How I became Julia Child(ish)

You may know me from such culinary disasters as:

  • That time I set a baguette on fire
  • That time my oven broke on Thanksgiving Day and I hacked apart a frozen turkey and cooked pieces of it into a rubbery jerky using my toaster oven

  • That time I set a kitchen towel on fire
  • That time I put a rancid pork loin in the crockpot without realizing it had gone bad and came home to a dead body smell that permeated the apartment walls for weeks

I am not known for my cooking. Or maybe I am, but not in a good way. When my girlfriends and I used to have regular potlucks, I got put in charge of bringing the salad. Then I was demoted to buying the bread. Finally, I was told that there was no need to bring anything that might actually be ingested–my sparkling company would suffice.

So naturally, I am now writing a mystery series set in a restaurant, featuring a protagonist who is an incredible cook. When the opportunity to create the Deep-Dish Mysteries came my way, I thought to myself, “You’ve written stories about murders without ever killing anyone, surely you can write about cooking without really knowing a choux from a roux.” I could already describe basic techniques, having been a Food Network obsessive since Emeril’s first Bam! So I took a deep dive into research about cooking, culinary school, and becoming a chef. I hit up friends for stories about working in restaurants, and got behind-the-scenes tours of working kitchens. I inhabited the headspace of a chef, and tried to capture in words what the world looked like lit up in a technicolor of scent and flavor.

Then the series editor told me off-handedly that I would need to write original recipes related to dishes described in the book, because “it’s good for marketing.”

Imagine you managed to write a pretty decent book about Mozart. You’re feeling good about it. The fairytale beauty and courtly intrigue of 18th-century Salzburg sparkles on the page. You’ve found fresh ways to describe the hectic, almost giddy melodies of his overture to the Marriage of Figaro. You’re confident readers will weep at your description of the final, tortured months of the great composer’s life as he succumbed to his fatal illness. Then your editor is like, “Oh, by the way, score an original symphony so we can include it in the back matter for marketing.”

Okay, maybe writing pizza recipes isn’t quite on a par with that, but suffice it to say, the Quigleys have been eating a lot of deep-dish pizza this year. There were notable highs, like when I finally hit upon a crust recipe that reliably rises or when I had the profound epiphany that there really is no limit to the amount of cheese a deep-dish pizza can contain.

You can’t put too much cheese on a deep-dish pizza.

There were also, however, many, many lows, like the time I set out to make a bratwurst and cheddar pretzel crust pizza and instead produced a cardboard bowl containing a greasy orange slurry.

I was fortunate in a way that the global pandemic pushed back my publication date to Fall 2022, giving me extra time to research recipes, refine ideas, and practice, practice, practice. And all that kitchen time has heightened my understanding of my characters. I now really know that yeast is a mysterious little beast of an organism whose vicissitudes can make or break your whole day. I know with painful clarity that finding the perfect balance of salt and spice in a sauce can be damn tricky. I inhabit these people in a way I could not have if I hadn’t been forced to do their work. Makes me wonder if I should try to pull off a couple of murders as research? JK, future law enforcement folks!

In sum, while I can’t promise that I will never set fire to another loaf of bread, I can take pride in the fact that the poundage I packed on during the pandemic was for a higher purpose. Marketing.

Don’t hold your breath.

A few weeks ago, I lost the ability to breathe. Usually, I think about breathing about as often as I think about making my hair grow or making my blood circulate through my body. Which is to say, never. Breathing is supposed to be part of a body’s standard operating system. Like how when you buy a car, you shouldn’t have to specify that you want one that includes wheels. However, for days on end, I found myself yawning uncontrollably and struggling to take deep breaths. The yawning may have something to do with me having a toddler who currently likes to ninja into my room in the middle of the night and wake me up with a horror movie whisper of, “I need a pee.” But the fact that the yawning was coupled with other physical manifestations of stress made me suspicious that this was about more than what was happening in the “wee” hours.

My subconscious, as usual, was alerting me to an inner issue with all the subtlety of a submarine klaxon. I called my therapist.

Me: So, I think I’m stressed about something, but I can’t figure out what it is.

Her: Tell me what’s going on in your life.

Me: Everything’s good. Kids are healthy, parents and extended family are vaccinated, work is great. I’m waiting for some feedback on writing stuff, <<briefly ceases to breathe>> but… it’s… fine….

My therapist is wonderful, but even if she had the intuition and listening skills of a pickled beet, she would probably have picked up on the fact that my issue related to writing.

