New book sweetens writing life with pie and perseverance
San Diego-based writer Amy Wallen's latest book, "How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies" is a hybrid memoir, writing-craft guide and cookbook, with illustrations by Emil Wilson.
The book looks at Wallen's journey to write and publish her novel, "Moonpies and Movie Stars" and memoir, "When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories." It's also a how-to guide for readers to find the perseverance to write a book themselves.
Plus, there's pie, from metaphors to "eat pie here" suggestions to plenty of pie recipes — all illustrated in vibrant color and comic form by artist Emil Wilson.
Wallen will appear at the San Diego Writers Festival on Saturday at the Coronado Library, with a discussion at 3 p.m. She will also celebrate her book launch at 7 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2022 at The Book Catapult with an in-store event.
Wallen joined KPBS Arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans to discuss the book on Midday Edition.
Is this something that you always wanted to write, a book about how to write a book? And at what point did you know that it would also be a pie cookbook?
Wallen: No, I never thought I would write a book about how to write a book. I also never thought I would write a memoir, and I also never thought I would write a novel, so maybe the books decide for me which I'm going to write. But no, this book came to me when I was teaching — actually — at UCSD, and I just saw all of these students that I have been teaching for years and years and knew that they were so anxious to get a book written and wanted to know how to write it and want to know all the secrets. And I had been telling so many of my own stories over the years, repeatedly, and it just occurred to me when I was standing up there that I could share those stories in a book.
The cookbook part came because a friend of mine asked me to do a cookbook with her. But I didn't consider myself a professional cook, but I just had the idea of combining the two when I started thinking about what if I did write a cookbook and one of my great loves is pie. And I did also feel like it's how I survived getting through it, because the book isn't so much a how-to as it is more of an encouragement to persevere, to get all the way to the end, to get through publishing, because it's such a long, hard road to write any book.
It doesn't have to be a novel, it can be a memoir or any kind of book or anything, any big project that you're trying to get through. So it's more about the survival part, I guess.
I think one of my favorite throughlines in the book is your early relationship with making pie crust, or sometimes even faking a pie crust. And to me, making pie crust is probably as intimidating as writing a book. Can you tell us a story of a pie crust failure that stands out to you? Can you walk us through what happened in that moment? I believe there was a trash can involved.
Wallen: My in-laws were visiting and they were very Americana family kind of people. And so I thought I would make chicken pot pie. And I had been trying to make pie crust. I could never get it. It always just ended up being a gloppy mess. So I gave up. And I used to always tell people, oh, easy as pie, that's a lie. So I always tell people that my pie crusts were bought — I bought Pillsbury — to the point that even when I shared recipes with people, Google would send me Pillsbury recipes because I would put Pillsbury as the recommended pie crust. But then when these particular in-laws were visiting, it was my ex-husband's family actually, my sister-in-law asked me, "Did you make your pie crust from scratch?" And just automatically, for whatever reason, out of my mouth came, "I sure did." And right as I said that, she was helping me clean the dishes from the dinner and I heard the lid of the trash can go up and I know she saw that red Pillsbury box sitting on the top of the trash can, but she didn't say anything because she's politer than I am.
And I didn't say anything. But I went right out after that and bought a Cuisinart so that I could start doing pie crust from scratch. I don't believe I have ever bought another Pillsbury pie crust since that incident. So I can always now say all my pie crusts are from scratch.
There's a vulnerability in writing a book like this and laying out your mistakes and U-turns for everybody to see. I'm wondering if this is all a part of teaching also.
Wallen: Oh, definitely. Every teacher knows that feeling of seeing this classroom, everybody just thinks you're going to give them the answers to everything. And really we're just sharing what we do know, the corner of whatever knowledge we have. I really believe in learning from mistakes, and I made so many mistakes along the way in publishing my first book and also my memoir. And I just wanted to share those and I think some of those stories and realizing that getting up and scraping off, wiping off our scraped knees, all of that is part of the process. And so the book is really more about perseverance. I always kind of jump back, even with this book that's out now — that's not out yet, but almost. We've had some little snafus like the shipping with COVID shipping and things like that. And I keep thinking, this is the glamorous life of publishing, because there's always something that you have to just keep believing and keep moving forward and not give up along the way.
It even took me two agents to get this book published, and people are always like, "Oh, it takes so long to get an agent. Why bother?" And it's about finding the right one and believing and continuing to believe, but it's hard. So I wanted the book to be something that made people have a good time. And that's the biggest lesson of all, I think I would like to teach, is try to have fun along the way.
This book is illustrated. Emil Wilson's art is endearing, it's funny, and it does so much more than enhance the text. There are entire pages of comic strips. What was that process like for you both?
Wallen: Working with Emil was fabulous. We had been friends originally. We were both in the same writing group together with Janet Fitch. And he was also an art director in advertising. And he's also a pie baker. So after writing group, we often had pie together. When I had the idea for this book and I'd written about five chapters, I had a proposal ready, but I didn't have the illustrations. I sent it to him. Our senses of humor are both very sardonic. He got it. He sent me illustrations to go with it and said, "What do you think? Do you think this would work?" I was like, yes. I think totally hit what I wanted in the idea, and it just kind of flowed from there. It was really great working with him. I learned later that actually, when you have a book, usually the publisher picks the illustrator for you. So it's kind of rare that two people come together like this. But I think we clicked already as friends and knew each other and came into this with the same feelings about this work. And that, I think, is what really makes a big difference.
He did over 200 illustrations, which is huge. So I think perseverance — which is the whole goal of this book, is to promote perseverance — I think he definitely had to apply that as well. So, yeah, it was a great relationship and a lot of work and I was just so elated to see what he came up with. I always wondered what it's like to see your words as like a movie or coming to life. And I feel like it's kind of what he did with his illustrations.
On Saturday, you will appear at the San Diego Writers Festival. And I imagine that book events for this book will feel a little different. What can we expect? And will there be pie?
Wallen: (Laughs) I don't think there's going to be pie. As much as I would love to bring it, I was trying to figure out the logistics and it just didn't seem like I was going to be able to make that happen. I also think there's health department issues on that. But yeah, this is funny because I've been thinking, too, about how this is going to be. I've done so many book festivals over the years and this is more of a writers' festival, and this book is about how to survive the writing life. So I'm actually going to do a PowerPoint not so much a how-to on specific craft issues, but more how to survive the writing life. I'm going to talk about what's inside the book and give some little snippets on how you too can make it all the way to that big celebration pie when your books arrive from the publisher and your first book event happens — and hopefully make you go out and either make your own pie or there's all kinds of great pie places around San Diego or wherever you are.
I can't let you go without giving us a pie recommendation. Do you have a pie for journalists?
Wallen: For journalists, you know, gosh, I love all of them. Do you guys want sweet or savory?
Let's go sweet.
Wallen: Sweet pie ... I'm going to say the coconut cream pie. And maybe just because I'm so old fashioned that I still think when you say the word journalist, I think black and white newspaper. So I think of my coconut cream pie with the Oreo crust. There you get a black and white pie and it's really, really good. And I use whipped cream for the topping and lots of coconut milk and coconut cream. And so it actually might even be dairy free, I think it might be. I have to look at the recipe again, but I created this recipe for this book, so, yeah, it's good. Very kind of like Almond Joy.
Find a sampling of Wallen's pie recipes here.
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