An elegant evening of terrific company, conversation, food, and wine came together when four of the area’s best writers and 100 Walter readers gathered at the Umstead Hotel & Spa for the sold-out debut of Walter events.
Local novelists Allan Gurganus, Jill McCorkle, Wilton Barnhardt, and Elaine Orr were guests of honor.
After cocktails and a memorable dinner by five-star Herons chef Scott Crawford, the authors took part in a wide-ranging panel discussion about their new novels, about writing, and about what inspires them.
“Stories come to me,” said Barnhardt, whose satiric novel of a booming New South, Lookaway, Lookaway is a recent New York Times bestseller and has been optioned by HBO as a series. “I suppose I’m like a lot of writers. When I hear something good, I’ve got to steal it. I’m probably a very distracted conversationalist because I want to run home and see what I can do with it.”
Orr said she most often starts her stories with a place. “I put a character in that place and I begin to write to see what he or she will do… I’m curious to see what will spill out, and how it will evolve.” Her novel A Different Sun, informed by her upbringing in Nigeria, is described by writer Lee Smith as “as lyrical and passionate a novel as has ever been written.”
Storytelling has always been part of his life, Gurganus said. “I grew up a storyteller who was always punished for exaggerating. I’ve just elevated myself from being in the third grade and being called a big fat liar to being a major American novelist.” His new book Local Souls, set in the fictional North Carolina town of Falls, was described by The New York Times as “a tour de force in the tradition of Hawthorne.”
Humor wove its way through the entire conversation, which included questions from the room full of guests. Humor also plays an important role in each author’s new book. “The humor I’m most drawn to is almost always tied to something dark,” said McCorkle, whose New York Times bestselling new novel Life after Life explores the last chapter of several lives. “I’m very drawn to situations in life where you’re just perched, and you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. To me, that is the perfect moment of humanity.”
Which is something very different from joke-telling, Gurganus said. “Jokes are like mouse traps. They go off, and you laugh mechanically, and then you forget the joke. It’s like Chinese food – you’re hungry instantaneously. Whereas humor is a way of surviving.”
Another key to survival, all agreed, is to live within a robust community. All of their new novels are set in multi-faceted towns and places that become characters in and of themselves. “Community is not just the location, not just the landscape,” Gurganus said. “It’s the connectedness that interests me immensely.” Barnhadt joked that he could have set his novel in Raleigh, “but I’d have had to moderate my comedy,” whereas “I could just let it rip in Charlotte.”
McCorkle said her upbringing in rural Lumberton inspires her when she’s creating fictional universes. “I grew up seeing a broad cross section of community, and I try to bring that into my fiction.”
Some of the Walter readers in the room were also writers, eager to hear details about how these successful folks do what they do. “Do anything you can do to routinize and demystify the process,” Gurganus said, “because it is work. If you’re not willing to spend 10,000 hours learning to write fiction, you probably are not going to write fiction, because there is some obsession that drives you to do it. It’s a way of making sense of the world.”
McCorkle agreed. “It is a job, and it is what you do. I think writer’s block is a kind of cop out. I think you just sit there, and you do it.”
“Have you ever heard of bus driver’s block or third-grade teacher block?” Gurganus asked. “If you can’t do it, then you do something else. There’s no mystification. You do it if you absolutely need to, and you’re not going to make any money doing it anyway, so you really have to need to do it.”
Orr said she writes in part because she feels it keeps her alive: “My theory is that as long as I keep writing, and as long as I’m in a book, I won’t die.”
If you missed out on Walter’s author dinner, please know we are planning other events.
RECIPE: PRALINE CAKE
2 each Egg Whites
2 TBL Granulated Sugar
1 TBL + 1 tsp Powdered Sugar
2 TBL Almond Flour
1 TBL Cake Flour
2 tsp Praline Paste
1 each Egg Whites
1 ¼ tsp Cream
nice pinch Salt
- Pre-heat oven to 400f, place the first measurement of egg whites in bowl of electric mixer and set aside.
- Scale the granulated sugar and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the powdered sugar, almond flour, and cake flour, set aside.
- In a small bowl mix the second egg white with the praline paste, cream, and salt, set aside.
- Now begin whipping the first egg whites until foamy. Once they are foamy begin sprinkling in the granulated sugar, whip the egg whites until it forms a nice thick shiny meringue.
- Remove the meringue from the mixer and gently fold it into the dry ingredients being careful not to deflate the mixture.
- Once the mixture is folded together smoothly remove a little portion and mix it into the liquid praline paste mixture.
- Now fold the praline paste mixture into the cake batter.
- Spread the mixture into a ¼ sheet pan that has been lined with parchment paper, being careful not to over spread as you will deflate the egg whites. Bake until lightly golden.
Praline paste may be hard to find in a store, it is essentially a nut butter made from caramelized hazelnuts, or a mixture of hazelnuts and almonds. If you can not find it you can make it yourself with a good food processor or blender. To make it yourself, darkly toast a cup of peeled hazelnuts. When the hazelnuts are still in the oven, still hot, caramelize 2/3 cup of granulated sugar in a large sauce pan, when the caramel is the color of dark honey add the hot hazelnuts and stir to coat. Pour out onto an oiled sheet pan and allow to cool. Then grind in a food processor as finely as possible. When I make my own I start in a food processer and then move the puree to a blender to get really smooth.
Be careful to not over bake the cake as it is very thin. If you have any fear that you over baked the cake, remove the cake from the pan after it cools slightly.
Chocolate Praline Crunch
1/3 cup chopped Milk Chocolate
2/3 cup Praline Paste
1 cup + 1/3 cup Feuilletine
nice pinch Salt
- Combine the salt, praline paste, and chocolate in a large bowl and melt gently over simmering water.
- When the mixture is melted, remove from the heat and gently stir in the feuilletine. Spread in a thin layer on top of the hazelnut cake. Reserve at room temperature until ready to add the mousse layer.
Notes: Feuilletine is a very crispy crushed wafer. It is hard to duplicate at home as it is a purchased ingredient. It won’t be the same, but you can get decent results with either rice krispies, or a lightly sweetened corn or bran flake cereal. If you go with the corn or bran flakes you may need to crush the flakes a bit first.
Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse
½ cup chopped Gianduja Chocolate
½ cup Cream
1 TBL + 2 tsp Sugar
½ tsp + ¼ tsp Gelatin
1 TBL Water
1/3 cup + ¼ cup Praline Paste
1cup + ¼ cup Cream
nice pinch Salt
- Soak the gelatin in the water to bloom, set aside.
- Place the chocolate in a bowl of simmering water and stir to melt gently. When melted, remove from the heat, transfer to a larger bowl and whisk in the praline paste, set aside.
- In a sauce pan, combine the sugar, salt and cream, bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and whisk the bloomed gelatin in to melt. Then pour over the chocolate, and whisk to form a smooth ganache.
- In a medium bowl whisk the cream to form soft peaks, you’re looking for a soft shaving cream consistency that is thick, yet still pourable.
- Check the temperature of the chocolate ganache, making sure it is not too hot, it should be around body temperature. When this temperature is achieved fold the whipped cream into the ganache, then spread the mousse on top of the chocolate crunch layer. Allow to set in the refrigerator or freezer before cutting into pieces.
Notes: Gianduja is a special type of chocolate that has praline paste incorporated into it. I have been able to find it at cost plus world market, but you may need to look hard for it.
If the ganache is too hot when you fold in the cream, the heat will deflate the cream and the mousse will be heavy. If the ganache is too cold, the mousse will set up quickly and you will not be able to spread nicely.