2021 Debuts author Jenn Bouchard takes her readers on a culinary adventure in her debut novel, First Course. In fact, the tagline for the book reads, “Second acts can be delicious,” and the story centers on Janie Whitman, who cooks up comfort food for her and her family. Jenn herself is an “avid cook,” and she’s also a traveler: according to her website, she moved eight times before college and several times since then. All that traveling has been useful to Jenn, who set First Course in her beloved Maine, Peaks Island to be exact. Jenn did such a wonderful job bringing the setting to life, I know I’m not the only one looking forward to reading more from her. Jenn is a busy woman—she teaches, volunteers, and is a member of several writing organizations—but she still took the time to answer a few questions for me.
Christina: Congrats on First Course! Kristin Contino wrote that it is a “story of reinvention and finding love when you least expect it.” What inspired the story? What drew you to choosing women’s fiction over straight-up romance?
Jenn: Thanks so much for including me on your site today! You’ve been a big support to me throughout the launch process, and I am so glad your blurb is on the back cover!
I have often called First Course a love letter to Maine. I knew I wanted to set a book there and to try to capture what time spent on the coast might look like. Although I always include some sort of romantic element in my stories, I felt a strong pull to center the book around the characters’ emotional journeys. Second acts in life are exciting to think about, and I wanted to give the characters the opportunity to discover those.
Christina: On the 2021 Debut site, you say that as you approached the age of forty, you were “looking for SOMETHING else, but I didn’t know what to do,” and you chose to write a novel. What other ideas did you entertain? At any point, did you second guess your decision?
Jenn: This was a multi-year process, that’s for sure. I had just finished a major volunteer position; I was the president of my college’s alumni association for two years. It was all-encompassing, and I absolutely loved it. I also had been teaching for a long time, and now I’ve been teaching for even longer! I am about to start my twenty-second year in the classroom. I started to write the book while also looking at a number of other possibilities, and everything else kept falling flat with me. Writing was fun and satisfying, even when I got rejections. Finally, my husband asked what I really wanted. I said I wanted to be a published author. I was already querying the book at that point, but I realized that I needed to figure out a way to get it published. It wasn’t too long after that moment that my publisher requested the full manuscript.
Christina: Without giving any details away, the story begins with a series of traumatic events that launch Janie, the main character, on her trajectory. A support system and resilience are important for Janie to come out safely on the other side. How can we cultivate a support system and practice resilience in our own lives?
Jenn: I love this question. Finding your people is critical. Some people are surrounded by local family, but that was never the case for me in adulthood. I am lucky to live in the most incredible town in the Boston suburbs. I have a wonderful group of friends that stemmed from youth sports when our kids were very young. They have been tremendously important people in my life especially through the last couple of years, both with the book launch and the challenges of life. Additionally, I have a small group of co-workers at my school who have become my work family. I can’t imagine doing any of it without them.
Christina: Teaching high school social studies is no easy feat. How do your experiences there inform your writing? Do your students know you’ve written a novel? What do they think?
Jenn: I think observing human interaction and understanding human complexities at any age informs my writing. I have kept my writing fairly quiet at school, although I did tell a few graduating students about it after class was over on their last day of high school. They were so excited and even showed up at a local book signing. I realize that it’s important for me now that I am published to be more vocal about it. I think it’s good for them to see what’s possible, even if you don’t start writing seriously until later in life.
Christina: Food is integral to the story, and you’ve mentioned that like Janie, you’re an avid cook. How are cooking and writing similar? Do they fulfill the same void, or do they each serve their own purpose in your life? Did you ever consider going to culinary school?
Jenn: I thought for a bit that cooking might fill the void, and it just didn’t do it, probably because I was cooking mostly out of necessity–the need to feed my family–and not just out of a passion for it. I find that I am most excited about cooking when I do have a bit of time to play in the kitchen and I’m not in a rush. My kids both play sports year-round, so it is rare to find those moments. One night this summer, everything got rained out, and I decided to make a key lime pie. I had been making a frozen one for years every summer (Ina Garten’s incredible version), and I wanted to make something different. I thought back to living in Virginia Beach as a preteen and the coastal restaurants that made simple yet delicious key lime pies. The memory was so distinct. I found a recipe that looked good–this one was from Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, so I figured it would be great–and just went for it. It was exactly what I wanted to create, and it was a ton of fun. But those moments are rare. I do find now that I am writing a new book, I am thinking more about what cooking I want to include throughout the writing. This is inspiring me to try some new things.
Christina: Your website features a few recipes that Janie makes in the books. How did you decide what Janie would make in each scene? Does each recipe featured hold a specific value?
Jenn: I give this a lot of thought. In writing First Course, I was very aware of Janie’s age (twenty-four) and the fact that she had no formal training. She was also feeding a somewhat health-conscious older sister, two very young nieces, and eventually, some men. I thought about what I would make when I first started cooking for my husband and me, as well as for friends who we would entertain. At Janie’s age, we were living outside of Chicago. We had a ton of friends stay with us as they were moving across the country for jobs, grad school, new beginnings, you name it. I had to figure out how to feed them. Janie was doing similar things at this stage. In my new book Palms on the Cape, the main character does have formal training and runs her own beach bar. She has a staff but still does quite a bit on her own. It’s been a lot of fun thinking about the different food items she offers and why.
Christina: Of course, I have to ask. Do you have an all-time favorite recipe (or two)? And what’s your favorite kitchen gadget?
Jenn: This is tough to narrow down… let’s just say that I love Ina Garten and have made hundreds of her recipes. I made her engagement chicken almost every Wednesday night during this past school year. Her potato-fennel gratin is great as a dinner side dish but is also a perfect brunch item. My husband’s favorite dinner is her chicken piccata. I make her deep dish apple pie every fall after we go apple picking. Her French-inspired book Barefoot in Paris gets me through the winter. As for kitchen gadgets, a dear friend brought me back a French whisk from Paris a few years ago. I use it almost every day.
Christina: What’s next for you?
Jenn: I am in the middle of drafting Palms on the Cape, which is set in Dennis near Mayflower Beach on Cape Cod. It’s my favorite place to be these days. This book has friendship, deception, tons of great food, and a slow burn aspect that will make you swoon. I am writing chapter seven as we speak, and I am so excited about it.
Thanks to Jenn for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.