Traverse City National Writers Series: Eric Olsen with Michael Paterniti

The Traverse City National Writers Series invited Eric Olsen, marketing communications specialist at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan—where Michael Paterniti first learned of the Spanish Paramo di Guzman cheese that would become the subject of his book The Telling Room—to ask Paterniti a few questions. Paterniti will make a National Writers Series appearance at the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City on Friday, Sept 27 to discuss The Telling Room, the infamous Paramo di Guzman cheese, and more in a conversation with guest host Doug Stanton.

Q.  You attended the MFA program at the University of Michigan where you studied with Nick DelBanco and Charles Baxter. How did they influence your writing.

A.  Nick and Charlie are two of the most generous writers, and teachers, in the world—and I would literally be nowhere without them. It’s hard to express the gratitude I feel for both of them. It was Nick who plucked me out of a writer’s conference more than two decades ago, and asked me to apply to Michigan. I was a shaggy 23 year old, very much raw material, and didn’t have money to afford grad school. Like the guardian angel he is, Nick made sure I had a fellowship to come, and greeted me with open arms. In Ann Arbor, both he and Charlie treated all of us as if we were writers already, though we had so far to go. They always made time for us, met for coffee, invited us to dinners with visiting writers at their houses. It was the first feeling I’d ever had of belonging to a community of writers, and it was thrilling. Charlie’s also been a wonderful friend, and huge booster, and helped me get my first job after the program, as an editor at a fiction journal. I’m happy to say I’m having dinner with Nick tonight actually, and I get to visit with Charlie often, too. Both still influence my writing, by modeling this amazing perseverance and hard work, and making these books that just keep getting better. Unlike, say, the career trajectory of a professional athlete, they prove that time can be very kind to writers, and their work. They give me a lot of hope.

Q.  Your book begins with your work editing the newsletter at Zingerman's Deli and Ari Weinzweig's essay about the Spanish Paramo di Guzman cheese (alas, no longer available). What was it about the essay that held your attention for so long?

A.  I’d call that four-paragraph entry a pointillistic masterpiece! Ari can write, and in this case, he provided just enough detail to whet my appetite, both as a storyteller and a lover of cheese. I remember he said that the cheese came from a little village in the desolate highlands of Castile, had been made from an old family recipe, and that it was aged for a year in the family cave. I remember he said the cheesemaker’s name was “Ambrosio” (impossible!), and that his cheese, Parámo de Guzmán, was “rich, dense, intense.” It was the most expensive cheese the deli had ever sold up until that point, and Ari had written that it made him nervous to put it out on the counter. All of this made me think it felt like the beginning of a fairytale.

Q.  Have you ever tasted the Paramo di Guzman?

A.  Well, that became my quest all those years ago at Zingerman’s, to go to Spain and eat this particular cheese in the cheesemaker’s village. When I got there nine years later, a tragedy had befallen this Ambrosio: He’d had his cheese stolen from him. And he was plotting to kill the thief. All that remained of the original Parámo de Guzmán was one tin, left deep in his family cave. And yes—in one of the climatic moments of the book, after twelve years of waiting, I do get to try it. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be the same again!

Q.  As you became more well-known as a journalist, the story of the cheese stayed with you, literally, in the form of a clipping from the original Zingerman's newsletter. Did you ever envision this story as something you'd write an entire book about?

A. Um… no! I had that clipping from 1991, which is twenty-two years ago. In retrospect, it makes a certain backwards sense, that my young self, or the nascent writer in me, would carry around the outline of a fairytale in my wallet until visiting the little village to see if it was true. And, then, once having visited, I returned again and again, even moving my family there for awhile, to try to make sense of it all. That’s where the book part came in: I often need to write things down in order to make sense of them. And that’s what I did!

Q.  How did your family react when you told them you were going to Spain to write a book about a cheese?

A.  Wow, at first, not many people thought that was such a great idea. But it was always about so much more than cheese to me so that once I could explain a little, once I showed them what the cheese meant to Ambrosio, how it was symbolic of an old, pure way of life lost to us now, how he’d come to believe that this cheese was magical, they began to understand. And then once my wife, and even my mother, visited little Guzmán, they fell as in love with it as I was.

Q.  How did Ambrosio and the locals view your project? Were they willing to talk with you?

A.  I like that, “my project.” It suggests the CIA backed this one. As it turned out my project was ever shifting, because I fell deeply under the sway of life there, too. On the one hand, I felt as if I was trying out to be the 81st citizen of 80-person Guzmán, drinking wine, joining people in the telling rooms, the caves where they gathered to eat, drink, and tell their stories; and on the other, I was trying to get to the bottom of this cheese business, which was a pretty tangled tale. The people of Guzmán are a very friendly lot. There weren’t many in the end who wouldn’t talk to me because I was fascinated by their lives, and I think they picked that up right away. I had nothing but awe for them. To live in such a rugged place with such optimism seemed momentous.

Q.  We've been talking for years now about the American diet, how our food is handled, and where it comes from. All of this has become part of a larger discussion about how we eat. Is this relevant for Ambrosio and his neighbors?  Are they having a similar discussion in Spain?

A.  The discussion between Ambrosio and his majos is about keeping the old tastes and traditions alive. They’re eating deep-fried sheep ears and pig lips. But they’re also eating lamb that has grazed on the land here, that’s been raised lovingly, as they would have it. They’re eating eggs that were just laid, picking lettuce from their garden, and drinking wine from their vineyards. They’re the original locavores. They live very hard in this place, and eat with passion, but the key for them is that the food be authentic, if it isn’t always healthy.

Q.  You’ve created a great nonprofit in Portland Maine called the Telling Room. Can you share with folks what it’s about?

A.  We’re coming up on our tenth year anniversary, and it’s just been amazing to be a part of this organization that has about 200 volunteers, and serves roughly 2,500 kids a year. Among other things, we offer writing and storytelling workshops, in all genres and media. And we work with wonderfully diverse storytellers, who constantly blow our minds. When my wife and I came back from living in Spain in 2003, we decided we wanted to try to make a telling room in Portland, to mimic Ambrosio’s in Guzmán, a space where people could tell their stories and secrets and dreams. That’s where we began, and today it’s grown into this wonderful nexus in our community. And I’m always awed and inspired by how courageous the kids are, what natural storytellers we all are if given some guidance and an audience. We’re at tellingroom.org, for anyone who might want to know more. I can say, though, that it’s been one of the best things in my life.

The Michael Paterniti Traverse City National Writers Series event begins at 7:00 p.m., with doors opening at 6:00 p.m. For ticket pricing and information, visit cityoperahouse.org.

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