From The Writers' Room Featuring Tremontaine

Patty Bryant and Racheline Maltese on writing Tremontaine Ep 6: “A Fair Hand”

For the love of food and New York City.

Patty Bryant –

I love writing about food. Eating it, preparing it, smelling it, tasting it – it’s one of my favorite things to include in fiction, both because it can be so tactile and sensual, and because so many people (including me!) have a strong emotional response to it.


All of Tremontaine has included plenty of food: Rafe’s tomato pies, Micah’s turnips, Kaab’s tamales, Diane’Tremontaine Episode 6s little iced cakes – and, of course, all that chocolate. But when I realized that our episode would be about the preparations for the Tremontaine’s grand ball, I knew it would be a great opportunity for me to indulge in excessive food porn. There were other necessary preparations to include – the music, the clothes, the decorations, the invitations – but my favorite part of any party is the food, and that’s true of fictional parties as much as it is of real ones.


Of course, I couldn’t just make up whatever food I felt like. I did some research on actual menus and cookbooks from England and France in the 1700s and early 1800s, consulted with Ellen on the sort of dinners and snacks that she pictured existing at parties in her world, coordinated with Joel to make sure that everything in our episode matched everything in his episode, and spent a lot of time working out what sort of dishes would convey the impression Duchess Diane wanted – while still leaving clues about the Tremontaine financial difficulties for the Balams to pick up on.


It was definitely a thorough introduction to collaborative writing! I lost count of how many times we went back and forth over what food to include, how Diane would serve it, when the guests would eat it, and where it came from. But in the end, all that arguing and back-and-forth made it a much stronger story than what I would have written on my own. The whole project was a bit like solving a puzzle: how could I best fit my ideas and everyone else’s together to make them match? Eventually we figured it out, and what we had created became a perfect, complete picture.


Before working on Tremontaine, I’d already known that even an idle conversation with a friend could help me to see angles on a story that I never would have come up with on my own. But working as a group gave me access to the ideas, knowledge, and inspiration of so many people. The result is so much bigger than what I could have done alone. Not to mention that there’s a real advantage to being able to throw out ideas and see how others react before you have to present the audience with a finished product.


Working on the Tremontaine serial has been a wonderful experience, and I’m glad that I was able to fit a piece of my own into this world.


Racheline Maltese –

I grew up in the mad, bad, and dangerous to know New York City of the 1970s and 80s. As a child, because my parents are both painters, I spent a lot of time in Soho. Later, I attended Stuyvesant High School when it was still in the East Village and when the avenues of Alphabet City were still referred to as (A)ssault, (B)attery, (C)rime, and (D)eath.


Knowing that New York served as one of the Ellen Kushner’s original influences when she first created Riverside, it was important to me that we develop some of the new locations in “A Fair Hand” with the New York of my upbringing in mind. This impacted four key locations in the episode – William’s tailor shop, Kaab and Applethorpe’s practice ground, Tess’s apartment, and Madeline’s apartment/thrift shop/café where Kaab and Tess take Micah to help costume her for the Swan Ball.


Madeline’s space, despite being at the end of the story, came into focus first. My mom often shopped in people’s art studios and homes. I remember sitting in the living rooms of strangers as pets and family members wandered about while my mother pawed through racks of clothes set up for display in their kitchens. So for the thrift shop, I really wanted to capture that awkward intimacy of unfinished space that wasn’t clearly divided between residential and commercial purposes.


Tess’s apartment came into focus in our early drafts and was propagated out to other episodes where it appears. Here we initially were riffing off New York’s historic school buildings; the city has over 200 that were built ninety or more years ago, although some have passed out of government holding and subsequently become luxury condos. Despite the lack of widespread, municipally funded public education in Riverside at the time of Tremontaine, I was interested in what an apartment would look like in one of these buildings if it had been abandoned and taken over by squatters. Hence Tess’s excessively high ceilings and the layers of peeling paint offset by décor that had clearly been scavenged from elsewhere. I also thought there was a certain humor in basing the apartment of a forger (that is, a cheater) on a ruined school building.


Applethorpe and Kaab’s training area posed some particular problems. Initially this was an indoor location created and maintained by swordsmen collectively, modeled on my own experience of fencing salles. But that presented problems both with the lone wolf nature of professional swordsmen as created by Ellen and with whether Applethorpe would be able to bring a foreign woman of indeterminate skill into such a place without arousing undue attention. When Patty and I realized we had to shift to a more improvised location, a ruined building, like those that graced many New York lots in my childhood seemed the best choice – walls enough to keep the training from casually prying eyes, but not enough to provide anything more than the illusion of privacy.


But one of the real pleasures of writing Tremontaine, aside from the collaborative aspect (while I write a good deal of non-fiction and memoir, most of my fiction has been written with various cowriters), has been the way the story moves from Riverside, through the Middle City, up to the Hill, and back again. William’s tailor shop allowed us to look at the way the wealthy and the struggling exist side-by-side in the City – both the one of Ellen’s creation, and the one where Patty and I live. Playing with the lack of class isolation in Ellen’s world, as well as the idea of private moments necessarily playing out in semi-public because of the crowded nature of any city, was distinctly satisfying.


Ultimately, we hope the Riverside and the City as we bring it to you in “A Fair Hand” feels familiar – to Ellen’s world, to a now largely lost New York, and to any world you have ever tried to navigate as a thousand different versions of yourself with whatever stray tools happened to be at hand.

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