“Sugar in its original form is a beautiful thing.”
Such a statement might seem odd coming from a man whose first novel was inspired by the horrors of America’s processed food industry, but Stefan Erik Clark, author of “Sweetness #9,” is no health food fanatic.
He’s simply a fan of real food made with real, simple ingredients.
“I kind of wish food additives were sold as ‘value added’ products. ‘Would you like this petroleum based product in your food so that it can sit on the shelf an extra three months? Would you like high fructose corn syrup with that?’ It would be a completely different relationship,” Clark said with a chuckle.
Clark, a professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, first came up with the idea for “Sweetness #9” after reading the groundbreaking exposé “Fast Food Nation” in 2001. His book goes on sale Tuesday; to celebrate, Clark will be reading at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 7 p.m.
“Before that I had been eating flavorings all my life but I’d never really thought about them and their implications. It was like electricity or gravity,” said Clark, “something that’s all around us but that we never stop to question. Once I realized that a molecule could smell like cut grass or barbecued brisket, I started looking at my food and wondering ‘what am I eating? Am I eating food, or the illusion of food?'”
Clark came up with the main character for a novel — aspiring flavor chemist David Leveraux — a buffoon Clark could set up and knock over while pointing out the injustices of the American food industry.
But Clark got sidetracked by graduate school, a job,marriage and children. As his life changed, so did his main character.
“Whenever you have kids and you’ve got to get food on the table and clean the house, you start to have a more complicated relationship with food,” Clark said. “So every now and then we’ll still put something in the microwave and wonder ‘is this really what we should be eating?’ But at the same time you can’t avoid it – it’s a full time job to eat well. And so David Leveraux became more complex; I started to feel more affinity with him, and I think that helped in the long run, because now he’s more of a human character.”
In the end, Leveraux became a well-intentioned, albeit weak-spined , chemist who is trying to negotiate his wife’s obsession with weight loss, his son’s love of red dye #40, and his daughter’s budding food activism.
All this while terrorists are planting bombs in the frozen food aisles of supermarkets.
Clark was born in Germany to a Norwegian mother and a west Texan father — a combination he credits for his resulting brooding humor.
“I never just go for a laugh, I want to think about something,” he said.
So Clark uses all of his comic devices for a reason, even when he brings Hitler into the story.
“It was important to bring in that time period,” he said. “So much changed after World War II — supermarkets took off, the number of products in those supermarkets grew exponentially. And farming changed because of all of the pesticides that we were using to build bombs in the war. So it was very important for me to create a base line for the story.”
In the 13 years it took to transform “Sweetness #9” from a concept to a finished novel, public awareness of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup have also changed dramatically. Clark recognized that his book couldn’t be a manifesto.
“The culture was changing so much more quickly than I can write that eventually I had to say that can’t be the purpose of the book because culture is always going to beat me to the punch,” Clark said. “So it had to be the human stories – how do we relate to food? How do we think about food? How do we have a family where everybody has a different idea about what we should eat? How do we deal with that? That became the important thing, the only thing I could do that wouldn’t be outdone by the culture.”
What Clark couldn’t have foreseen was that even before “Sweetness #9” hit bookstore shelves, it would be picked up and promoted by a major cultural icon.
Stephen Colbert has been touting Hachette novels as part of his ongoing battle against Amazon.com, and on July 21, he held up a copy of “Sweetness #9” and encouraged viewers to pick up their own copies.
Clark doesn’t know how the “Colbert bump” has affected book sales, but he’s quite sure it’s positive. It certainly has led to more press: tonight Clark will be a guest of Terri Gross on Fresh Air.
In the meantime, he’s working on his next book, “American Goulag,” a comic novel about the crash of the U.S. dollar.
“Glenn Beck’s paranoid fantasy come to life is how I like to think of it,” said Clark with a smile.