Guide to Summer Reading: A Conversation with Michael Paterniti
Before Michael Paterniti ’86 earned eight National Magazine Award nominations; before he told the unforgettable tale of driving Albert Einstein’s brain across the country (Driving Mr. Albert); before he was tapped as the writer who has shaped “the voice of modern long-form journalism”—before all of that—Michael Paterniti was 26 years old, with an MFA in fiction freshly affixed to his résumé and a proofreading job in an Ann Arbor, Michigan, deli, when he discovered a piece of cheese that would change his life.
Just not right away.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Paterniti’s unlikely discovery of Páramo de Guzmán would set him on an even unlikelier journey—Quixotic, if you will—that culminated, 22 years later, with the publication of The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese.
Only The Telling Room isn’t just about those marvelous notions.
Matt Jennings spent a few hours talking with Paterniti on a sun-soaked afternoon earlier this summer. This conversation, supplemented by email exchanges and a phone call, has been edited and condensed.
Matt Jennings It must drive you nuts when people casually ask, “So, what’s this book about?”
Michael Paterniti [Laughs] Not at all. Because when you’re reading it, you’re not really sure. It starts off as this weird, epic journey in search of a little piece of cheese and ends up being a much larger quest for meaning and understanding. In a weird way, it becomes a quest to go backward. At a time when we are all hurtling forward, relentlessly, here’s an opportunity to feel deeply connected to something, where you have this intense sense of oneness with your environment and with the people, even if you don’t speak the language, even if you don’t share a common history.
Jennings And it began in a deli in Michigan…
Paterniti Yeah. I was just out of an MFA program, still hanging around Ann Arbor, completely broke, writing fiction, teaching a little. And I got this job at Zingerman’s Deli.
Jennings Is it true that they said you’re not qualified to make sandwiches, but you can proofread?
Paterniti Yeah, I couldn’t get the sandwich job. That really bummed me out. I remember thinking, this degree really counts for nothing.
Jennings And, honestly, I’ve never heard of a deli hiring a proofreader.
Paterniti Well, that’s the thing. The owner, Ari, was this fascinating guy, and he wrote these great newsletters. One of the things he was doing with Zingerman’s was he would go and recover these foods from around the world, and he’d then harvest their stories. And this newsletter was one way to tell these stories.
So I was proofreading the newsletter, and one month he had brought back all of these Spanish products, and there was this little four or five paragraph entry for a cheese, Páramo de Guzmán. It was just an outline, but it sounded like the beginning of a fairy tale.
It was about this guy named Ambrosio, who was using a centuries-old recipe to make this cheese, and it was said that when people ate it, they were overcome with memories.
The cheese was made by hand. Ambrosio would milk the sheep himself. He’d bring the milk up to this little stable, where he’d make the cheese. And he’d age this cheese in his family’s ancestral cave. I remember reading that and thinking, who has a family cave? I certainly didn’t know anybody who had one.
Jennings So, did the cheese have this magical effect on you?
Paterniti Oh, I didn’t try it; I couldn’t afford it! It was the most expensive cheese ($22 a pound) that Zingerman’s had ever sold. But when that newsletter came out, I ripped out the section on Páramo de Guzmán and threw it in a file.
Jennings And then…
Paterniti Eight years went by. I went through all of these moves, and I kept it with me. There was a point I had it in my wallet. Then it was in a file, then back in my wallet.
I didn’t really know why I had it. But one summer, in 2000, I was in Spain on assignment [for Esquire] to profile the chef Ferran Adrià. And for whatever reason, I pulled this clipping out of my wallet, and with the help of my friend Carlos Gomez (who was translating for me), I discovered that the village of Guzmán was two-and-a-half hours north of Madrid, up in the highlands of Meseta.
We knew we were going to have a day off during this extended period we spent with Ferran, so Carlos basically called the village bar, tracked down Ambrosio, and we made arrangements to go see him. I remember Carlos asking, “How are we going to find you?” And he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll find me.”
