Suspend Your Disbelief

A Recipe for Better Understanding the Human Condition: An Interview with Mandy Mikulencak

"I feel I write about real life—there isn’t always a happy ending, and that’s OK."


Interviews |

A Recipe for Better Understanding the Human Condition: An Interview with Mandy Mikulencak

"Food is a central character in this book because food fulfills a central role in our lives": Mandy Mikulencak chats with Kate Lemery about historical fiction, getting published, and The Last Suppers, her new book out now from Kensington's John Scognamiglio imprint.


Whether you prefer traditional home cooking, haute cuisine, or anything in between, food and food culture has become a hot topic around the country in recent years. Americans are thinking and talking a lot more about what they’re consuming. Mandy Mikulencak’s enthralling second novel, The Last Suppers, continues that conversation and will leave readers pondering their own relationship with food and the rituals and memories associated with it.

The Last Suppers, which belongs on the same shelf as such other notable cuisine-themed novels as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Like Water for Chocolate, and Kitchens of the Great Midwest focuses on Ginny Polk, head cook at a fictional prison in midcentury rural Louisiana. Ginny has the power to give death row inmates a humanizing farewell in the form of preparing their last meal. Cooking distracts Ginny from ruminating about the details of her father’s murder and the execution of the man blamed for the crime, which has haunted her since she was a child. But after Ginny unwittingly plays a role in a tragic event at the prison, she won’t rest until she understands the full, unsettling truth of her family’s past.

The Last Suppers is the first book published under Kensington’s new hardcover imprint, John Scognamiglio Books, named for the long-time editor-in-chief. Prior to this, Mandy published Burn Girl, which garnered a 2016 Westchester Fiction Award. Before devoting herself to writing full time, Mandy worked in communications for Goodwill Industries International and the World Health Organization, and was the executive director of a women’s crisis agency. She grew up in Texas, and spent time in Washington, D.C., before moving to Durango, Colorado, where she and her husband currently reside.

Mandy and I conducted our conversation over phone and via email.

Interview:

Kate Lemery: How did you first begin writing?

Mandy Mikulencak: I had high school teachers encourage me to pursue a career in writing, and I thought that meant getting a journalism degree. So that’s the route I took. I stayed in newspapers for a little while, and then was able to write in every nonprofit job I held for the next two decades. I didn’t think about writing fiction until 2009. I had attended a women’s writing retreat and was inspired. I started with flash fiction and short stories, and had a couple of stories accepted at literary magazines. After that, I started thinking about writing novel-length work.

At what point did you first consider yourself an author?

I wrote four books before I got my agent, and during that whole time I never thought of myself as an author. It was when I signed with an agent that I really felt that I was a true author.

Yes, getting that validation from an “official” source can be really powerful. Which authors do you admire most, and which ones shaped your own writing?

John Irving is my favorite writer. He can find humor in the perverse and tragic. So many of his books are laugh-out-loud funny even though they’re sad and tragic at the same time. It really shaped how I started to think about the duality of the human condition: that we can experience joy and redemption alongside pain and tragedy. This philosophy shaped my writing. I feel I write about real life—there isn’t always a happy ending, and that’s OK. Irving is the master of that. I also love that his writing is so spare. He makes every word count. As a former journalist, that idea appeals to me, even though I can err on the side of being too spare.

is your second published novel. Can you describe the road you went down to get your first book, Burn Girl, published? Any advice to writers, like me, who are seeking to publish their first novel?

It was a very tough road. I wrote three books prior to Burn Girl and each was soundly rejected by agents each time I queried. That first book I wrote received 91 rejections. And that was because I rushed into the querying process before the manuscript was even close to being ready. As the rejections started rolling in, they did a number on my self-confidence. To ease the sting, I created a “treat jar” so that whenever I got a rejection, I’d reach in and pull out a slip of paper that had different treats on them like a chocolate truffle, a manicure, a book, etc. It didn’t take long to realize the treat jar would be an expensive endeavor. I abandoned the idea within days. With the next two books I didn’t query very widely because I didn’t think they were up to par. But I didn’t believe that the writing was wasted. I think anything we write just makes us a better storyteller. Then I wrote Burn Girl over the course of a year. I went through querying for several months and received 47 rejections before I got an offer of representation in late 2013. Part of that was really great timing. Authors should realize that it’s not always that their work isn’t good, or that they’re not amazing writers. It could just be timing. I tell aspiring authors that more than anything, patience is required. Publishing, and particularly traditional publishing, is such a protracted process at every stage.

What is the difference between writing YA like Burn Girl and writing fiction for adults? How do you gear your mind to write for each genre?

