Zibby is joined by debut author Jessa Maxwell to discuss The Golden Spoon, an unputdownable, deliciously entertaining murder mystery that takes place on the set of a popular TV baking competition – it’s a combination of CLUE and The Great British Bakeoff! Jessa describes how she developed her cast of characters (there are 8 different perspectives!) and the baking show they are on. She also talks about her background in children’s books, her incredible experience publishing this novel (and selling TV rights!), her life in Rhode Island, and the book she is working on now.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jessa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Golden Spoon: A Novel.

Jessa Maxwell: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited.

Zibby: Thank you for shouting out my fluffy pancakes on Instagram.

Jessa: Those looked really good, actually. I have never attempted those. It’s amazing.

Zibby: I felt a little humbled, though, because then my husband showed me all these other restaurants even in New York that have perfected the Japanese fluffy pancake.

Jessa: Yeah, but a restaurant, not a person in their kitchen. I think it was a very good first attempt, honestly. They rose. They were fluffy. That was the main event.

Zibby: They were fluffy. They were. They rose. Thank god for that. Tell listeners about The Golden Spoon and where baking fits into your life.

Jessa: The Golden Spoon is a murder mystery set at a baking competition. It’s modeled on the kind of kindness that you’d find in a Great British Bake Off-style baking show. Then you have these different characters — they all come from different backgrounds — and a host who has this very intense personality, kind of Martha Stewart-ish personality, called Betsy. It’s taking place at her crumbling family estate that she’s very intent on keeping going. She needs Bake Week to have it happen. She needs it to fund her house. Keeping up all these old things are very expensive. She’s got all of this going on. Then this younger, very brash guy named Archie Morris is sent by the network to try to resuscitate the ratings of the show. He brings all of this drama into her life that she doesn’t ask for. That’s the gist of it. It’s told from many perspectives, which was really fun for me. I enjoyed writing it so much. I had such a good time writing it.

Zibby: You can tell. It’s really fun. The whole thing has a wink and a nod to it, just very — coy is the wrong word. Festive is also the wrong word. I don’t know. Do you know what I’m trying to say? It’s fun. Maybe just fun.

Jessa: I love that kind of feeling. I wanted a feeling in it. I looked for that in my writing. There’s definitely some serious and dark moments in the book, and themes. I don’t think the lightness is — you could say, oh, it’s just a cozy, but I do think it explores themes that are deeper than that, for sure, about sexism, agism, and a variety of different things. I wanted that feeling that you have when you are really familiar with something and feel connected to the characters. There’s no character that’s just a crazed sociopath in it. Even the bad characters, you can kind of understand where they’re coming from, which I really love.

Zibby: Yes. I love hearing the backstory. It’s literally like watching one of the reality shows, and then when they take the camera off to the side and they’re like, here she is at home. You’re immediately invested in everyone’s life.

Jessa: You always wonder what these people are like when you turn the cameras off. Are they who they say they are? Are they posing for the cameras? There’s so many different ways people can act off camera and on.

Zibby: True. I loved how — I can’t remember his name, but the character who came in and was wearing a flannel shirt. They were like, you can go around to the back.

Jessa: That was Peter.

Zibby: Peter. Sorry. He’s like, no, I’m wearing my nice flannel shirt. I feel like my husband is often mistaken for “go around the back” sometimes. He opened the door to our house once, and this workman came in and was like, “Do I have to wear booties on my shoes? I hear the owner might be home.” He’s like, “Uh, it’s my house.”

Jessa: Booties on the shoes now.

Zibby: He was like, “Really?” He was like, “Yeah.” Anyway, did you go to any cooking shows to research?

Jessa: No. I would love to be invited to go on a cooking show and watch. I would hate to participate. I think that would be absolutely terrifying. I’m so amazed that people are able to do so well under pressure. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. It’s got to take a very interesting skill set to be able to do that. I’d love to watch a cooking show. The woman who voiced Betsy on the Audible is wonderful. She actually knows a contestant named Val who was on, I think, season sixteen of The Great British Baking Show. She has a copy of the book now and has been promoting it on social media and really loved it. It was really, really sweet to see that connection.

