C Pam Zhang on Relishing Pleasure, Observing Billionaires, and Writing a Love Story

In Land of Milk and Honey, the novelist conjures a sensuous oasis from her own perilous world.
C Pam Zhang on Relishing Pleasure Observing Billionaires and Writing a Love Story
From Clayton Cubitt.

“That year of the pandemic, and my first book coming out during the pandemic, was one of deep disconnection from a lot of the things that used to be important to me,” C Pam Zhang says over a call late one summer afternoon, “including writing, including eating, and being part of community and just being in my body. Writing this book was a way to get back to a lot of that.”

Land of Milk and Honey (Riverhead), following her Booker Prize–longlisted debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, which hit shelves April 2020, is a sensuous if complicated ode to hedonism. In it, a killing smog has blanketed the earth; strawberries are gone, then nuts and seeds and powdered basil. Life spans are shorter than they have been in three generations, borders are closed, and much of the world subsists on a miraculous mung-protein-soy-algal flour—entirely life-sustaining and utterly joyless.

As she watches her world crumble, a 29-year-old cook with substantial debt and a wobbly UK visa impulsively quits her restaurant job to take a position as private chef to a “research community” on a privately owned mountain on the French-Italian border, the full scale of which she will only gradually come to understand. Her role is to concoct meals delicious enough to woo a handful of potential investors. A complicated task, the chef realizes, when she finds she can no longer stomach the rich ingredients she’s been longing for.

While her billionaire employer is, at least initially, a shadowy presence—a sharky black eye peering out of a reversing car—his passionate and mercurial daughter, 20-year-old Aida, blazes into the chef’s consciousness full force, “shaggy furs above, stick legs below, with the slight stagger of a bird blown off course and stranded thousands of miles from its destination.” Her posh accent cloaks crude zingers. “He would eat a pig’s asshole if you called it calamari,” she says of her father. It’s through Aida that the chef rediscovers her palate for pleasure, but their relationship isn’t without barbs and mysteries: The chef’s mother was Chinese, her father Korean American, and, “hungry for connection,” she asks half-Asian Aida, “Your mother, what was she?” only to be rebuffed, “Who the fuck are you to pry?”

The book arrived to Zhang chronologically, beginning with a prologue in which the chef appears as an older woman revisiting a pivotal year. The first line of the prologue: “One day, after my life is already over, a girl comes up to me at the back of the auditorium and says, Are you the famous chef from Miele?” Throughout 2020, Zhang found herself largely unable to read fiction, turning instead to biographies of women artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Angela Carter. “Creatively, I became really interested in writing something that was able to look back,” she says. “I think I needed to write to remind myself that it was possible to live through what felt like an apocalypse and make meaning of it.” There was one exception to the novel rule: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which “also starts with that framed narrative of an older woman looking back at a moment in her life, that despite the many decades that have passed, remains incredibly vital and visceral.”

“Because eating out was still deeply constrained,” Zhang says of her time writing the novel, “it was kind of an elegy, a way to experience food and the senses through the page when I couldn't access them in my body. I think that whenever we access something that we loved, or love through a memory, there’s this extra layer of emotional intensity embedded in it because we know that it is lost.”

I’m reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s 1959 introduction to his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited (which Zhang notes in her Acknowledgements alongside such entries as eggplant cookies eaten in Bangkok and the authors R.O. Kwon and Raven Leilani) in which he describes writing his novel during “the bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster—the period of soya beans and Basic English—and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past…”

Here, in conversation with Vanity Fair, Zhang discusses favorite recent meals, the parallels between cooking and writing, and the dire importance of pleasure.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Are you also a cook yourself?

I cook sometimes, but I definitely would never want to do it regularly or professionally, because I think that would take a lot of what the joy of it is for me, which is spontaneity. Cooking for me can be an act of pure creative expression. It's opening the fridge, seeing whatever it is—I don't work off recipes—and feeling whatever I'm in the mood for and tasting something and wondering what I should add next based on whatever I've been craving that day, how hot it is, what I've eaten in the last couple of days. I think that it is a reminder that that's kind of what writing feels like, at its best.

To me, a project becomes dead once I know exactly what I'm writing for. It needs to feel expansive, and it could surprise me. I think that cooking is that way, too. I'm not one for replicating.

Do you feel that you find things out as you write?

My writing process was very much an editing process. The first draft of this book probably took maybe four weeks, but I've gone through at least 17 or 18 drafts. I think that first draft is just to get a lot of emotions and urgency and images, like key images on the page. But I don't really know what the connective tissue is. I don't really know what I'm writing about until I've put it on the page. And so I do think that in first drafts a lot of concepts, perhaps, were overly simplified.

