Cool Breaking News: WU contributor Jael McHenry’s debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter, which releases in just four days on April 12th, has a gorgeous review in the May edition of O, The Oprah Magazine (p 190)!
What’s The Kitchen Daughter about?
After the unexpected death of her parents, shy and sheltered Ginny Selvaggio, a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, seeks comfort in 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—before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.
A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister Amanda insists on selling their parents’ house in Philadelphia, 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 her parents’ recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.
Offering a fascinating glimpse into the unique mind of a woman struggling with Asperger’s and featuring evocative and mouth-watering descriptions of food, this lyrical novel is as delicious and joyful as a warm brownie.
Trust me, it’s a feast of words that’ll make you glad to be a reader. I hope you enjoy part 2 of my interview with Jael.
TW: Simmer. A Watched Pot. Honey from an Onion. And now The Kitchen Daughter. This story tried on plenty of titles. Was this an arduous or fun process for you? What, if anything, did you learn about finding the perfect title for your work?
JM: In a way, it’s like I said about editing earlier – a manuscript can become any one of a hundred books, and it could also have any one of a hundred titles. I love titles, so it was fun for me to brainstorm. I always felt like the original title, Simmer, was a placeholder. I didn’t mind changing it, but I wanted to make sure it changed to something I liked. So I gave my publisher a ridiculously long list – probably 30 titles or more – and they liked The Kitchen Daughter best. It gives you some sense of what to expect, which is important in a title. You want it to be interesting in itself, but that’s not the only goal. A title is a clue to the story. You can come up with the most lyrically beautiful title in the world, but if it doesn’t match the book, it’s not a good title. (At one point I was also really attached to The Shape of Salt, so now I just have to write a book or a story that actually fits it.)
TW: What would you say is your greatest strength as a writer? Your greatest weakness?
JM: Every strength I have is also a weakness. I love writing detailed and lyrical description, and I’ve often been complimented on it, but if I indulge myself too much my writing gets really bogged down. Similarly, I love to make great leaps in plotting and hit the reader with something they never expected… except that some readers really hate that kind of surprise. I’m really welcoming of critique but sometimes I’m too quick to internalize other people’s vision instead of sticking fast to my own. Hmm. All that makes me sound really critical of myself, so I’ll put it another way – every weakness I have as a writer is also a strength. I don’t think you can separate them, at least not in my case.
TW: You’ve discussed metaphors on WU before, but I want to go back there, because your metaphors are some of the best I’ve read (e.g. “Hearts pull apart in wet chunks like canned tomatoes.”). So many metaphors found on the world’s bookshelves, even those that are appropriate, seem like filler. You’ve mentioned previously that it’s smart to use metaphors that relate to a character’s life, but I think you do more than that. Ginny is involved with plenty of things: her parents’ death, her home, her sister’s invasive behavior, the ghosts that eventually arrive in her kitchen. What she relates most to though is cooking. I think you’ve used metaphors to cement not only who Ginny is but what makes her feel normal. Canned tomatoes. How much more normal can it get? Were you conscious about writing metaphors that keyed in on Ginny’s innermost fears and needs? Or are you just, ya know, naturally brilliant?
JM: Any question that ends “are you naturally brilliant” is my kind of question! I’m tempted to say yes! But that’s definitely not it. The pervasiveness of food in Ginny’s worldview came relatively late in the game – before the book deal, but not much – but once that idea was in my head, everything just clicked. Food is the lens through which Ginny sees the whole world. Period. She isn’t comfortable with people, so she filters them through this lens, and everything about them becomes food-related, and that makes her comfortable. A voice like orange juice. Someone’s shoulder like the shank end of a ham. There’s a point where she analyzes the color of someone’s skin as “what other people would call olive”, but because olives are different colors, she has to pin it down to a particular type of olive. It’s another coping mechanism, something she can do internally to deal with the unpleasant external.
TW: What inspires you as a writer? People, quotes, places, foods, music? Favorite craft books? All of the above?
