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Interview: May 8, 2015

After 11 years working at the Guardian as a news reporter, health correspondent and political correspondent, Sarah Vaughan started freelancing and working on her first novel. THE ART OF BAKING BLIND is a delicious and heartfelt debut, in which five amateur bakers compete in a baking competition only to discover that the recipe for happiness may not be so easy to follow. In this interview with The Book Report Network's Norah Piehl, Vaughan reveals why she chose to set her novel at a cooking competition and some suggested further reading for inspired amateur bakers. She also admits that cooking for her is “a way of creating order out of chaos” and that food in families is never simply about nutrition. 

The Book Report Network: THE ART OF BAKING BLIND, your debut novel, focuses on five contemporary bakers competing for a huge prize, and also offers flashbacks to the woman who inspired the prize. What was your inspiration for this plot line? Why did you decide to incorporate these flashbacks in the story?

Sarah Vaughan: I knew very early on that the impossibility of perfection, or the gulf between appearance and reality, would be a strong theme of this book --- and what better way to convey that than by revealing a public figure’s very different private life? The snippets from her cookbook, The Art of Baking, suggest an exacting, slightly prim woman, for whom the family is at the heart of everything. By showing her in the flashbacks at her most emotionally and physically raw, I wanted to flag up that the Kathleen Eaden who wrote a recipe column was just a construct. The real Mrs. Eaden was far more complex: frustrated, grief-stricken, hopeful, fearful, loving. And, above all, constrained by her time.

TBRN: Although the fictional baking competition in THE ART OF BAKING BLIND is not a reality show, the contest element will definitely appeal to fans of cooking competition shows. Were you inspired by any of these programs as you wrote the book?

SV: The idea for this novel came as I baked with my young children and thought about why I was over-investing my baking with emotion. I wasn’t just making carrot cake, or roasting chickens and making stock and risotto: I was showing them I loved them and trying to prove that I was a good mum! But there’s no doubt that my interest in baking was sparked by the plethora of cooking competition shows --- not least “The Great British Bake Off,” or “The British Baking Show,” as it’s called in the US.

In fact, the idea of a cooking competition came when I caught the very end of the 2011 series, in which the winner said she baked “because I wanted to do something for myself.” A couple of weeks later, it emerged that her husband was in prison for his part in a £60 million fraud. The Essex housewife who baked for her cricket-playing sons was only a part of the picture --- and that got me thinking. Who else would have such an unmet need in their life that they would put themselves through the stress of a baking competition? What other sorts of characters bake --- and how might I weave them into a novel?

TBRN: Why did you decide to write from the points of view of the four female bakers, but not the male competitor? Was there any character whose story or voice came easiest to you? Whose story was more of a struggle for you to write?

SV: I suppose the truth is that I was more interested in the women in the novel than the men and that, if I was writing this now, I might give Mike a more substantial role. Vicki, Jenny and Karen came to me pretty much fully formed --- or rather the outline of their characters emerged as I baked with my kids, and I fleshed them out before and while writing the drafts. Once I’d worked out Kathleen’s secret, her sections came to me very quickly, and I wrote them in a great rush of excitement. I suppose that the character I found the hardest to write was Claire. I feel huge sympathy for her, but she’s probably the least like me: younger; having experienced more hardship; from a different social class. She comes from my home, though, and she feels a fierce love for her daughter, who is her world. And who hasn’t hankered after a past love, at some point, particularly if you know he’s no good for you?

Vicki, Kathleen and even Karen proved easier to write because, as with any first novel, there are elements of my personality in them. So, I’m a perfectionist like Vicki, for instance, and, much as I adore my children, I found it hard adjusting to being at home and freelancing after having a high-powered job on the Guardian. (I was a political correspondent and then senior reporter before I had my second child.) Similarly, although I’ve never ever had an eating disorder, from the one time I’ve calorie-counted --- before my wedding --- I could see how, like Karen, you might become obsessed with your weight. And, although I’ve never experienced Kathleen’s problem, I did find it very difficult to get pregnant the first time. And I know what it’s like to become obsessed with having a child and fearful throughout the pregnancy that something will go wrong.

TBRN: As I read the book, I found myself wanting to try out many of the recipes the contestants are baking. How did you decide which types of dishes to "assign" them? Did you ever consider including recipes with the novel?