As I began to talk more about that aspect of my life, it became obvious that I hadn’t acknowledged that it was causing me stress. On the surface, things are great. I’ve got a sweet three-book deal from a great publisher, and I’m working with a fabulous agent and editor. Out of nowhere, I got a cool opportunity to pitch for another writing contract. Everything’s coming up Mindy!

However, my first book has been with the editor for months, due to a combination of my delivering the manuscript months ahead of deadline (overachiever alert!) and her heavy workload. I have no idea if she likes it, hates it, or is using it to line the bottom of her parakeet cage. I have a book contract, but no physical book yet. The other cool new writing opportunity involves a head-first leap into the unknown, with absolutely no guarantee of a soft landing. I literally have no idea if I’ll hear back about it tomorrow or in six months or possibly never. For all I know, that pitch is currently being ground up and used to make Grape Nuts. (Assuming Grape Nuts aren’t just grown in a Ukrainian lab??)

If you’ve ever sent off a query letter to an agent, you’ll know that the publishing business is glacial. I had a friend who got a manuscript rejection from a literary agent after almost two years. After she’d already self-published her novel and started working on the sequel.

Like most people, I really hate uncertainty. My therapist helped me realize that the long periods of dead air were playing into my imposter syndrome and insecurity in a big way. Because my Deep Dish Murder series came about during the pandemic–literally I got the offer on March 9, 2020–I’ve never even met my agent or my editor in person. I barely know them. I don’t know what’s normal in this business. And this has allowed me to project every fear that has ever sashayed across my brain into that absence. Take that stress salad and sprinkle on the uncertainty of a global pandemic. I totes get how Schrödinger’s cat felt. Like, has anyone read what I wrote? Do I have a literary career? How did I get inside this box? Why am I a cat? Do I even FREAKING EXIST?!

Putting a framework around my hyperventilation has helped tremendously (thanks, therapist!) and I’m happy to say that my breathing has mostly regained its default autopilot setting. This is crucial, and not only for the obvious reason of breathing being an essential function of a living mammal. If I’m going to make it as a writer, I’m going to need to learn how to hold my breath and wait.

“You never know when your pizza cat mystery will come along.”

I do not recommend trying to become a writer.

In fact, I’m not even sure I know what “becoming a writer” is. When I published the first Lindsay Harding novel, did that make me a writer? Or was it the brief and shining moment when the first book climbed to the top of Amazon’s cozy mystery rankings for a couple of days? Or when I got my first royalty check? Maybe it was when I won my first writing contest. Does the fact of having published three novels and half a dozen short stories mean that I’ve permanently achieved writerdom? Or if I cease to publish but still write, do I remain a writer?

These questions plagued me toward the end of 2018. (Remember 2018, when existential angst could involve mundane things like career aspirations?) I’d decided that 2019 was going to be a decisive year for my writing. I vowed to “become a writer” by age 40. Despite my progress toward that goal, by October 2019 my 41st birthday loomed, and I still felt like an impostor. After a few decent earnings years, my royalty income had dwindled to pocket change. I’d finished a manuscript for my middle-grade adventure novel, MINERVA MURGATROYD AND THE VERY OLD BOY, but after several near misses, I was unable to find representation for it. I blew out the candles on my 41st birthday with a heavy heart. Forty had come and gone with no real progress toward my writing goal. My day job had ramped up and I felt pressure to follow the steady paycheck and turn my back on my writing hobby.

And then, two days after my 41st birthday, I got a message from Lyndee Walker, a bestselling mystery novelist I’d met at a few conferences over the years. Lyndee had heard from her agent that St. Martin’s press was looking to develop a new mystery series. She didn’t have time to pitch for it herself, but she remembered me and thought I might be a good fit for the project. All she knew was that it was on the very cozy end of the mystery spectrum–it needed to be set in a pizza restaurant and to prominently feature a cat. The marketing folks had already road tested the concept and found that “Pizza Cat Mystery” was a niche that needed to be filled. Now, they just needed to find a writer who could pull the project off.

When I told my sister about this unexpected opportunity, she reminded me how only weeks earlier, I’d decided to throw in the towel on my writing dreams. “You never know when your pizza cat mystery will come along,” has since become our family’s version of “Persistence pays off.”

Fast forward to March of this year. After a couple of setbacks, including the departure of a key editor at the press, I was offered a three-book deal for a new series set in a deep-dish pizza restaurant. The first book, tentatively titled SIX FEET DEEP DISH, is set to come out in Spring 2022.

The advance still doesn’t justify giving up my day job and becoming a full-time writer, but it’s a respectable supplement to our family’s income that might allow us to redo our tacky master bathroom next year.

