My pace of life these days feels a bit like survival season, which I hate. I really need someone to invent an app that tells me what my kids need every single day for school because I can somehow *never* manage to remember the library books on Thursdays or the special drink for Poetry Read Aloud Day or the show and tell stuffy or the crafted leprechaun trap. Signing up to write three books in two years seemed like a great idea at the time, when my mind was brimming with playlists and character inspiration and, um, the mortgage, but now when I look at my calendar I get a bit sweaty.
That being said, I was extremely productive this month: I managed to turn in a draft of my next middle grade novel to my editor and I’m knee-deep in Funeral Ladies edits. And the sun has slowly started to peak out behind some of our gray winter clouds. Spring brings forth both Thin Mints and Shamrock Shakes, two of my not-guilty-about-them-at-all pleasures.
Speaking of food.
I don’t have some beautiful story about the beginning of The Funeral Ladies of Ellery County. It didn’t come to me in a flash while I sat on a train like JK Rowling; it didn’t come to me in some kind of crazy vision or dream.
But it did, in a way, start with Anthony Bourdain.
Ever since I was in high school, I loved watching Anthony Bourdain shows. The way he would explore a culture through food seemed brilliant to me. Food--what we eat, where it comes from, how we access it—can tell us so much about a specific time and place and people. I watched every episode of No Reservations before switching to Parts Unknown when it launched. When my first kiddo was born, I’d put on Parts Unknown in the background of so many of our days, watching Anthony Bourdain go to Istanbul or Idaho while I nursed for hours on end and tried to entertain myself with a 3-month old. Bourdain was fascinating, but there was also a dark side to him that was evident. He talked openly about his past drug use and history of mental illness.
When he died, it was the first time a celebrity death really struck me. I obviously didn’t know him, but his work had impacted me. It made me want to travel, and it made me want to eat. His advice about creating art with a bold brashness had always appealed to me as well; I frequently joked to a friend that my motto was “eff it, I’ll go work at Barnes and Noble if things don’t work out”, a direct reference to his oft-quoted “eff it, I’ll go back to brunch” attitude he kept in mind before important meetings. And it hit me so deeply that this person with such a dream career had been deeply, severely, unendingly sad.
I won’t pretend to know anything about Anthony Bourdain’s real life—he actually had a long, fulfilling partnership, unlike Ivan Welsh, the chef in Funeral Ladies. But I would be lying if I didn’t say a small part of me wasn’t trying to understand how someone who’s life was so fabulous was also so dark. Ivan is not Anthony Bourdain. But like all story ideas, Ivan is pulled together from wisps and flashes, and one of those is my favorite celebrity chef.
So I tried to write what I knew: a middle grade.
That book isn’t totally terrible, but it also isn’t great. It lives on my laptop. It’s written in verse, and it features Ivan and his two kids, who travel to spend the summer on an island in the Pacific Northwest. The main character is a 13-year-old named Cricket, and she has an older brother named Cooper. My editor rejected it in a short email that was kind but brutal, and I cried.
I pitched Rachel Riley and sold it, but I couldn’t quite let Ivan, Cricket, and Cooper go.
Then, in the spring of 2021, my husband made me watch Band of Brothers.
This is where I complement my husband. He frequently suggests we watch things that I think are going to be ridiculously boring, and they end up being my favorite things. There’s a Clone Wars reference in every single one of my books. I frequently listen to the soundtrack of 3:10 to Yuma while writing. And I completely, totally, obsessively loved Band of Brothers. Like, once we were done, I watched it all over again myself from the beginning, trying to figure out from an artistic standpoint why I couldn’t stop thinking about a show that is in every way, shape, and form a dude-centric show. I mean, there’ s like one woman in the entire thing and she dies. There’s a lot of guns, which I’m not usually wild about.
While all of this going on, a very big tragedy affects a town 15 minutes away from me, and multiple people I know witness it, including a 4-year-old girl who will wake up screaming for a week. It makes national news. I read a book on a veteran whose trauma inspires him to walk across the country. I get an email seeking volunteers for funeral cooks from our church. I watch a documentary on virtual reality as PTSD treatment. My mom hands me an old cookbook of her grandmothers—a community cookbook, written as a church fundraiser. I read the memoir of a midwestern chef, singing the praises of Lipton’s soup mix. We get Discovery + and I binge-watch more Anthony Bourdain. All of these wisps of inspiration + story float past me and I grab them, clicking them together like puzzle pieces to see what fits.
