From Fact to Fiction, with Fried Chicken: A Conversation with KJ Dell’Antonia

It sounds like the stuff of fiction. I wrote a lot of essays. She helped me with the structure. You don’t have to know as much about it as you would for a nonfiction book. That’s super daunting. I want to write about relationships I’d like to have. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I ended up with two characters, one who saw the comfort in it and one who found it stifling, and then I had them switch roles. I’ve always wanted a sister. I bought multiple versions of books like The 90-Day Novel and Save the Cat! I did also dissect books that I loved. But 70,000 to 80,000 words is also short, when you’re trying to tell the whole life story of a person you imagine. I had this rhythm of sitting down and writing big chunks. You’ve got to get into it fast. She lives in Santa Monica. With fiction, you can be reading along in a book and go, “Well, it’s not super likely that this billionaire hockey player would also have a brother who runs a security firm, but I’m fine with it!” It’s so fun. Like, “You just think that because Mom loved you best.” You get to force the people to have the conversation that so many people in life walk away from. Did you already have a specific story in mind when you decided to use your designated writing time to work on a novel? Every time I got stuck, I’d pull one back out. Was that drawn from real life? I’ve had trouble with action when I’ve tried to write novels. I’ve had various files labeled with the two restaurants on my computer desktop for probably 10 years. The way she talked about her work and the mistakes she saw people making made me feel like she could help. Also, the small town. She taught me to pare things away and go straight to the story. I’m not saying you could learn to be Jane Austen or Stephen King. I could see that some of the secondary characters were overdrawn, and the things that happened to the main character weren’t strong enough. I’m happy to just go along, suspend disbelief if I like the book. I think you start like that, and then a little voice inside your head says, “Man, it’d be so much better if they could just be like this or that.” And a voice inside your head says, “And they could be!” There’s a moment when you realize you can do not only anything, but lots of things. 
I was really struck by the competition between the sisters. I grew up in the suburbs, but there was this little town where both of my parents were from, two little towns, actually, and this whole extended family there, and a depth of relationships. Find something at the very, very beginning that tells the reader what to expect and why they should keep going. 
Did you try to model novels you loved, too? It was not dissimilar to what you go through when you learn to write short pieces for a magazine. Were the characters based on real people? I just didn’t know if I could do that myself. I wanted that in my life, having family that goes back a long way and people who knew who you were. My nonfiction book came back and had to be revised. But I knew I really wanted to try. 
What was the thing that made you finally start — and finish, and sell — a novel? To me, it looked like my cousins who actually lived there had that. I’d written fiction, but I’d never tried to get it published. And then to have a story, you have to have a person who’s discovering something about themselves. You’re filling in blanks constantly. KJ DELL’ANTONIA: It absolutely was that way with me. After I put it down, I called my sister, wanting to be a better sibling. I felt like I only had one shot at getting the attention of an agent; it had to be good enough for people to feel like it could get out there. Just putting it in a different structure. M. What do you feel like you can do with fiction that you can’t do with nonfiction? I also love writing about careers I’ll never have. How long did it take to write? Letting Mae and Amanda have each other to work out their relationship with their mother against is something I wanted. Anything that looked like an instruction book. So I hired her. The ones that broke it down to how many words you might have to introduce a character or at what point in the story the inciting incident should be. You only need enough. I’d open them up and be like, “Okay, what do I know by the end of the first chapter, and why? JANUARY 5, 2021

FRIED CHICKEN. She was interested in The Chicken Sisters partly because her father’s third wife once worked at a fried chicken stand. Then I sold the novel. They have someone else who has had that shared experience, a mirror. I don’t want bad things to happen to my people either. I read at least four or five, multiple times. We’d have that for like 10 minutes, and then not come back for six months. Maybe reading them is the key. The ones that were less literary were more helpful, actually, and the ones that talk about movies. I did struggle with that. What do I know by the end of the third chapter, and why? That’s where those books really help. What about the plot? I’m not quite sure how to write a novel. If you read your favorite books, it seems like there’s a lot of going on, but a lot of it is in your head. I’m the only person who was ever parented by my parents. I feel like I really know her, and looking back through, we only see her three times. Did you have a sister? What’s the worst moment for this character?” Now I have two brains when I read. How did you get from writing it to selling it? You get to do some things just because it’s fun. Two sisters locked in a long rivalry, one who stayed home in small-town Kansas, the other making it big (sort of) in TV and social media in New York. Probably about two years. I was still writing “MotherLode” for part of it. I have an agent for my nonfiction work. And as it turns out, both my agent and editor do edit, so this book had lots and lots of cooks, in the best possible way. Writes a Novel and 2,000 to 10,000: How to Write Faster, Write Better and Write More of What You Love. Their mom is a hoarder in the book. It’s such a relief. Some people read Anna Karenina multiple times. Henry James’s The Art of Fiction. It is, but also partly nonfiction. I’m still writing essays for The Times. I had a manuscript, but it was too long and unwieldy. I was scared. Nobody ever went to both of them.   