Interview: July 17, 2013
Sandra Lee is an award-winning expert in all things kitchen and home, and the Editor-in-Chief of the new magazine Sandra Lee. In her first work of fiction, THE RECIPE BOX, we are introduced to Grace D'Angelo, who realizes she must take immediate steps to repair her life and her most precious relationships following the death of her best friend. Sandra talks to Bookreporter.com's Bronwyn Miller about her transition from cookbooks to novels, and how she learned to believe in her story and not use recipes as a crutch in the process. Rest assured, it wouldn't be a Sandra Lee book without mouth-watering recipes, and plenty made the cut! Sandra also opens up about the transformative power of first love, the importance of seizing the day, and why she believes the metaphor of the "recipe box" is central to every woman's life.
Bookreporter.com: Congratulations on your first novel! What made you want to try your hand at fiction? How different was this experience compared to composing your cookbooks?
Sandra Lee: I hadn’t really thought about writing a novel until my publisher suggested that I try it! And it’s funny; when I started working on it there were a lot of recipes --- that’s my comfort zone. As the characters grew and the story took over, the recipes had to be cut down to make room for all that was starting to come together!
BRC: In many ways, THE RECIPE BOX is a novel about mothers and daughters. Lorraine says of their family: “We’re alike, whether or not you want to admit it to yourself. We’re mother, daughter, granddaughter.” Of the three, who would you say you’re most like?
SL: That’s a tough one to answer really since I think I drew on feelings I’ve had at different stages of my life for each of the characters. I think that was what was so fun for me in seeing the story unfold --- to see how women’s lives have a through-line in them that connects the 15-year-old to the grandmother she will become, the daughter to the mother she might not really understand.
BRC: Grace struggles with her long-ago feelings for Brian: “There was something about your first love…that a woman never forgets or loses.” How do you think our first loves impact our lives?
SL: Those first loves are our templates for the purest feelings we have for someone outside our family --- never again do we have such an experience. I think those first loves have a force we don’t always recognize in who we are drawn to --- sometimes not for the best of reasons by the by! Hopefully we can see them for what they were, keep the memory for better or worse, and move on to the love that can really nourish the adults we’ve become.
BRC: Some of the best advice Grace receives comes from Leeza, her sweet friend who has passed away from breast cancer, in letters and a taped message after she has gone. It’s Leeza who advises Grace that “life is not a rehearsal for show choir, my dearest friend. It’s opening night every day.” Do you agree with her “Carpe Diem” advice?
SL: I do, profoundly. We can lose so much by wishing for different lives, different outcomes. But what we have now is what is really important.
BRC: What has been the most surprising part about writing your first novel? The most challenging? Did you always know you wanted to write a story set in Wisconsin?
SL: What was surprising was how much fun it all was! And the most challenging was sitting down and coming up with --- and believing in --- the imaginary world. You can second-guess yourself a whole lot, but once it all started moving along, as I said, I had to give up some of the recipes I was sure I was going to need to make the book work!
I love Wisconsin and it just felt like the right place to put a story about the complicated bonds of family, first love and coming to terms with loss.
BRC: Which character proved the most difficult to write? Which one came the easiest?
SL: I think Lorraine was the hardest one for me, and probably Grace the easiest since we are at that same stage of life. I think she and I also share a sense of humor!
BRC: The recipes included in THE RECIPE BOX sound amazing. I can’t wait to try out the Blood Orange Sheet Cake and the Swedish Cinnamon Buns. Was it always your intention to have food be a pivotal element of the story?
SL: Always! Recipes are for me what stories are to other novelists --- they are my language! So the idea of writing a book --- any book --- without them was impossible.
BRC: Grace comments that she “was like the recipe box --- a hard, weathered shell hiding a heart-shattering truth in plain sight.” How did you come up with the device of the recipe box?
SL: I do love that image…Recipe boxes are one of those great objects that families used to have, and I loved the idea of using the image of it to mean so much. I think the cake your grandmother made every year, the sauce an aunt devised, all of them carry a whole story inside of them that the recipe box, like a photo album, contains and keeps alive.
I felt that Grace was at a crossroads in her life that her best friend’s illness forced her to confront --- but it’s something I think we all can be capable of doing. Keeping a central truth about who we are, what we feel, locked away first from the world, but sometimes even ourselves. To really live our lives we have to be able to break free.
BRC: Do you plan to write another novel? Might we get to visit the folks at the Book Nook Barn again in a possible sequel?
SL: I hope so! I loved that place!