Quite a long time ago, someone recommended I ask Jessica Conant-Park to do an interview for Cooking with Ideas. Slow as I am, I eventually wrote to her and she promptly sent along a few of her books. And I slowly, eventually, months and months later got to her with interview questions. And then, voila -- she's very fast -- and here's the interview. For those who do not know, Jessica is the author of a series of books called the Gourmet Girls series which are very well written murder mysteries featuring a main character Chloe as amateur detective. Well, to be honest, Jessica is co-author of the books, with her mother, mystery author Susan Conant.
Bibliochef: So, let’s begin with the basics! As an author, you seem to have been shaped a lot by family -- You came to be a writer in part because your mother is author Susan Conant. And your husband is a chef. Both get lots of play in the biography you provide on your own website. Can you tell us about other influences – and any up and down sides to having such influences close to home?
Jessica: Many people have wondered how on earth I could possibly write with my mother and have presented me with lots of things they’d rather do than write with their own mothers (i.e.: jump into a jagged ravine, sleep on a bed of nails) but she is, in fact, wonderful to work with. We very rarely disagree when writing the Gourmet Girl books and our only struggles have been around any pop culture references that come into the story. Mom has ended up looking a number of things up on Google and verifying that, yes, indeed, Tom Cruise is a household name for the majority of the population. We have very different writing strengths and she has been incredibly generous, not to mention patient, with me as I’ve figured out what kind of writer I am.
Initially I thought that I would have the strong urge to turn real-life people into characters. I know many authors meet unique people and immediately think, “I can’t WAIT to get him/her into my book!” I think the earlier books in the series probably include more ripped-from-my-life anecdotes and personality traits, but the series took on a life of it’s own and so most of what you read is entirely in my imagination.
Bibliochef: I read Steamed and Simmer Down prior to knowing your husband is a chef. They seem to me to be quite realistic seeming about restaurant life as a chef might live it. Would he agree?
Jessica: Um, yeah. Unfortunately, in some cases. I had a number of people write me or post reviews who were really ticked off at the presentation of stealing from restaurants in TURN UP THE HEAT. Readers insisted that there could never be as much stealing by employees and customers as I described, but it’s all too true. Almost all of the restaurant industry details in the book come from my husband and a number of other chefs that I’ve interviewed over the years. One chef gave me so many stories that I had page after page of notes about all the wild capers he’d been involved with as a chef.
Bibliochef: I know you went to Macalester College and majored in “ Psychology of Women: Social Science and Literary Perspectives.” This leads me to ask about how being a woman shapes your work as an author – and how you see feminism as relevant to what you do. So. . . . any response?
Jessica: First of all, thank you for reminding me what my major was… I’d totally forgotten. Hm… feminism. This, like many loaded subjects, is a tough issue to handle when writing. Someone will always judge you for how you present characters and claim that by having character X want a boyfriend, she is pathetic, ditzy, weak-willed, and cannot stand on her own two feet. She’s an anti-feminist. If character Y happens to be annoying and also happens to be a vegan, then you’ve now apparently indicated that all vegans are awful people. This is, obviously, ridiculous. I basically ignore worrying about this sort of thing when writing. My characters do not represent groups of people; they represent themselves. I am really not trying to make grand social statements. Well, for the most part.
Women chefs, though, are a totally different ball game. I find it incredibly weird that while the majority of home cooking is still done (and is often expected to be done) by women, the vast, vast majority of professional chefs are men. Yes, there are exceptions, but the chef world is absolutely dominated by men, and thus professional kitchens can have a hardcore “masculine” atmosphere. Many women chefs will tell you that they have to work twice as hard as men do and are nearly always expected to “toughen up” at work and play along. It’s not ideal, let’s just say that. So I definitely had a bone to pick when I tackled that issue in the series.
Bibliochef: What you have to say about your writing and the characters as representing groups is an interesting set of points. Thanks. And I do agree on the point you make about chefs! Would you see your main characters as feminist? How (if at all) does that fit with your sense of yourself as a “chick lit” author and the author of a series that refers to adult females as girls?
