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Alumni Success Story

MFA Alumna Jael McHenry Publishes First Novel

By Josh Halpren

Photo of Jael McHenry by Jessica Leigh Photos LLC.

“I feel like every book comes from multiple sparks of inspiration,” says Jael McHenry, MFA creative writing ’98, who this April celebrated the publication of her first novel, The Kitchen Daughter.

The book focuses on Ginny Selvaggio, a woman dealing with Asperger’s and the recent death of her parents, who uses cooking to cope with the challenges in her life.  She soon discovers that her cooking conjures spirits who help her unearth mysterious secrets her parents left behind.

McHenry attests to the power of food and cooking as a means of bringing families together and helping people learn to cope with the situations that develop in their lives. “The food we grow up eating always has a special meaning for us,” says McHenry. “It’s amazing how just a whiff of something can take you back to the first time you tasted it, and who was there, and what it meant.”

McHenry uses The Kitchen Daughter to explore the oftentimes alienating world of adults with Asperger’s. “As I was working out the main premise of the book, I knew I wanted the main character to be isolated from others both by circumstances and by choice,” says McHenry. “The more I researched and the more I worked on the book, the more I realized [Asperger’s] didn’t just fit the story I wanted to write, it really became the story I wanted to write.”

“Novels are easier to start than finish,” says McHenry, who cites her time as an MFA student at AU as a major reason she was able to finish her novel. “My fiction workshop leaders did a wonderful job, but I also learned a tremendous amount taking workshops in other genres,” she says. “Poetry workshop helped me develop my sense of language, the sound and rhythm of individual words, in a way that has helped my fiction. It’s all skill-building, and I needed it all.”

While The Kitchen Daughter is McHenry’s first novel, she is certainly not new to the literary world. As the founder of The Simmer Blog, a site dedicated to “food, writing, and writing about food,” McHenry experiments with a wide range of recipes from sweet corn ice cream to stuffed squash blossoms, always providing cooking guidance to her followers who are typically other non-professional chefs. She also serves as editor-in-chief at Intrepid Media, a New York City-based social networking and promotional tool for writers and other artists.

McHenry’s greatest advantage in the literary world is by far the passion she brings to both the culinary and literary arts. “My love of food and cooking has just always been there,” says McHenry. “The funny thing is that I feel the same way about my love of writing. It had never really occurred to me to combine the two.”

McHenry began writing The Kitchen Daughter in 2008. “I’d done a ton of writing and a ton of cooking,” she says. “But none of my characters ever had the same love of food that I do, until Ginny.”

In advice to other writers looking to publish their work, McHenry urges them to continue to persevere even in the hardest of times. “I had a good solid 10 years of actively trying to get published before I achieved my goal, and there were certainly times I was tempted to pitch it all,” she says. “But most of that time I was getting closer and closer, learning more, and getting better.”

McHenry also advises aspiring published writers to educate themselves on the literary world of agents, publishers, conferences, and workshops, and to find people they trust to honestly critique their work. “Perseverance doesn’t guarantee you’ll get published,” she says, “but giving up guarantees that you won’t.”

Despite being on shelves for a few months already, McHenry says she still can’t believe her eyes whenever she sees The Kitchen Daughter in stores. “It was a dream of mine for so long, and I had so many years of near misses and not-quites. I didn’t think the actual experience could ever live up to what I’d built up in my mind,” she says. “But holding that finished book—that is a really amazing moment. And every time I see it in a bookstore I still kind of feel like I snuck it in there somehow.”