JANUARY 5, 2021
FRIED CHICKEN. Two sisters locked in a long rivalry, one who stayed home in small-town Kansas, the other making it big (sort of) in TV and social media in New York. A televised competition between their hometown’s two rival chicken joints, owned by their families. It sounds like the stuff of fiction. It is, but also partly nonfiction.
The Chicken Sisters is a first novel by journalist KJ Dell’Antonia, formerly the editor of the New York Times’s parenting column “MotherLode” and author of the nonfiction book How to Be a Happier Parent. It takes its inspiration from two chicken restaurants running for generations in two adjoining small towns where Dell’Antonia’s extended family has long lived. It’s a fast-paced, light novel, but also thoughtful. After I put it down, I called my sister, wanting to be a better sibling.
WENDY PARIS: Did you, like so many of us nonfiction writers, have a long-held, secret dream of writing fiction?
KJ DELL’ANTONIA: It absolutely was that way with me. I’d written fiction, but I’d never tried to get it published. I was scared. It seemed so hard. I love so many novels so much. I quote them in my head. I think about them. They really form your mind. I just didn’t know if I could do that myself. Essays come pretty easily to me, as did turning the parenting column into a book. With nonfiction, you come up with a topic and you write something intelligent about it. It’s really different from coming up with a person who has a problem and then a story within which they’re going to solve it. That’s super daunting. But I knew I really wanted to try.
What was the thing that made you finally start — and finish, and sell — a novel?
After I turned in How to Be a Happier Parent, I knew there would be a little while before I had anything more to do on it. I had this rhythm of sitting down and writing big chunks. I decided to try to keep that rhythm and turn it toward fiction.
My theory was: I can write a book. I’m not quite sure how to write a novel. But I have an idea for a story, and if something would tell me how to write a novel, maybe I could do it. I just wanted someone to tell me what to do. If there were a formula, I would have taken it. I bought multiple versions of books like The 90-Day Novel and Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and 2,000 to 10,000: How to Write Faster, Write Better and Write More of What You Love. Anything that looked like an instruction book. I read at least four or five, multiple times. Every time I got stuck, I’d pull one back out. Some people read Anna Karenina multiple times. I’ve read The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage or Fiction several times.
There’s not exactly a formula, but most novels do take the form of a big giant problem and the three-act structure. To some extent, you can learn that. I’m not saying you could learn to be Jane Austen or Stephen King. Some degree of greatness is not learnable. But just creating a satisfying story is absolutely learnable. It’s the same stuff we do as nonfiction writers. Just putting it in a different structure.
I’ve bought those books, too. E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Henry James’s The Art of Fiction. I have a whole shelf, though I’ve never really read them. Maybe reading them is the key.
The ones that were less literary were more helpful, actually, and the ones that talk about movies. The ones that broke it down to how many words you might have to introduce a character or at what point in the story the inciting incident should be. I don’t have trouble writing a lot of interesting words, but writing the right ones? Figuring out which of the many, many things in my imagination actually belonged in a novel? That was a learning process. It was not dissimilar to what you go through when you learn to write short pieces for a magazine. Short is hard. But 70,000 to 80,000 words is also short, when you’re trying to tell the whole life story of a person you imagine. You’ve got to get into it fast. Find something at the very, very beginning that tells the reader what to expect and why they should keep going.
Did you try to model novels you loved, too?
I did also dissect books that I loved. I’d open them up and be like, “Okay, what do I know by the end of the first chapter, and why? What do I know by the end of the third chapter, and why? What’s the worst moment for this character?” Now I have two brains when I read. I’m happy to just go along, suspend disbelief if I like the book. But part of me is also going, Oh look. This side character of the person’s mother was super important. I feel like I really know her, and looking back through, we only see her three times.
Did you already have a specific story in mind when you decided to use your designated writing time to work on a novel?
I’d been thinking about those two chicken restaurants for years, and what would happen if they went head-to-head, playing with that idea, off and on. Nobody ever went to both of them. Everyone in these towns went to one or the other. You were either a Chicken Annie’s or a Chicken Mary’s family, which is their real names. I’ve had various files labeled with the two restaurants on my computer desktop for probably 10 years. But I didn’t have a story; a competition is just an idea. I had to figure out who my people are. And then to have a story, you have to have a person who’s discovering something about themselves. I didn’t really know that when I sat down to figure out what I wanted to say about these chicken restaurants.