So am I a writer now? <<shrugs>> Ask me when I’m 50.

That time I was famous

Somehow I appear to have forgotten to create a blog post to tout my appearance on Blue Ridge PBS’s Write Around the Corner program. Author blogs basically exist for for self promotion, so don’t ask me why I never wrote a post specifically about the biggest self-promotional opportunity of my career–a thirty-minute TV show about me and my writing. Maybe part of me was a little self-conscious about it? Probably. But I’m over that now, and I would like you to buy my books, please.

Without further delay, here is a link to the episode.

WATC

 

Short, dark and than some

My short story “Taming the Tiger” will be published in the collection, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, later this spring by Untreed Reads. I wrote the story more than a year ago, so it was a little jarring to look back through it as it’s being prepared for publication and realize how dark it is. There is a sinister love triangle, a twisted power struggle, and a Talented Mr. Ripley-style murder. This isn’t the first time I’ve written dark short fiction. In fact, when I started thinking about it, all of my short stories, both published and unpublished, explore disquieting themes and paint bleak pictures of humans and their motivations.

All of this got me wondering: just what kind of monster am I?!

It’s probably common for people to assume that writers match their writing. Ernest Hemingway, whose books center on dashing, macho men battling their inner demons, was a dashing, macho man, battling inner demons. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Gatsby-like party boy. When asked where his dark inspirations stemmed from, Stephen King had this answer: “People think I must be a strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It’s in a jar on my desk.” (For the record, King isn’t quite the sicko his books would make him appear, but he was a raging alcoholic for decades, and even now he’s known for being quirky and elusive).

In my case, though, the darkness of my imaginary worlds doesn’t match up with my personality. I’m generally jolly and usually upbeat. I like wiener dog races and the color yellow and pictures of newborn babies wearing giant hair bows. My childhood had the usual share of minor traumas, but I grew up surrounded by loving family members. So why, when I sit down at a computer, does blood and fire pour out of my fingertips?

My fellow mystery writer and good friend, Tracee DeHahn, and I were talking about this phenomenon recently. She, too, is a uniformly upbeat person who comes from a stable background. We’re both relatively new to the world of mystery writing and have been wowed by the kindness and affability of the mystery authors we meet. Seriously, Malice Domestic, the annual gathering of writers who spend their days mentally murdering people, is filled with folks who are, on the whole, kinder than your average church bake sale committee (though, it has to be said, much, much raunchier).

My theory is that for many writers, the page is a safe place to process negative emotions. For me at least, fiction is like an external hard drive to store my darkness. Even cheerful people like me have heaps and heaps of bad thoughts that need to find expression.

Maybe I particularly like to visit those dark places in short fiction because it seems to allow me just enough time to explore those themes without absorbing them. Short fiction is a long weekend in the Land of Id — the raw, exposed, and sometimes downright yucky swamp in my emotional landscape. Visiting Id-Land allows me to appreciate life back at my emotional dwelling place: Giant Baby Bow Town.

 

Underneath it all

I’ve been tinkering with a new story lately and I was reminded of a phrase that’s always driven me batty: s/he is “a good person underneath it all.”

The story I’m writing is written from first person point of view, a perspective I haven’t used in awhile. Being inside your character’s head can allow a little more scope for introspection and give space for your character to explain his or her actions to the reader. As I was creating my protagonist, it struck me just how unlike real life that is. What a luxury to be able to do something crappy and then be able to spend a few paragraphs explaining your underlying motivations, limitations, and experiences!

As a society, we rarely afford one another this luxury. Say some NASCAR wannabe cuts me off on the highway and causes me to swerve. Perhaps I’m feeling generous enough to sketch out an appropriate justification and backstory for her — maybe she was rushing to her child’s school because she got a call from the nurse? maybe she’s a doctor who’s just been called in to consult on a critical patient?

But nine times out of ten, I’m going to flip that crazy driver the bird, mentally or verbally. (Sorry, kids in the backseat. Don’t repeat what Mommy just said at daycare.) Maybe then the cycle of judgement continues. Another driver who missed seeing the near-accident happens to drive past my car a moment later. They’ll see me swerve, and then pass me as I’m red-faced and screaming, with my wide-eyed kiddos in the backseat, trying to process the colorful vocabulary they just learned.  Neither crazy NASCAR driver nor I will have a chance to hand out explanatory pamphlets to justify our actions.

What I’m getting at is that life is basically one big series of stories written in third-person limited point of view. For the most part, your character (Let’s call her You) is essentially the sum of You’s actions.