Zibby: I should introduce you to Brooke Siem, who wrote this book called May Cause Side Effects, because she was a Chopped champion.

Jessa: Amazing. I actually have a friend, too, in the town — I live in Rhode Island, in Jamestown. My friend Lindsay runs a bakery there. I’m trying to remember. I think she was on MasterChef. She read the book recently. She was so taken back to her time on that. She was like, “Did you do research?” I didn’t. I kind of just imagined what I thought it would be like. I think it turned out kind of authentically, which is nice to hear.

Zibby: Also, I feel like all of us who watch them on TV, we can see what it looks like enough. I’m interested in the back room. Have you ever watched — I’m sure you haven’t. There’s a show called Lego Masters. Have you seen that?

Jessa: Uh-uh.

Zibby: It’s the same thing, but it’s with building Legos. It’s actually very interesting.

Jessa: I would love that, actually.

Zibby: My kids are obsessed. It’s a great family show. We all watch it together.

Jessa: This is these crazy sculptures and things?

Zibby: Yeah. Every time, they have — I don’t even know why I’m talking about this. They start with thirty people who are in fifteen, sixteen groups. Each week, someone gets eliminated. Each week, there’s a new challenge. Build a car. The one we watched last night, one brick was hanging from a string. They’re like, instead of building on a table, build down from this one brick. It’s so cool. They’re so creative. They put ten hours on the clock. My son was like, “I could never do that because I’d have to be there for ten hours. What if I had to go to the bathroom or something?” There’s so much that happens off camera. They stitch it all together. I’m sure they take breaks. Then what happens, really, in those back rooms?

Jessa: For sure. The hardest part writing this for me was just figuring out the rules of the show and how many people I could put in it because I wanted to use all of their perspectives. Otherwise, you’d know too much, basically. That was the torturous part for me, trying to figure out that part. I was writing it. I had eight perspectives. I was like, is this okay? I kept wanting to ask people, what would you think if you read a book that had eight perspectives? Would you just shut it immediately? I think it ended up working out fine because the nice thing about cooking shows is everyone’s so different. I love that about watching the Bake Off, too, or watching any of these shows. People come from so many different backgrounds and different ages, which is super nice for having totally different voices. They all play off of each other really well.

Zibby: There was another book, too, that was a cooking show, but it took place during World War II.

Jessa: I saw that. I saw something about that one. It was a year ago, right? I read that.

Zibby: Yeah. I interviewed the author. Now my mind is blank. It’ll come to me.

Jessa: That looked really cute.

Zibby: She was awesome. The book was really interesting. You two should do an event or something.

Jessa: That would be so fun. I know. I should reach out to her.

Zibby: I’m going to remember her name by the time we finish talking. Let me let my brain just spin and see what comes out of it. Also, the way you wrote about the house made us feel in the — it’s not even called a house. The manor, the villa, everything from coming in to how you give us the point of view of the windows — this is the view down here. This is what we can see. Literally, it’s people’s points of view instead of just voice, which was very cool.

Jessa: It was fun. I tried to make it so that each section was moving. I never had one time period that was redescribed. Every character moved. I think that helped, having so many characters and having it in first person. That helped it go along because I think if I redescribe the same scene from different points of view, it would’ve bogged it down. I did like doing that. I felt like doing it that way. It felt very cinematic writing it that way.

Zibby: Yes, you could see the whole thing play out. I also feel like this is like Clue. It’s as if Clue was a novel with everybody having a different perspective. What was Colonel Mustard thinking?

Jessa: That’s such a fun story. I love that kind of thing.

Zibby: How did you arrive at writing this book? What was your life like before you wrote this book? How did this all come about and all of that?

