Not quite two years ago, I emailed Jennifer Lohmann (we share a mutual friend and live in the same area), introduced myself, and asked if I could interview her about being chosen as the 2010 RWA Librarian of the Year.
It’s clear Jennifer’s not one to rest on her laurels. In 2011, Jennifer entered a manuscript in Harlequin’s “So You Think You Can Write” contest and was offered a contract for her first book, Reservations for Two. The book came out yesterday.
I asked Jennifer if I could interview her again and she, graciously, said yes.
Jennifer, I understand you were “discovered” by Harlequin after you entered their 2011 “So You Think You Can Write” contest.
I don’t remember where I saw Harlequin’s “So You Think You Can Write” contest posted—Twitter probably—but I remember reading about it and thinking, “I don’t have to win, to win.” Author Kat Cantrell won my year, but I got offered a contract. The year I entered the rules were different. My year, you participated in the online conference as much as you were able and, at the end, submitted a synopsis and your full manuscript for the editors to read. Honestly, I don’t know if I could have gotten anywhere with the new rules; I suck at pitches and am not good at rallying votes.
Before I entered, I gave the manuscript to a coworker who reads romance and asked her to read it and give me her honest opinion of my chances in the contest. She was very relieved she didn’t have to find a nice way to tell me my book was terrible and said, “I don’t know that you’ll win, but you should get a contract out of this.”
Megan Long from Harlequin sent me an email after the winner was announced, asking me to make some major changes to the book and resubmit. I made the changes as quickly as I could without losing quality, asked my coworker to give it another read (she’s now my official beta reader) and sent it back. Then I waited.
May 2012 was one of the worst months I can remember. Nothing absolutely terrible happened, but many little-to-medium bad things piled on top of each other. My mom was in a car accident (she was hurt, but not seriously so). A raccoon killed one of my chickens and left me the carcass to find. I had to take one of my cats to the vet five times in the span of seven days, then force feed her for a week and give her subcutaneous fluids (meaning a cancelled vacation). My car died on the highway while I was driving the sick cat home from the vet. Megan called me in the midst of all of this mess to offer me the contract and she said they were hoping to publish in February, so the timeline would be a little rushed. I think she was a little taken aback when I responded, “I’ve been force feeding a cat for a week. I can do anything.”
Is this your first finished manuscript? If not, is there something about this one that is different than earlier tries?
This is my first finished manuscript and it’s probably the third romance I tried to write, though I put it aside (unfinished) for a couple years and didn’t finished several other novels before picking Reservations for Two up again. With each attempt at a novel I learned a lot, but the biggest thing I learned seems to be the simplest; I didn’t have to write the book in order. Once I figured out that I could write the middle after the beginning and the end, I finished a book. Mary Margret Daughtridge, author of the wonderful SEALed books, recommended I go back to Tilly’s story and finish it.
How much research did you have to do to get all the culinary details right? Have you actually made all these dishes?
Researching working in a restaurant included reading chef memoirs, personal experience in food service, and help from one of Durham’s wonderful chefs. Marco was incredibly helpful. Memoirs give the feeling of working in a professional kitchen, but they don’t tell you things like, “What time does the chef get to work,” and “How many people are working in the kitchen? What time do they get to work?” or “Whose responsibility is it to confirm reservations?”
The detail about the food requires two confessions. The first confession is that the only dish Tilly makes that I’ve made is the pierogi. I can tell you from experience that it is a beginner’s mistake to under fill the pierogi because you’re afraid of overfilling them; mine were flat as pancakes. The second confession is that, while I’m a great cook, I’m not an improvisational cook. I can substitute ingredients, but I can’t walk into my kitchen, look around and think, “If I mixed this with this, I’d have a wonderful dinner.” What I am good at (and the point of this story), is looking at a recipe and knowing exactly how it will taste before I’ve made it. I’m rarely surprised by the outcome of a recipe and, when I am, usually I messed up the process. I own Polish Heritage Cookery by Robert and Maria Strybel (the Mastering the Art of French Cooking of Polish food) and have made a lot of the recipes, but not the ones in the book. Yet.
I loved the sibling dynamics in the book. I understand you plan to publish a story for each of the three Mileks. Whose story is next and when is it coming out?
