I am particularly thrilled to present this interview to you today. I’ve known Jael McHenry for quite a while now. We became familiar with each other on the Backspace forum, and when she began looking for an agent–and became interested in my agent, Elisabeth Weed–we came to know each other better. Jael is that alchemist’s blend of likability and sharp-wittedness that is rare and easily admired. She is also an extraordinarily talented writer and the Editor-in-Chief of Intrepid Media. I’m so pleased that she became a contributor here at Writer Unboxed, and I’m more than a little proud that her debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter, will be released this month–on April 12th. This is a book that I have read and can recommend without reservations. You will love it for its everything–from its complex protagonist to Jael’s artistry at turning a phrase. But, hey, don’t take my word for it:
“Skillfully rendered from Ginny’s point of view, McHenry’s debut novel is a touching tale about loss and grief, love and acceptance.” — Kirkus Reviews
“McHenry’s debut novel is a sensitive and realistic portrait of someone living with Asperger’s. Readers looking for good family-themed women’s fiction will enjoy this novel, and the magical element of the cooking ghosts will appeal to fans of Sarah Addison Allen.” — Library Journal
“…an intelligent and moving account of an intriguing heroine’s belated battle to find herself.” — Publishers Weekly
You’ve learned enough about Jael here at WU to know she’s a foodie. What you’re about to find out is that her novel is uniquely and memorably delicious.
TW: The Kitchen Daughter is a gorgeously written story about a girl with Asperger’s syndrome who struggles to trust herself after the death of her parents, struggles too with independence and what it means to be “normal.” I absolutely loved Ginny and reading about her story—including her deep love of cooking and her budding ability to conjure ghosts by preparing recipes written by the dead. Tell us a little about how this story came to be. What inspired it? How long did it take to move from first draft to deal? And is it your first effort or is there a manuscript (or five) in the drawer?
JM: First of all, thanks for the kind words! The first seed of the story was that I absolutely love to cook (and eat). And after writing several other books that just kept not hitting the mark, I finally asked myself some hard questions – Why don’t my characters love any of the things that I love? Why am I not using that in my writing? What if I did? So I started developing this character who loved to cook but had never used that love to connect with other people, and the first draft came from there. It took less than a year to write the book, and another year to sell it. Which is actually pretty quick in publishing, but I was also drawing on the 10 years that came before. Everything I learned from the drawerful of unsuccessful books went into making this one successful.
TW: How many large-scale revisions did you make on TKD before it sold? Did you find it challenging and/or gratifying to slice and dice old versions of your story to create new drafts? And how did you cleanse the palate between reads in order to make each revision as effective as possible?
JM: I’ve honestly forgotten how many large-scale revisions TKD went through, which is probably a good thing, because I’m sure it’s a big number! I overhauled it before sending to agents, I overhauled it with my agent, I overhauled it with my editor. I’ve thrown out more words than I’ve kept. It was both challenging and gratifying, yes. There’s something really satisfying about re-conceiving the plot, pulling the manuscript apart and looking at each scene in isolation, then piecing it back together. It’s like manuscript Tetris. Between revisions I really ignored the book completely and didn’t even sneak a peek, so by the time I came back to it, it felt like someone else had written it. Which is actually the perfect frame of mind for a real revision.
TW: You have a writers’ group but were also receiving feedback from other sources (friends and editors and an agent!) during the revision process. Was everyone saying the same thing, or were there wildly different messages? What tips do you have for wading through feedback to look for patterns that can help you improve your manuscript?
JM: I am incredibly lucky to have readers whose insights help me make my work better, and different readers of The Kitchen Daughter had different ideas about how I should do that. There were potential agents who wanted me to rewrite it without the Asperger’s, which I obviously didn’t agree with. And the first time we took the book out on submission, there were two editors who sent fairly brief rejections, but they both took the time to call out one particular scene late in the book – one because she loved it, the other because she hated it. So the input really varied. I think any book you start writing could turn into a hundred different books, and each person who critiques the manuscript will guide you toward turning it into the book they want it to be, and you just have to decide if that’s the book you want it to be.
TW: Let’s talk about Ginny, who is such a compelling character. How did she evolve for you? Did you have a strong sense of her from Draft One? Did you struggle at all to make her a relatable character for readers? If so, how did you make this antisocial girl someone readers might love?
JM: Partly because I’ve written and rewritten and fine-tuned this book so much, and it’s all from Ginny’s point of view, I am hugely attached to Ginny. I’m very protective of her. So when my editor brought up the issue of whether readers were going to feel the same way, it was sort of a shock – I was thinking, How could anyone not love Ginny? But my editor was right. (She pretty much always is.) So I did a lot of work during the final rounds of revision to make sure that even though Ginny is distant, and sometimes difficult, the reader understands where she’s coming from. She’s smart and funny and frustrated and scared, and she’s struggling to find her way through a really difficult time. The grief she’s dealing with would be a challenge for anyone. Her Asperger’s isn’t beside the point, but it isn’t the whole point either. It’s part of her personality. I just wanted to make her the most complete, rounded, compelling character I could, and from there it’s all up to the readers themselves.
TW: Ginny is a foodie, and you’ve included several recipes in this book, for which I want to say thank you. Why is food so important to Ginny? How does it help her? (And what recipe do you hope readers try, if they try only one?)
JM: Ginny loves the process of cooking in particular, the idea that she can follow a recipe that has prescribed steps and techniques. She disappears into the process. That’s soothing for her. So when she has the worst trauma of her life – the death of her parents – cooking becomes an even more important coping mechanism. It’s something I experience on a much smaller scale myself – if I’m having a bad idea, or tense about something, I really love to cook as a way of relaxing (although I don’t always use recipes.) Ooh, if people only try one recipe, the Midnight Cry Brownies are a good choice – dark chocolate brownies with espresso powder and salt. Though sentimentally I’m most attached to the biscuits and sausage gravy, which is my own Grandma McHenry’s.
TW: Talk a little about Ginny’s “Normal Book.” What is it, why is it important, and how did it come to be such a central part of your story?
JM: The Normal Book is a collection of snippets cut out of advice columns that Ginny has pasted into a blank book, phrases and sentences that include the word “normal”. When you read them all together, there’s this sense that “normal” is something everyone’s worried about being, but it really has no set meaning. Ginny needs rules and evidence and guidelines to feel comfortable, so the Normal Book was my way of giving her that comfort.
TW: I’m going to fess up for readers now and admit I read an early version of this story. I know that later versions were tighter especially in the early chapters, with a focus on more urgency early on. This is a writer’s alchemy. How did you do it, without making broad changes to the chapters? Can you provide a few examples of how you brought new tension to those first scenes?
JM: There were big revisions and little ones, definitely – and my readers (including you, thank goodness!) really helped me fine-tune things. They let me know whenever things were flagging, or sections felt slow. Some of it is that classic problem of slaying your darlings – there were scenes and reflections I absolutely loved, but they didn’t move the story forward, and the reader didn’t really need them. They had to go. Then at some point during revisions, I realized that no matter how attention-getting the premise, or whether or not they liked the main character, readers weren’t going to keep reading unless I gave them a reason. So I gave them lots of reasons. And that way there isn’t just one big question – is Ginny going to make it? – that’s answered at the end, but a whole bunch of questions – what does Nonna’s warning mean? Are the ghosts helpful or harmful? Who hid the letter? What about Amanda? – that are answered along the way.
Click here for part 2 of my interview with Jael McHenry, when we’ll talk about title trials, strengths and weaknesses, and much more! You can learn more about Jael by visiting her killer website, her blog, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter. Write on.