Monday, August 1, 2011

Author Antony John Interview and Carrot and Coriander Soup

Hello, readers. We’re in for a real treat today, with wit, wisdom, and mouth-watering soup from YA writer Antony John.

Besides being the author of Five Flavors of Dumb, winner of the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award, Antony is eminently qualified to talk about food. For starters, he shares a name with one of the hosts of Food Network Canada! Even better, he had a childhood chockfull of fish and chips and has worked as an ice cream seller and a barista. So, now that you’re convinced, let’s start the interview.

Obviously Pots & Pens readers are big fans of “flavor.” Antony, what inspired your novel Five Flavors of Dumb and what ingredients do you hope make it a tasty treat for readers?
Five Flavors of Dumb actually came from a conversation I had with my wife. I’d always wanted to write a YA novel about rock music, but there are quite a lot of those already, so I knew I had to say something new. She said it would be really cool for me to explore music from a deaf person’s perspective. As soon as she suggested that, the novel took off. I did four months of research into deafness, and then began to write. It was a really fun novel to work on.

As for what makes it a “tasty treat” . . . The “five flavors” in the title refer to the five members of the rock band, Dumb, and I think all of them (plus supporting characters) make the book worth reading. I really tried hard to make the characters three-dimensional in all their dysfunctional glory, and a lot of readers seem to appreciate this. Apart from that, it has some nice romance, plenty of drama, and a seriously cool narrator (even if I do say so myself!).

Your upcoming book is splendidly titled Thou Shalt Not Road Trip. Can you share a bit about this, as well as any thoughts you have about quintessential road trip foods?
Thou Shalt Not Road Trip is the story of sixteen-year-old Luke Dorsey, whose book, Hallelujah, has become a national best-seller. Looking to cash in, his publisher sends him on a cross-country tour with his unpredictable older brother, Matt, as chauffeur. But when Matt offers to drive Luke's ex-crush, Fran, across the country too, things get a little crazy.

I have to say that when it comes to road trip foods, a little research is essential—especially if the road trip is along Route 66 (as it is in Thou Shalt Not Road Trip). There are so many great guides to roadside eateries in America. (Really, there’s no excuse for eating at McDonald’s.) Personally, I think you can’t go wrong with BBQ shacks. They are ubiquitous, and frequently very good. And somehow, every one tastes a little different.

As someone who can see Route 66 from my backyard, I have to second the BBQ nomination and the unholy amount of good food along this road. But road trips not withstanding, as we all know, the best food usually comes from the home. Describe the best cook you know and something wonderful he or she has served you.
My neighbor, Nick Reding—author of the award-winning Methland—is a great cook. He’s also a keen bow-and-arrow hunter, and once a year he’ll snag a deer, and have it, uh . . . butchered. Then he invites me and a couple other neighbors over once a month and serves up another cut. Last month it was venison steaks. The month before that it was venison tenderloin. I’ve heard people complain that venison tastes “gamey.” All I can say to that is: Not if you start with the best parts and have a great chef at your disposal.

Since you’ve already pushed the limits by showing it’s possible to mention meth and cooking in the same answer without illegal activity, let’s stretch a little more. Is there a food you’d love to learn how to cook or a different genre or type of book you’d love to try to write? Why?
I’d love to learn to cook truly authentic Italian food. All my family adores pasta, and it seems to me that food served in the finest Italian restaurants is often incredibly simple—in the sense that there aren’t many ingredients, not in terms of the preparation. I have enormous respect for simple foods that pack a complex flavor. I feel much the same way about books, incidentally. If a simple idea is beautifully executed and moving, I’ll probably curse myself for not writing it first.

A genre I’d love to try? It’s funny, but I already find that as an author I’m retreading the same steps as when I was a composer: I want to try everything. Contemporary YA will always be my favorite, but I’m really enjoying my foray into fantasy with the Elemental trilogy. In fact, I’d love to try sci-fi next. I think switching genres is hard to pull off (both from a writing and marketing perspective), but it forces me to completely rethink my writing, and that’s a very energizing experience.

Speaking of switching topics, let’s say a couple of your characters are raiding your fridge right now: what are they most likely to eat? Are they disappointed or excited about what they find?
They’re disappointed that so much of what’s in there are leftovers, but they’re pretty happy that all of it can be eaten after 30 seconds in the microwave: homemade pizza; pasta with homemade pesto; some homemade mac and cheese. Come to think of it, since I invented all of my characters, they should be pretty chuffed by what’s in the fridge at the moment. I know that I am!

See, I was brought up in a typically British DO NOT WASTE FOOD household, and that’s always stuck with me. I have no qualms about cooking a large dinner and sticking the leftovers in Tupperware for lunch the next day. I figure that it’s better to reheat food that started off good than to eat lousy food just because it’s quick.

Amen to that, Antony. Still, as a stay-at-home dad and writer, time and leftovers are not always on your side. What’s your go-to meal when you need to serve something quick and easy?
The aforementioned pasta with homemade pesto is a perfect example. You get the pasta cooking. Meanwhile, you dash outside to grab a handful of basil, and blend it with grated parmesan, toasted pine nuts, olive oil, and salt and pepper (and garlic, if you don’t plan on snogging anyone that evening). By the time you’re done blending, the pasta is ready. Toss and serve. 15 minutes from start to finish. What’s not to like?

