Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Kitchen Daughter

"The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." --Mary Heaton Vorse

I have the good fortune to be acquainted with and related to people who are writers. Friends are usually fascinated by the process of writing, particularly fiction writing and have one of two reactions. One, they think it must be kind of easy, because you can make it all up and you get to sit at your computer and keep your own schedule. Or two, it is incredibly hard and they can't imagine even thinking about writing a piece of fiction - it is overwhelmingly intimidating.

I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle. One writer tells me he can't not write. The stories, the voices, populate his head and imagination until he can get them down on paper. But that doesn't mean it is easy.

To those of us browsing the stacks at our local bookstores, it looks like some authors just enjoy overnight success. All of the sudden a book will appear on the Just Released table at Barnes & Noble. Then you'll see a mention of the same book in a magazine round up. What seems like spontaneous, coincidental sightings of one book are actually the result of months or years of preparation.

On Tuesday, April 12th, The Kitchen Daughter, by Jael McHenry debuted on the shelves. [Full disclosure: Jael is a friend and colleague of my husband's]. The story of the novel, however, goes back several years. Jael has been writing her whole professional life, for various publications and while earning her MFA in Creative Writing. She began work on Simmer, as it was originally titled, in January of 2008. By the end of that year, she had finished that manuscript and submitted it to agents. Once she had obtained an agent, she spent another year revising and submitting to publishers before receiving an offer from Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in October of 2009. That timeline is actually quite quick, in the fiction publishing world.

From October 2009 until today, the manuscript was edited and revised, cover art was designed, and marketing planned. All so that the appearance of The Kitchen Daughter on shelves looks effortless and ubiquitous.

Back in January of 2010, my book club had the opportunity to read a draft of Simmer and give feedback to Jael on the story. She emailed us a PDF of the book and a list of questions for us to answer. It was interesting to see members' reactions to a book that was not in 'book form.' It was hard to determine if the binding, typeface, cover art, and blurbs add to the reader's impression of how good the novel is.

We had an enjoyable time discussing the book, pointing out things we felt were inconsistent or awkward, and contemplating different titles for the book. It was a thrill and an honor to be a small part of the process of The Kitchen Daughter.

The book on shelves today is quite similar to the manuscript of last year. The story follows Ginny Selvaggio in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Ginny loves to cook and quickly discovers she can conjure up the ghost of a deceased person, simply by preparing that person's recipe. Each chapter in the tale is named for a dish and many of the actual recipes are printed in the text. As she grieves, Ginny struggles both with feeling different from her sister and with a bit of a mystery, courtesy of the ghosts and other things she discovers along the way.

My book club loved the way Ginny thought in terms of food and descriptions of food. A character has an "orange juice" voice, another is "flan colored." We also were eager to see the recipes that Ginny uses in the book, and Jael includes recipes for everything from ribollita to hot chocolate to shortbread.

I will leave a proper review to unbiased, professional reviewers (see below). One of the quotes on the cover gives a wonderful synopsis of the book: "Add a pinch of magic, a dash of heartache, and a generous portions of lyrical beauty and you have The Kitchen Daughter, an enchanting tale of familial loss and quiet redemption - I loved it." -- Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Bon Appetit!


The Kitchen Daughter review, in the New York Journal of Books

Jael talks about the cover art here, in the Barnes & Noble community

The SIMMER blog

The secret to getting published


  1. Hi Raining Acorns .. that's a different approach .. conjuring up ghosts from recipes .. like the concept .. Jael sounds an interesting author.

    Cheers Hilary

  2. How interesting that you and your book club were able to help the author with her manuscript in that way! I love the evocative title and cover art, and I love to read recipes - sounds like my kind of book.

  3. I'm fascinated by the idea of what the ghosts teach her and how they interact with her when she conjures them. Ironic that we imagine spirits don't 'eat' the way we do and yet, in this adventure, their recipes in life are those which summon them. Gripped by the concept. Thanks for posting this.

  4. That was a really interesting post to read. I love reading about the journeys writers take. It's oh so reassuring ... *sighs*

  5. I love the idea of an "orange juice" voice. I wonder what the audio would sound like for that??

    This looks to be a very appealing novel. It must have been fun to be part of the process. Thanks so much for giving us a glimpse behind the scenes.

  6. How fun to see this post! Input from the book club was really helpful, and much later (just a couple months ago, I think) I saw a post from a much more established author who says she always runs her new books by a book club before submitting them to her editor. I would definitely do it again!

  7. Dear Wide Open Spaces,
    it must be very interesting to be so near to the creation process! And I love your quote - it is a lot of work and discipine in writing!
    I look out for the novel, thank you for the review.

  8. A very interesting post. I am in the "writing is hard" camp and getting published twice as hard.

    So having the process examined in all its complexity and exploring the long road to the finished 'article' is very helpful.


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