Also, the small town. I grew up in the suburbs, but there was this little town where both of my parents were from, two little towns, actually, and this whole extended family there, and a depth of relationships. You knew who ran the butcher shop. I wanted that in my life, having family that goes back a long way and people who knew who you were. We’d have that for like 10 minutes, and then not come back for six months. To me, it looked like my cousins who actually lived there had that. Now I live in a small town and I can see that it can be comfortable but also stifling. I ended up with two characters, one who saw the comfort in it and one who found it stifling, and then I had them switch roles.
Were the characters based on real people?
I think you start like that, and then a little voice inside your head says, “Man, it’d be so much better if they could just be like this or that.” And a voice inside your head says, “And they could be!” There’s a moment when you realize you can do not only anything, but lots of things.
I was really struck by the competition between the sisters. Did you have a sister? Was it based on that?
I’m an only child. I’ve always wanted a sister. Letting Mae and Amanda have each other to work out their relationship with their mother against is something I wanted. They have someone else who has had that shared experience, a mirror. I’m the only person who was ever parented by my parents. I think that was a driver. I want to write about relationships I’d like to have.
What about the plot? I’ve had trouble with action when I’ve tried to write novels. I don’t want anything bad to happen to my characters, and I can’t think of what they should do. I just want to them to sit around and talk.
I did struggle with that. I don’t want bad things to happen to my people either. That’s where those books really help. They say, “Now something has to happen that will knock you out.” And then they’ll give you six examples of stories where something happened. I’ve enjoyed books where nothing much happens and then they open a tea shop in the end. But I also really like the kind of book where you’re yelling at the person the whole time because they need to change, to figure something out about themselves. You do need things to happen to them for them to figure it out, but you don’t need bad things.
The great thing about books is that people can say what they really mean. It’s such a relief. Like, “You just think that because Mom loved you best.” You get to force the people to have the conversation that so many people in life walk away from. I wanted these two people who thought they understood each other but didn’t to come to understand each other more.
Their mom is a hoarder in the book. Was that drawn from real life?
My mother is arguably the opposite of a hoarder. I had an acquaintance who had grown up with a hoarder, and I read a couple of memoirs about hoarders, and that all informed the character. Memoirs are really good for helping you understand how other people’s minds work, and learning about types of people you might want to write about. You need some truth to the feel of it, and you can get that from memoirs.
How did you get from writing it to selling it?
I have an agent for my nonfiction work. All along, as I’m writing, I’m thinking: She doesn’t do fiction, but I’ll send it to her because maybe she’ll make an exception or maybe she knows someone who does. I felt like I only had one shot at getting the attention of an agent; it had to be good enough for people to feel like it could get out there.
I had a manuscript, but it was too long and unwieldy. I could see that some of the secondary characters were overdrawn, and the things that happened to the main character weren’t strong enough. Then we interviewed a book coach/freelance editor named Jennie Nash on the podcast #AmWriting, which I do with Jessica Lahey and Sarina Bowen. The way she talked about her work and the mistakes she saw people making made me feel like she could help. My book felt like a tree with a bazillion limbs sticking off it, or an octopus with all these arms. It didn’t flow. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. So I hired her. If you read your favorite books, it seems like there’s a lot of going on, but a lot of it is in your head. You’re filling in blanks constantly. You only need enough.
She taught me to pare things away and go straight to the story. She helped me with the structure. And as it turns out, both my agent and editor do edit, so this book had lots and lots of cooks, in the best possible way. When I showed it to my nonfiction agent, Laurie Abkemeier, she passed it along to a colleague who does fiction, Caryn Karmatz Rudy, who turned out to be a perfect match.
How long did it take to write?
Probably about two years. I was still writing “MotherLode” for part of it. I wrote a lot of essays. My nonfiction book came back and had to be revised. Then I sold the novel.
What do you feel like you can do with fiction that you can’t do with nonfiction?
I love figuring out how free you can be. I’ve written for The Times for five years. With journalism, it has to be not just right but also from six different sources. There are so many rules. With fiction, you can be reading along in a book and go, “Well, it’s not super likely that this billionaire hockey player would also have a brother who runs a security firm, but I’m fine with it!” It’s so fun. You get to do some things just because it’s fun. I also love writing about careers I’ll never have. You don’t have to know as much about it as you would for a nonfiction book. You can dabble in it, in a lighter way.
What can you say about what you’re working on now?
I’m working on another novel along the same themes of how hard it is to figure out what you want and who you are, which is what I write about in nonfiction too. I’m still writing essays for The Times. I don’t think I have another nonfiction book in me, but maybe.
Wendy Paris is a journalist and the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well. She lives in Santa Monica. She was interested in The Chicken Sisters partly because her father’s third wife once worked at a fried chicken stand.