Leah DeCesare's nonfiction parenting series, Naked Parenting, is based on her work as a doula, early parenting educator, and mom of three. In 2008, she co-founded the nonprofit, Doulas of Rhode Island, and in 2013 she spearheaded the Campaign for Hope to build the Kampala Children’s Centre for Hope and Wellness in Uganda. Now DeCesare has written her debut novel, Forks, Knives and Spoons, a fast-paced and often comic read about how to find love when you least expect it. Here she talks about what it was like to make the switch from nonfiction to fiction, why Santa Claus kept making his way into her novel, and just why it's so important for writers to support one another.
Q. So I have to ask: in this novel, your character Amy goes off to college and tries to convince her friend Veronica that they should use the “Utensil Classification System” as a guide to finding a suitable boyfriend. Did your father give you this guide when you left home, like Amy's gave it to her? Do you believe the UCS holds true?
A. That idea of labeling guys as forks, knives, and spoons is the nugget from real life that I spun the rest of the story from. The August before I left for Syracuse, out to dinner with my parents, my dad spontaneously gave me this last ditch talk about guys. At school, my girlfriends and I elaborated and invented and really USED this system, so that concept stayed with me. But there was no STORY around it, so when I finally sat to write this book, I really had to build the characters and their arcs, and let the Utensil Classification System (the UCS) become a backdrop and an organizing idea serving the characters and their growth. I’ve asked myself the question if I believe the UCS works. In short, I kind of think it does hold true, with some caveats, as the characters discover: “It’s not an exact science.” Recently, my dad (only half-jokingly) told my 18 year-old daughter that he was going to have to give her the “Forks, knives and spoons talk” before she heads off to college next year. I think I’ve preempted that, though, since she has read the book.
Q. Which came first, the concept of a utensil classification system or your desire to write a novel? How did the concept and your ambition come together?
A. Since the time I was very young, I wanted to be a writer. I would write poems and stories, and even sent off the first five chapters of a novel to a Big Five New York City publishing house when I was ten years old. (My first badge as a writer - a rejection letter in fifth grade!) So, my desire to write a novel far preceded the UCS. When I hit my forties, I thought, “What are you waiting for? When are you going to write a book?” I reorganized my priorities and time to fulfill my dream and lifetime goal. Somehow, I knew this kernel that had lingered in my mind for two decades had to be the book I wrote first.
Q. You have Santa Claus appearing in various guises throughout the story—why? I find him kind of a spooky character in real life...
A. I love this question, and it’s actually a funny story how Santa came to be in the book. As a new novelist, I approached writing this book in a bunch of different (many unsuccessful) ways, and in the process of wrong turns, I really learned a lot. While writing the scene with Amy on the train back to New York City, someone sat down next to her. I remember exactly where I was writing and the moment when it happened. I leaned back and asked aloud, “Who the hell just sat next to her?” I honestly had no idea. The Santa-like figure came from that. He was a little creepy in the first version, but I tried to make him less scary and more of a kind stranger. Once he delivered the message to Amy, I then wove the Santa thread throughout the manuscript a bit more. I guess I can blame Santa showing up on the muses—his appearance at all preconceived or intentional.
Q. I love the way you weave stories of true, lifelong friendships throughout the book, not only between women, but between women and men. What character did you relate to most?
A. Thank you. I think anyone who knows me would say there’s a lot of me in Amy’s character. It makes sense, since it’s her dad in the story who tells her about the Utensil Classification System like my own dad told me. It’s not my story, but I did give her my habit of semi-obsessive teeth brushing, and I am a hopeless optimist (and a bit of a romantic) like Amy is.
Q. Which character was hardest for you to write?
A. I guess I’d say Jenny. I think we all know someone who behaves like her. Her story and self-image made me sad, as a mother and as a woman. I was happy for her in the end.
Q. You've written a lot of nonfiction, like your “Naked Parenting” series. How was the process of writing a novel different for you than the process of writing nonfiction?
A. In so many ways they are vastly different writing and creative experiences. I found writing the parenting books much more straightforward and a much easier process. For one, the word count on those books is about a quarter of the size of Forks, Knives, and Spoons. In writing the Naked Parenting books, I learned more about my process as a writer. I found I work better in focused bursts than in doing a little bit everyday. I love to pack my writing stuff and easy meals and hibernate somewhere alone for three or four days at a time; it allows me to get to the point where the work flows and I can be very productive. Writing a novel is like solving a puzzle, while writing the parenting books was more like writing longer, linked blog posts. I found the two to be dramatically different. Writing nonfiction is more linear and logical, still creative and fun, but it has the goal of imparting knowledge, of sharing information in an accessible way, while fiction writing feels more wide-open to me.
Q. You have worked as a doula, helping women give birth. Did you have a doula or two when you were conceiving this book? How does the process of ushering a book into the world compare with having a baby?
A. I’ve often thought of different people who’ve helped me along this path as my “book doulas,” so I love that you’ve made that link too. My first book doula was Angela Lauria, a book coach who I hired when I decided to get serious about writing; I wanted definitive accountability as I began. I also hired a structural editor, Jeanette Perez, after some early drafts. As a novelist, I feel I’ve found my tribe. So many authors have embraced me and continue to be incredible supports. I love connecting with, and learning from, other authors and I’m so thankful for the encouragement and virtual high-fives, for the early readers who provided blurbs and reviews. It has been an amazing feeling of community. I’m also in a group of novelists all debuting in 2017 called ’17Scribes, and I love how we all help each other out with questions and the learning curve of publishing. I feel like we’re all doula-ing one another through this process.
Q. This novel is set in the eighties. Was that a deliberate creative decision, or just a time period you were keen to write about? How would this novel have been different if you set it in the year 2017?
A. It was a conscious choice to set Forks, Knives, and Spoons in the late eighties into the early nineties for a few reasons. First, it’s a period I know and could realistically convey the college culture at that time, but I also wanted to show some timeless truths about growing up and seeking love despite cell phones and technologies. If it were set in present day, I think some of the incidents could have unfolded differently - or not at all. Certainly, today, handwritten letters and phone calls on the hall payphone are extinct, and finding someone in a crowd outside at a fire drill or at a party is easy by comparison.
Q. And, if you were to give four golden nuggets of advice to aspiring writers hoping to publish their own novels someday, what would they be?
1. Believe you can do it and go write!
2. Study the craft of writing and keep challenging yourself to grow as a writer.
3. Seek out connections with other authors for mutual support, encouragement and brainstorming (whether about your actual story or later in marketing your book).
4. Read and learn all you can about book promotion - no matter what, like it or not, authors must have a role and a stake in the promotion of their books.