by Jerry Waxler
I constantly scan for wisdom that can help me translate my life into story, so I was intrigued recently when fiction writer Grace Marcus told me about a friend who walked into a memoir class and walked out with an idea for her first novel “Bread Alone.” When author Judi Hendricks agreed to speak to me about her creative process, I prepared by reading the book, about a woman crushed by the betrayal of her husband, went to find herself by baking bread. The novel seemed so rich with the emotional journey of real life, I felt sure that my talk with Judi would be productive. Here is part one of our interview.
Jerry Waxler: So is it true? Did you get the idea from your first novel after attending a memoir class? If so, please share the events and choices that brought you to that conclusion?
Judi Hendricks: I’ve always said my career as a novelist began in a bakery, which seems appropriate, because the longer I practice both writing and baking the more similarities I see between them. Bread is a process–slow, arduous, messy, unpredictable. You can say all the same things about a book. Bread is composed of distinct ingredients, that merge and become dough–a completely different entity which then takes on a life of its own. A book follows that same process.
In my twenties and thirties, I had so many different jobs. If there had been such a thing as adult ADD then, I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with it. I worked as a journalist, then in public relations and advertising. I worked in public television, then at Delta Airlines, then I had my own travel agency. I wore suits and carried a briefcase. I kept thinking everything would be fine if I could just find the right job. When I finally landed at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, I thought I had found my calling. Which I had–just not in exactly the way I first imagined.
Time and circumstance intervened, and later in a different city I found myself in a creative non-fiction class with an assignment to write an essay about something I loved to do. I wrote about making bread. This was almost seven years after my job at the McGraw Street Bakery had ended, and yet all these memories suddenly came flooding back. The essay became a memoir of my time at the bakery. I never intended to write anything longer than 30 pages, but something about the piece nagged at me. I kept rewriting it. Every time I thought I was finished, it drew me back to the computer.
Jerry: Why did you go to that memoir class? What was your goal?
Judi: Actually my goal was to avoid having to get another job. I’m not kidding. I was “between engagements” and I was hoping if I stalled long enough I’d either win the lottery or figure out what I was supposed to be doing. The only reason I took that particular class was I knew I could write nonfiction because I’d made a living doing it. I was also sure I couldn’t write fiction because I had a file cabinet full of aborted short stories.
Jerry: What inspired you to flip from nonfiction to fiction?
Judi: It was not a conscious choice. I remember the exact moment when I crossed the line between memoir and fiction. I was writing about something that happened at the bakery right after I started working there. We had a robbery one night, and the police decided that it was an inside job because the cash box was kept in a fairly unusual place, behind the huge tins of baking powder in the store room, and the thief apparently went right to it.
Suspicion immediately fell on our dishwasher–a fifteen-year-old boy–we’ll call him Josh. His parents had just been through a really nasty divorce, and he was living with his mother, but all he ever talked about was getting enough money together so he could go find his dad in Kansas City. Coincidentally or not, he disappeared shortly thereafter. Within a week we had a new dishwasher–a pretty16-year old girl we’ll call Kristi. This information is totally unrelated to the robbery. She wasn’t even working there when it happened.
But what if she had been?
Somehow my brain made the leap that it would be more interesting that way. What if Kristi liked nice clothes and she had an old car that needed repairs and insurance and gas…what if she stole the money and let Josh take the fall? What if he knew and didn’t tell because he was crazy about her? Or…what if she took the money for him because she was crazy about him? Without any conscious decision on my part, I’d just become a fiction writer. None of this stuff ended up in the book, but it seemed to me that my course was set.
Jerry: Fascinating! You were willing to write about “real life” but with a twist. That’s an interesting intuition. Didn’t it feel strange veering away from reality like this? I’m trying to understand why you wrote fiction instead of just sticking with the facts.
Judi: I never imagined writing about myself anymore than I imagined writing a novel. Bread and the bakery were just two things I was passionate about. I think almost everyone has had an experience like that–one of those magical times that exerts an almost gravitational pull on you. You know there’s a reason for it; you just don’t know what it is. You keep revisiting it and reliving it in your head until it becomes almost your personal mythology. For me, the bakery was that experience.
Yes, the thought of writing a novel was daunting. So for months I didn’t acknowledge that’s what I was doing. At around 350 pages, it became clear that it had gone beyond a short story, but it was a scary step to admit to myself–much less anyone else–that it might be a book. That sounded like an engraved invitation to humiliation and failure. (I do subscribe to that school of thought that says if you don’t admit you’re trying something, then you cannot possibly fail.)
The Scottish astronomer David Brewster said,
“It is a curious circumstance, that when we wish to obtain a sight of very faint star, we can see it most distinctly by looking away from it, and when the eye is turned full upon it, it immediately disappears…”
Focusing on the bakery enabled me to see the story I was trying to tell, framed within the experience of making bread.
This is part one of the interview. In the next part we’ll dig further into the relationship between fact and fiction.
To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.