The Divining Wand

Discovering authors beyond their pages…

Stacey Ballis and Good Enough to Eat

October 04, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Book Presentations, Books

Whatever storyline Stacey Ballis (The Spinster Sisters, Room for Improvement, the rest in Bibliography) writes it’s always about the character and, in her most recent novel — Good Enough to Eat –, she proves this once again.

Following her own guidelines described in the guest post, What a Character!, the author introduces Melanie Hoffman’s voice, flaws, and emotional baggage within the book’s first pages. For this is a multi-layered, fascinating woman whose story was inspired by a few of Stacey’s friends who lost weight through gastric bypass surgery and then discovered it was difficult “to date after they lost the weight…harder to trust people, to know who they were in their new body.”

In a Philadelphia Examiner interview, the author explains:

“There is such a misconception that larger people are not the object of attraction, or that the people who are with them are with them “‘in spite”‘ of their size, so I wanted to acknowledge that there are people for whom that is actually the preference. And an equally large misconception that losing the weight brings happiness, when in fact losing a lot of weight can often bring self-doubt, depression, and identity crises. I always love the idea of putting a spin on themes, so starting the book with a woman whose husband has just left her for a woman twice her size after she struggled to lose that much weight seemed to be an interesting place to begin.”

The writing began and evolved into the following synopsis:

The last thing Melanie expected to lose when she went on a diet was her husband.

Former lawyer Melanie Hoffman lost half her body weight and opened a gourmet take-out café specializing in healthy and delicious food. Then her husband left her-for a woman twice her size. Immediately afterwards, she’s blindsided by a financial crisis. Melanie reaches out to a quirky roommate with a ton of baggage and becomes involved in a budding romance with a local documentary filmmaker.

In this warm and often laugh-out-loud novel, Melanie discovers that she still has a lot to learn about her friends, her relationships with men, and herself-and that her weight loss was just the beginning of an amazing journey that will transform her life from the inside out..

And enjoy watching Stacey talk more about the book, while cooking her Roasty Tomato Soup, on Lunchbreak WGN.

To truly appreciate this novel, consider how something as quick and easy as a change in hair style or hair color can affect a personality or even lifestyle, yet both are transformations that result from working solely on one’s outward appearance. On the other hand, dramatic weight loss begins within the inner self — complete with personal emotional issues — and, while pounds may melt away over months/years, the heavy inner baggage is apt to remain…possibly forever. And that’s merely one reason Good Enough to Eat gives readers food for thought.

True-to-life Melanie carries around internal baggage and the author includes this insight by titling each chapter with a food — the first being Mashed Potatoes –, then elaborating on what the food dish means to Mel through an excerpt from her diet journal. Not only is this a clever method of revealing the character’s background, it also serves as realistic motivation for her behavior in the storyline as Stacey explains:

“A lot of nutritionist and diet support groups focus on keeping a diet journal of what you are eating now. But for people with compulsive overeating disorders, it is as much about what the food represents as what you are eating, finding out what the food means to you is half the battle of gaining control over your impulses with it. So I imagined a diet journal for Melanie that was about deconstructing her cravings.”

Certain foods — such as mashed potatoes — are triggers of memories and negative consequences that Melanie could fall back on. However the author continues:

“But maybe if she addresses the trigger, the craving itself will go away. The old adage about ‘“it’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating you”’ is very true for emotional eaters. By allowing Mel to explore her food memories with her most major trigger foods, it helps her in her battle. And also gives the reader some insight as to where the disorder gets its psychological foundation.”

Hmm, and you thought Good Enough to Eat sounded like another easy, enjoyable read, complemented with savory descriptions of food and the inclusion of forty recipes (all of which are Stacey’s unless otherwise noted). Of course it still can be read for fun but, when given the opportunity to better understand others — maybe even yourself –, why not take it?

The theme of transformation and reinvention is currently quite popular in women’s fiction. For just when twentysomething choices have been made and things feel settled….life happens and we’re forced to face a new reality filled with change.

Stacey Ballis is a delicious storyteller who stirs in changes resulting from significant weight loss, divorce, entrepreneurial success, financial problems, trust issues, and new relationships, sautes, and serves a hearty comfort food dish that would go well with any fine wine. By offering up the tale of Good Enough to Eat as a healthy perspective to accepting ourselves, flaws and all, she wishes Bon Appetit for the rest of our journey. Indeed this is a book to truly savor!

Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Stacey Ballis’s Good Enough to Eat in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

Guest Stacey Ballis on What a Character!

September 28, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Guest Posts

[Stacey Ballis (Good Enough to Eat, The Spinster Sisters, Room for Improvement, the rest in Bibliography) is known for her strong, believable characters — including a character strong and realistic enough to change a reader’s life (see Fan Mail: An Author’s Most Memorable Reward, II). In today’s guest post, the author details the questions she asks when creating those true-to-life characters.]

What a Character!

As an author, I never get tired of hearing from my readers…those little e-mails or tweets or comments on my blog or good reviews on Amazon are what keep me going when I am sitting alone in front of the computer with a nap tempting me. But as much as I love the notes that tell me a story was interesting or a theme was relevant, the things that makes my heart beat faster are the ones that say that the characters were REAL.

As a reader, I cannot fully engage with characters unless they feel real to me. Even in fantasy or science fiction stories, the humanity has to ring true. I can absolutely believe that Thursday Next can pop in and out of works of fiction and engage with the characters in famous books, as long as she continues to struggle with her relationship with her mother and worries about her marriage. When I start a book, the main character is always the first place I begin. Forget “story”, plot, for me, comes later. I want to know who she is, where did she come from, what is the world she lives in, and then the story can begin to take shape.

There are a lot of elements to making a character ring true for your readers. Some of it is ephemeral and unknowable, the essence of the writer’s art and inspiration. But much of it is craft. When you are working with a character, some things should always be in your mind…

What is their voice? This is everything from the cadence of their speech in dialogue, to the way they think, to the way they respond to the inevitable conflicts of the book. It is essential that this be consistent throughout, and depending on the world of the book, be as realistic as possible. Especially in dialogue. Would you hear someone use those words in that order in the world of that character? Would your twenty-something working girl in 2010 really say “I simply cannot begin to fathom such a thing.” Or would she say “Seriously? Simply. Not. Possible. No way.”

What are their flaws? All humans have flaws. Sometimes they are small quirks that are endearing; sometimes they are major personal demons that negatively impact our relationships with everyone around us. If your character doesn’t have enough flaws, they won’t feel real, they will feel too perfect. Your characters should occasionally say or do something you as a writer or reader wish they wouldn’t. They should make mistakes, sometimes big ones. They should self-doubt, self-delude, and self-destruct. They should push away the people they need most, and embrace the people who are toxic. They should stay when they should leave, and leave when they should stay. Because we all do. We all fail and flounder and choose the wrong path, and if we don’t, we are unendurably dull.

What do they learn? Your book doesn’t need to have some big “moral of the story”, but your characters should learn something or grow in some way during the course of the book. We are learning and growing every day in our lives and it is this forward momentum that is part and parcel of our journey as people. If your character is exactly the same on the last page as on the first, they have gone nowhere as people and they won’t feel nearly as human as they should.

What is their baggage? Often writers take so much time figuring out what a character’s present looks like that they forget that this person was not just hatched into the world full-fledged. Knowing where your characters come from, how they were raised, what their heartbreaks and successes and loves and losses looked like will inform how they engage with their current reality. Your reader might not understand why your heroine would turn down the date with the dashing lawyer unless they have been made aware of her alcoholic lawyer uncle who was always so mean to her poor dad. We all have a past, your characters need one too.

At the end of the day, you will be the best judge of how successful you are in making your characters ring true. Sometimes it can be as easy as having them make a mistake, or share a story from their past. Sometimes it will be as complex as fleshing out an addiction or a dysfunctional relationship. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your characters need to perfect to be likable. In fact, often the opposite is true. The characters from my books that get the most reaction and empathy from my readers are the ones who are flawed but still sympathetic.

Sydney, the heroine of my first book INAPPROPRIATE MEN engages in an affair with a married man, while she herself is still married. In SLEEPING OVER, a character breaks up with her boyfriend after she suffers a miscarriage…pushing away the one person who is trying to take care of her. My third book, ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT explores what happens when professional success negatively impacts your personal life, and Lily, the heroine, alienates not only her best friends, but her colleagues and potential lovers as well. In THE SPINSTER SISTERS, keeping her feelings bottled up is Jodi’s downfall, in spite of the fact that she is a self-help guru, we see her consistently behaving in ways she counsels people not to behave. And in my new book, GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT, Mel, who has worked very hard to lose half her body weight, nevertheless continues to let stress push her to binge eat, and she forgets to be patient and forgiving with the people in her life.

