Amy Wallen, HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN 20 PIES: Sweet and Savory Tips for the Writing Life

Amy Wallen, HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN 20 PIES: Sweet and Savory Tips for the Writing Life

Zibby interviews writing coach and bestselling author Amy Wallen about her irreverent, witty, and beautifully illustrated new guidebook How To Write a Novel in 20 Pies: Sweet and Savory Tips for the Writing Life. Amy describes her book’s journey–from wanting to comfort and encourage aspiring writers to incorporating delicious pie recipes to partnering with a brilliant and whimsical illustrator. She also talks about her previous books (they involve MoonPies, malaria, and digging up graves), teases her next project, and spills some of her best writing secrets.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your book, How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies: Sweet and Savory Tips for the Writing Life.

Amy Wallen: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: Amy, you went right before me at the San Diego book festival. I watched your whole presentation and how the audience was just laughing at everything and how dynamic you were and all of your great advice and your own personal story, like throwing the cake away from your sister-in-law or whatever. I was like, I have to have her on my podcast. Although, I will say, at the end, you were like, make sure everybody goes and gets your book signed over at the signing tent, so everybody left before my presentation. I was like, wait, where are they all going? It’s all right. I’m over it. I’m happy to have you on.

Amy: Sorry about that.

Zibby: That’s okay. How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies, can you tell everybody why you wrote the book and why you’re the person to write the book and how you came into writing it and more about the content and all that good stuff?

Amy: Actually, the book came to me — I was standing in front of my students at University of California in San Diego. I was teaching a novel writing class. I just saw those faces and thought, they all want to know the secrets to writing. I love the Somerset Maugham quote that I keep at the bottom of my email that basically says there’s three secrets to writing a novel, and no one knows what they are. I do have this curriculum built up on how to write a novel and the sequence of events. I was teaching beginning novel, or even how to start a novel, all the way through advanced novel. I realized I can take all of this and put it down and share it with more than just these classrooms that were so hungry for it. Obviously, people were paying for the class. They wanted to come. I thought, why not create a book? I truly feel like perseverance is the main secret. Just keep writing. I wanted the book to include not just how to do it. There’s really very little craft in it specifically because I feel like you can get that from a lot of other books. This one, it’s encouragement on, just keep going despite all the obstacles, the time it takes to write it, the struggles to find an agent, and then the struggles to get an editor.

I had so many personal stories that I shared with my classes over all the obstacles I’ve gone through, whether they were personal, like going through divorce and still trying to finish my novel, or even just, I’ve had three agents and three books. I had to go look for a different agent. In fact, this book had two agents because the first agent tried to pitch it and send it out. A lot of people liked it but didn’t know what to do with it. I found another agent. She found another set of editors that ended up having an auction over it. Just keep going. There are times when I need to listen to my own advice. It’s not as easy as, I’ll just get out there and find another agent. I wanted it to be fun. I wanted it to be something that people pick up along their journey. Maybe it’ll have wine stains and chocolate stains on it, and dogeared pages, something that they would have a good time with. I just threw all my own personal experience and thoughts and feelings about the process into the book.

Zibby: Love it. Tell everyone, why pies? Why this framing?

Amy: Pies was, again, my own personal experience. I do feel like we need comfort along the way because there’s a lot of rejection in the writing world and this whole process from beginning to end. Then my own personal story, which I tell at the very beginning, was that I was feeling like I was never going to finish my first novel. I really wanted to just give up. I went to my kitchen and thought — I like to bake pies. I made myself a chicken pot pie. It was a big, long process. I was doing a lot of new things with it and creating a different kind of crust. There was a creative process in that. Then when I was done — of course, I got to eat it — I realized I could now go back to sitting in my chair and working on the novel again. There was something about stepping away, doing something else creative and seeing it finished and having that satisfaction of something short finished and then knowing I was a creative person, that I wasn’t just pedaling my feet and not going anywhere. Then I could go back to the novel and focus on that bigger, longer trajectory. That was my own story. Then I thought, this would be kind of fun, to put that in there for a little comfort along the way as people are reading. Whether they like pie or not, it’s in there for — some people like to just read recipes. Some people like to cook. I keep hearing the word procrastibaking. I don’t think of it as procrastinating in my case. I think of things like alphabetizing your sock drawer or searching for dog toys online. Those are things that I think are procrastinating. Those are important too. I don’t think of baking as procrastinating. At least, in my case. It’s more comfort.

