Two of my favorite things in the world are craft beer and books. On the last Thursday of every month I pair a novel I love with a pint to sip while reading it, under the theory that there is a perfect beer to compliment every book.
This month I read Jessica Topper’s Courtship of the Cake. I’ll start with a warning – this book is going to make you want to eat cake. Even if you wouldn’t particularly list cake as your favorite dessert. Hummingbird Cake, loaded with fruit and spices and covered in a pineapple cream cheese frosting, yes please. It’s also going to make you want to get a massage. You’ll find yourself sitting on the stretch-y machine thing at the gym, thinking if only Dani were here with some essential oils to rub that spot between my shoulder blades, that would be so superior to this. That’s how well you get to know the characters in this book – so much so that you want them to hop off the pages and give you massages and bake you things.
The basic premise of the story is that the main character, Dani, is perfectly happy with her single status (always the bridesmaid) until she meets a mysterious man at her sister’s wedding in New Orleans and can’t get him out of her head. Needing to satisfy a serious case of wanderlust and hoping to erase the memories of that night, she takes a job as a masseuse working with a touring music festival for the summer. She becomes friends with Nash, the front man of one of the headlining bands whose reputation is less than stellar. When Nash is invited back to his hometown to accept a key to the city, his manager devises a scheme help repair his image and convinces Dani to stand in as his fiancée. Things get complicated when Dani meets Nash’s former best friend, Mick, who just happened to be the mysterious man she can’t forget (and a baker of fabulous cakes and pastries). That would be complicated enough, but just to make things even more full of tension, Dani and Nash end up staying at the bed and breakfast where Mick has temporarily taken up residence.
In addition to the ample drama in the present moment, Nash, Dani, and Mick all have some past demons that they are wrestling with. Topper balances big issues around family/parenthood, illness, and betrayal with lighter moments that make you want to sit around the table with her characters and laugh (preferably while eating one of the epic breakfasts Mick prepares every day). In addition to the comedy/drama balance, I loved the dramatic tension in the story. There are little secrets revealed throughout the book that make you keep turning page after page to see if things can possibly tie together in the end. Which they do, very nicely, with perhaps one of my favorite ending lines I’ve read recently. I’d quote it, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the story for you — you’ll just have to read for yourself.
While you’re reading I would recommend sipping on a Calm Before the Storm from Ballast Point. This seasonal beer has popped up in a couple of bars in my neighborhood recently. It’s a cream ale brewed with coffee and a little touch of vanilla. There are two reasons I picked it. First, the name — it’s perfect for a story full of dramatic tension. Second, the unique flavor profile– flavors like vanilla and coffee frequently show up in dark beers, like porters and stouts, but a cream ale is a much lighter style. This unconventional pairing is perfect for a book about a baker who always seems to put just the right flavors together.
As I was reading, I was super curious about Jessica’s inspiration and writing process. She was nice enough to answer all my questions. Here’s what she had to say:
I know you have a lot of behind the scenes knowledge of the music industry (in addition to writing, Jessica works for the band moe.). Do large multi-artist tours (i.e. tours like Warped) really provide services like professional massages for the artists?
The first time I saw massages being offered backstage was during Woodstock 99. I thought it was a brilliant way to keep the relaxed vibe going during such a high-energy event! But logistically, it’s probably harder to provide certain services for a touring festival than for a festival held in a fixed location. I took a few liberties sending Dani “on tour” to massage the artists, since there are probably different requirements state-to-state as to licensing and practicing. But in general, yes – I’d say the bigger the festival, the more likely you are to see some pretty amazing perks backstage! Many of the perks are products rather than services, anything from free guitars (!) to designer jeans.
Some of the descriptions that stood out most for me in the book were the ones of New Orleans and of the cakes/pastries that Mick creates. It made me wonder if you had spent a lot of time in the New Orleans? Was there any one actual bakery that inspired Mick’s amazing creations?
