|Simply from Scratch by Alicia Bessette
Simply from Scratch tells the story of Zell, and her path towards giving her life meaning after the death of her husband, David -- a death that has affected all of Zell and David's life-long friends in different ways. Along the way she befriends her nine-year-old neighbor, Ingrid, who convinces her to enter a baking contest with the hopes of meeting TV celebrity chef Polly Pinch, the woman Ingrid fiercely believes is her mother.
I read Simply from Scratch over two days, drawn in by the depth of the characters, their relationships and the quirky way the story worked in a baking contest. (I think the many references to New Orleans, where David died during a community rebuilding trip, was a part of it, too. I was in NOLA about a year after Katrina hit and was amazed by the devastation that was still there)
I emailed Alicia and asked her if she would be willing to answer some questions to accompany this contest for her book. She agreed and was extremely gracious with her answers to my get-inside-the-writer's-head questions.
TMF: In many ways the setting of Simply from Scratch, Wippamunk, MA, reminds me of the small Vermont town where a good friend of mine lived and worked with his father back in the late 80s. When I visited them I got a small sense for what it was like being a Townie.
The community of Wippamunk plays an important role in Simply from Scratch. It’s not only the setting for your book, but it is the place that roots many of your characters and holds them together. Did you base Wippamunk on a town you know or was it more of an ideal?
AB: As I was writing Simply From Scratch, I sometimes closed my eyes to picture Wippamunk and saw the town of Holden, Massachusetts, where I grew up. So Wippamunk shares many physical characteristics with the real-life Holden.
In personality, Wippamunk is similar to Rutland, Massachusetts, Holden’s neighbor to the north. I got to know Rutland while covering it for a small newspaper where I was a reporter. The people of Rutland seem rooted and connected both to the land and to each other, much more so than other places I’ve lived.
In some ways Wippamunk is an ideal. Small towns aren’t always as hospitable and caring as Wippamunk. The people who live in a community, regardless of its size, determine whether it’s a disparate, cold place, or an inviting, close-knit one.
Simply from Scratch revolves around a number of people who have known each other all their lives. In some ways, the characters know each other so well as to not need to say much to each other to be understood. In other ways, they’re such old friends that there are things they find they just cannot say to each other. How did you approach this to find the balance necessary to keep a slight edge of tension in those relationships?
Isn’t that just how it is sometimes? We don’t, or can’t, communicate our deepest truths to the ones we love the most. The surviving friends in Simply From Scratch -- especially Zell, France, and EJ -- are bound by a shared past. Loyalty keeps them together. But in a way it also haunts them, keeps them stuck and silent, even in each other’s presence. One could say Nick’s death is the proverbial elephant in the living room that no one seems able to acknowledge. Ultimately, their collective need to leave Nick in the past and forge ahead without him allows their friendships to evolve.
A specific character trait is not disclosed until halfway through the book. Without giving it away to people who have not read the book why did you decide to reveal this in the middle of the book instead of when the characters are introduced?
Readers have told me, “I didn’t realize Garrett and Ingrid were African American until halfway through the book.” And yet, Zell describes Garrett’s skin color as “cocoa” on page six, and Ingrid’s as lighter, “the color of sunlight on oak floors,” on page seven. (As Garrett’s stepmother, Trudy is white.) I like to think that, at its very best, Simply From Scratch makes the point that people are people, regardless of their exterior.
It struck me as odd in the scene towards the end, when Zell and EJ talk, you chose to tell it from EJ’s perspective rather than Zell’s perspective. Why did you do so?
As Simply From Scratch winds down, Zell experiences a lot of closure. I wanted EJ to enjoy some closure too. Telling that scene from EJ’s point of view allowed me to give his narrative a real ending (which is actually a new beginning for him).
