A Q&A with The Green and the Red author Armand Chauvel
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: I wanted to write a fictional story that would provide an overview of vegetarianism, but present it in an entertaining way. The idea of a romance between the chef of a small vegetarian restaurant and the marketing director of a pork manufacturer soon came to me. The clash between their worldviews could not fail to create sparks of some kind. Another reason is that I was tired of people asking me the same questions all the time without listening to my answers. Since writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted, I fired up my computer and got started.
Q: What types of readers did you have in mind while writing it?
A: People who are already vegetarian or vegan will, I hope, enjoy reading about situations they’ve undoubtedly already experienced. Although I’m sure I missed a few, I tried to cover all the misconceptions and downright absurd ideas people often have about vegetarianism. But I really created this book with omnivores in mind. For reasons that are more cultural than practical, many people hesitate to give up meat or fish even when they’re aware of the problems linked to this way of eating. They’re the ones I would like to convince that vegetarianism and veganism represent an alternative that’s easy, delicious, sexy, and increasingly popular.
Q: Why did you make Léa, the heroine, a vegetarian rather than a vegan?
A: Before creating the character, I spent some time considering what her level of involvement in the cause should be. She could have been vegan, but this would have prevented a certain opportunity for conflict. I wanted her to be midway between a real meat-lover like Mathieu, and someone more committed than she is: her assistant Pervenche, a vegan who also has a spiritual orientation and practices meditation. In addition to this purely dramaturgical reason, and although this situation is changing, I think it’s also easier to go vegetarian than vegan. After all, most vegans get started on their path as vegetarians. That said, my book promotes the idea that it’s all about progress, not perfection, and that each of us should change at our own pace and avoid judging others. Cutting back on one’s meat consumption is already a big step.
Q: Is it true that you encountered obstacles in your efforts to get this book published in France?
A: Yes. In France there’s a unique way of thinking and a certain Parisian Cartesianism that prevent animal ethics and the environment from being seen as valid literary subjects. Yet what could be more dramatic and literary, more relevant to our times? But to be honest, I didn’t set out to write a work of literature—I just had a story that touched me personally and tried to put it into words. In France, novels are considered works of art and given a great deal of reverence, especially when they intellectualize a topic. This is not how I see things.
Q: Was anyone else involved in this publication?
A: Of course—this book is the result of a group effort! First of all, my wife, Yara, to whom the book is dedicated, went vegetarian at the same time I did. She helped and supported me while I wrote this novel. And although he’s an omnivore, my dear friend Xavier Boutaud provided me with the resources to have it translated. Elisabeth Lyman did a remarkable job translating the story into English. Midge Raymond and John Yunker, the founders of Ashland Creek Press, the first publishing house we approached in the U.S., immediately liked the story and agreed to publish it. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to them all.
Q: Do you come from a vegetarian family?
A: Not at all. I have nearly forty cousins and not a single one of them is vegetarian. I know what it’s like to eat just a few pieces of potato from the bottom of a serving dish at a family gathering, or to sneak off to the kitchen to fry up a veggie burger while the others have already moved on to dessert. Fortunately, things are already looking brighter in the next generation: one of my nieces is vegetarian, and my four-year-old son David is a committed vegetarian as well. Whenever he sees meat or fish at the market, he makes a face and shouts “Yuck!” which can sometimes be embarrassing. To be fair, he does the same thing with a lot of vegetables, which worries his mother and me.
Q: What were the main difficulties you encountered while writing this book?
A: The Green and the Red is a novel with two voices, one of them a woman’s, and this presented a few challenges for me. I needed to strike the right tone to show the differences in sensitivity between the two sexes. Writing about food is always a bit tricky too, especially since it’s a realm marked more by beliefs than knowledge. In any case, although it has now been proven that a plant-based diet is beneficial to human health, doctors and dieticians have still not reached any agreement on the subject.
Q: Is this a book with a message? What do you think of this type of literature?
A: There’s a preconceived notion out there that messages should be sent only through the mail (or by Western Union, as Samuel Goldwin said), and not conveyed through films, books or other creative or artistic works. Personally, I like it when a work transmits its creator’s stance on a moral problem, not in the form of lecturing or endless boring dialogues of course, but through the story and its structure. In any case, our world is in such a state of emergency when it comes to subjects such as democracy, the economy and climate change that it seems difficult, today, to write anything without taking a stand one way or another. And we shouldn’t underestimate literature’s power to effect social change; in helping raise awareness of the evils of slavery, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a key role in gaining support for the abolition movement.
Q: Do you think that love can transform someone’s way of eating?
A: What love can do, in my opinion, is reveal hidden potential. But if the seeds of change don’t exist in your loved one, there’s not much you can do. The good news is that you just need a bit of compassion to become vegetarian, and this is something widely found in the human race. The risk with love is that it can become tyrannical, demanding things from the other person that they’re not able to give, that aren’t compatible with their nature and that may even threaten their identity. Just like in the culinary arts, the recipe for lasting love requires a subtle balance. I hope that Mathieu and Léa, the protagonists of my book, will be able to find it.
Q: How did you come to know the food industry so well?
A: As a journalist in Paris, I began writing for a restaurant magazine a bit by chance. Since I didn’t know much about fine dining, every time I had to eat at a gourmet restaurant to write a review, a journalist friend would teasingly remind me not to drink from the fingerbowl. I still have a certain attachment to this sector, which can sometimes be a scene of fierce competition but is also characterized by a great deal of sharing and creativity. Although I’m not a gourmet myself, strictly speaking, I believe that cooking is a true art form and have tried to convey this in my book. Over the years, I got to know the food-industry as well as the restaurant business. I interviewed marketing directors at large companies, for example, which gave me a very clear idea of how they work and speak. This of course was a great advantage to me as I created the character of Mathieu and his colleagues at Nedelec Pork.