Actually, I’ve only been to New Orleans once, but it was in the early stages of plotting the book so it was perfect timing! I attended a friend’s destination wedding, complete with King Cakes served the night before, and a “second line” parade through the streets after the ceremony. So I got to experience those things first hand. I also did a lot of walking and picture-taking through the French Quarter, so when it came time to imagine where all those scenes were taking place, I had a good frame of reference.
As for being inspired by one bakery in particular? No, I am an equal opportunity bakery lover! ☺ Mick’s creations in The Night Kitchen, his bakery, mainly evolved from my imagination – as a child I loved the book In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak, and since the character in that book is named Mickey, I thought it was perfectly fitting! I loved the idea of a bakery attracting more of a happy hour, dating scene crowd. There is a bakery near me called Dessert Deli that has a seating area for enjoying treats and coffee, so I spent a number of hours there while writing the book, soaking up the sounds, smells and activity of a typical day in that environment.
There is a lot going on in this story (in a really great way!). There are two first person narrators, and multiple story lines that move seemingly effortlessly between the present and memories/flashbacks to the past. I’m super curious about your process. Did you outline everything, write it all as it came to you, or some combination of the two?
This was probably my most free form, seat-of-my-pants novel yet. As a former librarian, you’d think I’d be more organized in my process! I had a vague idea of the timeline and how I wanted to book to end, but many of the finer details didn’t reveal themselves until I had built the bones of the plot. Flashbacks can often be confusing, but my editor and I decided on italics and placement to help transition the reader between past and present.
I hadn’t planned on using dual first person points of view when I started writing the Much “I Do” About Nothing series. It began with Laney, the heroine of the first book, as a sole protagonist, speaking in first person. The hero’s point of view was added later, and I had so much fun writing from that perspective, I just kept it going for this second installment in the series.
Courtship of the Cake is actually the second book in the Much “I Do” About Nothing series. I know it’s fine to read them out of order, but can you talk a little about what the first book, Dictatorship of the Dress, is about and how they are linked?
Dictatorship of the Dress is about second chances, missed flights and a woman ruled by her mother’s wedding dress. Laney, a quirky comic book artist, is in charge of carrying her ever-critical, overbearing mother’s wedding dress cross-country from New York to Hawaii. While en route, she gets mistaken for the bride and bumped up to first class. Which wouldn’t be so terrible if everyone didn’t assume that the pompous stranger in the seat next to her was the lucky groom! Noah is on his way to a Vegas bachelor party – his own – and his cold feet have nothing to do with the approaching bad weather. It becomes a comedy of errors, as Laney and Noah get stranded in Chicago and have no choice but to keep the farce going as they check in to the last available hotel. But as the two get to know each other, they find they have much more in common than they realize, and learn a lot about themselves in the process.
Throughout the adventure, Laney constantly calls and texts her best friend Danica for advice. Dani was the calm, cool voice of reason for Laney…so much so, Dani earned her own tagline: WWDD? – What Would Dani Do? So when it came to the second book in the series, I knew I wanted to write Courtship of the Cake as Dani’s own journey. As a writer, I worried I had painted myself into a corner by portraying her as so well adjusted and all-knowing in Dictatorship. No one wants to read a book about someone who has it all figured out, right? Then I remembered: Dani has a wild streak. And just because she gives great advice doesn’t mean she follows it herself! So I added a bit of wanderlust and a few skeletons in her closet to get her started on her transformation.
And finally, favorite beer?
Okay, shameless plug time! moe., the band I work for, now has their very own beer and it is amazing! Saranac, a long-time brewer in the Utica, NY area where a few of the band members have roots, just launched a moe.saic IPA called Hoppy Hour Hero. Currently, it is only available on tap at select venues, so if you happen to come across it during a concert or a pub-crawl, give it a try! The plan is to have it in bottles by the holiday season. It’s strong stuff – I think it has a 9% alcohol content, which I believe is pretty high even for a craft beer. I’m not a huge beer connoisseur, but it’s pretty cool to drink a beer and intimately know the story behind it!