The phrase “good person underneath it all” is often rolled out as a sad platitude by kindly former neighbors or classmates after someone does something heinous. It’s like an atomic “bless your heart” — a way of reminding ourselves that even villains have backstories. The underneath it all idea represents a perennial strain of moral philosophy. Just think of the schism between Catholics and Protestants over whether a soul can get to Heaven by faith alone, or whether good works are also needed. Even though I was raised Baptist, I always found myself on #TeamCatholic for this one. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that some absolute stinker who repented in his very last breath would have access to the same harp-strumming, blissful afterlife as, say, Mister Rogers.

Even though I have some definite ideas about this, even I have to admit that my Actions = Character argument has some limitations. Most of the time, bad actions are made more likely by circumstances. It’s easier to be generous if you’re not starving. It’s pretty damn hard to give love if you’ve never received it. I also have to find a moral space for things like mental and physical illness. If a bipolar friend flakes on me because she’s going through a manic episode, that doesn’t make me think she’s a fundamentally bad person.

Still, I maintain that the best path is to recognize that our interior lives are, a majority of the time, inaccessible to our fellow humans. So even if we have Darth Vader-worthy origin stories to explain how we went over to the Dark Side, as much as this dumb old world will allow, let’s try to stay on the sunny side. Smile. Give a compliment. Give a hug. Unless you carry around a stack of explanatory pamphlets, you’re stuck as a third person kind of person.

Competing Narratives

Yesterday, when a journalist described the “competing narratives” surrounding President Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, I was struck for the first time by the word narrative.  As a fiction writer, the idea of narrative obviously isn’t new to me, but that news report suddenly made me think of the foundational importance of storytelling in very different way. Narratives are stories, accounts of people/characters and events connected in such a way that they form a coherent whole. I wasn’t only surprised that the transcript of one fairly short phone call could pitch an entire nation into spin doctoring frenzy. I was surprised that I hadn’t ever realized that “narrative” describes what we all do, all the time, about everything.

When constructing a narrative, a storyteller has to make judgments about which facts are important, and which can be set aside. I mean, Hercule Poirot is a fascinating character, but nobody wants to read 50 irrelevant pages about him waiting for a taxi. Context is also crucial in building a coherent story. The genius of The Girl on the Train is how the slow build-up of context continually reframes the disappearance that lies at the heart of the novel’s action.

There’s a great section in Sarah Blake’s novel The Guest Book where one of the main characters, a history professor, shows her class a picture of a grave. The tombstone is inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates of birth and death. After the death date, July 1863, are the words “At Gettysburg, Far From Home.” She asks the class, “What is the history here?” The obvious answers are thrown out (Civil War battles, soldiers), but then the less obvious ones start to emerge (the home front, post-war memorial tributes). From there, even more obscure histories become possible (How do we even know this person was a soldier? Could he have been a slave brought to Gettysburg with his master? Do we know if this grave is even located in America?).

History is not discovering facts; it’s crafting narrative. And the task of a responsible historian is to gather the tools at her disposal–dates, voices, documents, material culture, artifacts, etc.–and tell the most convincing story that can be told about a chosen topic. Inevitably, that narrative will be shaped both by the storyteller and by the audience.

When looked at this way, it’s not just novels or history or politics that rely on creating narratives, it’s every single thing we as humans do. If I tell my husband about my day, I’m creating a narrative. Maybe I include the part where I went to Pilates class and walked the dog, but omit the part where I gorged on Halloween candy while watching the wedding episode of Outlander.

I’ve written before about the work of Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain. In her memoir, On Living, Egan explains that an important step in helping ease the final transition of a dying person can be to help them craft a life story, an autobiographical narrative, for themselves. In most cases, this isn’t a matter of literally writing anything or trying to remember everything that happened in a person’s life. For some people, crafting a life story may mean reframing a trauma as an experience that made them stronger. For others, it may mean accepting (or not) that some wishes will never be granted. In all cases, though, people are making decisions about inclusion/exclusion of facts (or beliefs) and giving them context. They are creating narrative.

Humans have developed this wonderful tool — narrative — to parse and make sense of our very complicated world. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Drop a rock and see if it floats. Sometimes facts and context are clear enough that even the most skillful spin doctor would have a hard time creating a competing narrative.

Facebook, Undead Russians, and the Tying of Loose Threads

Terrance Winter, a writer for The Sopranos, has a ready answer when asked about the most frequent fan question he fields — hands down, it’s about the episode with the missing Russian. What happened to the Russian?!