I’m so glad you liked the siblings! Their interaction was fun to write and I hope I’ve managed to carry it through all three books. Renia, Tilly’s sister, is the heroine of the next story. The First Move comes out April 2nd, 2013. I’m just finishing up Karl’s story and it should be coming out January, 2014.
In 2010 you were chosen as RWA’s librarian of the year award. Did winning that award help you become an author in any way?
While at Orlando for RWA to receive the award, I had an “a-ha” moment. I had stopped writing for reasons I can’t recall and RWA reminded me how much I loved writing and wanted to get back into it. I made a promise to myself to finish a novel (I didn’t finish two more books before coming back to, and finishing, Reservations for Two) and start querying. “So You Think You Can Write” hit me at the perfect time in the process. That a-ha moment was, by far, the biggest help of the award.
I also met a lot of great people, which has helped both as a librarian and as an author. I do have to be careful not to misuse the librarian-level network as an author. I also know that my librarian-self (the me who reads a ton of books and has very distinct opinions about them) will frustrate some people I interact with as an author. I could alleviate some of this by writing under a pen name, but the thought of two identities gives me a headache.
I see from your bio you lived in Shanghai prior to settling back here in the USA. Would ever set a book in a foreign country? Reservations for Two has such a wonderfully strong sense of place–your Chicago is Chicago. Are there other locales you think you could create so persuasively?
Even though I will probably never live there again, Chicago and I are kindred spirits and I’m so glad the setting came so alive in Reservations for Two. I have nuggets of ideas for books set in rural Durham County, North Carolina (I hope I give that book a strong sense of place or I will never hear the end of it!), Moab, Utah, and an unnamed ski resort. They’re all places I’m familiar with, so I should be able to write them persuasively. I would love to set a book in Shanghai, but I’d need to spend a lot of time in the city again. Shanghai changed so quickly while I was living there; I can’t imagine what it looks like now that I’ve been away for over ten years. But, if I can go back to spend a large chunk of time in the city, I’ll write a romance there.
What’s your favorite moment in your book–spoiler-free, of course?
I love how, when Tilly’s under pressure, she keeps herself together on the outside and, as she’s doubting herself on the inside, thinks the most ridiculous things. As she’s figuring out how she’ll fix a problem, she’s absurd and irreverent—and struggling to be professional enough to keep those thoughts to herself. She’s a woman in a man’s business, so she has to be more controlled than a man in her position, lest she be considered hysterical or weak. The whole episode where Tilly has a plumbing problem typifies that trait for me, both in how she thinks about the future of her restaurant and of Dan. Tilly has one mental image about plumbers and Julia Child that makes me laugh every time I read it.
Your heroine has vividly blue hair. Do you have a picture somewhere of what her tresses look like? I kept trying to imagine her hair and each time, my picture of her blue locks changed.
Over the course of writing this novel, and setting the novel aside, and picking it up to work on it again, I changed many things about Tilly, but her hair never changed. I even tried and it felt so wrong. Anyway, when I home visiting my mom in college, we were eating at Charlie Chow’s in Salt Lake City when this woman walked past with magnificent blue hair, clearly a very expensive dye job and not a wig. Tilly’s hair came from that moment. The closest image I’ve seen since to that hair is the May 2012 cover of Teen Vogue with Katy Perry.
As a reviewer, I was fascinated by your portrayal of Dan, a restaurant critic. What made you choose that profession for your hero? How did you research his work?
Reservations for Two was born when I read a romance where the heroine owns a restaurant and the hero gives it a terrible review. Only the hero was the paper’s sportswriter and only filling in for the restaurant critic; he didn’t care about food and was simply pissed he had to do a restaurant review. I thought how much harder that conflict would be to resolve if the hero and heroine both really loved food and the hero was a name in food. Dan was a restaurant critic for a paper when a friend suggested I make the story more modern with a blog. Not only did this make the story more contemporary, but Dan could be both a nationally-known food writer and an anonymous restaurant critic. Again, I read books by restaurants critics and one that “exposed” restaurant critics. The rest comes from personal taste. I love to read about food. I cried tears of sadness when Gourmet ended its run and tears of joy when I learned about Lucky Peach.
What’s up next for you after this trilogy is done?
I’m researching the book set in rural Durham County, North Carolina. It’s set on an organic vegetable farm with a female farmer.