Zibby: I love that. I feel like my biggest procrastination is doing other things in Canva, doing graphic design stuff and Instagram. As soon as I go into Canva, I’m like, ah, now I can relax. I’m just going to tinker around here for a while. Then I can go back to thinking and all that stuff. I feel like it’s justified because it still helps everything I’m doing. I still need to do it. You have so many clever things. The great part about this book is it’s just so fun when sometimes trying to — so much of the narrative around writing is a slog or trying to get through it or whatever. This is like, no, this is fun and playful and awesome. You have this whole thing on elevator pitches with a very disgruntled elevator man in this illustration with all these different things, like, “An orphan boy goes to wizard school. A crazy scientist brings to life a hideous-looking-but-intelligent creature, and boy, does he regret it,” and all these different things, of course, to encapsulate messaging around elevator pitches and all of that. Tell me about the format and all these wonderful illustrations and women holding pies and, of course, your recipes and all of this. Why like this? People you meet in writing group, that was another great one. “The writer who never writes but who has lots of opinions. The new eager writer who loves everything. The writer who knows everything about every book every written. The queen of metaphor.”

Amy: There’s one in every group. That one came because I basically called myself, I was a whore of writing groups because I went to every possible writing group there ever was just so that I could get everybody’s input. I loved the deadlines. I loved all of it. Sometimes it wasn’t always productive. I had to learn a lot about how to manage my own self in writing groups. There’s over two hundred illustrations in this book. I just saw it as whimsical. Like I said, I wanted it to be fun but also get the message across. Writing is hard, and so I wanted the book to be fun. I wanted people to open any page and see something that made them laugh. The illustrations are from a friend of mine who I mention in the book who was in my writing group. We were in Janet Fitch’s writing group together. We used to hang out and make pie and eat a lot of pie together. I knew he did these incredible illustrations. His sense of humor and my sense of humor both meet in that sardonic realm. I said, “Hey, would you be interested in working with me on this proposal?” He looked at my proposal and sent me some illustrations to go with it. It just felt like it clicked. It went on from there. We then got the book deal and then wrote the book together. It was fun. It was a lot of fun. His illustrations make me laugh too.

Zibby: Take me into more of the novels that you wrote and what those novels are about in case people want to go back and read your novels and then read your book about writing and then read the books you wrote and all of that.

Amy: Actually, the title is very sardonic. It’s basically How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies, but any kind of writing at all is really what it covers. I do talk about writing novels and also memoir and really any kind of writing. I even give some anecdotes about this particular book, which is a little memoir, a little how-to, and a little cookbook. My first novel — this is my elevator pitch — is about a woman who spots her runaway daughter on a ButterMaid commercial. She’s from Texas. She sets off for Hollywood to find her and try to get her to own up to her responsibilities. She left two little kids behind when she ran away. That one, it’s also a comic novel, but of course, obviously, has little poignancy in it with the abandoned kids. It’s Hollywood in 1976 when it was at its grungiest. Then my second book is —

Zibby: — What’s that title? Tell everyone the title.

Amy: The title of the second one?

Zibby: No, the first one. All the titles.

Amy: I’m sorry. Oh, I forgot the title. Right, that’s sort of important, isn’t it? MoonPies and Movie Stars. Thank you. Then other pies, but different kind of pies. Moon pies, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. They’re this little cake thing that’s sold in gas stations. I don’t really like moon pies, but every book club I went to served moon pies. I learned maybe that in your book you should put foods that you like.

Zibby: I’ll call my book chocolate chip cookies and something, hot chocolate. I don’t know.

Amy: No raisins, or something. Then the next book is a very different title. It’s my memoir. It’s When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories. I guess I have this running theme of abandoned kids. It’s about when my family lived overseas. We lived in Africa and South America. I was basically alone a lot and left alone. My family kind of dispersed when we went overseas. My mom got malaria. Then just going through all of that. There’s a lot of funny stuff too because it was a lot about learning about other cultures and being a kid and having to go to these strange schools not speaking Spanish yet, having to learn Spanish, which was a great way to learn, just thrown in there. Then my family dug up an Inca grave. I was exploring that memory of, how did we ever get to a place where we were actually digging up a grave? It’s funny/not funny. I had a strange memory. Obviously, the memory’s strange because I remember digging up this grave as a kid. Then I started calling around to write this story, and I found out my memory was very distorted. I thought my brother was there, and he wasn’t. Not giving it away. This is in the very beginning of the book. I wanted to explore memory. How is it that we remember something so completely different than it was? Why did I want my brother to be there so badly? I just wrote that story about everybody saying, “No, that’s not the way it was,” and me trying to uncover or dig up, so to speak, metaphor, what it was I really wanted from that memory, why I was holding onto that memory so strongly. Then it goes on from there with a lot of other memories and all my family coming and going. That’s the ghost metaphor of everybody slipping in and out.