I love a good plot as much as the next girl, and I always hope that the stories I tell are interesting in and of themselves. But mostly, I hope that the people who live in my head and reveal themselves on my pages move into your life in a way that makes you truly believe that they could, simply, exist.

* * * * *

Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Karen McQuestion’s A Scattered Life in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post Karen McQuestion and A Scattered Life. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

The Revealing of Stacey Ballis

September 22, 2010 By: larramiefg Category: Profiles, Q&A

Stacey Ballis (The Spinster Sisters, Room for Improvement, the rest in Bibliography), described as “wickedly funny and brutally honest,” celebrated the release of her most recent novel, Good Enough to Eat, a few weeks ago. Another book for the “foodie” in you, this story offers a terrific twist along with 40 healthy recipes.

From the book’s front cover comes this two sentence descriptive tease:

She learned how to eat right. Living right is the hard part.

And this praise:

“Like a perfect dish of macaroni and cheese–rich, warm, nuanced, and delicious.”__Jen Lancaster, New York Times bestselling author of My Fair Lady

The Divining Wand has scheduled a presentation/review of Good Enough to Eat for Monday, October 4, 2010 but until then let’s meet the author through her “official” bio:

In addition to being a novelist, Stacey Ballis is a lifestyle and entertaining expert, who previously appeared on The Rachael Ray Show and other television programs. She lives in Chicago.

And now it’s time get to know Stacey upclose and personal:

Q: How would you describe your life in 8 words?
A: Spectacular, abundant, delicious, blessed, Love, words, family, friends

Q: What is your motto or maxim?
A: Go big or go home. Also, if it smells bad don’t eat it.

Q: How would you describe perfect happiness?
A: Feeling content in your own skin, more laughter than tears, appreciating the people around you, good work, good food, good friends, profound love.

Q: What’s your greatest fear?
A: Not achieving my full potential. Also, swimming face first into jellyfish.

Q; If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
A: At The French Laundry with my man.

Q: With whom in history do you most identify?
A: MFK Fisher.

Q: Which living person do you most admire?
A: My sister.

Q: What are your most overused words or phrases?
A: I’m not saying, I’m just saying. Issues. Frankly. Catawampus.

Q: If you could acquire any talent, what would it be? A: Predicting lottery numbers. (For the homeless.)

Q: What is your greatest achievement?
A: My relationships with friends, family, and the love of my life.

Q: What’s your greatest flaw?
A: Hate exercise. Makes wanting to live long healthy life a pain in the ample tush.

Q: What’s your best quality?
A: Compassion.

Q: What do you regret most?
A: The buzz cut in 1983. Yikes.

Q: If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A: Me. Truly! (But Heidi Klum wouldn’t be bad for a weekend….)

Q: What trait is most noticeable about you?
A:I have great eyes. Unless it is humid, and then people tend to notice the hair-shrubbery first.

Q: Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A: Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing

Q: Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A: Francis Urquart from House of Cards.

Q: If you could meet any athlete, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
A: Walter Payton. I would just say Thank You.

Q: What is your biggest pet peeve?
A: Manipulation of people, especially those who are not up to intellectual challenge. Also, nose picking not so nice.

Q: What is your favorite occupation, when you’re not writing?
A: Cooking with/for my guy and our friends and family.

Q: What’s your fantasy profession?
A: Five star hotel tester.

Q: What 3 personal qualities are most important to you? A: Honesty, generosity of spirit, sense of humor.

Q: If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
A; My godmother’s Banana Cake with Chocolate Frosting

Q: What are your 5 favorite songs?
A: Dvorak’s Symphony for a New World, John Hiatt’s Have a Little Faith in Me, The Beatles In My Life, Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher Man

Q: What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
A: MFK Fisher The Art of Eating, Marion Zimmer Bradley The Mists of Avalon, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

Keep up with the multi-talented and very humorous Stacey Ballis by following her on Twitter and becoming a friend on Facebook.

* * * * *

Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Jenny Nelson’s Georgia’s Kitchen in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Jenny Nelson and Georgia’s Kitchen. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is tonight at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in tomorrow’s post. If you enter, please return tomorrow to see if you’re a winner.