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Interview: April 27, 2007

April 27, 2007

JULIA'S CHOCOLATES by Cathy Lamb is a poignant and funny tale about a woman who leaves her abusive fiancé at the altar and starts anew with the help of an eccentric group of friends and family --- and some indulgent desserts. In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Lamb shares her thoughts on some of the weighty issues addressed in the book, such as domestic violence and abusive relationships, and lets women know how they can avoid some of the same pitfalls her characters experience.

She also describes how she defied the advice of other authors to write this debut novel, defends her belief in happy endings and reveals some of the quirky details of her next project. What inspired you to write JULIA'S CHOCOLATES?

Cathy Lamb: Years ago, I heard several writers say that writers should only write about what they know. This was truly alarming to me because I really didn't know jack about anything. Surely no one wanted to hear about how quick I could change my twins' diapers while standing in a public restroom, or how I prevented my one-year-old daughter from eating a spider? That advice, I figured, was silly.

So, I decided to write a book about something I knew nothing about, which was, again, truly alarming. The list of subjects I know nothing about could wrap around Neptune twice.

But there was one thing I didn't know even a wee little thing about: what it would be like to be raised by a lousy mother. My mother was a beautiful woman, inside and out, and everyone loved her. So, I flipped things for JULIA'S CHOCOLATES. The mother in the book is a raving, neglectful, drunken wreck of a woman, completely opposite from my own. She was the beginning of the entire book. I gave her a daughter, dropped her off at an eccentric aunt's house and all the characters evolved from there.

BRC: Sadly, the abusive relationships that both Julia and Katie confront are not out of the ordinary. Why do you think that is? What do you hope women can take away from Julia and Katie's decisions to escape?

CL: You're right. Julia and Katie's situations are not out of the ordinary. Why? To be perfectly frank, it's because there are a lot of men out there who are abusive, bottom-dwelling, control-freak pigs.

In creating two women who escaped from dangerous men with talon-like holds on their miserable lives, I was truly hoping --- perhaps quite naively --- that women in abusive situations would see themselves in the book and be inspired to leave the creeps…or at least start thinking about packing up and making the great escape.

Life is so much sweeter when there are no mean men lurking around and about like vultures.

BRC: Julia admits that she got engaged to Robert and stayed in the relationship because she was looking for a way out. "I wanted out of my past before it became my present, and Robert offered me a new type of life," she says. Lara repressed an entire section of her personality (the artistic side) in deciding to marry a minister. Somewhere along the way, their needs got shoved aside. Unfortunately, this seems to happen a lot to couples in marriage. Would you agree? Why do you think this is and how can it be prevented? How do Julia and Lara's actions (before and after) relate to this?

CL: Women's needs, and their dreams, very often get shoved aside once they get married. I think it happens for a number of reasons. One, women have that natural instinct to nurture. They nurture their husbands and their husbands' careers. This is not always reciprocated. Two, when kids arrive, it's a whole new ballgame again in the nurturing department and their needs and dreams take another hit. Three, if a mother is working full time outside her home, she is down to a few measly minutes of free time a day amidst the insanity. On the flip side, if she is a full-time, at-home mother, there are also only a few measly minutes of free time a day amidst the insanity.

To prevent the utter collapse of your dream, you must either not get married or you must not marry a selfish jerk. If you don't have a husband who is supportive of your dream, you will, of course, tear your hair out. It will cause problems in your marriage not only that day, but in the months and years to come. You will resent that he did not help or do anything to inconvenience himself to make your dreams come to fruition, and you will start to wonder what it would be like to run away to the Bahamas, hook up with the cabana man, drink margaritas and never come back.

To get your needs met or to make your dream come true, you must fight for yourself. You must carve out time for yourself before everyone gets up in the morning, at night, at lunch, during a free afternoon, etc. to work on that dream. You matter. Your needs and dreams matter. If your husband is supportive of you, you must do many cheers and cartwheels because you have a gem of a husband and you must not get on that plane to the Bahamas.

Just say no to the cabana man. Julia left completely from her relationship to simply survive. Lara had to leave her husband and become herself before she could be re-enter her marriage as an equal, thinking, evolving, artistic woman. Had Lara not taken that time off, she would have ended up divorcing her husband. Luckily, her husband understood what she needed to do and had a forgiving and loving heart. Katie finally found the courage, gumption and self-esteem to begin again.

Note to women: If you meet a Jerry, marry him. Same with Dean Garrett. And Stash. Scrambler's pretty cool, too. True men, all of 'em.

