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.

“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.