SV: I wanted to structure the novel around the different stages of the competition --- cakes, biscuits, bread, etc. --- and the contestants’ choice of what they baked was an easy means of characterization. The clearest example is Karen, who builds an angular gingerbread house, with sharp shards of caramel as windows, and is seen making a Baked Alaska that, like her, is: “glossy and crisp on the outside; chilly in the centre.” Jenny is such a homely character, and Vicki aspires to being one, so it made sense that they bake meals such as beef bourguignon and rabbit and leek pie. Claire, who doesn’t have the money for expensive ingredients, sticks to traditional, West Country bakes.

I think I knew the characters so well that their choice of bake emerged naturally. As for including recipes in the novel, I think having some at the back of the book --- so that they don’t impede the flow of the story but complement it --- is an excellent idea. I hope it’s something we might look at doing in the paperback edition.

TBRN: Each of the characters has a very personal reason for pursuing baking. Do you think baking often fills personal or emotional needs in real life? What kinds of life events or emotions might lead you to head for the kitchen?

SV: I think it’s pretty clear that I think baking fills acute and deep-seated emotional needs. As Kathleen Eaden writes: “There are many reasons to bake: to feed; to create; to impress; to nourish…and sometimes, it has to be said, to perfect. But often we bake to fill a hunger that would be better filled by a simple gesture from a dear one. We bake to love and be loved.” I hope that doesn’t sound trite but conveys the plethora of reasons why we bake. I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that the UK interest in baking shows/baking has come as we’ve experienced a double-dip recession: In times of insecurity, we hanker after a bit of comfort, including more nostalgic, traditional baking.

In THE ART OF BAKING BLIND, Jenny is the character who best illustrates that baking fills an emotional need. When she discovers her husband is being unfaithful, for instance, she throws together a beef pie --- the same meal she made the night her mother died --- and the act of chopping and tenderizing the meat and being enveloped in the smells of sautéing onions is cathartic.

I know I bake to cheer myself up. Last week, after a bad writing day, I baked something that managed to be wholesome and decadent: a sticky toffee pudding made with plenty of dates. I certainly didn’t need it, but I got immense pleasure from seeing my children and their friends, who’d come over, eat it: They gave little coos of pleasure before racing off to play. Baking, for me, is a way of creating order out of chaos --- and of doing something positive and creative, particularly if the words don’t flow.

TBRN: The relationships between parents and children are very strong and complicated in THE ART OF BAKING BLIND. What role do you think food and cooking play in families?

SV: My interest in baking --- as opposed to cooking --- developed once I had my own kids. And one of the lovely things about baking with them is returning to recipes my mother baked with or for my sister and me. Put simply, like my mother, I see giving my family good, healthy food and the occasional sweet treat as a way of showing how much I love and care for them. For me, baking and cooking is a wholly positive thing.

But it would be naïve to think that in every family, food and the giving of food is that uncomplicated. I’m sure we all know people who press food on us and aren’t satisfied until we eat, even if we’re not hungry. (And such people might either not eat or cut far smaller portions for themselves.) And then there’s the rejection of food: either by small children who are faddy eaters, able to wield the little power they have over their parents; or by adolescents, testing the boundaries, or even partners --- such as Jenny’s husband, Nigel, whose sexual rejection of her is mirrored by his rejection of her food.

Food in families --- the making and giving of it --- isn’t just about nutrition.

TBRN: Your narrative is interspersed with excerpts from a (fictional) "classic" baking cookbook. Were those excerpts fun to write?

SV: I loved writing the excerpts and hope that comes across to the reader. It was such a joy to use a different tone and to imagine writing in a different time. I have a lovely neighbor who married in 1955, and she lent me her cookery books from then, the 1960s and 1970s: It was in these that I discovered recipes for melting moments, chequerboard biscuits, vacherin and coffee kisses. I was particularly inspired by the late American chef and cookery writer, Robert Carrier, who wrote about the French using garlic, herbs and alcohol in their cooking --- which were perceived as quite exotic by British housewives at the time. Details such as these were used by Kathleen Eaden.

TBRN: Do you bake with your children? What kinds of baked goods do they most often request?

