It’s a familiar trajectory: the first saccharine notes of the madeleine seep into the tongue, and its eater sinks deep into the recesses of his own memory. Or at least that’s how it works for Marcel Proust’s narrator in “Remembrance of Things Past.” For Portland freelance writer Mike Paterniti, a bite of Páramo de Guzmán—an artisanal sheep’s milk cheese—dispatched him to rural Spain, into the cellar of a cultural memory that was not his own.
Paterniti’s most recent nonfiction book, “The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese” chronicles Paterniti’s journey to the tiny, Castilian town of Guzmán and the stories he was told in the confines of the contador—that is, the telling room.
“[Telling rooms] are these caves they built on the north side of the village. It’s like a little hobbit hole,” Paterniti explained.
I sensed him waxing the gears of consciousness. Slowly, they began to rotate.
“There’s a fireplace, dried grapevines, a wood-plank table…The candles come out at night, and you drink a lot of wine through decanters with spouts. You spill a lot of it on yourself,” he said.
But for Paterniti, this story didn’t start in the telling room. The writer turned the gears back further, to 1991, when he first tasted Páramo de Guzmán at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich. where he was working as the deli’s newsletter editor. The taste (“nutty, strong, raw, a bit piquant”) stuck with him. In 2000, when he first traveled to Spain for a journalism assignment, he set off for Guzmán to find the cheese’s maker, Ambrosio. The name is suspiciously fitting. If this were fiction, one might accuse Paterniti of heavy-handedness.
As Paterniti listened to the cheesemaker tell his tale, he began to reconsider the purpose behind what had started as a daytrip to a quaint village.
“It became so much less about cheese itself...cheese as a portal to something greater,” he said.
And upon trying the cheese again, he detected notes of something more complex.
“It felt like I was eating history. Eating these bloodlines, these fields, the minerals of the sky that comes down on these fields. That’s the mystical part of it—you’re putting the DNA of this ancient place inside of you.”
Cheese mongers might claim that certain varieties exhibit “terroir,” a sense of place. But Paterniti didn’t need a nuanced palate to identify this quality; through vivid recollections of the town’s dramas and melodramas, Ambrosio did the work for him.
“I found someone incredible,” Paterniti said of the cheese maker, “Someone who could tell beautiful stories, someone completely funny, emotional...He was wide open. He was the best storyteller I’d ever met.”
And Paterniti knows a thing or two about storytelling. After receiving his MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, he worked for a fiction journal called Story Magazine and then as a literary editor for Outside Magazine. But Paterniti soon began to question the limits of fiction.
“I started feeling that the elements of story that drive fiction more often make for really interesting narrative nonfiction,” he said.
Guided by this impulse toward telling true stories, he moved to Cape Cod and joined the staff of a local newspaper.
“To start there seemed exhilarating,” he said. “In a little town you’re so free. I never felt like I was closer to democracy in action.”
Since then, Paterniti has worked as a correspondent for GQ and National Geographic and has been nominated eight times for the National Magazine Award. He explained how he sees himself as writing in the space between genres, using his pen to trace the fluctuations between the fictional and the journalistic.
“Nonfiction as a term is so milquetoast-y,” he said. “It’s not fiction, but what is that? It doesn’t define a genre. In journalism, you’re told ‘Go get me the story,’ not ‘go get me the nonfiction.’”
For Paterniti, finding the fictional within the real is not so difficult.
“Were moving inside of all these stories anyway,” he said.
So what happens when the reporter finds himself becoming a character in a story he hasn’t yet written?
Paterniti sensed that his own story was developing alongside that of the culture he was studying so empirically. At first, he was reluctant to admit it.
“When people called [The Telling Room] a memoir, I thought, ‘this isn’t a memoir. This doesn’t feel like a memoir to me’,” he said. “But I had a character in my book [Ambrosio] who was, ostensibly, not going to change. The only one to change was me.”
After the book’s release last July, Paterniti had to manage the feedback that the story provoked.
“It’s a potentially disorienting thing,” he said, of the transition from private writing to public reading. “Suddenly, something that you wrote in your room or a coffee shop that involves some private thoughts related to how you look at the world becomes fodder for public conversation.”
While the public nature of a book tour may be disorienting at times, Paterniti acknowledged critical response as essential to the writer’s craft.
“You go through phases like the moon where you are invisible and then make yourself visible again,” he said.
While Paterniti values those times when he appears visible to critics, for him it’s the power of storytelling— what becomes animated in the space of the telling room—that energizes his writing process.
“When it comes down to it, the euphoria of having written—having told a story you wanted to tell—that is incredibly sustaining,” he said.