Debut Author Dana Bate Talks About Publishing Drama And Her Delicious New Novel

You know how some books make you sad or scared or pensive or happy? Dana Bate’s debut novel THE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO LOVE AND SUPPER CLUBS will make you HUNGRY! In it, main character, Hannah Sugarman, is a self-trained amateur chef with a think tank job she doesn’t want. The book is fun, funny, thoughtful, and Dana adds in just the right amounts of food and recipes and party ideas that you might end up aspiring to be Hannah Sugarman yourself.

Dana is also a member of The Debutante Ball blog, a group blog for debut authors, like I am, so I’ve known Dana since August.  She’s from Philadelphia, like I am, so we’ve had some great conversations about Philly food, and my favorite dinner in her book, of course, is the Philly food dinner.  But you’ll have to read the book to pick your own favorite.

You might be hungry when you’re finished reading, but you won’t be sorry! 

Please welcome Dana Bate to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Debut Author Dana Bate Talks About Publishing Drama And Her Delicious New Novel

Image 2Amy: THE GIRL’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND SUPPER CLUBS is a delicious tribute to following one’s dreams. Can you tell us if writing a novel and having it published was one of your dreams?

Dana: Absolutely! When I was growing up, whenever something funny or unusual would happen, or whenever I’d meet a person who seemed larger than life, I’d say, “That’s going in my book someday.” But as I got older, the dream of writing a novel and having it published seemed like just that: a dream, not something that could actually happen in real life. So many other factors seemed to get in the way – school, work, finances. My husband is the one who finally kicked me in the pants and said, “What are you waiting for?” And I thought, “What am I waiting for?” I finally took the leap of faith, and I’m so much happier for it.

Amy: I’m always fascinated about how characters take shape in an author’s mind and on the page. Can you share with us how you came up with the main character, Hannah Sugarman? Did she end up being who you thought she would be when you started writing?

Dana: Hannah is a character who almost wrote herself. From the start, I knew I wanted to create a character who was going through a “quarter-life crisis” – someone who was well-educated and had landed an impressive job but still wasn’t happy. I had watched so many peers go through similar experiences, and I’d think, “Why is she making herself miserable at an investment bank when she hates it so much? Why is she killing herself in medical school when what she really wants to do is teach kindergarten?”

I realized a lot of these people were driven not by their own passions but by some external force – real or imagined – that pressured them to make certain choices. In some cases, the pressure came directly from the person’s parents; in other cases, the person felt as if “society” demanded one career choice over another (i.e. “But I went to an Ivy League school – I should be aiming for a spot on the Supreme Court!”).

The problem, of course, is that when you follow someone else’s dreams and not your own, you eventually start asking, “Is this really what I want to be doing? And if not, how do I get off this path?” In creating Hannah, I wrote a character who knows the answer to the first part of that question – an unqualified “NO!” – but doesn’t know the answer to the second and, in some ways, is afraid to find out. I also wanted to explore her relationship with her parents, to put her insecurity and paralysis into context. Even though she turned out as I expected, she definitely surprised me along the way – especially with some of her colorful language!

Amy: Would you share a little (or a lot) about your journey to publication?

Dana: What would the journey to publication be without at least a little drama? The early stages of the process were fairly drama-free. I finished my book in January 2011, began querying in February, landed an agent in May, and sold the book in late June/early July. I had heard so many horror stories about the query process, but after my experience, I was like, “Well that wasn’t so bad!” Ha. Right.

About three months after I sold the book, my agency went through a restructuring, and my agent was let go. Needless to say, I was really bummed. I loved working with her, and I felt like we clicked, which is why I had chosen her in the first place. Luckily, since I had already sold my book with that agency, another agent swooped in and took over, and he is my agent to this day, so in the end, things worked out. Nevertheless, it came as a bit of a blow.

But wait, there’s more! Three months after that, I found out my editor at Hyperion – whom I adored – had been offered an amazing job at Dutton and was leaving…and couldn’t take me with her. I was heartbroken. First my agent, now my editor?? I had already finished most of the heavy lifting in terms of editing, but she had been a huge champion of the book and really “got” what I was trying to do. Happily, the editor who took over my book ended up being enthusiastic and wonderful, so again, everything worked out in the end, but the experience was definitely a crash course in the ups and downs of publishing!

Amy: Here’s the most important question of the day. Hannah is an aspiring chef. I know that you are a food writer and a real foodie. Can you cook the way Hannah does? And, how did you come up with all those menus and foods in the book? Was there taste-testing involved? 

Dana: I’m no Hannah Sugarman, but I do love to cook and have been doing so since I can remember. I baked my first batch of cookies at eight (or thereabouts), and one of my college essays was about baking rugelach with my mom-mom (See? Even at seventeen I couldn’t help but write about food).

The menus in the book stemmed from my imagination, which I then followed up with a fair amount of research. And by research, I mean searching through my cookbook and recipe collections, watching shows like Top Chef, and eating lots of good food for “inspiration.” Yeah, life is rough. Some of the dishes I describe are riffs on ones I’d made in the past, gussied up in ways I’d never actually attempted. But others – like cheesesteak arancini – are dishes I completely made up.

In terms of taste-testing…that didn’t come until after the manuscript was finished. I mentioned to my editor that I’d be happy to contribute recipes to the end of the book, and when she liked the idea, I realized I had a matter of two weeks to test a bunch of recipes I’d mostly made up! Let’s just say I did a LOT of cooking in those two weeks. Not that I’m complaining – I loved every minute of it.

Amy: The term women’s fiction gets a lot of flack. What’s your definition of women’s fiction and how do you see your writing falling into or outside of that label?

Dana: You think “women’s fiction” gets flack? Try its ugly stepchild, “chick lit,” a label that applies to my book. Other writers have written about this more eloquently than I – Jennifer Weiner and, more recently, Jessica Grose come to mind – but both terms are thrown around in such a pejorative way, by men and women alike.

In my mind, women’s fiction encompasses any story that deals with issues relating to women’s lives, whether that’s relationships, families, careers, or anything else. So-called chick lit offers a lighter take on these issues, often injecting humor into the writing, but nevertheless creating storylines women can relate to. The Girls’ Guide to Love and Supper Clubs falls into that category. And you know what? I’m glad. A light, humorous read is exactly what I set out to write.

What bothers me is how dismissive some people can be when discussing women’s fiction. When men write about the same subjects – relationships, families, careers – or when a book is written from a male perspective by a man or a woman, rarely is there a knee-jerk rejection of that book’s merit, as there often is with women’s fiction. Why can’t we just call a good story a good story? Why do we need to qualify its appeal.

Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction (however someone may define it)?

Dana: Write the story you want to write, and don’t censor yourself. The only book you can write well is the one that’s inside you, so listen to your heart and tune out the chattering classes. I definitely know people who wouldn’t dare read a book that wasn’t reviewed in the New York Times, but if I tried to write a book those people would want to read, I wouldn’t be writing for myself anymore – and, consequently, the book probably wouldn’t be any good at all. Once you embrace the concept that the book chooses the writer, and not the other way around, you’ll write a far stronger story that people will want to read.

ImageDana Bate is a freelance writer and former Washington producer and reporter for PBS’s Nightly Business Report, where she won the Gerald Loeb Award for a series she produced on the Indian economy. She studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University as an undergraduate and received her master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where she won the Harrington Award for outstanding promise in the field of journalism. She lives outside Philadelphia. THE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO LOVE AND SUPPER CLUBS (published in the UK as THE SECRET SUPPER CLUB) is her first novel.