Jessa: I wrote and illustrated six picture books. I was really into picture books. I was writing and illustrating a graphic novel. I just have always wanted to write a mystery, though. I got to the point where I was like, if I don’t write a book now, I’m never going to write one. I had fantasized about it for so long and kind of started things. I had all of these different ideas. This one just came to me when I was on the phone with my mom, actually. I was complaining about how unmotivated I was. I was like, “I could write this. I could write that.” She was like, “You should just write one.” I kept coming back to it. It’s just such a fun idea. I decided to try it. I wrote it in three months, which is wild to me now looking back on it because I don’t know how I did that. The second is taking a lot longer. I’m sure all of them will after that. I’m like, oh, I guess I write books in three months now, but I don’t. It was so satisfying too, I think because I didn’t have any outside pressure yet either. I was just writing alone in my little room. It was still kind of pandemic times. Just watching the thing turn into something was so magical to me. To feel so empowered seeing the words go down on the page, you know that because you just finished a novel, right?

Zibby: Yes. Well, yes. I mean, I have to talk to my editor today about getting all the edits. I’m like, I’m sure she won’t have any edits. It’s perfect.

Jessa: I know. That’s the brutal part.

Zibby: I’m like, oh, my god, I’m going to have so much to do, but I’m going to live right now in the .

Jessa: You finished it. I remember getting to sixty thousand words. I ended up adding twenty thousand two weeks later because I wanted to send it out. I had a couple of other ideas. I felt like it needed to be longer. I was over the moon. I was just like, this is the best thing I’ve ever done. I felt so empowered and good. It was so cool.

Zibby: What was it like to sell it?

Jessa: It was like every dream you have. I remember I used to, while I was writing it — I just felt really good while I was writing it. Then I would walk around, and I would fantasize about what would happen. It was beyond. I had an auction for it. I had an auction for the TV rights to it. I did have to get a new agent when I wrote it, though. My agent didn’t like it, so I had to get a new agent, which was great. My agent is Alexandra Machinist. She’s an amazing, amazing agent, really knowledgeable about everything. She’s been wonderful. Then I have this wonderful editor at Atria. Atria’s been a dream to work with. I have zero complaints about this experience.

Zibby: That is so cool. It was picked for a book club. What was it picked for? It was not Jenna. Who was your book picked for?

Jessa: It was picked by Sarah Gelman.

Zibby: Yes, that’s right. Sarah Selects. I love her picks. She has really great picks.

Jessa: She’s great. It was very exciting.

Zibby: What’s the TV story?

Jessa: Who knows? It was exciting. Aline is a really incredible, prolific person and was really excited about it. I think it’s kind of stalled out now. I’m not really sure what’s going on, honestly. I know she wrote a draft. I read the first episode, which was really interesting.

Zibby: You did?

Jessa: Yeah. She has her own spin on it because she’s making it for a completely different medium. It was so wild to see my characters doing different things than I had them do. I thought I wasn’t going to like it, but I actually really enjoyed the difference. It was like taking something and kind of moving it into a different realm a little bit. I loved it.

Zibby: That would be really fun, by the way, if a ton of authors did something like that. It’s like one of those games you play with the kids. Someone writes a chapter and then just passes the book along. That would be cool. Do you think it would work?

Jessa: What is that called where you fold a paper? I love that. I loved those as a kid. That would be wild.

Zibby: That would be neat. I wonder how it would turn out.

Jessa: I know, right? You should try it.

Zibby: Yeah, I should try it. I could write the first chapter. What is the second book that’s coming slowly about?

Jessa: I’m still in the midst of it, but it’s another enclosed area where there’s going to be lots of people interacting with each other. I live in Jamestown, Rhode Island, which is right across from Newport. It’s set at a more remote, Gilded Age manor that’s been converted into a hotel. It involves an old matchmaker who comes to have this flashy last weekend and match these different people in this estate. It’s been really fun to write. I changed the characters a lot in it. I started out with different characters. Then I was like, I kind of want them to be a little more fun, and so I’ve gone back recently and changed them around. I think it’ll be good. I hope so.

