Q&A with Mandy Mikulencak,
Author of The Last Suppers
1. You’ve been a non-fiction writer and editor your entire career. What made you decide to write fiction?
About seven years ago, I attended a women’s writing retreat sponsored by A Room of Her Own Foundation because I yearned to use words in a different way. I took a week-long workshop on short fiction and was hooked. After writing short stories and flash fiction, longer stories demanded to be told and I complied.
2. You don’t shy away from tough subjects and themes in your writing. Why is that?
I like to write (and read) stories that illuminate the dichotomy in the human condition: that joy and redemption (and sometimes humor) can exist alongside pain and tragedy. Writers like John Irving, George Saunders and Donald Ray Pollock have inspired me to take chances. There’s a wonderful freedom in writing novels that capture real life in all its beauty and ugliness.
3. What inspired you to write The Last Suppers?
A very good friend of mine told me about a website that listed the final words of death row inmates. Some of the entries also listed what the inmate had for his last meal. She told me about a young man who only wanted Frosted Flakes and milk. This one detail got me thinking about all of the emotion and memory behind those requests. It’s rarely about the food itself. I then wondered what it would be like for a prison cook to become obsessed with finding the perfect meal for each death row inmate, even going as far as interviewing the inmate’s relatives. I also wanted to explore how a complicated relationship between a warden and the prison’s female cook could ensure their emotional survival in such a horrific setting.
4. Why did you choose Louisiana in the 1950s? What type of research did you conduct?
I thought it’d make a richer story to place it during a time period when prisoners were often denied their most basic human rights; a time when poverty and racial inequality were so visible. While the prison in the book is fictitious, I researched the Louisiana correctional system from the 1800s through the 1960s to find details that would make the lives of the characters more authentic. But I also took some liberties (since it’s fiction) and placed two female cooks in the prison kitchen even though a penitentiary in 1950s Louisiana wouldn’t have hired women.
5. Do you have a set writing schedule? Tell us more about your process.
All the advice out there says to write daily, but I’ve never been able to do that because of other work and life commitments, and sometimes because of those self-doubts that tell me I’ll never be able to finish another novel. (I’ve hit that point at about the 35,000 word mark in each of the five novels I’ve written.) But there are days when I can write for seven hours. Because I started my career as a journalist, I’ve learned to write quickly and on deadline, so when it counts, I get the work done.
6. What are you currently working on?
My next novel is about a teenage girl in 1960s Mississippi who kills her father to stop him from abusing her little sisters. She’s sent away to a psychiatric facility where she has to come to grips with her own abuse and how three generations of women have lived with their own secrets. See? I like messy and complicated stories. And I like Southern voices and settings. There’s a richness to the culture that makes the setting one of the most interesting characters.
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The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak
1. As a daughter of a prison guard, Ginny had been a part of the Greenmount Penitentiary since she was a little girl. How does her childhood and father’s murder impact her decision to return to the prison as a cook?
2. Ginny becomes obsessed with the preparation of the last meals for death row inmates. In what ways does Ginny come to understand the reasons for the obsession?
3. What do you think motivates inmates to request the last meals they do? Do you believe Ginny cares about their motivation?
4. Discuss the central role that food plays in the novel. Why is it important for Ginny to involve the inmates’ families?
5. What role does Dot play in Ginny’s life? Do they allow society to dictate these roles?
6. Roscoe said on more than one occasion he didn’t do enough to improve conditions at the prison. Do you believe that?
7. How does the time period for the novel (1920s-1960s Louisiana) affect the actions of the characters? Would they have made the same choices today?
8. What purpose does Ginny’s scrapbook serve?
9. Roscoe once told Ginny that seeing her at the execution of her father’s murderer brought him more sadness than the death of his best friend. Why do you think that’s so?
10. What are some of the reasons you believe Ginny began a relationship with Roscoe? Why is it so important that Roscoe say the words “I love you” out loud?
11. Why do you believe Miriam’s relationship with Ginny is so difficult? How is it further affected by Joe’s death and Ginny’s relationship with Roscoe?
12. In uncovering the truth of her father’s death, Ginny upsets the lives of many people including Silas Barnes’s widow and son. Are her actions justified?
13. After learning about Roscoe’s past, Ginny wants her mother “to share something profound” that would help explain how Ginny could still love him. Why do you think Ginny needs to justify her feelings? And why does her mother’s opinion matter?
14. Did reading The Last Suppers change your views on the death penalty?
15. Was Ginny’s compassion for the inmates and their families an insult to the victims and their families?
Set in 1950s Louisiana, Mandy Mikulencak’s beautifully written and emotionally moving novel evokes both The Help
and Dead Man Walking
with the story of an unforgettable woman whose quest to provide meals for death row prisoners leads her into the secrets of her own past.
Many children have grown up in the shadow of Louisiana’s Greenmount State Penitentiary. Most of them—sons and daughters of corrections officers and staff—left the place as soon as they could. Yet Ginny Polk chose to come back to work as a prison cook. She knows the harsh reality of life within those walls—the cries of men being beaten, the lines of shuffling inmates chained together. Yet she has never seen them as monsters, not even the ones sentenced to execution. That’s why, among her duties, Ginny has taken on a special responsibility: preparing their last meals.
Pot roast or red beans and rice, coconut cake with seven-minute frosting or pork neck stew . . . whatever the men ask for Ginny prepares, even meeting with their heartbroken relatives to get each recipe just right. It’s her way of honoring their humanity, showing some compassion in their final hours. The prison board frowns upon the ritual, as does Roscoe Simms, Greenmount’s Warden. Her daddy’s best friend before he was murdered, Roscoe has always watched out for Ginny, and their friendship has evolved into something deep and unexpected. But when Ginny stumbles upon information about the man executed for killing her father, it leads to a series of dark and painful revelations.
Truth, justice, mercy—none of these are as simple as Ginny once believed. And the most shocking crimes may not be the ones committed out of anger or greed, but the sacrifices we make for love.
Advance praise for The Last Suppers
“The Last Suppers held me riveted from the first page to the last, a gorgeous novel that finds beauty in the most unlikely of places. This story has the social conscience of The Help, the unflinching honesty of The Shawshank Redemption, and a wholly original heroine whose humanity will touch your heart as she cooks her way to redemption.”
—Susan Wiggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“A taut page-turner . . . had me in its grips to the shocking end of a well-crafted, gripping story.”
—Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August
“Filled with heart and reverent solemnity, despair and hope, Mandy Mikulencak’s writing is a sensitive, thoughtful narrative about finding freedom beyond the boundaries of what we believe of ourselves and of our past. With captivating characters, a unique premise, and set in sultry Louisiana, this story is as rich and enticing as the last suppers prepared, one you will want to linger over until the very last page.”
--Donna Everhart, author of The Education of Dixie Dupree