, and he hasn't paid much attention to it until things start to happen to his family and his wife and his child. And he has to start to question what am I doing? And what are we eating? If he was somebody who was more heroic who knew the answers from the start, he wouldn't have had any change to go through, and I don't think that I would have wanted to sit through a book, listening to him sort of tell me what I should know. I'm more interested in people who are full of contradictions and questions and have to struggle to arrive at something.
GROSS: Sweetness #9, the artificial sweetener that he has to test on lab rats and monkeys in the beginning of the book is like changing for him because he sees the side effects that it's causing in these lab animals. What was the place of sweeteners in the '70s when this part of the book takes place? We had saccharin. Did we have Sweet'N Low yet?
CLARK: No, this is taking place at a time when we only had saccharine. And the FDA had started to question it in the early-'60s. There had been some studies linking it to cancer in lab rats, and the only reason it wasn't taken off the mark was that it was the only thing on the market which sounds kind of crazy. But a number of industries were trying to outdo that and create a new substitute sweetener that could then take over the marketplace, and this is what the book's about. It's about one of these companies with Sweetness #9 being the second into the market.
GROSS: And, in terms of the testing, nothing seems to matter except do the lab rats get cancer? And they don't get cancer, but they do get obese and angry, like, mood disorders - all kinds of bad things are happening to them. Do you think that that's the way it was then or still is now that the issue is cancer or not - that that's what's being measured and only that?
CLARK: Yeah, when I started researching this subject, I went to a flavor lab in California where I was living at the time. And I spoke to the chief flavorist there, and I said, you know, there's a rise in autism, ADHD, attention deficit disorder - all of these other things - depression, anxiety - what's going on in American culture? Is it possible that the food that we're eating could be causing this? I wanted that question answered. And he said well, you know, we don't test for any of that. I'm not sure we could test for that, and it would, certainly, be very expensive if we did. We primarily look for cancer. That's what the FDA asks. There are rules saying that if anything causes cancer in man or animal, it can't be entered into the food stream. So that's the focus of all of these clinical studies.
GROSS: So your main character, when he realizes all the problems that Sweetness #9 is having in the lab animals - he protests within the company, but he doesn't become a whistleblower outside for reasons I'll let leaders discover on their own. But he starts feeling guilty for everything - for his wife's obesity - for obesity in America - for his son's unusual language disorder - for his daughter's obsession with organic food - for his own early problems with fertility. And I have to read this sentence about this. It's a great sentence. (Reading) He writes, his sperm was described as sluggish and listless - everything but alcoholic and unemployed. (Laughter) Anyways - great sentence. So did you go through a period writing this as a father when you were just worried that every problem that your child had was something that you had caused?
CLARK: Well, I don't know about causing the problems, but you do think more about what you're feeding your family whenever you are a father. It's one thing to eat microwavable dinners as I did as a single man. But whenever I've got two young boys, you stop and question, what am I putting into their bloodstreams? What's going into their brains. And does this have any influence on them, and, you know, it's very difficult to say because, again, we don't test for this stuff. And we don't test for the effects of a single product. And we, certainly, don't test for the effects of hundreds and hundreds of products and the consequences of them over a lifetime of use. So we're left with these questions. You know - why is this happening? Or why do they act this way or feel this way? And you want to know an answer. So a lot of people look to food. And we have to ask ourselves, you know, does it have anything to do with it? I don't know that we can provide an answer, but we have that question. That anxiety is really at the center of the book.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephan Eirik Clark. He's the author of the new novel "Sweetness #9." And you may have heard about the Colbert bump before it was published. Let's take a short break. Then, we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephan Eirik Clark. He's the author of the new novel "Sweetness #9," which is the book that recently got the Colbert Bump. And it's about a flavorist - somebody who designs artificial flavors for food. And it spans from 1972 to the late 1990s. You've created an unusual disorder for the main character's son, which is that he stops using verbs. How did you come up with that?
CLARK: I guess I wanted to write a family drama but I didn't want to write the same old family drama that we've all seen. And so I wanted to first set it in the world of food because it allowed me to use a new vocabulary and language and a new metaphor system to talk about family dysfunction. And then I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before. So the son speaks without verbs. That was a great challenge for a writer, you know. How do I write somebody who can't use any verbs? So that was fun.
GROSS: Is there a section you could read that illustrates how the son speaks without verbs?
CLARK: Sure. David has just learned from the mother of one of his son's friends that his son might not be using verbs. And it comes as a great surprise to him because he's never noticed this. So he's now driving with his family to McDonald's and he's going to try to draw a verb out of his son much like a policeman might draw a confession out of a bad guy.