Here's an example. I suppose in many ways the villain of the novel, this billionaire employer; in the first couple of drafts, he was a much flatter character. And I think that was because I was working off tropes and preconceived notions. I thought I knew him in a simple way. And as I went through subsequent drafts, I realized that it was actually much more interesting and creatively fulfilling to look at him through all these different angles and explore the way that power, it is power, but it is also something that's isolating. Which is also, thematically, something that we were all thinking about during the pandemic: what isolation, what feeling like you're in a bubble, even if it's a bubble of your own creation, can do to a person's psyche. And so that character continued to surprise me through the drafting process, and I actually had to resist my first bad impulse to write that character in the easiest and most obvious way.

Did filling him out feel uncomfortable to you at all?

I think that when I stepped away from the page, I did sometimes feel uncomfortable, sort of like, "What? Wait, what am I doing here?" I think that part of the project of this book, and of all good writing, is to try to strip away the question of what is moral and what you should be doing, because that dead-ends a creative thing. When I'm writing fiction, what I try to achieve is this sense of looking at things with as much transparency as possible. As humans in the world, we obviously have our own moral codes. We have judgments of other people. It's not really useful for fiction to do that.

A few instances of meat-eating in the book hit me in a gut level way. You do eat meat, right?

I'm a happy carnivore.

Despite that, there do seem to be these moments of discomfort and then examining discomfort around eating meat. At one point the chef recalls her mother talking about being starved, and having to eat a pet dog. How were you thinking about the ethics and morality of being the apex predators that we are?

I don't know that it's possible in our messy world to completely have a clear code of ethics and morality when it comes to eating meat. I think part of having the power of being an apex predator in a world which, especially when we don't have to kill the meat we eat with our own hands, is dwelling with that, in that way. I think that's one of the costs of eating meat—much as potential high blood pressure could be one of the costs of eating red meat.

One of the things I was interested in exploring through this book is that below all the intellectual questions of morality, what is that base instinct that is perhaps survival, or perhaps even just a curiosity about the world? One of the ways I explored that was through animals in the book. We have the human characters, and we have animals. We have animals that are pets, and animals that are working animals, and animals that are zoo animals, and animals that are food animals. I was interested in, one, exploring how easily these distinctions can change, and how arbitrary they can be, which serves as a foil to the arbitrariness of human distinctions of what is food and what is not.

I'm also interested in how the narrator, living with these various sorts of animals, sometimes is able to encounter the animals and their motives in a way that is stripped of the question of whether they're good or bad. They simply are. Appetites sometimes simply are. I'm going to try to do this without spoiling it, but there is the scene in the second half of the book in which the narrator, who is taking care of this very sick cat that belonged to her mother, has this moment in which she offers the cat something that she herself would not eat, and realizing that she can't take her own moral codes and put them on this animal. And so it's this interesting moment in which an act of cruelty or violence maybe becomes an act of generosity. I don't know what the answer to that is.

Maybe there is no answer, and that's why you’ve written a novel and not a manifesto.

I do think that in my personal life, the one thing I'm interested in as a carnivore is not looking away from the fact that what we are eating was a living animal. I think that I respect carnivores, I respect vegetarians, I respect vegans. But what sometimes gets my back up is the—often American or Western—carnivore who eats meat, but is squeamish about the fact that it comes from an animal, is grossed out by dealing with bones or feathers. And I'm like, "Well, then why do you eat meat?"

What were you filling your days with when you weren’t able to read fiction or write?

I was doing a lot of grassroots political action work, like text banks. I was doing a lot of COVID donations, support for the Black Lives Matter protests that arose after George Floyd. Man, that was a year that was just packed full of terrible events that were really important to spend our time on.

But I think I grew to realize I was also deeply depressed in that year. Toggling between those really, really, really important causes and my own mental health made me realize that we need to take pleasure seriously if we intend to survive. Because the pandemic was actually kind of a watershed moment in that way.

I think that I, as is true for many women, sort of grew up with this idea of taking care of other people, putting their needs above my own, and sort of seeing many of my own desires as shameful or frivolous or something that I needed to kind of master. But the pandemic made it clear to me, and I think to many of us, that essentials are not enough. Food and shelter alone, not enough. And so survival as a society, as a species, isn't a very, very, very long game. And so while food and shelter obviously are needed to take us from one day to the next or one week to the next, it is this pleasure seeking impulse, this impulse to find meaning in other things like beauty and art that nourish us in a different way, that kind of gives us that fuel to bring back to our other important work.

In the book there is so much sensual desire in all forms, but there's this really central love story between the chef and Aida, the daughter of the billionaire. Where did that relationship come from?

That relationship partly came from this interest in challenging myself to write a love story. It wasn't something I had done and it didn't feel like something I was good at when I began the book. I think it also did come, too, from this change in who I am as a person, and who I am as an artist. My first novel, which I'm very proud of in many ways, was a reflection of a lifetime work of thinking, not writing itself. A lot of those heavy themes that I sat with for a lot of my lifetime were themes of immigration and trauma, and this question of where did I belong; if I belonged at all? That novel ended on a girl who was finally asking, for the first time in her life, what does she want?

