He wanders around the International Book Fair in Turin, Italy, like a kid at an amusement park, with an incredulous smile fixed on his lips and his blue eyes wide behind a pair of glasses that must have been a gift from Harry Potter, together with a heft dose of the child-wizard’s good luck.
Because good luck is something that John Stephens has had a lot of. He’s not only been a screenwriter and producer for famous television shows likeThe O.C. and Gossip Girl, but when he decided to write a young-adult book, it set off a bidding war among publishers and became an immediate best-seller.
The Emerald Atlas has now been published in thirty-three countries, and is the first episode in a fantasy trilogy that has earned an enthusiastic reception among older readers, well-beyond the teenage years. «With literary references from Poe to Dickens and a much darker mood than what I originally wanted, I think that in the end, my novel is absolutely trans-generational,» he admits, smiling like a high-school kid.
It’s disarming, and even if I’d wanted to dislike him (too much luck can be unnerving), I wouldn’t be able to. Also because, as I wait for him so we can chat about food, his press officer comes up to tell me, «Excuse me, he’s at the bar. He wanted to eat something. Again.» Well of course, being a wunderkind sure works up an appetite. And even his appetite comes at an appropriate time: «We’re going to talk about food? Magnificent!» he exclaims with his usual enthusiasm. «I’ll eat anything I can get my hands on!»
I begin to fear that I’m not exactly in the company of a gourmand. But Stephens won’t be stopped: «My favourite meal is breakfast. I write in the early morning, so when it’s time for breakfast I’ve already got a few hours’ work behind me and I can’t wait to eat something. If I could, I’d eat breakfast all day long!»
But what does he like to eat? «Everything.» Ok, this much I’ve understood. But really? Everything? «Well,» he thinks. «I’d never eat human meat. Or brains – I could never eat that.» I begin to extol the deliciousness of fried brains, but he interrupts me. «I prefer chicken,» he states. «When I’m sad or sick, there’s nothing better than chicken broth. If I were a dish, I’d be a nice, juicy piece of fried chicken: excellent for morale, but not exactly healthy.»
An American who’s not obsessed with health? I begin to really like this Stephens fellow, who, by the way, spent two years living in Italy and speaks the language very well. And those two years must have also widened his culinary horizons. Comforted, I go on. What’s his idea of a perfect dinner? It seems impossible, his eyes shine even brighter. «Me and the most beautiful woman in the world, my wife, sitting at a table filled with candles, silver plates, music in the background…»
Attempting to stop the soap opera scene he’s describing, I ask him what would be on the plates. «A beautiful steak with lots of sauces to put on top, and a chocolate fondue.» The fondue is what saves him at the last minute. «And I might as well eat all the real meat I can now,» he continues. «Because in the future, we’ll just be eating cloned animals. And aliens, because in the meantime, they’ll have arrived. Aliens will be the new chicken!» I find myself at a loss for words. He’s wonderfully innocent. But then I remember that the villain in his book takes the form of a beautiful, spoiled teenager.
The question comes naturally. «Tell me the truth. Was this your way of taking revenge on all the nymphets that populate all the television shows you write?» He laughs hard. «Oh so you picked up on that?» He answers, cheerful. It’s hopeless; he can’t even be mean even when he’s wicked. What’s his “soul” food? «Plum gelatin that my mother used to make for me. And she still does!»
I try again. What’s the best food he’s ever eaten? Stephens’ face takes on a dreamy look as he begins to reflect. Like Dickens, I have great expectations. «The best meal I ever ate was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They served me a giant steak that was topped with ham. And over the ham, there was a fried egg. And on the egg, melted cheese. Ok, it was practically a heart attack on a plate, but it was sublime!»
All right, he won. Ladies, and gentleman of the court, I withdraw my case.