A Conversation with Jennie
Q. Eating Heaven
is your second novel. How was the experience different from writing Riding With the Queen
A. Eating Heaven
is actually a rewritten version of the first novel I attempted, then stuck in a drawer when I realized it wasn't very good. Like Riding With the Queen
, it's a story that's straight from my heart, inspired by the time I spent with my dad and stepmother Jeanne as she was battling pancreatic cancer. After publishing Riding With the Queen
, I decided to take another crack at it and began from scratch, using the same basic story and characters as before, but setting it in Portland, a natural for a story involving food. I fell in love with the characters all over again, and when I finished, I had this great sense of satisfaction that their story would finally see daylight.
Q. In Eating Heaven, main character Eleanor Samuels becomes the primary caretaker for Uncle Benny, who has a rare form of cancer. You mention that you were inspired by your own family's situation. How so?
During the five months my stepmother, Jeanne, was ill, our family pulled together in the way families do at such times. I think because her condition was terminal, we all felt helpless and didn't know what to do. For a good deal of that time, though, she still really liked to eat, so I'd ask her what she felt like having, and then I'd make it for her. At one point she wanted pineapple upside-down cake. I made one and took it to her, and as she ate it, she really seemed to be savoring it. After she finished, she said, "That was so good. I believe that's the last time I'll need to eat pineapple upside-down cake." It struck me as such an acceptance of her situation, even though we never talked about her dying, and I was inspired to write about it first in an essay (published in Mademoiselle, July 1997. To read, visit www.jennieshortridge.com
). In the book, Eleanor and Benny have this same experience, and many others that were inspired by real life.
After Jeanne died, I grew closer to my dad, who was on his own for the first time in a long time. I made casseroles and took them to him and we talked on the phone nearly every day. I was inspired to write the relationship between a grown woman and a fatherlike figure because of that time together. It was quiet and simple, but tremendously powerful. Tremendously real.
Q. In the Reader's Guide for your last novel, Riding With the Queen, you said that you were interested in expressing "themes of tolerance and acceptance." How did you go about writing toward this in Eating Heaven?
Big people are one of the last groups our society thinks it's okay to discriminate against, stereotype, and make fun of. Ironic when Americans are getting fatter every year, yet fat jokes on TV and in movies are not considered offensive, for some reason. I have plenty of friends who are big, happily or unhappily so, and they're dealing with the same stuff we all are in our lives. We all have coping mechanisms. The difference with people who eat as a coping mechanism is that you can see the result. I wanted to show readers who Eleanor is and how she battles with eating and weight, body image and self worthas so many of us do.
At the same time, I also wanted to open up the issue of compulsive and binge eating disorders, which are disorders you don't hear a lot about. The more I researched and talked with women dealing with them, the more I realized how prevalent they are and how dangerous they can be, not only to emotional health but to life itself. These disorders often lead to obesity, which causes something like 300,000 deaths per year in our country. And those who suffer from eating disorders feel horrible about themselves way too much of the time. So, again, I wanted to put a human face on what our society thinks of as an unattractive issue.
Q. Eleanor's sisters are very important to her and to the story. Do you see yourself and your own sisters in them? Does your relationship with your sisters reflect the relationships between Eleanor, Christine and Anne?
As with the sisters in Riding With the Queen
, not so muchnot literally, anyway. However, my relationship with them is why I like to write about sisters. I love how the intricacies of common experience and interconnectedness bond sisters together sometimes and tear them apart at others. I have the kind of sisters who stand up for each other no matter what, and who are there in a heartbeat if one of us is in trouble. Sure, our relationships are complicated and not always on the best footing, but our loyalty and love for each other surpass all other circumstances. And those are the kinds of sisters I try to write. For me, family has always been my foundation, even when we drive each other crazy.
Q. Portland comes so alive in Eating Heaventhe markets, the weather, "Trendy-Third Avenue." How long have you lived in Portland? Will you set future novels there?
I've now lived in Portland for over three years. I began to write Eating Heaven
in my first year here, when I was in the romance phase of my relationship with my new hometown, and I think that comes through in the story. Coming from the high and dry desert of Colorado, the Oregon landscape is all about life and growth and renewal, abundance in the form of green everywhere, and water, and a wonderfully creative and bohemian spirit in its people. I love it, and yes, my next novel takes place both in Portland and on the gorgeous Oregon coast.