Nick, Zell’s husband who has died before the story starts, leaves a big gap in the lives of those left behind. His death has changed the interpersonal dynamics of all those who knew him. Instead of keeping him ‘gone’ in the novel you’ve chosen to give him his own voice—through emails sent to Zell during his trip to New Orleans. In this way, even Nick has his own story arc, growing and changing due to the events he experienced. Why did you choose to include Nick as a ‘living’ character?
Allowing Nick to speak through emails makes the story more poignant and palpable. I didn’t want to simply say, “This guy Nick has died and now everyone in his town misses him a lot.” The emails show what Nick was like, what went through his head during his final days. You get to know him, and as a result, you mourn him.
Nick experienced transformation in New Orleans, and he was excited to return home and show his wife the new-and-improved Nick. That transformation makes his death all the more tragic, because Zell is stuck wondering about this new man, and how their marriage might have flourished, had he made it back home to her.
Present tense is usually discouraged for first-time writers. Why did you choose present tense for your story and did you receive any push-back on this from your beta readers/your agent/editor?
No push-back whatsoever.
In general, I like present tense. I like the immediacy of it, and its simplicity.
Moreover, during very early drafts of Simply From Scratch, I experimented with both present and past tenses, and found that present tense better served my goals for the book. The characters came to me more naturally when I used present, as did Zell’s voice.
If you are a first-time writer and someone discourages you from using present tense, maybe that person has a good reason. But the tense you should use is the tense that allows your characters to shine brightest. If that’s present tense, then I say, go for it.
I have to ask about the recipe for Scrumpy Delight. In the interview you did with GirlsGoneWriting.net you also describe sending versions of the Scrumpy Delight recipe to your mother by email with the subject line “Don’t ask, just bake.” As a baker, the ingredients list (pineapple, soft cheese, lime juice, pepper, and chocolate, amongst others) caught me way off guard. What inspired the ingredients choices and how many different versions did you go through before settling on the recipe at the end of the book?
I really can’t say how many versions I went through. Ten? Fifteen? To get started, I made a list of my favorite things to eat: chocolate, cheese, and fruit. I went from there, remembering the time my mother experimented by grilling pineapple spears and drizzling them with honey, lemon juice, and pepper.
The things we make reflect who we are. The ingredients are unusual, and I think that’s fitting for Zell and Ingrid, who are also unusual!
Your query for Simply from Scratch was featured in Chuck Sambuchino’s “Guide to Literary Agents” blog as an example of a great, successful query. How long did it take you to come up with that version of your query and how many re-writes did it take before you settled on that version?
About halfway through the writing of Simply From Scratch, I drafted a query letter. As the book changed and developed, so did my query letter. (I’m doing something similar now, as I write my next novel; I’ve written a half-page pitch, which boils down the essence of plot and main characters to about three brief paragraphs. I adjust the pitch as the book grows. This practice helps keep my writing focused and tight, my goals for the book -- emotional honesty, accessibility, suspense, warmth, humor, liveliness -- top of mind.)
A few years ago I met a novelist whose work I admired and who seemed kind and approachable. I struck up an email correspondence with her and she offered to help me with my Simply From Scratch query letter when the time came. So, when I felt ready, she helped me tweak the letter and we went through three versions before we decided it was truly ready.
The book Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb was an indispensable resource for me during the query-writing and submitting process. I highly recommend it.
And now, on to the contest:
How to Enter to Win
- Follow my blog on Google Reader or subscribe to my RSS feed
- Leave a comment to this entry
Pretty easy, eh? No forms to fill out, no point system based on Tweeting and Re-tweeting, or posting this on your blog/Facebook profile/office door. Just give my ego a slight boost, then comment so I know you're interested.
Everyone who does so will be given a number matching the order in which their comment appears. Then, two weeks from today, on September 20, I'll go to a randomizer on the internets and have it choose the winner. I'll announce the winner on Tuesday, September 21.
(And, if after reading this interview you decide you want to read it right now, you can always order Simply from Scratch through Alicia's web site)
My thanks again to Alicia Bessette for her time. (And to Therese for the inital contest!)