My primary goal is to write interesting stories about complex, flawed characters, so I make a conscientious decision not to treat those audiences differently. In my mind, themes in YA and adult fiction have crossover appeal. I don’t think a person’s age should dictate his or her choice of literature. With that said, with YA, I had to be cognizant of how teens talk to each other, how they use social media, what music they listen to. I also had to be aware at every step of the process in writing YA of not talking down to preteens and teens or to have hidden moral lessons. I think that a young person’s experiences and world views deserve an author’s respect.

Let’s talk about The Last Suppers. What were your goals in writing it? And how did you choose the setting?

When other people have asked me that, the underlying question was always, “Did you set out to write an issues book?” and I really didn’t. I started with a core of an idea: what would happen if a prison cook became obsessed with preparing the last meals for death row inmates? At that point I didn’t have any idea of time period or setting or plot. It just started with that kernel. When I thought about when and where to set the story, I decided that the 1950s in Louisiana would make the most compelling time period because the issues of the day—racism, poverty, social injustice, sexual inequality—provided a framework for people and their complex lives. We’re a product of the times in which we live, and the 1950s in the south I think particularly shaped people’s actions and beliefs.

How did your experiences working in the nonprofit sector for two decades shape the tone and the views expressed in The Last Suppers?

In each of the jobs I held, I was able to write about marginalized groups: people with little to no access to education, those who are living in poverty, or those trying to move beyond addiction or criminal histories. The nonfiction part of my career taught me to empathize and to look beyond stereotypes. By the time I started writing fiction, I believed that no topic about the human experience was off limits. As a writer of fiction, I strived to pay respect to those groups by capturing their experiences as accurately as I could.

By the time I started writing fiction, I believed that no topic about the human experience was off limits.

At the heart of your story is the message that “food is life.” Can you discuss the role of food as part of the human experience, and the feelings we associate with it?

Food is a central character in this book because food fulfills a central role in our lives. I’ve always felt that the purpose of food goes beyond its ability to nourish and sustain life. We’ve all used food to celebrate or self-soothe or grieve, and to preserve our cultures’ traditions. Food is so inextricably tied to emotion because eating requires us to use all of our senses. We smell the aroma, we feel the temperature and texture, and we make subjective judgments about its taste. But then our brains are mini time machines, and memory kicks in. It shoots us back to important moments or events that are associated with those foods.

How did you choose the specific last supper meals that made it into the book? What sort of feel were you going for?

I looked specifically for Southern comfort food, because I thought those would be the types most tied to the inmates’ memories. For inspiration, I turned to southern cookbooks from the time period and selected those that fit an inmate’s storyline, as well as those that appealed to me personally. The other food presented throughout the book was based on what was economical and readily available because those were the constraints on the main character. The specific last suppers in the book, though, weren’t based on any requested by real life death row inmates. I wanted to make them fictional and pertaining to the fictional characters’ storylines.

I know that you enjoy baking in your spare time, and you include a number of recipes for dishes mentioned in The Last Suppers in the back of the book. Were there any recipes that you considered using, but after trying out, weren’t right for your narrative?

I haven’t made all the recipes. I’ve made three so far: the spoonbread, the fruitcake, and the biscuits, and I served the spoonbread and fruitcake at my book club because they’d all read an advanced copy of the book. When I was very young, my father used to make Shit on a Shingle, a staple in the Navy, and my grandmother made Dirty Rice. Those were part of my upbringing, but I haven’t made them. My plan is to eventually make all the recipes in the book, and I encourage readers, book groups in particular, to try some of them.

Your website mentions that your favorite foods are deep-fried French toast and lobster corn dogs. What memories or feelings do you associate with these? Would they be your choices for your last meal on earth?

The deep-fried French toast is all about comfort and almost bucking the trend of healthy eating. Here in Durango, there is such an emphasis on athleticism and healthy eating, so the idea of going to a diner and having deep fried food is really comforting and self-indulgent. Lobster corn dogs are served at one of my favorite restaurants here, and I associate them with celebratory meals. I ate the corndogs after every publishing milestone—when I got my agent, when I got my first book deal, and after my first book signing.

But these things wouldn’t be my choice for a last meal. I would choose poppy seed kolaches and black coffee. Kolaches are pastries that my Czech grandmothers used to bake. I associate kolaches and coffee with sitting at my maternal grandmother’s kitchen table as a child and listening to her and my mom speak in Czech, something that they did almost every day. It also reminds me of all the times I went home as an adult to visit my mom. We’d sit across from each other at her kitchen table and have poppy seed kolaches and coffee no matter what time of day it was. So it’s not really about the taste for me. Like the inmates in the story, it’s about memory and about bringing comfort at the end.