Zibby: Amazing. Are you working on another novel now?

Amy: Yeah, this one — . I’m laughing because it’s funny, I guess, I hope. It’s a menopausal Nancy Drew. Also, the reason I’m laughing is because it’s so many obstacles in this book. It’s Nancy Drew. She’s forty-eight, so she’s also going through life changes. Life hasn’t gone the way — she had this idyllic childhood. Life isn’t as easy when you’re a middle-aged woman as it was when you were eighteen. Nancy Drew is still in the copyright world. The copyright will never be in the public domain like the Jane Austens, etc. I’m trying to work my way around how to write it and still be Nancy Drew. I’m having to listen to my own advice and keep going. I’ve got the book written. I’m just trying to figure out how to finesse it. Sometimes you come up against your own self when you’re working on things.

Zibby: Can you call her Nancy Blue or something?

Amy: I’ve tried that version. I’m working a little bit now where she’s a little more delusional. It’s kind of fun. I’ve never worked with an unreliable narrator. It’s actually kind of fun. A menopausal woman can be somewhat unreliable anyway, so why not? We’ll see. I’m on the next draft.

Zibby: Let’s go back for a second to surviving the writing life and some of your secrets. What are some of the secrets? Pie, butt in chair, crafty craft, all of these. Give us a couple secrets. Not the pretend ones that don’t exist. I love this one too, the five stages of rejection. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, perseverance, or pie-severance. What should we know? What do you know now that you wish you’d known? What are some of the most important things to take away from this book?

Amy: Each chapter probably is some sort of a secret, so to speak. The one that just came to mind as you were mentioning some of the chapters in the book was having an agent. So many students ask me, or even just people in an audience, say, where we were at the book festival, they ask, why do I need an agent? Why can’t I just send it to an editor or get self-published or do things like that? My experience, like I said, I’ve had three, and not because they — different things change. My first one didn’t do memoir, so I switched to a new agent for that. I told the other story about the other one. Each one has provided me some sort of guidance that I wouldn’t have had in the professional world. There is the business side of writing. I go into that, how it ends up becoming a business and not just this creative, fun, and arduous process to get a book written. Agents have been very — helpful doesn’t even seem like the right word. For instance, my first agent, there was a contract issue. Without her, I’d probably be living on the street now because she worked everything out so that I lost no money and got another book deal. I got to be there as the person who just watched it happening. She was able to handle all that because she had thirty-two years of experience in that world of the business and dealing with the publishing house. It was Penguin, so it was the biggest house who probably had the best attorneys and things like that. It was all well-done.

My favorite chapter title is The Joy of Rejection because rejection is so easy to just say, oh, well, I guess I’m not a good writer. That whole subjectivity of how it is a business, and so it is black and white, but it is still subjective. Even though an editor is on the business side of it, it is about what they feel when they read it and how it makes them cry when they’re on an airplane coming back from a trip. They’re busy reading all these manuscripts that were sent in to them. To just also understand there’s a lot of people sending in books and writing. Just keep it going. The one bit of advice I did for myself that has always been helpful is keep whatever you’re submitting, whether it’s a short story or a book, out with somebody else. Make sure you have more than one out there so that when you get one rejection, you can think, oh, I still have those two out there that I’m waiting to hear from. Just always keep that process going. Have a little factory. You have to have your own little business side. That would be my bits of secrets there.

Zibby: What about surviving a divorce while writing a novel?

