My guest today is author Stephanie Butland whose wonderful first novel Letters to my Husband I reviewed here. Today Stephanie’s stopping off on her blog tour for her second novel, The Other Half of My Heart, which came out last Thursday. Here’s what it’s about:
“It smelled bittersweetly of sourdough, and there was the trace of hot, fresh bread in the air. She took a deep breath and unlocked the door”
Fifteen years ago Bettina May’s life’s veered off course in one disastrous night. Still reeling from the shock of losing everything she thought was hers, Bettina opens a bakery in a village and throws herself into the comfort of bread-making.
She spends her days kneading dough and measuring ingredients. She meets someone. She begins to heal.
Until someone who knows what happens that night walks into Bettina’s bakery. In the pause of a heartbeat, fifteen years disappear and Bettina remembers a time she thought was lost for ever . . .
Can she ever go back?
Welcome to the Nut Press, Stephanie, and congratulations on book two!
Thank you! It’s lovely to be here.
Second novels can be notoriously troublesome for their authors. Did The Other Half of my Heart cause you any heartache along the way, and how did you deal with this?
It was a little bit tricky – but largely because I did the equivalent of starting your homework at 10pm on a Sunday night… I’d done a lot of research and thinking – but I sat down on 1 January with 13,000 words and a deadline of 1 March! I wrote 50,000 words in January and although it was brilliant, in many ways, I won’t be writing a book that way again.
The main character in your book, Bettina, opens a bakery which goes some way towards helping her recover from a traumatic event in her past. There’s something about the smell of freshly baked bread, and the process of breadmaking itself, the kneading of it and allowing it to rest in between times, before it (hopefully) rises in the oven, which makes it a wonderful comfort food. Was this behind you choosing a bakery for her?
Absolutely. At an early stage I went to see a baker named Andrew Smith (www.breadandroses.co.uk) and as he talked about bread I understood that it was much more than something you mix up, put in the oven and eat. A loaf of bread is an ancient alchemy of flour, salt and water; the making of it is an ancient act, even if you do use a mixer! Bettina needed to heal, and she needed to be patient, because she was never going to heal quickly. Bread saved her in a way that nothing else would have.
Does the bread we choose say anything about a person’s character? Does Bettina get to know her customers through their orders [of bread] in the book?
Gaaah! That’s a question that makes me want to recall and rewrite this book! [Oops. Sorry about that!] I’m sure it does. I’m sure Bettina does get to know her customers through their bread even though it’s VERY deep in the subtext… 🙂
You’ve shared three recipes from the novel at the back of the book for readers. Are these favourites of yours or ones that you picked specially [for the book] to fit each character?
When I was writing the book I made the breads up to say something about the characters/situations. Merlot bread dates from Bettina’s time in France; Rufus would love a cake that was complicated and sophisticated; he’d never choose an Eccles cake! So when I decided to include some recipes I had to figure them out from scratch. Fortunately, as part of my research I’d been doing a lot of baking. I had a couple of dud attempts, but the process was fun!
What are the special ingredients which might act as your signature when baking something or when writing a story?
Subtle things. If you put a cinnamon stick and some unsweetened cocoa in a beef stew, the finished dish will take on a warmth of flavour that you wouldn’t necessarily trace back to the cinnamon and cocoa, but those are the things that created it.
What are your key ingredients for a good story?
Richness. Subtlety. A strong clear flavour. Satisfaction. Something memorable.
As well as telling yarns, you’re also keen on knitting (with them). Do your stories and characters choose you or do you decide who fits which story? And does the yarn suggest what it’ll become or do you enjoy working yarns into patterns you like or want to try out?
That’s a really good question! When I teach people to knit I always tell them that the start is difficult because the yarn has’t yet understood what it is going to be. Once it understands – ‘Oh I see! I’m a sock!’ – everything gets much simpler. But the finished sock might surprise you – the colours might fall in a different way to the way you were expecting, or the pattern might look different in real life.
Writing is really the same. There’s a struggle at the beginning while both I and my characters are figuring out what we’re doing. Once we’ve understood – ‘It’s about redemption!’ or ‘It’s a love story gone wrong!’ – then everything flows much more easily. But the end result is still not necessarily what I thought it would be.
Would you say that writing, knitting and bread-making all have their own rhythm or are they more similar than they might first look? How does one feed into the other for you?
All need planning, patience, and a degree of flexibility. Both writing and knitting are easier than baking to take back if you make a mistake! And baking and knitting give you a more immediate end product. Sometimes when I’ve been wrangling words all day, the perfect antidote is knitting, because it’s a physical manifestation of the fact that bit by bit, stitch by stitch, word by word, small things grow into big things.
How much do you like to follow a recipe when baking, a pattern when knitting or a plan when writing?
I like a recipe and a pattern (although I might tinker with both), When it comes to writing I would say I have something a little less detailed than a plan. I have a lot of post-its, a shape in my head, and an eventual destination, but it’s all a bit more fluid than you can be when you’re knitting a cardigan!
What about the mistakes you’ve made, like using the wrong flour, dropping a few stitches or writing yourself into a corner or having uncooperative characters? Have any of these led to a happy discovery or an improved recipe/pattern/story?
No, no, yes! When I hit a wall with writing it’s usually because I’ve missed something and I need to think again – and that simply has to be done; it’s part of the process. Mistakes in baking can be disastrous (forget the yeast in a loaf and you’ll see what I mean) and mistakes in knitting can sometimes be bodged into looking OK but usually have to be taken back – which is a bit soul-destroying because after three hours you will be in exactly the place you would have been if you hadn’t dropped the stitches in the first place! Re-doing in writing, though, makes the work better, and that’s very satisfying.
If both your novels were a yarn or an item of knitwear or a loaf, what would they be, and why?
Oh goodness! Letters To My Husband would be an infinity scarf. The Other Half Of My Heart would be something like a stollen – plain-looking on the outside but with a lot more to it once you get in there.
What one piece of advice would you give to anyone starting out in baking, knitting or writing?
Take your time. Get every individual step right before you do the next thing. Realise that there aren’t any short cuts.
And finally, what would you like readers to take away from The Other Half of my Heart after having read it?
Well, first and foremost, that they are glad that they’ve spent the time reading it. But after that – the idea that it’s not too late, for anything. We can make peace with the past somehow.
That was a lot of fun, Stephanie, thanks for visiting the Nut Press today. Enjoy the rest of your blog tour and I wish you every success with The Other Half of my Heart.
Stephanie Butland has written two books about her dance with cancer and two novels: her debut, Letters to my Husband, and this latest, The Other Half of my Heart, are both published by Black Swan, an imprint of Transworld.
You can also visit the other stops on Stephanie’s blog tour to find out more about The Other Half of my Heart.