A CONVERSATION WITH JENNY NELSON, AUTHOR OF GEORGIA'S KITCHEN
What inspired you to write Georgia’s Kitchen?
I’ve always been fascinated by the inner workings of restaurants andthe people who make them tick. It’s amazing how a calm, well-run dining room reflects none of the craziness and drama taking place in the cramped, hot kitchen, just inches away. As my ideas about Georgia and the book’s overall themes began to crystallize, I knew that she had to be a chef. I could visualize her in the kitchen, see how she wouldact, react, carry herself. No other career encapsulated who she was inthe same way.
What was the general experience of writing a novel like for you?
I started writing Georgia’s Kitchen as a stay-at-home mom. What began as a short story morphed into a first chapter (completely different from the one in the book) and when I was about fifty pages in, I knew that I wouldn’t stop until I’d completed a novel. It was thrilling to see those pages mounting, and even more thrilling when I started getting positive feedback, because for a while I was really writing in a vacuum, not sure whether anything I’d written was any good. Once I’d completed it, I found my agent and soon after sold the book. I’m still amazed at how things unfolded.
You really bring your settings to life, be it the beauty of San Casciano, the rush of New York City, or the heat inside a top restaurant’s kitchen. You currently live in New York, but have you spent a significant amount of time in Italy? Did you need to do much research for the settings of your book—other than eat great Italian food?
I’m lucky to have spent a good bit of time in Italy, all over, really, butmainly in Tuscany. My husband and I were married in Fiesole, at a villa that once belonged to Dante Alighieri (if this feels familiar it’s because Georgia reflects on a wedding she and Glenn attended that sounds suspiciously like ours). In addition to relying on my own experiences, I did a lot of research on Tuscany and Sicily—on the architecture, the landscape and, obviously, the food and wine. As for food, New York is filled with incredible Italian restaurants, and I make it a point to eat at as many as possible, which is no great hardship! My mother-in-law, who grew up in Milan and still spends a lot of time there, was able to help with all the Italian translations.
There are great descriptions of meal preparations in the book. Do you cook? What was the inspiration for the signature dish Georgia creates for Trattoria Dia?
I love to cook, but with twin six-year-old daughters, sometimes it’s more about getting dinner on the table than preparing a fabulous new recipe I’ve discovered. Luckily, they’re both good eaters and will try just about anything, so I do get to be a little more experimental at times. Italian food is my absolute favorite to make—I love how forgiving it is, and how it all begins with good, basic ingredients. As for the signature dish, I wanted it to be vegetarian, and because I would happily eat risotto for the rest of my life, I thought it’d be fun to come up with something that was a riff on a traditional risotto.
You provide a lot of detail about each character’s sense of style, as well as passing references to various designer clothing and accessories (such as the scene where Clem and Lo are talking about different types of jeans). As you wrote, did you find that the way you visualized the outward appearance of each character reflected a lot about their personalities?
Absolutely. I had a lot of fun figuring out how each character wouldlook and what he or she would choose to wear. Often, when I was creatinga character, I would see them for the first time and know exactly what kind of shoes they would wear, how they’d want their jeans to fit, how they’d style their hair, if they’d wear makeup or jewelry.
Who are your writing influences and what are you currently reading?
I read anything and everything. I just finished Wolf Hall (I’m obsessed with the Tudors), loved The Help, Olive Kitteridge, and UnaccustomedEarth—Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite writers. I also love the classics—The Great Gatsby, The House of Mirth, and anything by Jane Austen. I’ll pick up pretty much any novel or collection of stories, but nonfiction is a harder sell for me.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Are any of the characters in Georgia’s Kitchen based on people you know?
None of the characters are pure extensions of anyone I know. This isn’t to say that certain characters don’t borrow traits or characteristics from people I know, but that’s really the extent of it. I did enjoy throwing in elements from my own life (such as the wedding) or the name of the bar where Georgia and Bernard decide to partner (the F&A, named for the way it sounds and also for my daughters Flora and Ava), but you’d have to read really closely and know me really well to pick up on most of these!
The complicated relationship between Georgia and her parents is central to the development of the novel, and a theme that most people can relate to. What made you decide to write a character that was closer to her grandmother than her mother? Was it based on personal experience?
Because I have great relationships with both of my parents, I thought it would be interesting to explore a parent/child dynamic that was fraught with tension and disappointment. So often the intentions are good, as I believe Georgia’s, Dorothy’s, and Hal’s are, and yet actions and words can easily undermine these good intentions. Having had two wonderful grandmothers, both of whom lived well into their nineties, I know how important grandmotherly love can be for a kid, even as she grows older. Most grandparents don’t have to do a lot of the heavy lifting associated with raising their grandkids, so they’re free to do nothing but love them. From my experience, unconditional love from a grandparent really is unconditional. I’m also intrigued by the idea of a less-than-stellar mother becoming a terrific grandmother.
One of the most significant ideas in the book is learning how to see what you do have, instead of dwelling on what you don’t have. Is that a mantra you live by?
I wish I could unhesitatingly say yes, but like Georgia, I’m still learning.
Are you planning to return to Nana’s Kitchen and this cast of characters in your next book, or do you feel like Georgia’s story is finished? If so, where do you think you’ll go next?
I don’t think Georgia’s story is finished by any means, and I’d love to pay her a visit after Nana’s Kitchen opens to see how things are panning out. Is the restaurant the smash success she hopes it will be? Is she still with Andrew? Does she get her own Food Network show? Will she get pregnant? Married? Open a second place? Return to Italy? The possibilities are endless, but writing a sequel is a ways off. Right now I’m working on a novel about a woman whose world is turned upside down when her husband is convicted of a white-collar crime that sends him to jail. Forced to give up her moneyed New York lifestyle, she moves to the country where she falls in with a very different crowd and starts raising goats. Like Georgia’s Kitchen, it’s got a food motif running through it, though in a very different way, and love, family, and self-discovery are important themes.