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The Sirens of Suspense




Julia was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia. She graduated from Marshall University, then later earned a doctoral degree in English Literature at Ohio State University.

She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and has taught at Princeton and Ohio State Universities, and the University of Notre Dame. She is a guest essayist on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and has been a contributor on CNN and NBC Nightly News. In 2005, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

Julia lives in a high-rise in Chicago and a stone cottage on a lake in rural Ohio.


Find Julia on Facebook.


item1 Snacktime for Scribblers item1

If Descartes had run a deli instead of sitting around all day with his chin in his hand, that famous philosophical aphorism—“Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am)—might have come out a bit differently:

“Scribbleto ergo Oreo” (I write, therefore I snack).

Apologies for the loose translation. My last Latin class was in my junior year of high school. Moreover, as Mrs. Thornton, my Latin teacher, would attest, I routinely managed to slaughter an already-dead language with my egregious syntactical errors.

But you get the idea: Writing and eating are inextricably linked. They go together like all the great lovers in cultural history, those starry-eyed couples that just can’t seem to get enough of each other: Gatsby and Daisy; Ahab and the whale; Donald Trump and Donald Trump.

To write is to snack. To scribble is to nibble. To create is to crunch—as well as to slurp, munch, sip and savor.

Remember those epic writing marathons that you were forced to endure in college, with a term paper on Old Norse mythology due at dawn and barely a page yet completed? Remember those torture-laden all-nighters when you hunched over a computer while sitting cross-legged on the floor and tried to cram a semester’s worth of work into a skimpy six hours or so?

Ah, of course you do. Sustenance was key at such times. And so out went the frantic calls for pizza and Gatorade. Out went the agitated pleas for Cool Ranch Doritos and the desperate summons for doughnuts—anything that would keep you alert and typing. Or even just marginally coherent and still moving.

I would love to report that the life of a professional writer is different. I wish I could say that, with the onset of maturity and wisdom, one is finally able to write without having to maintain—within easy reach—enough food to stock the training table of the Green Bay Packers.

But that wouldn’t be true.

On an afternoon late last year, as I finished revisions to the fifth novel in my mystery series, “Sorrow Road,” I suddenly realized that I had apparently consumed an entire container of Planters Dry Roasted Peanuts. I could not remember eating a single peanut. But the evidence was unassailable: Empty can. Salty mitts. Faint burning sensation in the esophagus.

Well, you say, what’s the big deal? Polishing off a small can of peanuts does not exactly constitute gluttony.

Ah, but we’re not talking about a small can here. We’re talking about the jumbo 52-ounce container, the one only available at those cavernous warehouses that sell food in bodacious bulk, the one with a label so large that it makes Mr. Peanut look like a menacing—if mighty dapper—giant. And the time required for me to scarf down those tasty tan nuggets? Only a few hours. Even the Von Trapp family, I daresay, with all of those urchins perpetually ravenous from their yodeling, could have made that container last months.

I’m not exactly certain why writing and eating are so intertwined. Surely there are fancy psychological theories—oral fixations and all of that. One is pushed to reach repetitively for food to fuel the body as one reaches for another kind of food—the nutrition of deep thought—to fuel the soul. Or something like that. If Freud had been a shrewd marketer, he would have released a line of energy bars for the creatively inclined: Ego Crunch, he could have called these. (Available in chocolate and cinnamon flavor.) Or Id Bits—a sort of a cognitive Chex mix.

While writing and snacking just naturally seem to go together, there definitely are negative consequences to the bond, beyond the steady increase of one’s waistline. There is, for instance, the ongoing, icky peril of Cheeto-slime being transferred from fingertips to keyboard, as well as the ever-present threat of a spill that ends up shorting out the innards of a delicate computer.

And yet we snack on. Each book of mine has been completed with the help of a particular food. My first book, “Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented it,” owed a great deal to Nutter Butter cookies. For my young adult novel, “Back Home,” I was deeply beholden to snack-size Butterfinger bars.

My mystery series, beginning with “A Killing in the Hills” and moving through “Bitter River,” “Summer of the Dead,” “Last Ragged Breath” and now “Sorrow Road,” has been unusually dependent upon the aforesaid Planters Dry Roasted Peanuts. And—lest you think I am in a rut, and never vary my routine—I can’t forget a shout-out to salt-and-vinegar flavored Blue Diamond Almonds. A last few tangy tidbits are present at my elbow at this very moment, idling in the snappy blue-lidded can that is beribboned with the encouraging label: “Smart snacking!”

I sometimes try to guess which snacks helped which writers as they raced to finish particular works. Might we find evidence of the author’s recourse to specific foods within the works themselves? For Joan Didion, I am guessing that her total caloric input during the writing of any given book amounts to a small glass of ice chips and a single grape—although I’m not sure about the grape. Cormac McCarthy, I assume, indulged in ragged, flavorless strips of beef jerky in order to bring to a close such bleak works as “The Road.” And Stephen King surely keeps a bowl of Halloween candy right next to his computer monitor, one brimming with sugary skulls and round chocolate pieces that resemble zombie’s eyeballs.

Oh, and in the interests of full disclosure: The essential accouterments to my writing ritual don’t stop at food alone. I also must have copious quantities of bitter black coffee close at hand. The prolific French author Balzac, I have read, slammed down fifty cups a night, as he scribbled madly from midnight on through the next day in epic stretches of creativity.

My response to this news: Only fifty?





WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE SNACK? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of SORROW ROAD! (US entrants only, please.)




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