BRC: In thinking about Dean, Julia says, "Lust is a great feeling, It sharpens everything in life…And then, well, it's over. And you get to deal with the aftermath. But this time…I was going to be smart…I wasn't going to jump, wasn't going to mess myself up further." What do you think she meant by this? Is this a lesson that readers can apply to their lives?

CL: Lust is stupendously great. It makes you feel alive and on fire and joyful and happy and excited all in one frenetic, nerve-tingling blast. But lust often gets us into trouble because it makes people blindly impulsive and irrational. They don't think about the consequences of jumping into relationships or bed with other lusty people --- pregnancy, STDs, emotional pain, rejection. Julia had made a huge mistake in getting involved with, and sleeping with, Robert. The relationship was devastating to her emotionally, psychologically and physically. She jumped, she didn't think, she was very badly burned. And we've all been there. It's a lousy, dark pit of a place to be. She vowed not to do it again.

In terms of applying it to our own lives, here's a nutshell of wisdom: Don't let lust overrule your brain cells.

BRC: Toward the end of the book, Julia says, "That's, again, the problem with getting older: you don't throw caution to the wind, because you know that wind can come back and hit you in the face so hard you land on your butt and can't get up for years." Do you feel that women truly think this as they get older?

CL: I can't speak for all women here, of course. But what Julia was trying to get across is that the bad decisions women make --- to get married to men when the red flags are flying frantically, to quit jobs without other jobs in place, to make rash or impulsive decisions, to cut off relationships, to speak our minds too harshly --- can have repercussions for years.

Sometimes throwing caution to the wind is super. You're sick of working, you throw a dart at a map, it lands on Africa, and before you know it you're spying on lions through binoculars. Or you buy a house in Tuscany. (Wait. Wasn't there a book about that?) Or, you get in your car and start a new life in the town where you run out of gas. It can all be very cool. But I think as we get older, "throwing caution to the wind" is something we think about a few more minutes than we used to when we were 25. The wind has whipped us one too many times and the whippin' hurts.

BRC: Religion and God seem to play an important role in many of the characters' lives. Why did you decide to introduce this aspect into the story? Regarding Caroline's fortune telling, was this a conscious choice on your part to provide an alternative to the religious path?

CL: I wanted to show several sides of Christianity. Linda Miller, the bible-thumping woman, is a sanctimonious, condescending cow. Unfortunately, some people are like this. They shove religion, and their beliefs, down people's throats and tell them they're going to hell if their beliefs aren't identical to the ones they're espousing. She's the worst, right up there with Lara's father, who used the Bible to intimidate, control and emotionally abuse everyone in his family. I also wanted to show, however, the beauty of Christianity --- in the maturity and dedication of Jerry Keane, in the other women at the Bible study, in the sisters, Jacqueline and Rosita, who prayed from the heart, and in Lara who has spent years gently and lovingly ministering to people without judgment or criticism. Julia herself also has a clear understanding of Christ, although she's in flux on whether or not God is still listening to her. People from churches in the many cities that she stayed in while a child were the ones who reached out their hands to help her, including a minister's wife who taught her to love baking. Those are the true Christians --- ones who sincerely want to help and show Christ's love to others.

I do expect that the religious aspects of this book might enflame some people. That's okay. Discussion is always good.

As for Caroline, she's a psychic because that's how her character evolved. I did not intend it to reflect an alternative religious path at all. It's who she is.

BRC: Aunt Lydia and Stash have an interesting relationship. They aren't married, but it is clear that they care about each other deeply --- and respect each other. Did you consciously create their relationship to offset the dysfunctional relationships of the other women in the book? What can be learned from their relationship?

CL: I wanted to create a healthy relationship, but more importantly I wanted to portray a man who is truly a man, in all that that word implies. Stash is smart. He's successful, he's kind, he's funny, he's dedicated to Lydia and he can be one tough dude when he needs to be. This is a man who falls in love with his whole heart and never lets go. He's there for the laughter and he's there for the tears. There are some real wackos in JULIA'S CHOCOLATES, but I didn't want it to be a man-bashing type of book.

What can be learned from Stash and Lydia's relationship? Healthfulness. Is healthfulness a word? Anyhow... Stash and Lydia embrace each other fully --- and accept the differences, the quirks, the independence and the history of the other person. This is a healthy relationship, with the exception that poor Stash can't get Lydia to marry him. Still, Lydia needs to be true to herself. She didn't want to be married, so she didn't get married, and that was that. She married Stash on her terms, in her time frame. That was her choice.