Jessica: Well, I suppose it depends how you define “feminist.” I never really labeled my characters as such, and much of Chloe and Adrianna’s personalities have to do with their age (mid-twenties) rather than taking a hard stand on feminism. I think the twenties are rough. Yes, you sort of have a nice degree of freedom, but there is often a major struggle to define who you are, figure out where you’re going in life, what kind of relationship you want or don’t want, where your career is taking you… It’s not all fun. I don’t care for pushover female characters, for sure, but I also think it’s okay for them to want a relationship without giving up parts of themselves.
Look, there is always going to be a debate about whether or not “chick lit” and “girls” are offensive terms, and I really could care less. “Chick Lit” is a loose term used to classify a genre of books. That’s it. The “mystery” genre can include many different types of books, and so can “chick lit.” Yes, some of it is junky, trite, and offensive, the way there is junk in any genre. Look at someone like Jennifer Weiner, who is considered one of the leaders in chick lit. Her characters are deep, layered, and interesting. What I find offensive is when people are annoyed by the idea that books written by women, for women, and about women are inherently anti-feminist fluff. It’s just not true. I look at the term as a positive thing because the battle to define “chick lit” is a no win one.
Bibliochef: Ok, this means I better get out there and try some Jennifer Weiner! Thanks for answering these questions so frankly. Now, I am dying to ask whether you think a liberal arts education makes for a good mystery writer – there are so many even who write foodie/cozy types (such as Mott Davidson who went to Wellesley) and other sorts (like Patricia Cornwell who went to Davidson) who went to places like that. And while I am on your education – what do those you knew when you were obtaining your Masters in Social Work think of the books?
Jessica: Interesting idea. I don’t really have an answer for you, except that I do know many writers who have had a liberal arts education. I guess that sort of degree doesn’t always qualify you to do much else, huh? Kidding, kidding… mostly. A really good undergraduate experience doesn’t just teach you a specific skill; it teaches you how to think in complex ways. And that is a skill you definitely need as a mystery plotter and novel writer.
Ahem… Those who knew me when I was in social work school will say that my books, and Chloe’s take on social work school, accurately reflect my total boredom and complete exacerbation with graduate school.
Bibliochef: On another topic entirely, can you describe your writing process? Do you write every day? What proportion of what you write sees print?
Jessica: I try to write Monday through Friday, but it doesn’t always happen. I used to be a morning writer, getting my best work done between eight and noon, but recently I seem to be more productive after lunch. Now that my son is a bit more self-sufficient, he is able to give me a little time after he comes home from school. Some days I can write twelve pages and some days getting one page out is an uphill battle. Every day is different, but I get faster as a book progresses so usually when I’m writing the last
I absolutely won’t start a manuscript without a firm outline. Many writers are comfortably plowing ahead without one, but I’m definitely the sort who would write myself into a corner with no hope of escape. I like to have a really good idea of where the story starts and ends, and what needs to happen in between to make that work. Especially with a mystery, certain events need to precede others, and it’s easier for me to know what those are ahead of time, rather than having to go back and make large adjustments later. Which brings me to editing…
Editing. Ugh. The most necessary evil. I don’t bother doing much editing until I have a complete rough draft, and I’ve learned to be really tough on myself then. Yes, it completely stinks to have to delete your own work. You spent time on that! You thought it was great when you wrote it! It’s funny! Yes, but if it doesn’t add something to the story, if it doesn’t move things along or set a scene and tell the reader something about the character, it needs to go. Find a way to show or say it succinctly. I wrote a YA book last year (that is with my agent now) and I edited out probably thirty-five pages. It’s hard and painful, and a blow to the ego at times, but well worth it. Editing STEAMED was excruciating because it was the first book I’d written and MY MEAN MOMMY CUT LOTS OF WORDS OUT! But I learned. And the payoff for good editing is a much stronger book and is more likely to engage and keep your readers. It’s much easier for me to edit when I’m done with the whole story because I’m more comfortable removing text when I have enough to work with. When you have twenty-five pages and you force yourself to delete three, it’s unbearable.
