~ A Conversation with Dana Bate ~
Q: How did you come to decide, given your background in science and journalism, to write a novel? What were the particular challenges of moving from nonfiction to fiction?
A: Are you suggesting it’s weird that I majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, only to become a broadcast journalist who eventually quit her job to write romantic comedies? Because I’m not seeing that at all.
In all seriousness, from the time I was a little kid, I always loved both writing and science. In high school, I was a member of the literary society (where I wrote a LOT of bad poetry), but at the same time I was also a big chemistry nerd. When I was sixteen, I studied creative writing at Oxford for the summer, and then when I started school in the fall, I dove into advanced placement chemistry. When I got to college, I realized pretty early that I had to choose one or the other. So I chose science. It was challenging, and I learned things I knew I’d never learn if I just read about it on my own time.
But I missed writing and telling stories, so I started writing for the Yale Scientific Magazine. Then, during my senior year, I started working on a news radio program, and I fell in love. I was able to tell stories again! After I graduated, I went for my master’s in journalism at Northwestern University, and then I became a full-fledged journalist. But even in journalism, I missed the creativity and flexibility of fiction. So when my husband had a chance to do some work in London at the end of 2009, I quit my job, moved to London with him, and started the first draft of what eventually became The Girls’ Guide to Love and Supper Clubs.
Journalism provided a wonderful foundation for writing novels, both in terms of discipline and the craft of writing itself. I say foundation because I had to build quite a lot on top of what I’d already learned. In journalism, you work on concrete deadlines, but at least in the early days of writing a first novel, any deadlines are ones you set yourself. I had to treat those deadlines as seriously as if they’d been set by my editor. I also had to adjust to a world where I’m in charge, where the characters do and say whatever I make them do or say. In journalism, you’re always writing about what actually happened, and you’re (rightfully) penalized for taking any liberties with the truth. But in fiction, the writer creates the truth—a total change of pace from nonfiction and one I really enjoyed.
Q: Could you discuss any relationship or similarities that might exist between scientific lab work and that of the kitchen?
A: As far as I’m concerned, baking is just a big chemistry experiment where you can eat the results. At its heart, baking is chemistry. You have your materials (ingredients), methods (weights/volumes, instructions, baking temperature, baking time), data and results (does everything look the way it’s supposed to, and how many cookies/bars/muffins/cakes did I immediately stuff in my face?), and analysis and conclusion (would I make this again, and does this recipe belong in my recipe Hall of Fame?). In baking, as in a titration or ligation reaction, weights, volumes, times, and temperatures matter. If you take liberties with any of those things, you could end up with some burnt cookies or a cake that overflows onto the bottom of your oven.
But that’s baking. Cooking is a little different. There is still the same respect for ingredients and cooking times, but there is also room for more creativity. Feel like throwing a handful of fresh herbs into the pot? Go for it! Want to throw those leftover vegetables into a risotto? Why not? Skilled bakers (and chemists) can fiddle with recipes as well, but I think it’s easier for a cook. In that way, I’d say writing is more like cooking than baking: you need to respect the process, but you can also blow the process up and do it your own way and come up with something really great.
The one major advantage both baking and cooking have over scientific lab work is that you not only can eat the results, you can share those results with others, too!
Q: What’s interesting and valuable about deconstructing traditional—and sometimes unhealthy—foods in order to create gourmet versions, as Hannah does in the novel?
A: For a lot of people, including myself, two of food’s greatest virtues, aside from providing us with the energy to live, are its ability both to surprise and comfort. I’m sure many people have a short list of comfort foods they go to when they need a pick-me-up (chocolate, mac ’n’ cheese, scrambled eggs, and mashed potatoes often appear on these lists. . . . They certainly appear on mine). At the same time, those same people probably remember the first time they tried a new dish that is now a favorite—their first quiche lorraine, their first curry, their first crème brûlée. For anyone who loves food, there is something very exciting about trying a dish that catches you by surprise.
When you deconstruct a dish, as Hannah does, you take familiar or comforting flavors and present them in a new way. So you get the best of both worlds: surprise and comfort in one dish. To be honest, I’m not sure Hannah’s versions are any healthier than the originals (in the case of the pork sandwich, her version is probably less healthy), but that’s another issue altogether. . . .
Q: Is there a legal version of the supper club, perhaps a nonprofit model?
A: Interesting question. I’m sure there is some way to structure a supper club so that it doesn’t need approval by the health department. One way most supper clubs have avoided legal trouble is by suggesting a “donation” or “contribution” rather than an outright fee. That way they can claim they didn’t demand payment; they merely received a collection of generous donations. That’s what lands most supper clubs in a so-called gray area, and in most cases, health departments leave them alone. Some sort of nonprofit model would probably protect supper clubs even further—although my guess is that, for most cooks, running a supper club would remain a side hobby.
Q: Your acknowledgment of and thanks to your parents suggest a much more supportive relationship than Hannah experiences. What made you want to add that conflict?
A: I am lucky to have two parents who have always supported my choices—even when I was skipping from science to journalism to fiction. That isn’t to say my choices didn’t baffle them at one time or another. But I think they always trusted me and knew I would throw myself into whatever discipline I took up and would make the most of it.
But not everyone I know has had that experience. In high school, I was surrounded by other students whose parents seemed to have all of these rules—about what classes they must take, what colleges they must apply to, what activities they must participate in and add to their résumés. A lot of “must”s. All of this came from a loving place (who doesn’t want the best for their kids?), but it always seemed very controlling to me.
Then, after college, several friends and acquaintances in their mid-twenties were having quarter-life crises. They were all highly educated and had followed enviable paths—Ivy League colleges, prestigious law and med schools, competitive jobs. Theoretically the world was their oyster, and yet these friends seemed unhappy and, in many cases, paralyzed. It occurred to me that, with some of them, they were following someone else’s dreams and not their own—their parents’ dreams, or some path they felt “society” expected of them. They’d spent so many years scoring A’s and getting into the best schools and landing the most competitive jobs that they’d lost sight of their own passions; they were just going through the motions, until they reached their mid-to-late-twenties and started asking, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” So, to riff on that idea, I decided to create a character who hadn’t lost sight of her passions but was too afraid and insecure to act on them, and I wanted to explore her relationship with her parents to see how that influenced her choices.
Q: What are you working on now? More food-themed writing? Fiction? Nonfiction?
A: I’m currently revising my second novel, which also contains food themes, but in a more subtle way than The Girls’ Guide to Love and Supper Clubs. At this point, I’m keeping the plot under wraps, but I can say the book is a separate, stand-alone novel, with entirely new characters and situations. But for those who enjoyed my first book, the second will have some of the same ingredients: humor, relationships, family, and, of course, food.