Jael McHenry‘s The Kitchen Daughter was recently named one of Oprah.com’s “Tantalizing Beach Reads”, which is very exciting!

I caught up with the debut author on the success of her delightful novel (which by the way, I read in one sitting!)

Please tell my readers a little about your book.

The Kitchen Daughter is my debut novel, and it’s about a young woman who discovers that she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes. The main character, Ginny Selvaggio, is a shy and sheltered young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who has always lived in her childhood home with her parents. When they die, she seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes, and the ghost of her grandmother is drawn into her kitchen by the rich, peppery smell of ribollita. It’s a food-focused book, with lots of description and detail of food and cooking, but it’s also a story of how our family dynamics shape us, and who gets to decide what “normal” really means. Kirkus Reviews called it “a touching tale about loss and grief, love and acceptance.”

Tell me a little bit about your background.

I grew up in a small town in Iowa, and went to the same school from kindergarten until I graduated high school. There were only 32 people in my graduating class. In a small school you kind of get a chance to do everything, so I took advantage of that – English was always my best subject and I was writing from a very young age, but I was also in the school play, and singing in the chorus, and playing oboe and saxophone, and I was a cheerleader for three sports. It was a fantastic way to grow up. Then I went to college in Boston, and graduate school in Washington, DC, and I’ve also lived in Philadelphia and New York City, so that small-town childhood gave me a great start to my current big-city life.

What inspired you to write KD?

As I mentioned, I was writing from a very young age, and I feel like I’ve always been cooking as well. I learned by helping my mom in the kitchen, as I think a lot of people do. After I got my master’s in creative writing, I wrote a number of novels, but hadn’t quite found the right one to break through and get published. So in 2007 I realized that maybe I should try combining my love of food with my passion for fiction, and that’s where The Kitchen Daughter started.

What was the writing process like?

It was challenging! The protagonist of The Kitchen Daughter has Asperger’s syndrome, and one of the things that means is that she can’t interpret body language or facial expressions. So I couldn’t write things like “She smiled at me, but I knew she didn’t mean it”, or even “He looked angry.” There was a lot of rewriting, too, to make the book as good as it could be.

Did you ever have a moment when the inner critic won over? How did you defeat it/him/her?

The inner critic was definitely there all along. I also have trouble getting perspective on my writing right after I finish a major revision. When I wasn’t writing for publication that wasn’t a problem, because I could just set something aside for a couple of months and then look at it with fresh eyes later, but in this case I didn’t necessarily have a couple of months to spare. So I had trusted readers – my agent, my editor, other writers I know – and they were honest with me about what they thought was great and what they thought wasn’t working. I guess an outer critic helps me interpret what my inner critic is saying more clearly.

Three pieces of writing advice you would give new and aspiring fiction writers like me?

My two standbys are these: Don’t give up, and don’t go it alone. Especially if your goal is to get your fiction published, it can be a long hard road, and it’s easy to get discouraged. So I definitely recommend finding a way to connect with other writers, either online or in person, so you can learn from and support each other. I guess my third piece of advice would be, Don’t be afraid to put yourself in your fiction. Not literally – your main character doesn’t need to be a thinly veiled version of yourself – although that’s okay too. But the passionate love of food and cooking in The Kitchen Daughter is something from my own life that I put into my character’s life, and I really think that’s a huge part of what makes the story come alive.


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