Author On the Bookcase: Jael McHenry, author of The Kitchen Daughter
Author On the Bookcase
I'm thrilled to welcome Jael McHenry, author of The Kitchen Daughter, to On the Bookcase. Reading and recipes -- perfect for reading groups! After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. (Midnight Cry Brownies -- yummy!) She learns her cooking will lure family ghosts and these ghosts leave clues to some family secrets. As Ginny deals with her loss, she faces another challenge -- her sister wants to sell the house Ginny has ever known. Ginny unravels the family secrets from the ghostly revelations while discovering her own identity. A coming-of-age story featuring evocative and mouth-watering descriptions of food!
Jael's reading group picked The Kitchen Daughter as their May book selection. "What would it be like? For them and for me? What if they didn’t like it?" Jael chats with us about the worries she had.
In my many years as a member of different book groups in different cities, I’d always made it a point to read the book, but this month for the very first time I didn’t have to worry about that at all.
I hadn’t just read the book. I’d written it.
My novel The Kitchen Daughter came out in April, and as publication approached, I’d pictured readers of all stripes enjoying it, especially book groups. It’s the story of a shy, sheltered young woman with Asperger’s syndrome who discovers she can invoke ghosts from dead people’s recipes. In a time of grief – the unexpected death of both her parents – Ginny turns to family recipes, cooking to comfort herself. There’s a lot for a book group to discuss – food and memory, grief and reassurance, family dynamics, how the narrator’s autism affects the form and content of the story. I’d hoped that book groups would pick it up and discuss it. I’d imagined them cooking along, making the recipes, and serving the dishes named in the book as their discussions unfolded.
But somehow, I’d never really thought about my book group discussing it.
My book group here in New York City is a group of about 10 women, meeting every month or two, discussing both fiction and nonfiction, as we choose. As many book groups do, we eat and drink along with our conversation. The hostess generally makes a main dish and the rest of us bring appetizers, salad, desserts, and of course, wine. And there’s generally a discussion at the end of each session about what book we’ll read for the next session, but in April, that discussion was very short. “And of course, next, we’re doing Jael’s book,” they said, and I said, “Okay.” (Well, I also said “Are you sure?” and “Don’t feel obligated,” but it came around to “Okay” pretty quickly.)
But I wondered – what would it be like? For them and for me? What if they didn’t like it?
I was worried both that they’d be too honest and not honest enough. The big night came. I made Midnight Cry Brownies, a recipe from the book, and I knew the hostess was undertaking aji de gallina, a Peruvian chicken recipe – also in the book – that is without a doubt the most complicated and time-consuming dish in there. I arrived, grabbed my glass of Riesling, and braced myself.
And it was fine. Better than fine. As a matter of fact, it was wonderful.
Having the author in the room changes the dynamic, of course, but it doesn’t make the conversation any less lively. It just changes the focus. (Or at least it did in our case.) We drank glasses of wine and Georgia Peaches (once again, a book recipe) and ate our way through a delicious spread of Peruvian chicken, black bean salad, cheese and crackers, those brownies, and much more. And instead of declarative statements, which sometimes dominate the conversation – I didn’t like ABC, or I wish the author would have talked more about XYZ – we expressed ourselves in the give and take of questions – Did you always know the book would end with ABC? Who thought the explanation for XYZ would be something else?
I got to talk about my research and my revisions, and if I spoke more than I usually would at a meeting, I’m sure next time I’ll talk less. After all, next time I’ll be a reader again.
Thanks, Jael, for being a reader and an author! And, supplying great discussion points and awesome recipes for a book group meeting. Still thinking about the Midnight Cry Brownies . . .
Praise for The Kitchen Daughter
"For Ginny Selvaggio, the protagonist of Jael McHenry's captivating debut novel, food is a kind of glossary and cooking provides its own magic, whether it's summoning the dead or softening the sharp edges of a world she finds neither comfortable nor familiar. The Kitchen Daughter is sweet and bitter-sharp, a lush feast of a novel about the links between flavor and memory, family and identity." --Carolyn Parkhurst, New York Times bestselling author of Dogs of Babel and The Nobodies Album
Jael McHenry is a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog. She is a monthly pop culture columnist and Editor-in-Chief of Intrepid Media, online at intrepidmedia.com. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in New York City.