Ellen Hawley has published two previous novels, Open Line (Coffee House Press) and Trip Sheets (Milkweed Editions). Her short fiction and essays have been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Ellen has worked as an editor and copy editor, a talk-show host, a cab driver, a waitress, a janitor, an assembler, a file clerk, and for four fun-filled hours, a receptionist. She has also taught creative writing.

Ellen is a native New Yorker who lived in Minnesota for four decades but now resides in Cornwall, UK. For more information about her, please visit ellenhawley.com. or her blog, notesfromtheuk.com

Photo Credit: Ida Swearingen

Q&A with Ellen Hawley, Author of THE DIVORCE DIET

What compelled you to write THE DIVORCE DIET?

I began it when my friend Janneen’s marriage fell apart, to see if I could make her laugh. I handed her the opening scenes and she did, so I kept writing. Oddly enough, the title came first: In the middle of the chaos and despair of a breakup, she lost weight and was happy about that, and one of us—it may have been me, but I wouldn’t swear to that—said, “The divorce diet.”

“That would make a great title,” I said. Unless that was her.

The book flowed from those three words, and it seemed to almost write itself—although the endless rewrites didn’t flow as easily.

Is your protagonist, Abigail, or her daughter, Rosie, based on anyone you know?

Janneen inspired everything that’s best about Abigail—her warmth, her humor, her love of her daughter, her gift for cooking. But the story is not Janneen’s story, and Abigail quickly became her own person. Writing fiction is like that: You have to let the characters develop as they will, otherwise they’ll never take on any life.

None of the other characters were based on real people, although Rosie does say something that Janneen’s daughter said a lot at that stage of her life: “Mmm ba ba ba.”

I hope she won’t mind being quoted.

How did you come up with the recipes from THE DIVORCE DIET?

Janneen and I collaborated on them, which wasn’t easy since she lives in New Zealand and I live in the U.K. (We were both living in Minnesota when we met; she moved home to New Zealand once she got her life organized, and I later moved to Britain.) She’s a far better cook than I’ll ever be, and it felt right that she should be as involved in the book as possible. One of us would send the other a recipe, and the second person would try it out to make sure it worked, then offer suggestions—sometimes making improvements, sometimes adding ingredients that had gotten lost in the chaos of transferring a recipe from the kitchen to the page. Then we’d try it all again to make sure the new version worked.

And then I, at least, would have to look around for people to feed the results to. I seem to remember ending up with an awful lot of chocolate cake, since the recipe Abigail made in the early drafts didn’t turn out the kind of cake I (and she) wanted. It was important to keep the method, which involved melting butter and chocolate together, because the way they gave themselves over to each other struck her as so sexy. Unfortunately, melting the butter doesn’t work well for a traditional cake, so I tried recipe after recipe until I came up with something that gave me a good taste and texture but still kept the method.

At the end, Janneen contributed a drawing of one of the recipes, a set of sketches of how the pavlova’s made. It introduces the recipe section.

You’ve had a number of fascinating jobs throughout your life. What were some of your favorites?

The work I enjoyed most was editing. At its best, it’s like singing harmony: The writer finds the melody and drives the song forward, but the editor’s voice makes it richer. Actually, I love both sides of the relationship as long as, as a writer, I’m working with a good editor. I was lucky to have an excellent editor for The Divorce Diet, Kensington’s Alicia Congdon, who made it a much richer book than it was when it came into her hands.

But the other jobs I’ve done have left me a larger sense of the world than I’d have had if I’d only worked as an editor. I drove cab in Minneapolis for five years, and that job was the ground that my first novel, Trip Sheets, grew out of. My second novel, Open Line, drew on my experience as a radio talk show host. I’ve also worked as a waitress (I was a hopeless waitress, constantly losing track of who’d ordered what), and that experience fed into The Divorce Diet. I haven’t ransacked my other jobs for my fiction yet, but I may. Keep your eye out for anyone working in a candy factory, as a department store janitor, as a file clerk, or as a panicked receptionist (I lasted a full four hours).

You now live in the U.K. fulltime. What do you miss most about the U.S.?

Friends and family, of course. The familiarity of the culture I grew up in. There’s something enriching and surprising and absurd about being an outsider, but I do miss knowing in my bones what’s going on around me.

But I’ve been a bit of an outsider all my life, and looking back I’ve always sought out situations where I was sure to be one, so I didn’t really know how deeply a part of my culture I was until I moved to a different country. Sometimes you have to step outside to see what’s there.

I seem to turn a lot of the less tangible things I miss about the U.S. into food, and it’s made me a better cook. I live in the countryside in Cornwall, and although the stores sell things they call bagels, they don’t taste like anything I’d call a bagel, so I’ve learned to make them myself. I’ve introduced our friends to baking powder biscuits (which take some explaining, since over here biscuits are either cookies or the kind of things you eat with cheese) and to oatmeal cookies and real chocolate chip cookies and New York cheesecake. Give me enough time and I’ll subvert British cooking entirely.

They have no idea what a danger I am.