I’m up north over Fourth of July and for one blessed 30-minute chunk of time, I have no responsibilities. Kids are napping and it’s too chilly to float; all of the adults are a bit hungover and sun-exhausted. Everyone’s flopped down into a bed to sleep but I take a notebook and head down to the dock, sitting in our pontoon that’s tied up to our pier. As it bobs in the waves I realize something: that story, the story of loss and forgiveness and great food, is Cricket’s story. Sure. But it’s also Cooper’s.
Maybe he should be the one to tell it.
I’ve never written a novel for adults. Ever. Ever. When I signed with my agent, I told him I could see myself writing historical books and picture books but all for kids, that I couldn’t imagine wanting to write for grown-ups. I’m not artsy enough and I haven’t lived enough life to say anything meaningful about the human experience past the age of 13. But I still find myself cranking out an opening scene in what can only be described as a fever dream. Longhand, which I also never ever ever do.
I email my agent two shaky chapters and a title. He tells me, with that unfamiliar east coast confidence, Oh, yeah. Write this. I can sell it.
I’m a middle grade author with a middle grade editor; to write a book for adults means I will need an entirely new editorial team. That means I have to write this entire book with zero guarantee it will ever sell or anyone besides my agent will ever read it. I spend months writing a book I may never get paid for, a book about a boy who saw a tragedy and the elderly woman he meets in the Wisconsin Northwoods. A book about food and what it means to us, in times of grief and times of joy. A book about God, because all of my books, I must admit, are about God. A book about marriage and sisters and sauerkraut casserole.
A love letter to Wisconsin, and a note of gratitude to Anthony Bourdain.
The book sells, at auction, to my—no exaggeration—dream editor. I guess I’m a ~NoVeLiSt~ now.
Funeral Ladies has three narrators: Cooper, the son of a celebrity chef who’s walking through a PTSD crisis. Esther, the leader of the Funeral Ladies at St. Anne, who finds herself suddenly in danger of losing her beloved Northwoods home. And Iris, her granddaughter, who’s trying to find her footing in that precarious stage of life where you aren’t sure how you feel about anything from morals to mayonnaise.
Unlikely ingredients for a book, maybe. But if you would have told me the best green bean casserole in the world involves canned cream of mushroom, I wouldn’t have believed you either. Sometimes it’s the unlikeliest ingredients that make for the most life-giving meal.
The Funeral Ladies of Ellery County has a tentative release date of 3/12/24. I can’t wait for you to read it.
In other news, What Happened to Rachel Riley’s audiobook won an award! Audiofile Magazine bestowed upon it the Earphones Award:
“A stellar full cast gives this hard-hitting middle school mystery incisive podcast vibes. New student Anna turns her curiosity about her ostracized eighth-grade classmate into the subject of her podcast application for a summer workshop. Narrator Ferdelle Capistrano as Anna leans into the slick cadence and tone of podcast hosting to differentiate the podcast sections from Anna's personal story. Alexandra Hunter's enigmatic moments as the titular Rachel give a heartbreakingly bitter contrast to the earnestness of Capistrano's Anna. The rest of the cast voice different kids, parents, and the school principal, bringing to life interview transcripts, texts, and emails that reveal schoolyard antics that morph into sexual harassment and a depiction of what happens to girls who don't just laugh along. This is a devastating and timely listen.”
The audiobook truly is above and beyond; I got to help pick the 7 (!!!) actors/actresses to preform it and they just knock it out of the park. The multimedia format of the book lends itself so well to audio. If you haven’t given it a listen yet, do so!
And lastly, a book I’ve loved lately for…
Kids: Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland by Tomie dePaola is always a favorite this time of year!
Middle graders: I revisited an old favorite this month and read The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood. I haven’t read that book since I was in 7th grade, and I love, love, love stumbling upon old favorites. It’s about a young orphan in Elizabethan England tasked with stealing Shakespeare’s latest play. Fun, cozy, and fast-paced.
Adults: The Mitford Affair by Marie Benedict was really engaging. I’m fascinated by the infamous Mitford sisters, but it was really hard to read from the perspective of Unity. 😵💫 That being said, I love everything Marie Benedict writes and this was no exception!
Thanks for reading along!
Congratulations on a well-deserved award for Rachel Riley!! I loved that book so much and have been telling all my friends! I cannot WAIT to read about the funeral ladies of Ellery County. Being from Wisconsin and still residing in the midwest...I have the privilege of knowing many a funeral lady, and they are a special breed all their own. I can't wait to read the story you've created...and March 12...is like...next week! :-O Very excited.
Your new book sounds fabulous! Food, church ladies, Wisconsin! I look forward to reading it. What was the food memoir that you mentioned? Those are always enjoyable reads, aren't they??