Tag Archives: food

Quiz: Which Thanksgiving Dish Are You?

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From the Editor’s Desk: Peter Gethers, President, Random House Studio and Senior Vice President, Editor at Large Penguin Random House on Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. There are several things that are most thrilling to a book editor. First and foremost is the discovery of true talent. Everything else extends from that. Next on the list is when other people throughout the company respond to that talent positively and excitedly. When strong enough, that response not only becomes electric, it becomes unstoppable. At its most exciting it becomes a tidal wave of appreciation for a book or a writer. Next, of course, is the validation that comes from a wider audience – The bookstore buyers, managers and sales people and then, finally, actual real people who make the final judgment on the book. Over the course of my lengthy career, I have brought in a lot of great talent and some major stars. That is satisfying in its own right. But it does not compare to the discovery of a writer who is fresh, unknown, who is to be revealed. I have never seen a response to an unknown talent like the one I have seen for Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter. It started with my read where, after only 20 pages, I realized I was not just reading a well-written novel, I was reading something special, spectacular. Claudia Herr, who became the line editor and helped shape and refine the novel with Stephanie, was the next reader and the first person to come into my office. She was, literally, trembling and said she had never been so excited after reading a submission. We went about trying to build a consensus but we did not have to try very hard. The manuscript swept through Knopf, through all the layers and every department. Never before had I gotten emails or phone calls saying things such as, “You must buy this book,” or “We have to publish this!” We met with the author and Ms. Danler was at least as impressive as her wonderful prose. Although there are obvious autobiographical elements in her first novel it was immediately clear that she had many more books in her ­ she was an author, not just someone who had written a terrific first novel. The thrill has continued every step of the way. The wild enthusiasm within the Knopf group turned into equally strong support from reviewers and bookstores and consumers. Right from the beginning, we thought that Stephanie Danler had written a novel that had a chance to become iconic, to really be that over-used cliché: “the voice of a generation.” It is starting to look as if we all might be right. What did we see in this book from the moment the manuscript was submitted? We saw an elegant and eloquent use of language; the author’s descriptions of food made us hungry; her descriptions of sensual cravings stirred us; writing about the turmoil of being young brought us all back to our youth, or for those who were still young, it was like having their own lives being thrown back at them at the speed of light. The book made us all see ourselves in different ways, no matter our age or our sex. It also made us see outside of ourselves. It made us see the narrator’s very specific world as well as the world at large in new and startling ways. This is what talent does. This is what Sweetbitter is about to do to readers all over the world. Learn more about the book below!
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From the Editor’s Desk: Becky Cole, Editor of Stir

