Marisa De los Santos Reviews Simply from Scratch The bestselling author of Love Walked In, Marisa De los Santos is an award-winning poet with a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing. She lives in Wilmington, Delaware, with her husband and children.
When I began Alicia Bessette’s Simply from Scratch, I understood immediately that it would contain no easy cures for pain. Consolation would not be sudden or free, swooping down to scoop up Zell—or anyone else because she is not the only character in the book who has suffered an awful loss—in its redemptive arms. From the opening sentences—“I knot Nick’s camouflage apron under my boobs, unable to remember the last time I wore a bra, or preheated an oven. That’s my widow style”—I knew that Zell was a woman who would tough it out.
Her grief is singularly unromantic: daily, matter-of-fact, weary, intensely personal, punctuated by wry humor and tiny heart attacks. She is blindsided by “Memory Smacks” that transport her, reeling, into random, ordinary moments from her marriage to Nick, who died while on a relief mission to New Orleans, following Katrina, his death just another small, immeasurably huge loss amidst rampant tragedy.
All of which is to say that her grief is authentic. All of her is authentic. I fell for Zell. As I read, she was a person I knew, a good person who was not always nice, a strong person who was occasionally helpless, a generous person who could be frustratingly unforgiving. She doesn’t move straight through grief. She zigzags, circles back, gets in her own way. She is human, quirky as all of us are quirky, ordinary and miraculous at the same time.
And she has friends. Wow, we should all have such friends. This book tells a lot of different kinds of stories, but the one that resonated most with me as I read, the one that still sticks with me is its story of friendship, that simple, workaday kind of love that’s as sacred as any kind. Russ, France, Dennis, EJ (sweet, sweet EJ): I loved them through the whole book and love them still. Zell is lucky to have them. So am I.
--Marisa De los Santos A Q&A with Alicia Bessette
Q: As a journalist, you reported on the relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. What about that experience inspired you to write Simply from Scratch?
A: In my hometown of Holden, Massachusetts, I was hired at a small, community-centered newspaper (The Landmark) soon after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. For months, my colleagues and I wrote feature stories about the people in our area of New England who traveled to New Orleans to help rebuild its churches, schools, and libraries. They returned home very moved by what they’d seen and experienced.
Long after I wrote about these volunteers, their words replayed in my mind. I knew I wasn't done writing about them.
Eventually, the novelist’s question came to mind: What if? What if one of those volunteers didn’t make it home to Massachusetts? Characters were born, and my debut novel grew from there.
Q: It’s commonly believed that writers write from experience. What about Simply from Scratch is based on your own personal experience? Are there characters who embody people you know? Is the fictional town of Wippamunk, Massachusetts, based on a real town? Are you anything like the main character, Zell?
A: I feel very connected to central Massachusetts, where I grew up, and I think that’s evident when you read Simply from Scratch. I’ve heard from far-flung readers who strongly relate to the New England setting, even though they’ve never visited.
The characters in Simply from Scratch embody the spirit of experimentation. They have humor and hope and a gleeful curiosity about life in general. Reading should be a pleasure!
When I worked for the newspaper, I wrote a feature about a guy who was somewhat directionless until middle age, when he picked up a chainsaw for the first time in his life and discovered a latent talent: he could carve gorgeous wood sculptures. He was the real-life inspiration for the chainsaw artist in Simply from Scratch.
Zell and I share an artistic temperament and a love of the outdoors. Seeing as she’s a medical illustrator, I think she’s probably more analytical and logical than I am (I’m pretty much one hundred percent right brained). Also, I’m not as brave as she is.
Q: Simply from Scratch is told from three different perspectives: Zell, her husband Nick, and a childhood friend, EJ. Why did you structure the book this way? What did you hope each perspective would bring to the story?
A: My initial draft told only Zell’s story. It achieved the desired funny-but-heartrending effect, but it ran short and left me wondering about other characters.
I composed Nick’s emails next. During editing, thanks to chewy and inspiring conversations with my editor (Dutton’s Erika Imranyi), I revamped Nick’s emails to reveal how his experience in New Orleans changed him. The personal transformation he undergoes during his last days make his death even more tragic, because Zell is stuck wondering about this new man, and how their marriage might have flourished, had he made it back home to her.
Suspecting there was much more to EJ than his “gentle giant” reputation, I wrote his narrative last. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how deeply EJ runs.
Q: The ingredients in Scrumpy Delight, the dessert in the book, are an unusual combination – goat cheese, pineapple, chocolate… What made you decide to combine these particular ingredients? What was the process that led you to select this recipe?
A: I made a list of my favorite things to eat--chocolate, cheese, and fruit--and went from there, remembering the time my mother experimented by grilling pineapple spears and drizzling them with honey. Lots of trial and error was required!
The things we make reflect who we are. The ingredients are unusual, and I think that’s fitting for Zell and Ingrid, who are also unusual.
Q: Your husband, Matthew Quick, is also a writer. What are the greatest challenges and benefits of two writers living under the same roof?
A: IWe have a beautiful partnership. He reads my work, I read his. We spend so much time together, and we talk a lot about books and writing. A new acquaintance recently asked if a marriage of two writers is a “hotbed of neuroses,” and I had to laugh: there is definitely that. But by and large, it’s pretty awesome.
Q: In addition to being a writer, you are also a professional pianist. Did your love of music play a role in Simply from Scratch?
A: Piano is definitely a hobby; my nerves got in the way of any professional musical ambitions I might have had. But I’m proud of my two full-length CDs and hope to make more. Music is a subtle but important theme in Simply from Scratch. Zell totes around Nick’s old record player and listens to Gladys Knight and the Pips on vinyl. The music ushers her through the emotions she needs to feel in order to heal.
(Photo of Alicia Bessette © Karl Seifert)