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Baking My Way Through My First Novel with Cinthia Ritchie

When I first wrote Dolls Behaving Badly, I didn’t include recipes. I suppose I wasn’t very hungry at the time or maybe my characters weren’t in the mood to bake.

I added a few in the second draft, and a few more in the third, I’m not sure why. Maybe I lacked something in my life at the time, love or affection or good sex, and writing about desserts temporarily filled the void. Or maybe once I allowed my characters a chance to grow, to become whole and completely themselves, they decided to bake on their own.

The book felt fuller with recipes inside, richer and heavier, the way a cake tastes when it doesn’t rise all the way: Dense and full and seeped with sugar and weight.

Most of the recipes are Polish, reminiscent of my Polish grandmother, who worked in a deli and cooked large vats of soups and rolled out thick, homemade noodles over her scarred kitchen table. This grandmother was fat and messy and smelled of garlic and onions.

The grandmother in my book is also Polish and fat, and she also smells of garlic and onions, though in the book she bakes desserts: Szarlokta and Chrusciki and an off-shoot of chocolate chip cookies called Little Brown Chippies.

I made up these recipes as best I could through memory and filled in the rest by talking with relatives and browsing old recipe books. I didn’t take very careful notes, though. I’m not much of a baker. I don’t have the patience. What I love most about baking is the mystery, and the surprise. I love not knowing how it will turn out, or even if it will turn out.

After I finished Dolls Behaving Badly and it was picked up by a publisher, after I finished the rewrite and the edits, I was contacted by my editor. She had tried to make a few of the recipes and none had turned out—did I have any idea why?

Well, I was stunned. I hadn’t written a cookbook, after all. The recipes highlighted the grandmother’s language, almost like a culinary poem. I never expected that anyone would try to bake them.

I spent the next two weeks in the kitchen, in a flurry of flour and sugar, as I revised the recipes. I baked the desserts over and over, and while a few never reached the point of perfection, all of them resulted in a sweet and decadent taste.

After I finished, after I cleaned the kitchen and recorded each recipe over notecards, I bit into a warm piece Szarlotka (Polish apple cake). I closed my eyes as the sugar hit my tongue and, my mouth humming with pleasure I thought: Oh, how wonderful it is to write a book.

Thursday, Sept. 15

This is my diary, my pathetic little conversation with myself. No doubt I will burn it halfway through. I’ve never been one to finish anything. Mother used to say this was because I was born during a full moon, but like everything she says, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

It isn’t even the beginning of the year. Or even the month. It’s not even my birthday. I’m starting, typical of me, impulsively, in the middle of September. I’m starting with the facts.

I’m thirty-eight years old. I’ve slept with nineteen and a half men.

I live in Alaska, not the wild parts but smack in the middle of Anchorage, with the Walmart and Home Depot squatting over streets littered with moose poop.

I’m divorced. Last month my ex-husband paid child support in ptarmigan carcasses, those tiny bones snapping like fingers when I tried to eat them.

I have one son, age eight and already in fourth grade. He is gifted, his teachers gush, remarking how unusual it is for such a child to come out of such unique (meaning underprivileged, meaning single parent, meaning they don’t think I’m very smart) circumstances.

I work as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. This is a step up: two years ago I was at Denny’s.

Yesterday, I was so worried about money I stayed home from work and tried to drown myself in the bathtub. I sank my head under the water and held my breath, but my face popped up in less than a minute. I tried a second time, but by then my heart wasn’t really in it so I got out, brushed the dog hair off the sofa and plopped down to watch  Oprah on the cable channel.

What happened next was a miracle, like Gramma used to say. No angels sang, of course, and there was none of that ornery church music. Instead, a very tall woman (who might have been an angel if heaven had high ceilings) waved her arms. There were sweat stains under her sweater, and this impressed me so much that I leaned forward; I knew something important was about to happen.

Most of what she said was New Age mumbo-jumbo, but when she mentioned the diary, I pulled myself up and rewrapped the towel around my waist. I knew she was speaking to me, almost as if this was her purpose in life, to make sure these words got directed my way.

She said you didn’t need a fancy one; it didn’t even need a lock, like those little-girl ones I kept as a teenager. A notebook, she said, would work just fine. Or even a bunch of papers stapled together. The important thing was doing it. Committing yourself to paper every day, regardless of whether anything exciting or thought-provoking actually happens.

“Your thoughts are gold,” the giant woman said. “Hold them up to the light and they shine.”

I was crying by then, sobbing into the dog’s neck. It was like a salvation, like those traveling preachers who used to come to town. Mother would never let us go but I snuck out with Julie, who was a Baptist. Those preachers believed, and while we were there in that tent, we did too.

This is what I’m hoping for, that my words will deliver me something. Not the truth, exactly. But solace.

 

“Despite, or perhaps because of, her very human flaws, Carla is a character who is easy to love, and her journal is an engaging read.”—Kirkus 

 

“First-time novelist Ritchie writes engaging characters and creates a sense of place that brings Alaska to life. For the reader of women’s fiction who can handle a bit of the risqué.” —Library Journal  

 

“…Ritchie’s tale of female triumph makes for a fun read.” —Publishers Weekly

 

As Ritchie says, she wants her readers to understand that it’s okay to be alone, that having a man in your life is a gift but so are so many things: sisters and sons, neighborhood babysitters and even dead grandmothers bearing sugar-laced recipes. Utterly charming and sassy, DOLLS BEHAVING BADLY will resonate with lovers of Aimee Bender, Jen Lancaster, and even Jonathan Tropper.

Cinthia Ritchie is a former journalist who lives and runs mountains and marathons in Alaska. Her work can be found at New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Under the Sun, Memoir, damselfly press, Slow Trains, 42opus, Evening Street Review and over 45 literary magazines. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.

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