(Reading) As I sped toward McDonald's, I remembered the dreams I'd had as a young man before my stint at Greystone Park (ph) had put an end to such thinking. Back then when not imagining a future in flavor, I'd often considered working for the CIA. I'd thought I could be the type of agent who can get the truth out of someone after only a few minutes in a closed room. So here I put those dreams into action. Some weather we're having, isn't it, I said. I looked for Ernest in the rearview mirror but he only bit into his corndog and shrugged. Priscilla keeps telling me it's global warming because it is. I sent my daughter a stern look over my shoulder. She had an oversized personality more like that of a president than a political advisor, the exact opposite of her brother, who played Atwater to Priscilla's Reagan, content never to take the center stage. Understanding my purpose now, Priscilla nodded and sank back into her seat. It's certainly unusually warm, I continued. It's not even August yet and already we've had seven days this summer over 90. What do you think, E? He turned his corndog round on its stick. He was eating the dough off first. Heat wave, he said. Betty sighed. I gave her a reassuring nod. Yes, a heat wave - what've we had, two days in a row at or above 94? And tomorrow it's only going to get hotter they say - 99. No, that high? What makes you say that? The computer. When I looked this morning, my homepage said to expect a high of 95. Ernest looked for me in the mirror. The temperature reading - 95 - he gestured with his corndog. But it feels like 97. I smiled at my wife -feels like. But she was quicker with grammar than I was and had already determined the phrase had been used as an adjective to modify the reading of which he spoke. As she turned to look out her window, I pushed my foot down on the gas. How do they even know what it feels like? Ernest was biting into the meat of his corndog now. Computers, inputs, variables - all very complex. But how does a computer determine a feeling? Can you tell me that? Logarithms, statistics - his voice betrayed his loss of interest. He looked around for a place to dispose of his now meatless stick - et cetera, et cetera. Well - I let out a long breath - all these years I thought I was leaving you a better world, but now it seems I may have been wrong. Computers that feel - you want my advice? Don't go West. Go back. I'm not sure where we went wrong, but it has to be back there somewhere. Do you hear me?
GROSS: Well, I have to say the way he's speaking without verbs it just sounds like your average sullen teenager (laughter) who speaks in really short sentences. You don't really want to have a long conversation with their parents and is just kind of grudgingly giving answers.
CLARK: Yeah, that's really what I was going for because David is questioning whether or not his family's acting the way it is because of Sweetness #9 poisoning - you know, this overload of chemicals - or if it's just the American condition. And yeah, the sullen teenager - is there something wrong with them or is that how that teenager is acting? Is it something in American culture that makes him act that way? And so I very much wanted Ernest to be straddling that line.
GROSS: Let's talk about vanilla. One of the companies that your flavorist works for in the novel has a flavor that's called No Nilla and they're working on improving it. And we're told in the novel that there's only enough vanilla beans in this world to satisfy a country the size of Germany. And here we are in the vanilla-dependent U.S., where less than 2 percent of the world's beans are grown, but more than three out of every four are consumed. Is that true? I didn't know that.
CLARK: I saw that in my research somewhere along the way. I read a lot of back issues of Food Product Design in the newsletters for the Society of Flavor Chemists. And I picked up that tidbit of information somewhere along the way. So yeah, I think it is true. And it's one of the things to show that there is a valid, you know, reason to use these additives - these flavorings in our food because otherwise, yeah, maybe only the rich or the privileged would then be able to have vanilla flavorings in their food. So it's not an anti-flavorings novel. It does, I hope, look at it in a way that includes the complications and the contradictions and the good and the bad. And this is one of them, you know, the ability to have vanilla flavorings in so many different food products. We might not have that if we were relying only on the natural vanilla bean.
GROSS: You know, it's funny - I happen to love the taste of vanilla. But people are always comparing it negatively to chocolate. And the word vanilla has become a pejorative - like, oh, you're so vanilla or that's so vanilla - meaning bland and unadventurous.
CLARK: And American.
GROSS: Oh, and American? Yeah?
CLARK: Yeah, I think vanilla is a very American flavor. That's one of the reasons I chose it as the center or the specialty for this company. The chief flavorist, the starter - the person who started the company is a German who comes here and his attempts to, you know, please the market is by creating this really great vanilla. And it's also the reason - the global vanilla crisis of 1963 is sort of behind this creation of No Nilla. He knows that America needs vanilla and so he's going to find the thing that allows you to use that flavoring. And even when you only have half of the flavoring in any product, it amplifies that flavoring.
GROSS: The main character in your novel, the flavorist, is so obsessed with flavoring and notating flavor. And, I mean, his world revolves around flavor - its pleasures and consequences. And even a question like when does life really begin, he sees in terms of flavoring (laughter) and taste. So your book actually has footnotes. And one of the footnotes pertains to that question of, you know, when does life begin? So read that footnote for us on page 21.
CLARK: OK. (Reading) In this regard, I'm not quite a fundamentalist. Life, I say - at least any sense of life that rises above the mere biological, begins after conception most likely during the seventh week of pregnancy when a fetus develops taste buds and first senses the sweetness of the amniotic fluid, thereby establishing a flavor preference that will later be reinforced by the equally sweet taste of mother's milk. What is flavor perception if not the first hint of a soul?
GROSS: I love the way even a soul - the question of the soul relates to flavor for him. Did you want him to be obsessive and to have this lens that he sees the whole world through?
CLARK: Yeah, and that was one of the reasons for choosing flavorings. I mean, we've seen novels where somebody's going through a midlife crisis and somebody's got some family troubles. But we haven't had that story told through the prism of food and all of the metaphors that it allows. So it's looking at some familiar subjects, but it's doing it in a new way. It's using new language. And that again is one of the things that excites me as a writer and as a reader. I'm, you know, seeing something new, which is what a novel's supposed to be.