Q. Eleanor's struggles with food will feel familiar, on some level, to many readers. Why do you think the issue of food is so fraught in our society?
I think media has become like a druga poison, actuallybecause we let it influence us to do things that are unhealthy or just plain stupid, like not eat, or eat things that don't taste good and aren't doing our bodies any good. We buy in to what they're showing us rather than take a look around at the real world and realize that most people will never look like models, nor should they. Why are we more desirable and lovable if we look like the current "perfect person" prototype? It changes with every generation, anyway. Why not just be a good, healthy you? I'm not saying I don't struggle with it. I do. Although I've always been on the solid side of average weight, I've always felt too big. I'm currently obsessed with the fact that my face has decided to migrate toward my chest and there ain't no diet or gym for that, honey! I'm trying to accept myself as I am, and better yet, to value myself as I am.
Q. The family situation is so charged in this novel, yet it's easy to sympathize with almost every character, even when we disagree with how they're acting. What was your most difficult character to write?
I guess it's whom you might expect: Bebe, the mother. She's narcissistic and self-centered, yet she loves her family even as she inflicts damage upon them. People do that to each other and never realize it, or they justify it away. Her pain is revealed bit by bit in the story but her behavior is never entirely exonerated. She's a tough character, and she challenged me in a good way. I liked her a lot more by the end than I did in the beginning.
Q. Eating Heaven is full of mouthwatering descriptions of food, and you've graciously included a few recipes here. Have you been a food writer, like Eleanor? Who cooks at your house?
I do most of the cooking at my house, but to be fair, Matt, my husband, makes breakfast every day and cooks a mean tuna casserole. While I haven't written for food magazines. I've always loved to cook and have spent time cooking in small cafés at various times in my life. I've also developed recipes for Mountain High Yoghurt, including their most popular recipe, Easy No-Bake Cheesecake. (It's fun to know so many people are eating my creation!) Like Eleanor, my love of cooking stems, of course, from my great love of eating, but also from that deep, primal place somewhere between the brain and the soul from which creativity springs. I kind of go into a trance when I cook, as when I write, and ideas come to me. Where it's a chore for some people, I find cooking fun and invigorating.
As with the music in Riding With the Queen
, I wanted the food in Eating Heaven
to be representative of feelings, moods, even eras, which is why I used a lot of comfort foods and old-time-family-favorite kinds of dishes, like the following:
Ellie's Boeuf Bourguignon Lite
Benny's Favorite Spice Cake
Cream Cheese Frosting
Dad's Shecret Shauce
Old-fashioned Pineapple Upside Down Cake
Oatmeal Cookies with nuts, no raisins
Questions for Discussion
1. The characters in this novel are struggling to learn how to properly care for one another on many different levels. In what ways do they succeed or fail to be nurturing?
2. How does Eleanor's attitude toward food change throughout the book? What does her inability to vomit signify in her life? Her decrease in appetite?
3. The author does not reveal Eleanor's actual size. Why do you think she made this decision, and how do you feel about it? What do you imagine Eleanor's size to be, and how does it differ from or match your group members' perceptions?
4. Food is described so intimately and beautifully in Eating Heaven
, it is almost a character itself. How does the author use food to tell the story? Find passages where food reveals emotions, desires, connections, or conflicts.
5. What spurs Eleanor to see Suzanne Long, the food therapist? Why does she stop seeing her? What does Eleanor learn from Suzanne, and what does she learn on her own?
6. Why does Bebe refuse to see Benny, even when he is dying?
7. What is Bebe referring to when she tells Eleanor on page 199, 'Benny isn't quite the angel you think he is?' How did your perceptions of Bebe and of her relationship with Benny change over the course of the story?
8. What would you do, if you found out that your family had a secret they had kept from you all your life?
9. Eleanor eats when she is stressed or upset. How do Anne and Christine cope with their life-changing problems?
10. What, for Benny, is the most difficult part of his illness?
11. Think about the men in Eleanor's lifeBenny, Stefan, Henry, and the memory of her father. How are these relationships similar? Different? What issues, if any, does she resolve with them by the end of the book, and how?
Synopsis and Praise
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