SV: The recipe I continually go back to is the Devil’s Food Cake my mum used to make as our birthday cake and that I now make for my children. I wrote about it for the Waterstone’s blog, and you can find the recipe, and my piece about it, here. Lemon drizzle cake, Nigella’s London cheesecake and brownies, carrot cake with a mascarpone and lime topping or a cream cheese and orange one, tarte au citron, and, yes, a beef bourguignon that I might turn into a pie are all frequently baked --- hence making their way in here. I have to admit that I have never made a Baked Alaska, though I did practice choux buns and éclairs just so I could describe the process going wrong.

TBRN: If your novel inspires home bakers to turn on their ovens, are there any baking books or other resources you would recommend to help them get started?

SV: I’m a big fan of Nigella Lawson’s HOW TO BE A DOMESTIC GODDESS, largely because I like her sensuous writing and her unashamedly gutsy appetite. I dip in and out of other books but have learned from Dan Lepard’s SHORT & SWEET --- quoted as an epigraph in my novel --- and from the recipe books that accompany “The Great British Bake Off” --- particularly HOW TO BAKE and THE GREAT BRITISH BOOK OF BAKING. Scanning my bookshelf, THE RIVER COTTAGE FAMILY COOKBOOK, and the early Jamie Oliver books, have tatty, broken spines. And then there’s Delia [Smith], whose COMPLETE COOKERY COURSE my mother used and I still return to.

TBRN: You've been a journalist for many years. How would you compare that kind of writing to penning your first novel?

SV: When I first wrote to my agent, I played up being a journalist. I could meet deadlines and write to length, I said, and had written every day of my career. The implication was that of course I could write a novel. And yet writing a 600-800-word news story based on research, and with the safety net of other people’s knowledge and quotations to back you up, is very different than concocting 100,000 words, and creating such a psychologically plausible, immersive, compelling world that you retain your reader’s attention throughout it.

Writing a news story brings the challenge of a daily deadline --- or deadlines: You might write three or four stories in one day if you’re the sole political correspondent working for your paper on a Sunday. There’s the need to be accurate, interesting, informative and exhaustive --- or as exhaustive as 600 words allow. And there’s also the pressure to be as good as, if not better, than your colleagues on other papers. On a broadsheet, you should also write prose that is not just clear and concise, but elegant.

Writing a novel means just one deadline --- although there may be more if you’d like your agent to see your early notes and draft(s). But, just as in journalism, you need to be accurate, interesting and write compelling, elegant prose. There’s also the pressure to be as good as other authors in your genre --- better, if possible --- as well as distinct from them. Oh, yes, and you have to work that imagination. There’s no safety net of other people’s opinions --- though including a historical thread does provide some support. Writing a novel is a far more vulnerable, precarious, exposing --- but exciting --- thing altogether.

TBRN: I see that you're now working on your second novel. Can you give us a glimpse of what it will be about?

SV: My second novel isn’t about baking, at all, but about nurture, identity, refuge, love, motherhood and atonement --- and the strong emotions provoked by a certain place.

It’s set on a farm in north Cornwall and involves a contemporary story and a time-slip one --- set 70 years earlier, in World War II, when Cornwall was seen as a physical refuge for evacuees.

Although it’s proving to be the archetypal difficult second novel, I’m hugely excited about it. I can’t say any more without risking spoilers, but I’m hoping it will be bolder and darker than my first novel; with the feel closer to the Kathleen Eaden excerpts, and the past strand, which is poignant and quietly tragic, being resolved in the present day.

It’s become incredibly important I get it right because it’s evolving into something very personal: a love letter to the spot in north Cornwall where I holidayed as a child and where I now take my kids, and to my mother’s Cornish family. My great-grandfather, Matthew Jelbert, was a Cornish farmer, and I want to draw on these roots and yet depict his harsh world in an unsentimental way.

Writing it, I’ve been inspired by Thomas Hardy --- who met and married his first wife, Emma, along the north Cornish coast, and set A PAIR OF BLUE EYES there; by Daphne du Maurier and her gothic take on the county; and by novels such as LP Hartley’s THE GO-BETWEEN, with their strong sense of place. I’ve done several trips down there to research it --- including one that involved interviewing several 85-year-old farmers --- and I’m planning another next week, where I’m going to immerse myself in the moor and try to do it justice. It will be published by Hodder next year.