Zibby: Have you done anything at the Ocean House in Watch Hill?

Jessa: No. I’d love to. We just moved there during the pandemic. I did not know about it until recently.

Zibby: That would be a great setting.

Jessa: The launch of that could be at that. That would be so amazing.

Zibby: I’m going to connect you to Deborah Goodrich Royce, who’s the owner.

Jessa: I would love that. I’ve heard amazing things. I’m doing something at the Savoy, which is the bookstore in Westerly.

Zibby: I have to get there.

Jessa: Rhode Island is just the best.

Zibby: That’s awesome. It’s gorgeous.

Jessa: It’s so pretty. I had no idea.

Zibby: It’s really gorgeous. I don’t know why it’s not a big vacation destination. They have beautiful beaches. They have beautiful hotels.

Jessa: In the summer, it feels like it is. Newport is so crazy, but Newport’s kind of the worst part of it.

Zibby: Of course, Newport. I just mean the rest of Rhode Island too.

Jessa: We live on this little island. There’s no hotels, really. There’s perfect little family beaches. It’s gorgeous. It’s the perfect setting for a murder mystery, too, because it is like Mayberry. The teenagers at the grocery store are the nicest people you’ve ever met in your life. It’s like, oh, my god, what’s happening? After coming from New York for fifteen years, it’s shocking.

Zibby: How did you choose there?

Jessa: My husband’s family is from Newport area. His dad grew up in Newport. His mom went to school there. They met there. We had a family friend that couldn’t — she lives in Canada. She had a summer house there. We stayed there during the pandemic for a summer. We were so lucky. It was the most beautiful, magical place. The local band would be practicing The Sound of Music in a parking lot at the church. You’d just cry because it was so nice after all the hard stuff we’d seen. It was great. It’s a great place.

Zibby: How did you originally get into writing children’s books? Take me back. Where did you grow up? Just take me back .

Jessa: All the way back.

Zibby: Catch me up.

Jessa: I grew up in Wisconsin, mostly. Was born in Michigan. My family’s all Midwestern. I’m actually going to Minnesota at the end of this tour for the last stop, which will be fun, to see family. I went to art school. I was an illustrator. I went to school for art, ended up becoming a journalist. I lived in Thailand, Egypt, Netherlands. I traveled a lot in my early twenties. Came back, and then I decided to pursue illustration. I started making comics. I’ve done comics for The New Yorker and for The New York Times now quite a few times. That led me into doing picture books, longer things. I love doing that too, but I always wanted to write. The writing was always the more direct way to tell a story that I was the most interested in. I love looking at illustration. I love the way graphic novels can tell a story too.

Zibby: What were your picture books?

Jessa: My first book was called Shark Detective! It is a mystery, actually. It’s a lonely shark that lives in a hotel room on land and goes and looks for a missing kitty he sees on a poster.

Zibby: That’s so familiar, oh, my gosh. When I looked you up, they don’t talk about any of that in your bio anywhere. Why is that?

Jessa: I know. It’s kind of my fault, honestly, because I didn’t want everything to come up. I used a pseudonym for this. My picture books are under Jessica Olien. I didn’t want to have people look up Amazon and see picture books and then this mystery. It just seemed confusing to me. I thought it would be nice to differentiate the different things.

Zibby: I totally know this book.

Jessa: Do you? Oh, so funny.

Zibby: That is so awesome.

Jessa: Then I did one called The Blobfish Book. I had a bunch of them. I still actually have an open contract with Balzer & Bray to do one more picture book that I need to focus on at some point. I had so much fun doing that.

Zibby: Oh, my god. Stop. You wrote Adrift?