Amy: That’s another one. That was fun. That one’s actually a part of life, obviously, gets in the way. We can’t do much about it. Just persevering, again. Going through that, especially a divorce, you get a little crazy. I was determined. I’m going to get a book published no matter what. Obviously, there’s rejection in the process. Then obviously, I’m going through a major rejection. Keeping your sanity but allowing yourself that space to also be a human and realize that life does get in the way. We can still keep believing in our work. It was a big escape for me to write, to focus on that. Sometimes, like I said, I was a little manic in the sense of, I’m determined. Also, it was a great place to go. My book and my writing is something that does stay with me. Sometimes it can be a little mean to me. For the most part, it’s really there and isn’t going to leave me, so finding solace in some of that. Then stepping away from it. I realized I got so busy with personal things that also realizing that when I came back, it was still there waiting for me. Again, I think the writing is loyal, even though sometimes it can be a little rude. It can also be very loyal and show up for you. When you show up for it, it shows up for you.

Zibby: Tell the story again — I know you wavered between making your own pie crust and store-bought. Tell the story with your sister-in-law because that was so funny, and also your best practices, so to speak, for baking pies for other pie bakers out there.

Amy: Oh, my gosh, the sister-in-law story was funny. My brother and sister-in-law came to visit. My husband and his brother didn’t get along very well. I thought a chicken pot pie is a great bringing everybody together meal. I was pretty good at making it. This is my early days of pie baking. I hadn’t made that many pies, but I was really good at chicken pot pie. It was my favorite. I made us a big chicken pot pie. The family was doing their thing. When dinner was over, my sister-in-law was in the kitchen with me helping me clean the dishes. When people said, “Did you make your own pie crust?” I just always said, “Oh, no. Easy as pie, that’s a lie. I just bought Pillsbury pie crust that came in the box.” I said, “It tastes just as good. It’s fine.” There was this little competition, always, between all of us siblings. When we were in the kitchen, she said the same thing everybody does, which is, “Did you make your own pie crust?” Out of my mouth, before I even knew what was coming out of my mouth, came the lie. “Yes, I did.” At the same time, I heard her hit the little can lid for the trash can. I knew the Pillsbury red box was sitting on the top. She didn’t say anything. She was a much better person than I am. She didn’t say anything. I didn’t correct my lie, but I should have. We went on about our business.

I went out when they left town and bought myself a Cuisinart and learned how to make pie crust so that from then on, I always made my pie crust from scratch so I wouldn’t have to lie. It took a long time for me to learn. Again, it was that perseverance. It took me a long time to learn how to make a pie crust. I tried and tried and tried. I kept coming up with these dry blobs or they’d be too wet and soggy. Then the crust would be tough. It would be so dry that when I rolled it out, I ended up with a Frankenstein crust all pieced together. It was just really over time with practice. Even still — it’s funny. Last night, I was making a pie crust. I was using a new recipe because I wanted to try a couple things that this other recipe I had from Food52 — they had this recipe. I thought, I’m going to try that pie recipe, just because it was a little different, pie crust recipe. I was testing to see how the dough was coming together. I thought I could add a little more water. It was always that fine line between too much and too little. I realized even then, I’m like, I’m still trying to find that perfect moment when I know exactly when it comes together.

I think it’s the same with writing. You feel like, oh, I think I’ve got it. Then you might try one more draft, add a little more of something, and it’s not quite right. It feels like maybe this is it. Then sometimes you go too far. You took out the things you shouldn’t have taken out. I feel like it’s a constant learning process. I think writing is too. I’m always learning more. In fact, I’m taking a — I mention my pie guru in the book. She’s the person who I have the lemon meringue pie, Kate McDermott. She wrote Art of the Pie, which is also a memoir and cookbook. I’m taking an online class with her again on Sunday for tarte Tatin. I can never say it right. It’s French. I don’t know French either. I’m studying that too. Pie crust is sort of that metaphor, again, of trying and trying. Just keep learning. Keep learning the process. I think that’s why I like writing. You keep learning.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Amy, thank you. Thank you for sharing your secrets. Thank you for this great book. Thank you for inspiring people to write. It’s such an important role people play because what people produce is so important and then goes on to help so many other people. To be the person ushering that work along in any stage of the journey is something that I think is really important. I love what you’re doing.

Amy: Thank you. Thank you very much, Zibby. This was a lot of fun. I appreciate all your great questions and letting me go on and on.

Zibby: I loved it. I was like, oh, great, I’ll just sit here and listen. This is amazing. Thank you. Hope to cross paths again.

Amy: Have a good day.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Amy Wallen, HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN 20 PIES: Sweet and Savory Tips for the Writing Life

HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN 20 PIES: Sweet and Savory Tips for the Writing Life by Amy Wallen

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