You do need things to happen to them for them to figure it out, but you don’t need bad things. I’m working on another novel along the same themes of how hard it is to figure out what you want and who you are, which is what I write about in nonfiction too. I don’t have trouble writing a lot of interesting words, but writing the right ones? Everyone in these towns went to one or the other. Figuring out which of the many, many things in my imagination actually belonged in a novel? It’s really different from coming up with a person who has a problem and then a story within which they’re going to solve it. My mother is arguably the opposite of a hoarder. But just creating a satisfying story is absolutely learnable. ¤
WENDY PARIS: Did you, like so many of us nonfiction writers, have a long-held, secret dream of writing fiction? To some extent, you can learn that. There’s not exactly a formula, but most novels do take the form of a big giant problem and the three-act structure. My theory was: I can write a book. Was it based on that? What can you say about what you’re working on now? But I didn’t have a story; a competition is just an idea. When I showed it to my nonfiction agent, Laurie Abkemeier, she passed it along to a colleague who does fiction, Caryn Karmatz Rudy, who turned out to be a perfect match. It didn’t flow. With journalism, it has to be not just right but also from six different sources. ¤
Wendy Paris is a journalist and the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well. I have a whole shelf, though I’ve never really read them. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Now I live in a small town and I can see that it can be comfortable but also stifling. You were either a Chicken Annie’s or a Chicken Mary’s family, which is their real names. But I have an idea for a story, and if something would tell me how to write a novel, maybe I could do it. It’s a fast-paced, light novel, but also thoughtful. They say, “Now something has to happen that will knock you out.” And then they’ll give you six examples of stories where something happened. It’s the same stuff we do as nonfiction writers. There are so many rules. I just wanted someone to tell me what to do. I had an acquaintance who had grown up with a hoarder, and I read a couple of memoirs about hoarders, and that all informed the character. Then we interviewed a book coach/freelance editor named Jennie Nash on the podcast #AmWriting, which I do with Jessica Lahey and Sarina Bowen. It seemed so hard. If there were a formula, I would have taken it. I don’t think I have another nonfiction book in me, but maybe. Memoirs are really good for helping you understand how other people’s minds work, and learning about types of people you might want to write about. Essays come pretty easily to me, as did turning the parenting column into a book. I quote them in my head. That was a learning process. It takes its inspiration from two chicken restaurants running for generations in two adjoining small towns where Dell’Antonia’s extended family has long lived. But I also really like the kind of book where you’re yelling at the person the whole time because they need to change, to figure something out about themselves. This side character of the person’s mother was super important. A televised competition between their hometown’s two rival chicken joints, owned by their families. I’d been thinking about those two chicken restaurants for years, and what would happen if they went head-to-head, playing with that idea, off and on. You can dabble in it, in a lighter way. I love figuring out how free you can be. After I turned in How to Be a Happier Parent, I knew there would be a little while before I had anything more to do on it. All along, as I’m writing, I’m thinking: She doesn’t do fiction, but I’ll send it to her because maybe she’ll make an exception or maybe she knows someone who does. You knew who ran the butcher shop. I didn’t really know that when I sat down to figure out what I wanted to say about these chicken restaurants. They really form your mind. I wanted these two people who thought they understood each other but didn’t to come to understand each other more. I just want to them to sit around and talk. I don’t want anything bad to happen to my characters, and I can’t think of what they should do. I’ve enjoyed books where nothing much happens and then they open a tea shop in the end. My book felt like a tree with a bazillion limbs sticking off it, or an octopus with all these arms. Some degree of greatness is not learnable. I think that was a driver. Short is hard. I’m an only child. With nonfiction, you come up with a topic and you write something intelligent about it. The great thing about books is that people can say what they really mean. You need some truth to the feel of it, and you can get that from memoirs. I decided to try to keep that rhythm and turn it toward fiction. I love so many novels so much. I’ve read The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage or Fiction several times. I had to figure out who my people are. I think about them. I’ve bought those books, too. I’ve written for The Times for five years. The Chicken Sisters is a first novel by journalist KJ Dell’Antonia, formerly the editor of the New York Times’s parenting column “MotherLode” and author of the nonfiction book How to Be a Happier Parent. E. But part of me is also going, Oh look.