Author Q&A: Jane Heller
Bestselling author Jane Heller on her new novel, Three Blonde Mice, the celebrity cooking scene, foodie culture, and more!
You’ve been a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. Tell me about how you became a writer–what drove you, inspired you, or what clicked?
Before becoming a writer, I was a book publicist for 10 years. I worked with such bestselling authors as Stephen King, Danielle Steel and Judy Blume, and I was perfectly happy being behind the scenes – setting up interviews for my authors, booking their television and radio appearances and arranging their bookstore signings. But once I became a VP of advertising, promotion and publicity at a New York publishing house and had an executive role at the company, I missed the more creative aspects of the job. Call it burnout or restless energy. I was looking for my next career chapter, never dreaming I’d become an author. Then I got an idea for a story – a romantic comedy with suspense in it. I started writing, driven by a need to tell this tale and get inside the head of my main character, and when I had 200 pages of “this thing,” as I called it, I realized I was writing a novel and I should see if it was publishable. Because I’d been in the business, I knew a few literary agents and gave one of them the manuscript. She not only liked it but got me a three-book deal! Suddenly, I was an author writing a book a year. And now here I am promoting my 16th book! I love coming up with story ideas – funny setups with quirky characters – and never seem to run out of them.
What are some of your favorite romantic comedy/chick lit books?
The novels that had the biggest impact on me as a fledgling writer of romantic comedy were Susan Isaacs’s Compromising Positions and Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. I still go back and re-read them from time to time because both authors gave their narrators such a distinctive and hilarious voice. A humorous voice is everything in first-person narratives, as far as I’m concerned. If the narrator makes me laugh, I’m hooked. I hope my narrators have the same appeal to other readers.
Tell us a bit about Three Blonde Mice. What sparked the idea, and what’s it about in a nutshell?
Several years ago, I wrote a novel called Princess Charming about three best friends, all divorced, who take vacations together every year. In that book, they go on a seven-day Caribbean cruise – only to learn that one of their ex-husbands has hired a hit man to kill one of them on the ship. They have no idea which ex is the bad guy or which passenger is the hit man, and the narrator, Elaine, is convinced that the hit man is the man she’s fallen in love with during the cruise. Princess Charming sold very well, both in the U.S. and overseas, and was optioned for a movie, and I got a lot of reader mail asking if I’d write a sequel. Fast forward to last summer. I was thinking about what to write and it dawned on me that I should bring back my three best friends for another vacation. So Three Blonde Mice features Elaine, Jackie and Pat on a seven-day Connecticut “haycation,” which means they spend a week on a farm. They learn how to milk a cow, make cheese and take cooking classes with a famous farm-to-table chef – only to find that one of their classmates intends to bump off the chef. At the same time, Elaine’s boyfriend from Princess Charming shows up unexpectedly, just as she’s starting to get involved with one of the other guests. Lots of twists and turns. Laughs too.
The main character, Elaine, is a pretty fun narrator and more than a little snarky. Where did she come from?
My friends tell me all my characters sound a little like me – jaded, sarcastic, funny. So there’s a part of Elaine that reminds me of myself, but she’s way more neurotic! And unlike me, she’s a pessimist. She’s sure everything will turn out badly. I try to look on the bright side of life.
Most romantic comedies seem to focus on romance and humor, but you add in a murder plot to unravel. What’s the key to writing good suspense, in your mind?
I added a murder plot to Princess Charming because I thought it would be funny if Elaine, who thinks everyone’s out to get her, was actually right and somebody WAS out to get her. So in Three Blonde Mice, she’s just as paranoid as ever and her friends roll their eyes when she tells them someone wants to murder the chef. As for the key to writing good suspense, I love creating a cast of suspects. In the case of the chef in Three Blonde Mice, just about everybody wants to kill him! They all have a good reason. I like to keep the reader guessing until the bitter end because that’s what makes the suspense compelling.
The book has a cast of zany potential suspects for the murder plot, including a health-obsessed couple and a senior super-fan of Jason Hill—were these inspired by real people you saw in the celebrity cooking circuit?
I spent last summer researching Three Blonde Mice, primarily in Litchfield County, Connecticut where the book is set and where I live for most of the year. I went to cooking classes and spent time interviewing chefs and it was clear that the chefs had groupies – people who took their cooking classes over and over again and followed them to various food and wine events and hung on their every word. So the senior super-fan suspect was an easy call. As for the health-obsessed couple, they’re everywhere I look nowadays. I was in a restaurant and the couple next to me were grilling the poor server about where every ingredient in every dish was “sourced” and one of them said about the salmon, “I don’t put anything into this mouth that’s farmed, not wild.” I think I even used that line in the book or something similar. It’s one thing to care about where your food comes from, but some people take it way too seriously. It’s okay to just go out and enjoy yourself!
If you had to choose, what’s your favorite scene in the book? (No spoilers please!)
No spoilers? That’s a hard one! I hope this isn’t a spoiler because it happens early in the book but my favorite scene is when Simon, Elaine’s on-again/off-again boyfriend, shows up at the first cooking class. He has no interest in learning how to cook. He’s trying to win Elaine back after she broke up with him for not being able to commit to her. I love the scene because it shows Elaine at her most vulnerable but also at her most romantic. She’s totally thrown by Simon’s appearance and yet she’s ecstatic that he’s there.
The book itself comes across as a satire of foodie culture, especially the farm-to-table scene. What do you think about organic food? Are you a foodie or a culinary heathen?
I’m a moderate foodie. I do care about what I eat and try to stay away from processed foods, eating only fresh and local. But I’m not rabid about it. If I go to someone’s house for dinner and they’re serving something that came out of a can, I’m not going to get up and leave. I’ve heard stories of foodies bringing their own food to dinner parties because they’re afraid their host will serve something with carbs or whatever. God forbid people should eat a piece of bread! So no, I’m not one of those people who adheres to hard and fast rules about my food.
If you had one night and someone else’s credit card, where in the world would you go to eat, and what would you order?
That’s an easy one. I’d go to the fabulous farm-to-table restaurant right here in Litchfield County, Connecticut. It’s called Arethusa al tavolo (http://arethusaaltavolo.com/). The food is superb and the executive chef, Dan Magill, was very gracious during the research for Three Blonde Mice. He answered every one of my questions about farm-to-table restaurants – Arethusa Dairy Farm nearby provides all the milk, butter, cheese, etc. for the kitchen and it’s amazing – and although the restaurant is expensive, I’d eat there every night if I had that credit card you mentioned! What would I order? I’d start with Chef Dan’s lobster and avocado salad, and then for my entree I’d have either the seared Chinook salmon or the fig-crusted rack of lamb. There’s a reason Chef Dan was a semi-finalist for the James Beard award this year; his food is to die for. What was really special for me is that his pastry chef, James Arena, created a farm-to-table dessert especially for Three Blonde Mice. It’s featured toward the end, during one of the cooking classes, and I included the recipe in the book for readers who are ambitious in the kitchen.
If there was a Three Blonde Mice movie, what songs would be on the soundtrack?
There’s a scene in the book – kind of a spoiler but not really – where Elaine and Simon have an intimate night together in the middle of all this mayhem about the would-be murderer of the chef. I would definitely lay in the Rihanna song “Stay.” Elaine desperately wants Simon to stay with her that night, in spite of all their problems.
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