But I'm no longer that person. Land of Milk and Honey in many ways begins with the question of what the main character wants. It takes her desires extremely seriously, takes them rigorously on a writing level. And so I think that with that question, it felt very natural for romantic love, for physical love and desire, to become one of the motivating forces of this novel, one of the main sites of exploration for this character to come into her own body, to sort of chip away this idea of, literally, what are the external expectations? How are people seeing her? Because there's this question of role-playing and trying to wade through all that muck of what people see in her to ask the question of what does she want for herself?

Aida was a delight to write because she was a woman who, as much as possible, does not care what other people think. She sort of moves forward with this purity of purpose. You can question, you can sit back later and judge how good or bad her purposes are, but she has this clarity that I was really interested in.

I really have felt for anyone who had a book that came out in those first months of the pandemic, and then there’s an added level to that when it's your first novel. How did that feel? And how are you feeling going into the publication of this book?

To be honest, I think that the experience of having my first book come out in the pandemic was frankly a bit traumatic. For many writers, writing begins as this very private solace. It's the one thing in the world that you can turn back to that is always there for you. And then when you publish, it becomes this public thing. And usually when you trade the private for the public, you get a lot back in return. You get the sense of physically being in community: in a bookstore, talking to readers, feeling this exchange of emotions and ideas. But because of the pandemic and digital events, I did not get that back. It really felt like I had lost my faith in writing and this one thing that had sustained me for my whole life.

Writing the second book about joy and, at its heart, about an artist—in this case, a chef—who loses faith in her art and has to deal with that grief and find her way back to her love and her passion through the experiences of her body, through this terrible and wonderful kind of individual well of feeling—that was something of what it felt like to write the second book.

Once I was able to tap into that, I really delighted in writing a novel that felt radically different from the first one. I've always been terribly afraid of stagnation as a writer, and as a person. And I think there is always this risk when you come out with a first book of having it pigeonhole you. This book was truly a lifeline for me, and I'm just so excited and I think curious about its reception in the world. I'm looking forward to it.

You had a fellowship at the Cullman Center in Manhattan. Were you working on a new novel?

I just finished there. I'm working on a new project. It is, again, very different. I have no idea where it's going. I literally don't even know how long it's going to be. So we'll see.

Where are you based now?

I live in Brooklyn now. I was in California for many years. I wrote the book when I was living in Washington State during the pandemic, a very strange pocket year of my life, which contributed to these feelings of isolation, I think, that kind of opened up the book for me.

And maybe the fog, too? Did misty Washington state contribute?

Oh my God, yeah. Well, misty Washington state, but also it was the first year that I experienced what I once called the California wildfires, beyond California. The wildfires were huge in the Pacific Northwest that year.

The other sort of curious fact of my life that became a seed for this book was that I was living in this very particular, extremely wealthy suburb outside of Seattle. My partner and I ended up in this ramshackle, rundown one bedroom house that was the second house on our very wealthy landowner's property. He lived in this small town that was also home to, at the time, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. It was this other extremity of isolation where I would be walking my dog around the neighborhood and never met a single of my neighbors. Everyone is living on these giant compounds behind hedges that block all view from the road. It was deeply eerie because it was a place that also had no community center, truly no Main Street. The pandemic made it more extreme, but truly these were people who have their own chefs, their own basketball courts, their own swimming pools. And it really got me thinking, what does community mean beyond a group of people? And how can wealth and privilege be incredibly isolating and sad in addition to instilling all these benefits?

Did that contribute to your move to Brooklyn, which feels so community based?

Yes, I was like, "Get me into a sweaty city." Now we're at the peak of Brooklyn, New York summer. I love that feeling of walking out on the street and everyone is sweating and no one is protected from it. Every single person is feeling the same to some degree, and I love that.

There is no air conditioning on the streets of Brooklyn, no matter how much money you have.

Yeah, it's the great equalizer.

A few food-centric TV shows and movies seem to have come out of the pandemic—The Bear, The Menu. Have you engaged with any of those?

I haven't watched them yet, but I am a life-long watcher of Top Chef, which definitely has its deep roots in this book. I watched so much Top Chef during the pandemic. I actually began watching it a long time beforehand, in college—before I was able to experience fine dining, I experienced it through watching Top Chef while eating my shitty takeout dining hall food.

What better form of escapism, really? To end, have you had any really great meals recently?

A recent great meal I had was at Dame, which is actually, funnily enough, a British seafood restaurant in Manhattan. They do everything beautifully and artfully and seasonally. Another was just two pounds of cherries that I demolished from the farmer's market. A Laotian salad of green and ripe strawberries at Smoking Goat in Shoreditch, a restaurant recommended by the multi-talented writer, photographer, and eater Caleb Azumah Nelson. And broiled tomatoes plus a ham and cheese scone at Little Egg, recently opened by chef Evan Hanczor in Brooklyn. For anyone who grew up on insipid industrial flour, this kind of baking is a revelation. Tanya Bush uses a mix of hard red and soft white wheat that is milled locally, so that the crumb is nutty, rambunctious, and utterly worth a mild case of gluten poisoning to my intolerant self.