BRC: Shawn, Carrie Lynn and Julia are tied together by a similar past. All three come from broken homes and parents who abuse them. All three have had run-ins with Social Services, albeit to no avail. What was your inspiration for working Shawn and Carrie Lynn into the story? Would you care to comment on what their experiences say about society as a whole?

CL: Shawn and Carrie Lynn broke my heart. They are, as Julia said, her. They're living her childhood, her fears, her brokenness, her abuse. I wanted Julia to come full circle. She came from hell, but she saves other people from living in that same hell. It's part of her healing, part of the arc of her character, part of her life.

What does the abuse of children say about society as a whole? Many people are whacked out. They're mean and violent and impossible to deal with. Drugs and alcohol have continued to deteriorate people's situations and it's landed on the heads of innocent children. Of all areas that need to be fully funded, the care, education and protection we give to children has to be at the very, very top of the list. There is no one more important than children, and people who hurt children should be shipped off forever to a freezing cold island where they must constantly run for their lives from man-eating polar bears. I'm not kidding.

BRC: The ending is a bit rosy compared to the rest of the book. Did you ever toy with leaving a few more tattered ends, or do you think all the drama throughout was enough?

CL: This book was pre-destined for a happy ending. Here's my thinking: Life is a mess. It's sometimes so painful we end up lying face down on the ground, wondering if we're ever going to get up again. It would be easier to get slugged in the face with a hammer than go through what many of us have been through. Grief, depression, loss…it's rough out there. I wanted the end to be uplifting and joyful. I wanted to offer hope and laughter between Breast Power Psychic Night and Loving Your Clitoris Psychic Night.

Authors are sometimes criticized for having happy endings because life isn't always happy. Well, no kidding, Sherlock. We all know that. But often, life is stunningly beautiful. If only for a few months, a week, an evening. It's pure and joyful. The joy is as much a part of life as the sorrow. Why can't books end happily? Is a book less "literary" because readers are laughing at the end? Is it less literary because none of the characters are jumping off a building, arms spread wide like a bird? Is it less literary because no one is in a padded cell singing "Crocodile Rock"? Is it less literary because no one is fighting a mental illness? Of course not.

Life is often lovely and we need to celebrate those lovely moments, when everything works out --- if only momentarily. That's what JULIA'S CHOCOLATES reflects at the end, the very best of life: Friendship. Love. Passion. Commitments. Hope. Healing. Renewal. Chocolates.

BRC: Did the story change at all from when you first started writing it to its final draft?

CL: Yes. The story changed. I had a general direction, but then the characters started talking and behaving in ways I had never thought of, so off we went. Most of the time, when I was writing this book, I would sit at my computer and simply write down the conversations I was hearing in my head, throw in a little bit of setting, move things along and we'd be done. Yes, you heard me right, I do hear voices.

This happened especially with Aunt Lydia, who was a living, breathing character in my life. The only character I didn't know as well was Caroline. She hid a lot.

BRC: Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? What are some of your favorite books that you'd recommend to your readers?

CL: I read all over the map. Books I'd recommend:

THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant
THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL or A HUNDRED AND ONE DAYS: A Baghdad Journal, by Asne Seierstad
THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon SONGS OF GORILLA NATION: My Journey Through Autism, by Dawn Prince-Hughes
OF MICE AND MEN and CANNERY ROW by John Steinbeck
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by Philippa Gregory
THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger
THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls
ANGELA'S ASHES by Frank McCourt
SHANGHAI DIARY by Ursula Bacon
Any book by Kaye Gibbons
MAMA MAKES UP HER MIND: And Other Dangers of Southern Living, by Bailey White

Great Books on Writing:
BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
ON WRITING by Stephen King
WRITING OUT THE STORM by Jessica Morrell

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

CL: I just finished "Suzanna's Stockings," which is a novella. It will appear in a book titled COMFORT AND JOY in November 2007. The incredible Fern Michaels is headlining that book.

I am gutting and slicing and dicing another book, tentatively titled JEANNE'S JUBILEE. I don't have a print date on that one yet. It's about a woman who takes revenge on her boyfriend and his condoms in a colorful way, has a spectacular nervous breakdown in front of advertising execs, works for the governor of Oregon in his crazed election campaign, runs naked along a river, meets wacky friends in her court-ordered Anger Management class, is involved in a little murder and a bar fight, and finally finds love, forgiveness and peace.