We’re thrilled to have debut author Jael McHenry dancing with us today—both because she’s a lovely person (do you follow her on Twitter? You should!), and terrific writer, and a foodie who always has something delicious simmering (warning: her tweets will make you hungry!).
We’re so excited about Jael’s debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter. Here’s a quick synopsis:
After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning (“do no let her…”) before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish. But, a haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.
Jael McHenry, who lives in New York City, is a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog. She is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, a member of Backspace, and a monthly pop culture columnist at Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing.
Our Q&A with Jael:
We’re always fascinated to hear how authors get the ideas for their books, as they can come to us in such diverse ways. Do you remember how THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER came to you? Were you arrested by the idea and did you know you had to write it or else?
I always joke that I envy my writer friends who get their ideas when they’re out running, because I get mine when I’m standing in front of the fridge. I do remember the exact moment when the key idea came to me. I’d been looking to get started on a new project—I’d written other novels, and I knew my writing was getting better and better, but I just didn’t know what my work was missing. And I love to cook. Love it. I realized that I’d never written a character who loved to cook, though, and I thought—why not? But I’m not a chef, and I didn’t want to write about a chef. So I was thinking about this constantly, what could I do with it, how could I make her cooking matter. And I was literally standing in front of the open fridge one day, staring into it, my mind kind of wandering, and it just hit me— when she cooks, ghosts come. Boom. Everything else flowed from there.
How did you get in character for the writing of this book? Did you cook a lot? Did you listen to certain music?
Definitely there was a lot of cooking. And reading cookbooks. Each of the recipes in the book “belongs” to a particular character, and in some cases, it was the recipe that came first. I also did a lot of research on Asperger’s syndrome, since my narrator Ginny has Asperger’s, and that was a mindset I spent a lot of time working to get into. Her viewpoint is very specific – she can’t look someone in the face and read their expression, so language like “he seemed angry” or “I could tell she didn’t mean it” just wasn’t available. Figuring out her character, defining her isolation, working out her relationships and her history—that was where a lot of my time went.
You’re a foodie, we hear, so did that play a role in the writing of this book?
Oh yes. I would never have written it otherwise. It’s funny, there have been people who’ve said to me, “Oh, you must have put the foodie angle in there because there are so many foodies now.” And it’s so not the case. I think if you try to shoehorn something into a book that doesn’t call for it, people can tell.
Your agent, Elisabeth Weed, is terrific and has such a great reputation in the industry. How did you come to work with her? Did you blind query her? How did you know she was “the one”?
Elisabeth is really, truly fantastic. My first query to her was pretty much blind. I hadn’t met her, but I’d gone to a conference and seen her speak on a panel, so I mentioned that in the query. That query also… wasn’t for The Kitchen Daughter. It was a totally different book. So she requested this other book and read it, and didn’t love it enough to take it on, but said that if I wrote anything else, she’d be interested in seeing it. So when The Kitchen Daughter was ready to submit, I sent it to her and a handful of other agents who had felt the same way. And several of them were interested in representing TKD. Yes! So I was in the really, really fortunate position of getting to choose from several really great options. Any of them would have done a great job for me, I’m sure, but Elisabeth’s comments about the book really resonated with me and I knew we had the same vision for the book. That was the real key.
Can you share a little about the publication story for THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER? Both the sale/and the revisions process?
I revised this book a lot. Like, a lot a lot. We revised it before sending it out on submission, and on that first submission, nobody was ready to buy it. So we went back, dug deeper, and did more revisions. And the timing worked out perfectly, because the week we sent it to Lauren McKenna, the imprint Gallery had literally just been formed (Simon & Schuster merged two other imprints, Pocket and Simon Spotlight) and they were looking to make an upmarket women’s fiction acquisition. Boom. Right place, right time. And then Lauren and I really dug into the book, much like Elisabeth and I had, to make it tighter and stronger and more compelling. So the final book is very different from what I originally sent to agents, and I feel good about that – it’s a much, much stronger book.
How did you celebrate your book deal?
I bought a peppermill! Seriously. There was this ridiculously expensive peppermill at Williams Sonoma, an electric one with several different grind settings and a little light that comes on when you press the button, and I knew it was ridiculous to spend that much money on a peppermill. I mean, it grinds pepper. Nobody needs to spend $100 to grind pepper. So I said that when I got a book deal, I’d buy it… and when I called my husband to tell him about Gallery’s pre-empt, he said, “Well, I guess we better go buy that peppermill.” Which is exactly what we did. (Followed by dinner and champagne.)
At the Ball, we love celebrating the journey of being debut authors (after all, we’re only debutantes once!). What do you love about being a first-timer? What’s been most fun for you?
Oh my gosh, there’s been so much to celebrate. Most of it has to do with other people. My family and friends have been so excited for me, so every time I share good news about the book with them, I get to feel that burst of joy all over again. That’s been great. And then there have been a couple of Author moments with a capital A—after a big marketing meeting, the head of my imprint took several of us to lunch, and when the chef came to the table, she introduced me to him by saying “And this is our author Jael McHenry”—that blew me away. I’ll remember that forever.
Are you working on a second book? If so, care to share a little about the project, or where you’re at in the writing process?
I am! It’s very different from The Kitchen Daughter, but it’s also a story of magic and transformation, so I think readers of the first book will like the second. But the narrator is a totally different person—she’s bold and shifty and a born storyteller, and you can’t quite trust her. After spending such a long time writing in Ginny’s very specific voice, which has a lot of limitations, it’s been kind of weird writing in a voice that has no constraints whatsoever. But the structure of the book is more complicated—there’s a present story and a past one —and it’s also set more than 100 years ago, so there are plenty of constraints to write around, which is good. I think I write better with constraints than without.
What’s your advice to aspiring novelists about how to realize their dreams?
Don’t give up, and don’t go it alone. If your dream is to get a novel published—like mine—you need a lot of perseverance, and it’s a lot easier to persevere with support and love and input from your friends. Find fellow aspiring authors online who you can consult with on your journey. Learn from writers’ sites and blogs. Go to conferences if you can. Offer to critique other people’s work, and ask them to critique yours. I learned an amazing amount about writing and publishing from my agent and editor, but before that, I learned an amazing amount from other writers. It makes all the difference.