GROSS: Stephan Eirik Clark will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "Sweetness #9." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Stephan Eirik Clark, author of the new novel "Sweetness #9." The main character, David Leveraux, is a flavor scientists whose first job, in 1973, is testing the health effects of a new artificial sweetener called Sweetness #9 on lab rats and monkeys. He finds the animals overcome by rage, depression and obesity. When the company covers up the results he doesn't blow the whistle. Over the years as Sweetness #9 becomes commonly used in diet drinks and other foods and as Americans become prone to obesity and mood disorders, he wonders if there's a direct connection.
About once a week, your main character the flavorist likes to sit down with a food and analyze the flavoring - every note, every tone in the flavor. And he does that with a Manwich. To sort of get a sense of how he approaches taste, I'd like you to read that passage from "Sweetness #9."
CLARK: (Reading) Sold as the Manwich, this heat and serve meal weighed in at a hearty 790 calories. It was comprised of one sausage patty, two eggs, a couple of slices of bacon and a roof of American cheese as orange as a road cone. I was not eating it out of idle curiosity or owing to an extravagant appetite. It was my routine on Mondays to sit down to a long working breakfast. So in addition to my knife and fork, I had a legal pad and a pencil beside my plate along with plans to break down and identify all the components of the flavors I could detect in the Manwich. My meal's failures were apparent to me from the first bite. The bacon needed to be microwaved separately for optimum crispness. The eggs had been misquoted, if you will. And the savory flavorings used to prop up the processed meats and cheese were no more memorable than the propylene glycol that carried them.
GROSS: Did you start approaching food this way, too, so you would know what to write for your character? - like analyzing every taste?
CLARK: I did. But this is also something I'd picked up from my research. I visited a flavor creation lab in New Jersey, and this is one of the things that the flavorist did. He said that, you know, it was very difficult for his wife to enjoy dinner out because he'd always be jotting down the components of the flavoring on a napkin or the placemat. And so this is one of the things that I used to make this character more authentic.
GROSS: "Sweetness #9" is footnoted. And your main character, the flavorist says in one of the footnotes referring to himself, you can always count on a flavorist for a fancy prose style. And that's a paraphrase of a very famous line from Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita" in which he says you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Why did you want to give that line a shout in your novel?
CLARK: Well, there are a lot of shouts in the novel, and that's one of them. Nabokov is, perhaps, my favorite writer - "Lolita," perhaps my favorite novel. It, too, is a memoir told by somebody who is looking back on what he's done, and David, later on, does question whether or not he is a murderer - if not a literal one, then a metaphorical one. He's been responsible for helping launch this sweetener into the American food system. And he doesn't know if it has caused untold number of problems, perhaps causing anxiety, apathy, obesity - perhaps, causing some things that have led to premature deaths. So he feels a little bit like a murderer, and I think that's a literary way to sort of first allude to that early in the novel. But, also at the same time, a flavorist is somebody who is very much interested in artistry. So he wouldn't have a plain, unadorned prose style. Another flavorsist who's described as being able to create great fugues of flavor - it's a very creative field with all of these notes like a musician would have notes - you know, a little bit of vanilla - a little bit of butterscotch - put a little dark chocolate note in there. And the arrangements of these flavors is what creates, you know, these subtleties as something that's good rather than something that's just a bald and unappetizing flavor.
GROSS: So you wrote "Sweetnes #9," your new novel, over the course of about 12 years. Did you ever think, wow, I'm still writing this novel. It's been eight years - it's nine years - it's 10 years - I'm never going to finish it.
CLARK: Yeah, you know, whenever you start a book and you think about books that take 12 or 13 years, you think, oh, God that's probably, you know, a work of genius - somebody spends that long. But you have a completely different relationship to the idea. By the time you get to 6 year, you go, oh, that's not a work of genius. That's a work of madness. Who would spend this long working on something like that? And so by about year-six or seven, you know, writers I knew would be saying, oh, you're still working on that, are you? And you start to really doubt yourself and wonder what you're doing and is it going to be any good and will you ever sell it? And so yeah, it's nothing that I would recommend. I hear a lot of people at readings, you know, say what is your writing process? And I would say, you don't want to listen to mine. I mean, I took 13 years to write this book. But whenever I started it - I had written a novel beforehand, and it hadn't sold. And so maybe there was an element of not wanting to finish it because what's going to happen whenever I do? And so those first couple of years, I wasn't even thinking about trying to finish a book. I was just hanging out with my characters - eavesdropping on them. And I had no idea about where the story was going. And it was only after about the third or fourth year that I started to see a story develop. This Sweetness #9 became more and more important, and I said, OK, now let's get to it.
GROSS: Well, Stephan Eirik Clark, thank you so much for talking with us.
CLARK: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Stephan Eirik Clark is the author of the new novel "Sweetnesw #9." Coming up - some misconceptions about preventing and curing hangovers. We talk with Adam Rogers author of "Proof: the Science of Booze." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.