And this whole time, I’m thinking, this is so random. It wasn’t like I was obsessed with Castilian culture. Or that I was hell-bent on writing about the best cheese in the world. It was just that there was so much meaning that had accrued in this little nugget of a fairy tale.
I guess I went up there that first time not knowing. It turned out that Ambrosio didn’t make the cheese anymore, but he did have this story, and he told this story that first night in the telling room.*
Jennings So that night was the first you heard anything about the story? You arrived having no idea?
Paterniti No idea. We arrived in Guzmán that afternoon and went looking for Ambrosio. Eventually somebody pointed to the cave. We went up and knocked on the door, which he slowly pulled open. And in we went.
Those telling rooms are so otherworldly. They’re just these limestone holes, like snowdrifts or something. They’re really close to each other, and inside there’s a wood-plank table and a candle, maybe a fireplace to use in the winter. It’s ancient—the room, the way everything is done, even the way they start to roll out stories.
Jennings Trapped in time.
Paterniti Totally. You really have this feeling when somebody is telling a story in the telling room that they’re telling a story that goes back to the beginning of history. So immediately that story of betrayal and revenge and this murder plot, it was echoing with all this history, all this Spanish history. And not just that but the intractable conflicts of our entire world history seemed to be there, too.
For me, it was also metaphoric, right from the start. I was transported and transfixed, as if I was under a huge midsummer spell.
Jennings In that moment—that night or the next morning—what’s happening in your head? You’re in Spain to do this Esquire piece. And now you’ve heard this story. It’s almost like you’re caught between two worlds.
Paterniti It was weird. We were in the telling room with Ambrosio for about eight hours. We walked out at close to 2:00 in the morning, and we drove down the hill from this beautiful shrinking village made out of limestone. It was —
Jennings A village of 80 people.
Paterniti Eighty people, this dying village on a hill. The one thing that I thought immediately in Guzmán was, this is better than I could have imagined. This guy is better. He’s bigger. He’s a wilder character. He tells a better story than anyone I’ve ever met. I’ve studied storytelling for years and to suddenly be in the presence of somebody whose stories echo with centuries of tales . . . it was pretty amazing. That’s what hit me right from the start: How do I get back here?
At the same time, I didn’t get ahead of myself at all because I had to go back to work. I was committed to the Ferran piece, and I was lost in that world. So it seemed like a dream afterward; I wanted to go back just to see if it was real. I wanted to hear Ambrosio tell that same story again, just so that I could verify it. At the same time, somewhere behind this elaborate tale I knew what I was going to find. This story had deeper meaning.
Jennings You’ve described Ambrosio as being like Falstaff…
Paterniti He’s totally Falstaff. When you’re with him, it’s like you’ve been swept off your feet and you’re lost in this rambunctious world of stories and jokes and drink and food. At that moment you’re living life in this alternate reality that has nothing to do with taking out your recycling.
Jennings And to tell this story effectively, you really had to live in that alternate world.
Paterniti For a little while, before I knew if I was going to do anything with this story, I’d visit Guzmán whenever I was in Europe on assignment. And then I eventually bought a ticket just to go back. By that point I was thinking, What is this? How do I get closer?
There are flaws in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but what I do love about that book is the immersive quality of it, the willingness to get dirty and to also allow the story to carry you wherever it goes. This work that we do carries us to these worlds that have their own energy, and then you begin to see and understand deeper things that you didn’t know when you first got there.
The more closely we observe things—things we fear and things we revere—the more complete we become.
Jennings You use a lot of footnotes in the book. It’s a clever way to introduce the reader to the Castilian method of storytelling, full of digressions.
Paterniti One of the things that I really wanted to have happen was this narrative battle for whose book it was. So, Ambrosio being the storyteller, like the ur-storyteller, I wanted him to own the first two-thirds. And that’s how he told a story—all of these trapdoors that take you to other places. Then I think maybe in the last third of the book, a lot of the footnotes just drop away. It becomes very American. Otherwise there’s no way. You can’t do footnotes within footnotes within footnotes and plow the field.
Jennings I’d like to go back to this battle over whose book it is. One of the tensions as a reader is over how much of Ambrosio’s story can we believe?