Wow! I’m impressed that you snuck a bonus recipe into this interview. Yay for us! While the pasta and pesto sounds great, sometimes ideas in the kitchen or on the keyboard are half-baked. Written or not, what’s the most ill-conceived story idea you’ve ever had?
I once wrote a fair amount of a book in which a couple who have broken up slowly reconcile . . . through email. I thought it was such a cool idea at the time, totally overlooking the fact that (a) it had already been done (much better), and (b) I was going to have to think very hard about how to avoid telling not showing. In this event, the book is almost all telling, and the couple seems mismatched, and it isn’t very sexy, and the guy is annoying, and the book was going to max out at about 25,000 words because there really wasn’t any story there, and . . . well, you get the picture.

The funny thing is, I’ve never regretted the few weeks I spent writing it. It was crucial in showing me that I really need to plan extensively before writing, and to have a firm grasp on who my characters are and what makes them tick. It even highlighted the fact that it’s important to do a little market research before undertaking any project that might be perceived as gimmicky. Oddly enough, the market can only bear so many first-person books written through emails. Who knew?

That’s a great lesson for all writers. Of course it also reinforces the fact that some decisions—whether it’s ditching a manuscript or choosing which idea to work on next—are just plain hard to make. So, here’s a tricky choice for you: if you were marooned on an island, and Pots & Pens granted your wish for only one book and one food, what would you choose?
Book: Oooh, a tough one, that. I’ll go with Anna Karenina, because I always feel as though I should’ve read it, but could never be bothered. True, at 350,000 words, it’s a monster, but given twenty years of total solitude, I ought to get through at least half of it, right?

Food: Fresh-baked bread. I was going to go with a really complicated entrée, but it occurs to me that if it’s all you ever eat, even the most complex food will taste dull pretty quickly. Instead, I’m going with fresh-baked bread, which is absolutely perfect in its simplicity and yumminess.

Thanks for everything, Antony! Now, what favorite recipe do you have for us today?
Growing up in England, I endured a lot of dark, chilly days. Nothing gets you through them quite as well as real ale, but I don’t have a recipe for that, so I’m going with soup instead—specifically, a carrot and coriander soup. It’s really easy to make, can be prepared in advance and heated up later (a crucial tactic for stay-at-home parents), and definitely provides your daily intake of veggies. (My wife is a vegetarian and would like it known that this recipe meets with her full approval, unlike, say, Nick Reding’s venison feasts.)

Carrot and Coriander Soup

2 tablespoons butter
1 onion
1 clove garlic
1¼ lbs carrots, chopped
4 cups vegetable stock (I use Oxo cubes from England; you’ll find them in international food stores.)
nutmeg - a pinch (Fresh is great if you have it, but I normally revert to the spice rack.)
coriander (Again, preferably fresh, but I almost always use the ground stuff from the rack.)
¼ cup cream (or more, if you’re feeling decadent)
salt and pepper

1. Melt butter, and cook onion and garlic gently in covered saucepan until soft, without coloring.

2. Add carrots, stock, and nutmeg. Cover, and bring to boiling. Simmer until vegetables are tender.

3. Blend using a hand-blender (or puree in a liquidizer, once soup has cooled). (Note: If you like your soup to have some texture, don’t blend for too long. Personally, I blend the heck out of it.)

4. Stir in coriander (to taste) and cream. Add salt and pepper as you like.

Antony John is the author of young adult novels Busted: Confessions of an Accidental Player and Five Flavors of Dumb (winner of the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award). A native of England, he graduated from Oxford University with a degree in music, and received his Ph.D. from Duke University. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where he is a stay-at-home dad for his two kids and writes every chance he gets. His novels Thou Shalt Not Road Trip and Elemental are forthcoming from Dial/Penguin in 2012. Check out his website:


  1. I love Antony's writing. His stories are really fresh and vibrant, just like that soup looks to be! Can't wait to try it out!

  2. Fantastic interview! I love the humor and the recipes.

  3. I can smell that soup from here. Looks so good! Great interview of Antony!

  4. I adore Antony. A kinder, more down to earth writer you couldn't hope to meet. And this soup looks delicious! I cannot wait for for cool fall nights and warm delicious soups. :)

  5. Awesome interview and great recipe. I love carrot soup. My immersion blender was 'taken out' of commission by my son, so I'll have to invest in a new one soon, before the winter soup months!

  6. Just stopped by to let you know that I just made the carrot soup tonight for dinner. I wasn't sure how much coriander to add so I just sprinkled it in like pepper. I used my upright blender, a pain, but worth it! A very tasty soup, thanks!!!

  7. Thanks for the comments (and compliments) everyone. You're all too lovely for words, and I'm lucky to call you my friends!

    Ansha - I go pretty heavy on the coriander. I like there to be enough of it in there that I can really taste it. Certainly, I use more coriander than pepper (though I really like that too!).

  8. Oooh, that soup looks so good. I have been wanting an immersion blender for a while now, and this soup may be the excuse I've been waiting for!