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.
"Revenge is sweet. Reinventing yourself is even sweeter." --Cathy Lamb
Abigail is sure the only thing standing between her and happiness is the weight she gained along with her beloved new baby. Until she instantly loses 170 pounds of husband.
When Thad declares that "this whole marriage thing" is no longer working, a shell-shocked Abigail takes her infant daughter, Rosie, and moves back to her parents' house. Floundering, she turns to an imaginary guru and best friend, the author of her new weight-loss book. But surviving heartache, finding a job, and staying sane as a suddenly single new mom isn't easy, especially on a diet--sorry, life journey.
Make an inventory of your skills, Abigail's guru instructs. Abigail loves cooking and preparing food--real food, not the fatless, joyless dishes her diet prescribes, or the instant-frozen-artificially flavored fare she finds in her mother's kitchen. So far, following everyone else's rules has led to being broke, lonely, and facing a lifetime of poached eggs, faux mayonnaise, and jobs in chain restaurants. What might happen if Abigail followed her own recipe for a good life instead?...
Bitingly funny, wise, and insightful, Ellen Hawley's fresh new novel is an ode to food and self-discovery for any woman who's ever walked away from a relationship--or a diet--to find what true satisfaction is all about.
"Food and love and loss and resilience--and a terrific narrative playfulness--are Hawley's recipe for a slyly entertaining and heartening novel." --Daniel Menaker, author of The Treatment