Thursday, August 12, 2010

A conversation with Alicia Bessette

by Julie Kibler

What Women Write is thrilled to introduce Alicia Bessette to our readers. Alicia’s debut novel, Simply From Scratch, released August 5. I had the pleasure of reading an advance review copy from Dutton, her publisher, and talking with Alicia about her novel and writing. 

About Simply From Scratch: Simply From Scratch is a tender-hearted debut novel about a young widow, a nine-year-old girl, and a baking contest that will change both their lives. It's an international bestseller (so far, four straight weeks on the Spiegel bestseller list in Germany) and a People magazine Great Read.

 And from Kirkus: "Fans of Cecelia Ahern’s PS, I Love You will find a lot to like here ... strong, richly detailed ... with a truly lovable heroine."

About Alicia:
Alicia Bessette was born and raised in central Massachusetts and graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia. A pianist and freelance writer, she and her husband, novelist Matthew Quick, live near Philadelphia with their adopted racing greyhound, Stella. Simply From Scratch is Alicia’s first novel.

JK: Alicia, we’re so glad you could stop by What Women Write! Congratulations on your debut. I had just finished reading another novel whose point-of-view character was a young widow when I began reading Simply From Scratch. My first thought was, “Oh, dear, two grieving widows in a row might be a little more than I can handle.” BUT. I was surprised. I absolutely loved that you employed humor so frequently in Zell’s grieving process. Your story, while bittersweet in spots, was overwhelmingly hopeful. Did anything in your personal experience prepare you to write the grieving process in this way?

AB: Right! Just because a book centers on a sad event doesn’t mean the reading experience is necessarily depressing. I purposely inject my characters with humor and hope and a gleeful curiosity about life in general. Reading should be a pleasure.

 I think absolutely everything in my personal experience prepared me to write Simply From Scratch. I’ve never been widowed. But I live and listen and love and try to be humane.

JK: That’s good advice for anyone. The plot in your novel centers partly on a cooking contest the main character, Zell (Short for Rose Ellen – love that!) and her young neighbor, Ingrid, decide to enter together. You’ve included a very important recipe in Simply From Scratch. Did you create it yourself? Did you consider yourself a baker to begin with, or like Zell, did you need to experiment, starting from scratch, until you got it right?

AB: Over the years I’ve become a fairly competent cook, but baking does not come easily to me. When my fantastic editor (Erika Imranyi at Dutton) suggested I include Zell and Ingrid’s recipe in the pages of Simply From Scratch, I panicked. How was I going to do that? Answer: by doing exactly what Zell and Ingrid do in the book – heading to the kitchen for some experimental baking. I started out by listing a few of my very favorite things to eat – cheese, fruit, and chocolate – and went from there. Trial and error!

JK: I’m going to try the recipe one day. When I first began reading Simply From Scratch, I thought reading the word “Scrump!” again and again might grate on my nerves. But guess what? More than a month after finishing your delightful novel, I find myself saying, “Scrump!” in my head when I taste something new and delicious. Then I laugh at myself. Where on earth did you come up with television show host Polly Pinch’s character and her over-the-top idiosyncrasies?

AB: I’m kind of obsessed with cooking shows. I love them. Many celebrity chefs seem over-the-top – they have to be, because those huge personalities make their shows so much fun. But we don't know what goes on in their personal lives when the cameras aren’t rolling. That’s what I explore through the character of Polly Pinch: You see her hamming it up for television – and you also get to see her behind the scenes, when nobody’s watching. 

Many readers have called Polly a spoof or caricature of Rachael Ray, and perhaps she is, but I didn’t intend that when I was writing. I love Rachael and I love Giada de Laurentis, too.

JK: Captain Ahab is another character in Simply From Scratch – one who really tugs at the heartstrings. Would you tell us a little bit about the relationship of this character to your real life?

AB: When Matt and I were in our mid twenties, we adopted a beautiful retired racing greyhound named Stella B. Quick. She influenced the greyhound character in Simply From Scratch, Captain Ahab. 

Many greyhounds are very serene, and something about their presence is soothing. Captain Ahab is a comfort to Zell as she learns to live without Nick.

 Our sweet Stella passed away just a few days before Simply From Scratch was published. I’ve blogged quite a bit about Stella recently. If you’d like to know more about her, click here.