Bibliochef: What do you eat when you write? When you have writer’s block?
Jessica: Actually, if I’m really on a writing roll, I forget to eat. By three o’clock I’ll end up tired, blear-eyed, dizzy, and miserable. But I honestly hate to stop writing when things are going well. If it’s something fast that involves zero assembly, I may make an exception. Olives from a jar, a hunk of cheddar cheese, a slice of turkey. It’s very glamorous. Writer’s block? I could eat everything out of the fridge. Any reason not to sit and stare at that dreadful blinking cursor.
Bibliochef: What cookbook would your characters hate? Recommend?
Jessica: My characters would loathe anything cutsey or outdated (Julia Child being the obvious exception. She’s a goddess.) Jamie Oliver, on the other hand, has won over Chloe and Adrianna because not only is he totally adorable and charming, but he is a fantastic chef. The chefs in my books would send out to buy anything by Charlie Trotter, although even they would agree that most of his books are not best if you actually want to cook a meal; they’re meant as picture books with menus to inspire you to create.
Bibliochef: Ok, I know (as some readers will and some will not), that Chloe (the main character in your Gourmet Girl series) will appear in 5 books (including one coming out in March) and is then “retiring.” Will this be like Sherlock Holmes reborn – will she be forced out of retirement?
Jessica: Well, I didn’t hurl Chloe over the Reichenbach falls, but I’m not sure what’s in her future. I will let you in on a little secret… Michele Scott (author of the Wine Lover’s mystery series) and I have talked about doing a few short stories where we bring our main characters together for a bit of sleuthing fun. Not sure if or when this will happen, but I think Nikki and Chloe would have a riot together.
Bibliochef: Glad to hear you're not throwing Chloe off a bridge -- and it'll be great to see her in some collaborative stories! And, I am totally with you on Charlie Trotter! But now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I “speak” with! What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Jessica: Wow. This is tough and probably impossible for me to narrow down to one, and Bill will kill me if I don’t say something he made. So, my answer is something he made. Which is probably true, but he’s given me too many good ones to choose from. One of his best was some sort of deep-fried soft-shell crab on a baby artichoke and potato hash… the whole thing sat in an unidentifiable rich broth. That was amazing. but I did have an incredible meal at the Amelia Island Plantation in Florida a few years ago. The chef did a tempura lobster with sweet chili that was un-be-lievable. Fabulous. As you can see, I’m a big fan of fried foods…
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food products would you recommend? Why?
Jessica: Spanglish is the greatest food-related movie. It’s gorgeous, and moving, and doesn’t go over the top with the food theme as so many movies do. Ugh, there are some wretched restaurant/chef movies out there… be careful.
As I mentioned before, Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks are invaluable. He does recipes that you won’t find in every other book but also manages to keep the ingredient list down to something manageable. Really, how many of us are going to make something with eighty-five expensive and obscure components?
Side note: Everyone should own a stick blender. Dunk it into a pot of soup to puree it up and pop it in the dishwasher for easy clean up.
Bibliochef: I'm with you on the stick blender (even though mine is not quite dishwasher proof). What do you eat for comfort food?
Jessica: Good cheese (extra gooey Brie, rich and creamy goat, and Explorateur), pasta dishes loaded with veggies, meat, and cream sauce, or my favorite, chicken and sausage gumbo. Here is the link to my all-time favorite recipe: http://www.gumbopages.com/food/soups/chixsaus-gumbo.html Oh, and you won’t see me kick away a really good bagel with lox. Ever.
Bibliochef: Well, Jessica has certainly offered us some food for thought! Watch for her newest book coming shortly! And, we'll have to nudge her to eat in the Finger Lakes as she skipped that question! Thanks to Jessica for good reads both in the interview and in her books!
Watch for COOK THE BOOKS, due out in hard cover March 2, 2010!