If you’ve seen the series, you know what I’m talking about. The episode, called Pine Barrens, features a botched execution of a Russian thug and his subsequent mysterious disappearance into the frozen wilderness of New Jersey. Neither the Russian nor his would-be corpse makes any other appearance in the series, and the mystery surrounding his whereabouts is never solved. It drives people bananas. Series creator David Chase had this to say about the episode:

This is what Hollywood has done to America. Do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? It’s a murky world out there. It’s a murky life these guys lead. [1]

Part of me loves this mystery. But that part is infinitesimally tiny compared to the part of me that feels that the NOT KNOWING is an unscratchable itch that will preoccupy my psyche until kingdom come.

I had reason to revisit my hatred for loose threads recently because I experienced the unparalleled joy of tying off a thread that has been dangling for the better part of thirty years. When I was in fifth grade, my best friend moved away. This was back when long distance phone calls were expensive and when the internet was still only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. My friend and I exchanged letters for a few months, but quickly lost touch. I’ve often wondered about her over the years, but web stalking never turned up any clues to her whereabouts. Recently, though, I happened upon her mother’s Facebook page, which led me back to her. Thanks, Evil, Personal-Data-Stealing Corporation! My childhood friend is happily married, owns a powerboat, and seemed only mildly disturbed by my decades-long obsession with finding her.

As a writer, I am torn by the same impulse that led Chase and Winter to craft a messy ending for the Pine Barrens episode. I’ve written before about the unanswered questions in the Lindsay Harding series. My latest book will (I hope) be the start of a new middle-grade adventure series set in Scotland, and my initial draft left many questions unanswered. Life, after all, is a tangled ball of loose threads that dwarfs the biggest twine balls in Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri. You hear that, Midwestern states? Your balls are not as big as you think.

I’m also a reader, though. With the help of a kindly literary agent, I realized that the initial ending I wrote was unsatisfactory, especially for a middle-grade audience. Readers needed more answers than I had given. As I polish this new draft, I’m trying to strike the right balance of resolution and continuing mystery. It turns out that resolution is as easy as killing a Russian in the Pine Barrens, which is to say not very easy at all. Wish me luck!

Virtual Tour of a Virtual Book

Mount Moriah Mysteries Banner

This month, I’m going on an actual trip with my actual family of squishy little humans, the first proper vacation we’ve had in several years. I will bring a real book made of paper, and read it with my eyeballs while sipping a tropical cocktail and raking sand with my newly-pedicured toes.

I’m also going on a trip next month, but not really. There will be people there, but not really. And there will be books, but not really.

Allow me to explain.

Next month’s trip is a virtual audiobook blog tour kindly organized by Jess the Magnificent at Audiobookworm. The way it works is, Jess sends virtual copies of my audiobooks to reviewers and bloggers who agree to post reviews, interviews, excerpts, and other content on their blogs on certain dates. As the author, I make the rounds on social media and online, commenting and interacting with each blogger on the assigned day. No actual anything changes hands at any point. None of us ever meet in person. The reviewers never hold a copy of my book in their hands. We are living in the future, people.

For both kinds of trips, prep is key. On the blog tour, all the content has to be requested, created, and shared on a strict timetable for the tour to run smoothly. So while I’m frantically trying to make sure that we’ve packed swim diapers, sunscreen, and a bunch of those little pouches of pureed fruit that are like baby crack for the actual trip, I’m also trying to prepare Top Ten lists, photos, and publicity blurbs for the blog tour. Even with Jess as my virtual travel agent, creating a two-week digital trip is almost as exhausting as planning a family holiday that will please both my toddler and my teenager. (Both kids like sleep and melted cheese, so I’m building our itinerary around those things).

I’m SUPER excited about both trips, and I hope you will come along. On the virtual one, that is. You are totally not invited to the beach.

So are you still acting?

I heart this post. It’s true for anyone who works in a creative profession, but also true for anyone who’s just trying to live their life without getting weighed down by someone else’s idea of what they should be doing.

Quarantine Chronicles

Just don’t say it.  Ever.  Not to me or any of my peers.  We’re damaged enough by whatever hole in our personality  drove us to hop on this crazy circus train to begin with, so please don’t ask.   Or if you do, be prepared for an answer that could come out with a mix of venom or self-pity; depending on the status of our relationship with what we do is that day.  You see, the average Creative spends ninety percent of their life looking for work, and the other ten percent bitching about getting the job they now feel they can’t complain about.  I recall a friend who was active in union politics a while back describe that we had both had decent years – made 18,000 or so in income as an actor and because of that 18,000 grand – were in the top like three percent of our…

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