JK: I’m sorry for your loss. Simply From Scratch ended up being a great tribute to Stella for sure. Your setting, a tiny town in New England, was charming. Are small towns or New England familiar places to you, or did you choose something new to explore?

AB: I grew up in small town New England, so I’m familiar with the landscape, the people, and the overall feel. I wrote Simply From Scratch while living ten minutes outside of Philly. So, when trying to include true-to-life details pertinent to its small town New England setting, I relied on memory, and perfected the ability to close my eyes and transport myself.

JK: So many of the characters have not only unique careers, but remarkable hobbies. There’s a chainsaw artist who was formerly the high school “Home Ec Witch,” a grieving woman who does medical illustration for a living, but becomes a baker, a struggling law student who snowshoes in his spare time, and a whole contingent of small town employees who take on the Katrina disaster as a personal mission. What did you learn from exploring these various pastimes while writing your novel? Would you care to admit to any of them yourself?

AB: I love to snowshoe, and I took a couple of ceramics classes about ten years ago (in Simply From Scratch, Nick’s dad is a potter). I don’t have any firsthand experience with medical illustration, although I once worked with a woman whose husband was a medical illustrator, and she sometimes complained about the plastic body parts strewn all over their house! I thought that was a great, fun detail, and it just stuck in my mind. 

When I worked for a small weekly newspaper, I wrote a feature about a local guy who was somewhat directionless until middle age when he picked up a chainsaw for the first time in his life and discovered a latent talent: he could carve gorgeous wood sculptures. He was the real-life inspiration for the chainsaw artist in Simply From Scratch. 

My husband always says, “The more you like, the happier you are,” and I think that’s true. There are so many pursuits available to us, so many fun and brave people who hone various skills, try their hand at different activities. They make the world a colorful place. I love the spirit of experimentation. Maybe that's why my characters do too.

JK: Speaking of your husband, you have a fairly unique situation in that your husband is also a novelist (Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook/Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and Sorta Like a Rock Star/Little, Brown). What’s it like living with another author?

AB: We have a beautiful partnership. He knows exactly what I’m going through and vice versa. He reads my work, I read his. We spend so much time together. A new acquaintance recently asked if a marriage of two writers is a “hotbed of neuroses,” and I had to laugh: there is definitely that. But by and large, it’s pretty awesome.

JK: Readers, Alicia is an accomplished pianist and composer as well as writer. As a music lover myself, I’d love to hear about the connections between your music and your writing.

AB: For me, the music writing process is intuitive. When I’m creating a new song, I ask myself, What sounds right? What would be cool to play next? By contrast, the book writing process is much more analytical and intentional. I do a lot of planning and a lot of thinking when writing words. I almost always listen to music when I write words – but I never listen to my own music!

 I blogged recently at The Divining Wand about Gladys Knight and the writing process. If you're curious, check it out here.

JK: That’s right – Gladys Knight has a part in your story as well! Last question: Many of our What Women Write readers are also aspiring writers. Just for them: In the publishing world, which is more competitive than ever, the buzz word these days is marketing, marketing, marketing. You’re a member of the Debutante Ball’s class of 2010, a great venue for debut novelists. What other methods have you found helpful in getting the word out about Simply From Scratch? Though your release is barely upon us, how have you seen various marketing and publicity avenues already paving the way toward a successful release?

AB: I’m still learning. Making yourself available seems key. You can do that through Facebook and Twitter; by visiting book clubs; by doing interviews such as this one. At the same time, know your limits. If speaking and signing at a bookstore exhausts you so much that you’re a vegetable for three days afterward, then honor that, and either plan accordingly, or don’t do too many of those types of events. 

Also, remember that first and foremost, you’re a storyteller. Don’t let your writing suffer because you’re focusing too much on networking or publicity. Budget your time wisely and keep the writing sacred. Learn the art of self-care.

JK: Great advice, and a great note to end on. Thanks so much for joining us at What Women Write, Alicia! We wish you nothing but great things for Simply From Scratch and your career as a novelist.

Simply From Scratch is available in bookstores and online. Check it out at your favorite local independent bookseller!


  1. I loved Simply from Scratch on so many levels. I too watch cooking shows a lot although I don't cook much. I have been a widow for five years and was touched by how Alicia expressed my feelings so clearly.

  2. Anita, glad you took the time to find our blog and post a comment! Sounds like you loved Simply from Scratch as much as I did. Can't wait for another one from Alicia.


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