You say at some point that you had allowed the skepticism that existed in your day job as a journalist to just melt away; you were there to listen, not poke holes.
Jennings But at some point you had to confront that. When did you reach that moment?
Paterniti I tried to avoid it for so long. I think it took about six years. I didn’t want to know the other side of the story. I think the moment where I began to realize I needed to step up to this was when I had written a number of drafts, and they all ended in 2003, the summer my family lived in Guzmán. I wasn’t willing to go past that. I had five different versions of the first 180 pages, and I was driving myself crazy.
My wife, Sara, pointed out the obvious reason. There was another side of the story that I was refusing to consider. I had to go find Julian, the best friend. Sara said, “You have to do what you do every time you go out on assignment. You have to actually report and stop living the story so completely.” So there is that conflict between what is material and what is your life. Where do you draw some of those lines?
Jennings You were writing this book for 10 years—
Paterniti It didn’t feel like 10 years.
Paterniti I just felt like I was waiting for things to unfold in a way that seemed organic. So in a way, just on the subject of time, time is something I’m obsessed with in the stories I write, like how in a single minute your life can be completely flipped, especially in the big tragedy stories or the war stories.
You have traumatic events changing the course of a life very quickly.** In Guzmán it was slow living, and it was slow unfolding, and it was slow storytelling. It took 10 years to get the real story.
Sometimes you have to wait. Sometimes it happens right away. Sometimes you go to Nanjing and you’re on a suicide bridge and some guy tries to jump within the first six hours of your being there. And sometimes you’re there for 12 days, and you see nothing. Or it may be that someone doesn’t come to jump, but there’s a gesture. There’s something that opens the seams of the world for one moment, and you see that pain or that joy or that, I don’t know, connective tissue that makes us one thing.
Then once you have that, for me at least, then I can go back into everything I’ve accumulated and try to imbue it in some way with meaning, knowing what I know having waited it out.
Jennings Part of writing literary nonfiction is making use of the fiction writer’s toolbox.
Paterniti I see it as trying to create a language of your own to tell these stories that matter the most to you. So when you have a man who’s poured every waking hour of every day into this one grape vineyard—because that matters more than anything to his family, to drink that wine at the end of the season—and then this vicious hailstorm comes through and rips everything apart, and you’re there for it, then you have all these elements, all this reporting and understanding. And how you write that, what similes and metaphors you choose to use, all of that stuff is yours, at your complete disposal.
There are very distinct lines between the genres, but I’ve always thought of them in my own writing as very blurred. That doesn’t mean you get to make anything up, that you get to create your own version of it. You take what you have and you make something from that.
Jennings After living with a story that is so personal, that has consumed more than 20 years of your life, what do you hold onto now and what do you let go?
Paterniti There are these strange, loopy left-hand turns we can take in life that will lead us through portals that eventually lend clarity to the world. That’s what this book, this experience, did for me, for my family. Underneath it all, it goes back to a certain set of questions—like, are you destined to be shaped by the forces of the world or do you have the capacity to shape the world around you?
So all of that stays with me. As for the book itself, it’s like some little shard that’s going to be there someday in the ruin that was my life. People can look at it and try to figure it out; someone may pick it up, others may not bother with it, but the thing is that there’s some evidence of a life lived.
Jennings And not just evidence of a life lived, but evidence of a way of living life.
Paterniti Yeah, it makes you think. It seems like we live in an age of 24-hour memories. The viral video of the day, the erosive flood of metadata. And we keep losing the deeper past and with it our sense of place and identity. We keep forgetting what we were supposed to remember.
Jennings Perfectly said.
*We don’t want to give too much away, though you should know that as Ambrosio’s cheese began to gain a world following in the late 1980s/early 1990s, he could no longer produce it by himself. He brought in other people, including his best friend, to start a business. Only the best friend betrayed him and cut Ambrosio out of the business. His family cheese stolen, Ambrosio began to plot the murder of his best friend. Really.
**Among other stories, Paterniti has written about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, and the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.