The beginning of Jael McHenry’s debut novel, “The Kitchen Daughter,” will leave you dazed and confused – just the way the rookie novelist and her editor at Simon and Schuster intended.
McHenry wanted to introduce her readers to the world of Ginny Selvaggio, the book’s main character, who has just lost her parents in a tragic accident.
At her parents’ funeral Ginny, who has Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism), suffers from sensory overload.
“We worked a lot to make sure those first 50 pages were the right entrée into the book,” McHenry said in a telephone interview from her New York City apartment one block south of Central Park. “At the beginning Ginny is overwhelmed. She’s in the grip of all this emotion, which makes her thought process even more scattered. She is unable to process everything coming at her.”
McHenry was aware that Ginny’s jumbled world might be off-putting to readers.
“I needed to capture Ginny’s thoughts and feelings, but I also needed to make sure it wasn’t so fractured that people would put the book down,” she said. “I also had to be careful not to write it too much like a [Asperger’s] textbook.”
According to www.aspergersyndrome.org, Asperger’s was originally defined in 1944 by Hans Asperger, M.D., an Austrian pediatrician.
The syndrome has more recently been classified as an autistic spectrum disorder.
Children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome have an intellectual capacity within the normal range, but have a distinct profile of abilities that have been apparent since early childhood. The profile of abilities includes the following characteristics:A qualitative impairment in social interaction:
* Failure to develop friendships that are appropriate to the child’s developmental level.
* Impaired use of non-verbal behavior such as eye gaze, facial expression and body language to regulate a social interaction.
* Lack of social and emotional reciprocity and empathy.
* Impaired ability to identify social cues and conventions.
A qualitative impairment in subtle communication skills:
* Fluent speech but difficulties with conversation skills and a tendency to be pedantic, have an unusual prosody and to make a literal interpretation.
* The development of special interests that is unusual in their intensity and focus.
* Preference for routine and consistency.
An avid foodie and food blogger, McHenry said the idea of “The Kitchen Daughter” came to her while she was cooking.
“Some of my writer friends say they get their great ideas while they’re out running,” she explained. “Mine come while I’m cooking.”
Although she has a master’s of fine art in creative writing, McHenry, who was valedictorian of her class at Waterloo, Iowa, had been writing for “about 10 years” and had an agent, but hadn’t been able to sell her work to a publisher.
“I realized I absolutely love to cook and I had never done a character who had that same love of cooking,” she said. “I use cooking as a way to connect with people. I like to throw dinner parties. Then, I thought, ‘What if I had a character who loved to cook, who was very involved in cooking, but had never used it to connect?’ That’s where Ginny came from.”
As she began writing, McHenry realized there had to be more at stake than just delicious food.
“Why did the cooking matter?” she asked herself. “Then it hit me out of the blue. What if a person’s spirit could be brought back by their recipe?”
In the opening scenes of the book, Ginny flees the crowd of mourners gathered at the Philadelphia home she’s shared with her parents and retreats to the kitchen. At a loss about what to do with her emotions, Ginny decides to cook. She takes a recipe for rustic bread soup that her grandmother had written out on an index card.
As Ginny prepares the soup, the ghost of her grandmother appears on the kitchen stool. The ghost speaks in broken English, saying “Do no let her,” but disappears before Ginny can ask her any questions.
In the middle of her grief and the appearance of a ghost, Ginny also must deal with her sister, Amanda, who is determined to sell the family home and move her sister to Los Angeles. Ginny’s only ties to her former life are the ghosts that come when she cooks favorite recipes – from hand-written cards – and Gert, the family’s long-time housekeeper.
McHenry’s storytelling skills belie her status as a first-time novelist. She’s able to make Ginny’s journey compelling and fulfilling. In McHenry’s hands, it’s hard not to fall in love with Ginny and to root for her continued progress. Readers have agreed, making McHenry very happy.
“I’ve had comments that this book gives them hope, that’s it’s a better reflection of the reality of autism,” she concluded. “It’s so exciting to have it [the book] out there in bookstores. Sometimes, I’ll just walk through a bookstore and see it on the shelves. It’s surreal.”
For more on “The Kitchen Daughter,” log on to www.jaelmchenry.com.
To read McHenry’s blog, log on to simmerblog.typepad.com
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