You give a convincing portrayal of a fictional geographical setting. I was particularly impressed with the details you incorporated about the prison system and the politics involved in running the prison. Can you describe the layers of research you underwent in order to capture this place and time period?

That was a really rewarding process, because in writing historical fiction, I think that we owe it to readers to capture the time period as accurately as possible, while also taking the creative license to fictionalize some aspects. With the penal system, I was fortunate to stumble upon my primary source, which was Politics and Punishment: The History of the Louisiana State Penal System, written by the late Mark T. Carlton, a former professor at Louisiana State University. Details from his research made the fictional Greenmount Penitentiary come alive. Such as the fact that prisoners were used as guards and were often more brutal on their fellow prisoners than paid guards. This set up a really vicious hierarchy within that system, and the warden and the paid guards let that all play out.

Also, DeathPenaltyUSA.org has a list of actual prisoners executed in Louisiana in the 1950s which gave me insights on the types of crimes committed, the ages and races of inmates, and the Louisiana parishes where they lived. I didn’t use actual death records out of deference to actual death row families. I made up all of the inmate stories and races and crimes on purpose.

What did you do to set the tone to be able to write about Louisiana during this time period? Did you listen to certain music? Read certain books? Watch certain films?

The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile were both really important. I took away from both those movies was that there were compassionate men working in an otherwise violent culture, and that the inmates were complex human beings, not the stereotypes we often take them for. That gave me freedom to explore possible backgrounds for all the characters and to fictionalize a dehumanizing environment, where good people and compassion can exist.

Mandy Mikulencak

Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, said that she liked writing historical fiction because no one ever asked her if her main characters were based on her, something many people assume when her novels are set in contemporary times. Did people assume that Arlie, the main character in Burn Girl, which is also set in contemporary times, was based on you? And do you find that people don’t assume you’re like your main character when you write period fiction, like The Last Suppers?

Yes, absolutely, readers did assume aspects of Burn Girl were either based on my own experiences or on people I knew, and that wasn’t the case. I did quite a bit of research. Now granted Arlie came about from an incident when I was working as executive director of Durango’s Women’s Resource Center. A woman had come in for a food bank voucher, and I looked outside. Her car—a very beat up Subaru—was packed, as though all her belongings in the world were stuffed into the back. There was a young girl in the front seat—maybe twelve or fourteen years old—and my first thought was, why isn’t this girl in school? What kind of life does she have on the fringes with her mother? They were obviously homeless and looking for food. So some of Arlie’s story is based on real life, just not my own personal experience.

I’ve had critique partners, family members or friends read my unpublished work and become really concerned. In one of the first books I wrote, the main character was a survivor of incest and had had an abortion. One friend wrote me an email and said she found it very difficult to read the novel because she thought those were personal experiences of mine that she didn’t know about. And I said, “Absolutely not.” So I agree completely with Tracy that with historical fiction, people really don’t make that assumption.

Is there one takeaway you’d like to leave readers of The Last Suppers with?

That it’s OK for stories to reflect that our world is both an ugly and beautiful place at the same time, and that good people sometimes do bad things, and bad people can do good things. I want readers to understand that there is that dichotomy in our lives.

Is there anything you’d like to add that no one has asked you yet?

Yes! When I read books, I like to find a quote or passage that sums up the entire novel for me. This is the passage in The Last Suppers that does that best (in my opinion):

Ginny damn well knew that last suppers weren’t going to change anything: They wouldn’t make bad men good, they wouldn’t make up for any brutality exacted by the guards, they wouldn’t ease the suffocating fear of meeting death. The closest thing she could liken it to was bringing a casserole to a family after a funeral. For her, food did what words could not. It said, “I’m sorry for the loss. I’m sorry I can’t do more to help.”

What are you working on now?

My next book for Kensington is also historical fiction, set in 1960s and 1970s Mississippi. It’s the story of a 16-year-old girl who kills her father to protect her baby sisters from his abuse. That was part of my two-book deal with Kensington, and that’s finished and on track to be out late next year, although it’s still untitled.

The book I’m currently writing is different from anything I’ve ever done before. It’s set in present day in Washington, D.C., and is about three people whose lives intersect following the death of their loved ones in a plane crash. The idea came from the 14th Street Bridge crash in the 1980s, but it’s not a retelling of that particular event.


Contributor

Kate Lemery

Kate Lemery has a master’s degree in art history and worked for the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution for fifteen years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Her writing has appeared in the Washington PostMotherwell MagazinePeacock Journal, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in suburban Washington, D.C., and is finishing her first novel.


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