JM: Everything! I steal shamelessly from life. So even though my fiction isn’t autobiographical at all, so many things in it are mine. I was living in Philadelphia when I wrote TKD, living on exactly the corner that Ginny lives on, and of course the whole idea of a character who’s passionate about cooking came from my own love of the kitchen. So that’s a clear steal from life. I won’t often get inspired by music as a jumping-off point, but it does frequently work the other way – if the characters are in my head, they resonate with the world, so I’ll hear a song and think, Oh, that’s a perfect way of describing a character. I have this very clear mental image of Ginny stepping into her kitchen and turning to look behind her, and the music playing is “Vampires in Blue Dresses” by Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s. So the writing and the living keep feeding back into each other, in this inspirational loop.
TW: Your web site is fantastic! Was building your site an easy task for you? Do you have any tips for soon-to-be authors about to build a site?
JM: Thanks! I’d looked through a lot of other authors’ sites and decided exactly what I wanted. It was fairly straightforward, just a few pages, but I knew I couldn’t do the setup and design myself. So I asked around for recommendations, and I found Jason Munninghoff, and he got everything done just beautifully. And I do the ongoing text updates myself, which I highly recommend to writers – every time a new review comes in or I have a bit of news to share, I can get on there and make it happen. You don’t necessarily need an author website early on if you have some other web presence. I had my food blog and my portfolio at Intrepid Media, so the author site came much later. That way I knew what I could afford, and what I really needed, and I only had to do it once.
TW: Since landing your book deal, have you felt surprised by any aspect of the publishing industry? What, if anything, do you wish you’d known ahead of time?
JM: Honestly, almost nothing has taken me by surprise, and a lot of that has to do with the awesome network of authors who have shared their experiences with me along the way. Also, since I’d spent a decade actively pursuing publication, I’d picked up a lot in that time. In addition to learning about querying and how agents work and all that, I’d developed a good foundation of information on what to expect after the book deal. I’d learned a lot of the language. That made everything a lot easier, so instead of asking my editor questions like “Okay, when you say ‘first pass pages’, what does that mean?” I could stay focused on content and editorial revisions with her.
TW: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? And what advice would you like to pass along to those striving for publication?
JM: Don’t give up, and don’t go it alone! I’ve gone on record in plenty of places about persistence being the most important quality in an aspiring author, but it’s a special type of persistence. Writing one book and querying 200+ agents with it is not persistence. Persistence is growing, and learning, and getting better and better, and applying that knowledge to both your business and your craft. And there are so many other wonderful, supportive writers out there who can be part of your growing and learning process. A lot of people I know, including me, have built most of their author network online. Writer Unboxed is a great place for that, and so are the forums at Backspace. If you can, go to conferences, and spend time meeting and talking to the other writers attending, not just the agents and editors. Other writers are your secret weapon. I’m lucky enough to have a genius agent and a brilliant editor, but a boatload of what I know about writing and publishing both, I learned from other writers.
TW: What will you be doing in the coming weeks and months for The Kitchen Daughter?
JM: Freaking out quietly and baking a lot of Midnight Cry Brownies. I have a number of events coming up, which are always posted on my News and Events page at jaelmchenry.com – and anytime I show up to read or speak, I plan to bring sweets. I can’t bring sweets on my online tour, but there’ll be new reviews of The Kitchen Daughter on a series of really great book blogs now through mid-May. And in June I’m headed back to Iowa to speak at a library near my hometown – really looking forward to that!
TW: What’s next for you?
JM: The next book is in the works. It’s a very different book with a very different narrator, one who is bold and shifty and a born storyteller, pretty much Ginny’s polar opposite. But that’s taking a back burner while I focus on getting the word out about The Kitchen Daughter both in-person and online. I really just want to enjoy my debut, and so far, so good!
Jael, thanks for a wonderful interview! Readers, you can learn more about Jael by visiting her website, her blog, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter. And please do yourselves a favor and check out The Kitchen Daughter. It’s truly an amazing book. Write on!