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. When the proposal for Stir came in, it was subtitled “How My Brain Exploded and I Got Cooking.” What I found in those pages just about made my own brain explode. Here was a memoir by a first-time writer who had survived a traumatic brain injury, a Harvard Ph.D candidate who lost sight in one eye, her sense of smell, and a chunk of her skull so large that she had to wear a hockey helmet to protect her brain, impressive enough, but what made the proposal a standout was not her injury, but the way she wrote about how food and the simple everyday acts of cooking, baking, stirring, sautéing, and sharing it, helped her to heal. As she writes in the book, getting well meant finding her everyday, and she found hers in the kitchen. This stunning book didn’t fit neatly into any category in the bookstore, but everyone at Penguin Random House who read it loved it, and we knew we had to publish Stir. Every author takes an approach to writing that makes sense to them. Some outline, others write set pieces to be stitched together later. Some write almost in a fugue state, getting the book down on paper from beginning to end, barely stopping to put in commas. Jessica was not that kind of writer. She was careful, precise. Every word worked at the sentence level. The challenge with Stir was broader—we didn’t want the book to be pigeon-holed as a recovery memoir, but we also knew that her illness was the natural beginning of her story. During editorial talks, we spent much of our time discussing how to weave various strands together. First, of course, there was the aneurysm. Then, there was the food—the facts of cooking it and eating it and recovering because of it. Beyond those two main threads, there was a love story between Jessica and her unflappable husband, Eli, including their attempts to start a family (spoiler: they do! as anyone who follows her wonderful blog, sweetamandine.com knows from the pictures of her two adorable daughters she posts there); an ode to the constellation of women in her life—her mother, stepmother, grandmothers, her Aunt Fran, and close friends—whose influence she feels strongly in the kitchen; and, finally, the story of how she came to a new understanding of the link between food and identity. As we’d talk, Jessica would occasionally ask me, “How do you think I should…?” We’d mull it over and then she would go off and come up with a perfect solution. When I said as much, more often than not, she’d respond that she had simply looked at a memoir she admired to see how that writer succeeded in doing whatever it was Jessica herself was trying to do. She was applying the skills she’d honed as an academic to the process of writing a memoir. She read and dissected every memoir she could get her hands on —Wild, The Liar’s Club, Eat, Pray, Love, and My Stroke of Insight, and dozens of others– to pick them apart and learn how they performed different feats of narrative and storytelling. She marked her copy of Wild with a “Pivot!” in the margins next to the places Cheryl Strayed switched from one subject to another without losing the reader, and then figured out a way to make the technique her own in Stir. It was as if she was reading to defend her dissertation and her dissertation was how to tell the story of her life. Again and again, I could see her incorporating the lessons she’d gleaned from the writers she loved into her own book. One day, she sent me a document I’m not sure I was meant to see. It was an eleven page spreadsheet with columns delineating plot, characters, conflict, what we learn (general), what we learn (food), and “to do.” It showed an awareness of how the book was working—or not—from a structural perspective, which helped to keep everything in balance. Another time, she sent me a file that had all of the material dealing with Eli in one document so she could make sure the story hung together, which it did. This all sounds terribly clinical, but the book that came out of it is anything but, despite a good part of it taking place in and out of hospitals after brain surgery. What I love about Jessica’s writing, especially her writing about food, is how unfussy it is—the opposite of academic writing with its particular conventions, and different, too, from a certain type of food writing, the kind with sumptuous descriptions of dishes that sound like menu items at a restaurant where almost no one can afford to eat. Jessica, however, writes every bit as much for the person who swoons over grass-fed butter as she does for someone who savors a Ritz cracker melting on her tongue. She writes exquisitely but without pomp about how the way we prepare food and who we eat it with connects us to our past, our future, and our true selves. The moments where she connects to food shine brightly on the page. She writes about the smell of cucumber when her olfactory nerves kick in again, the mushrooms chopped for a favorite pasta dish when she first returns to the kitchen, and an almond cake resting on a counter that acts as a Proust’s madeleine of sorts as it lets her know, as she writes, that food had something to teach her, and that it felt good to listen. I am glad that she did. Read more about Stir here.
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Writing Tips from Elizabeth Berg, author of The Dream Lover

We know readers tend to be writers too, so twice a month, we’ll feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

Do you ever base characters on people you know?

All the time! And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who wouldn’t say the same thing. But. Even if you do base a character on a person you know, that person becomes changed in small or large ways to accommodate the story you are trying to tell. So in the end, a real person becomes a made-up person. That’s the way it works for me in fiction, anyway.

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?

For some writers, characters just come to them, though they are usually vague at first, ill formed.  As the writer keeps on with the story,  the characters reveal more and more about themselves.

There are times, though, when a character comes out of nowhere, fully formed; I love when that happens. HOW it happens, I have no idea. It’s like finding a four- leaf clover.

Some writers are very meticulous about keeping notebooks, compiling details that will go into making up a character, and so by the time they start writing, the character is pretty much determined: how he looks and acts and says is less of a surprise.

If you want to write, you need to find out what methods work best for you. It’s always best for me when it’s FUN writing a character, even the obnoxious ones–in fact, the obnoxious ones might be the most fun to write.

How is writing historical fiction different from other fiction?

I think what’s most important in historical fiction is that it feels like the story is actually taking place in whatever time you set it. People need to talk a certain way, have certain ways of doing things, have certain expectations of each other, certain moral codes. Clothes need to be right. Food. The political and social climate. You take on a lot of responsibility when you write historical fiction. You have a contract with a reader that you will take them somewhere else in time; you don’t want them feeling like they’re seeing behind the curtain. It’s much harder than contemporary fiction!

Is there something to do to get in the writing mood?

Yes. Write.

I don’t mean to sound flip with this answer. It seems to be true that if you just get that first sentence down, another will want to follow. That said, I’m almost always in the mood to write; it’s what I love doing most. I think if writing is an awful chore for you, if you have to trick yourself into sitting down and putting down lines, you might be better off in another line of work. Even if you’re a good writer, if you don’t like doing it, what’s the point?

What is your writing style, in five words or less?

Intimate.

Read more about The Dream Lover here.