Jessa: Yes. Do you have it?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. That is so crazy. This is one of our favorite books.

Jessa: Are you kidding? That’s wild.

Zibby: I am not kidding. My teenage daughter is obsessed with polar bears. Every polar bear-themed book, we get, basically. We have read this book so many times.

Jessa: Oh, my gosh, that’s going to make me cry.

Zibby: I am so excited about this.

Jessa: That’s so wild. No one really bought that book. I’m so glad. That’s wild.

Zibby: I bought it. I love it. Adrift: An Odd Couple of Polar Bears. We read that all the time. I should go get it for you in the other room.

Jessa: I loved writing those. I loved drawing that book. I thought that was such a pretty — I love the colors in it. It was really fun to draw.

Zibby: If you had said in all your bio stuff that you were this person also, I could’ve been more prepared. That is so cool.

Jessa: That’s so great. I love it.

Zibby: So you drew it too?

Jessa: Yeah, I did all the drawings. So fun. They’re not complex drawings. Drawing is fun too.

Zibby: That’s the coolest thing. I can’t even believe. My kids are going to think this is the coolest thing ever.

Jessa: That’s so great. That’s so cool to hear.

Zibby: Wow. I think this person’s name is Susan, who wrote the bake off one about — I think her name is Susan Malloy — the bake off one about World War II baking. Hold on, I’m going to google this while we’re doing our podcast. It’s not coming up. I’m going to find it. World War II — I don’t usually do this — baking novel. I was right. Susan Malloy.

Jessa: Good for you.

Zibby: Wait, no. Hold on. Baking novel. It’s not Grandma’s Wartime. No, that was not it. Oh, my gosh, this is driving me nuts. I’m going to find it. I’m going to email it to you.

Jessa: That sounds good. I vaguely remember seeing that too. I was finishing writing mine when it came out.

Zibby: Here it is. Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan.

Jessa: That was it. Yes, that looks so cute.

Zibby: Jennifer Ryan, The Kitchen Front. I’m going to introduce her to you too.

Jessa: That would be great. We should totally do something together.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I can’t believe you wrote Adrift.

Jessa: I can’t believe you have Adrift. That makes me so happy.

Zibby: I’m going to have my daughter send you all of our polar bear stuff. How did you think of that book?

Jessa: It was a comic I did that actually was rejected by The New Yorker. I was going in every week and bringing comics in to The New Yorker. It was one that I loved. It was a polar bear on an ice floe. There were two polar bears sitting on an ice floe in the middle of the ocean. One was nudging the other one saying, what are you thinking about? I just thought it was so funny. The image just cracked me up. I developed this whole picture book about these polar bears. It’s a story about an introverted bear and an extroverted bear. I liked telling children about introverts and extroverts and how it’s okay to make friends in a slower, different way than we see often where it’s this flashy, instant thing.

Zibby: That’s so cool. That totally made my day. It’s so great. You have this great sense of humor in everything you do. It’s great, really funny. Are you coming to New York on tour at all, or no?

Jessa: I was in The Mysterious Bookshop.

Zibby: I have not been there.

Jessa: It’s a really cool spot. They sold out of the books, which was amazing. Then I’m coming back. We have an apartment in New York still, so we go back and forth. My husband works at Simon & Schuster as an editor. We mostly are in Rhode Island, but we go back to New York when we have to. We will be back. I’m going back on Monday, actually, to sign more stock. I don’t have any other specific events in New York right now, but I would love to.

Zibby: We should meet up at some point.

Jessa: I would love that. That would be great.

Zibby: I also might need to beg you to do a little polar bear drawing with my daughter’s name on it or something. Would you do that?

Jessa: Anytime.

Zibby: Sorry, this is kind of a nontraditional podcast. It’s so informal. I hope you don’t mind.

Jessa: I love it.

Zibby: People can just listen in as we become friends. Thank you so much. The Golden Spoon, congratulations. So cool. This was really fun.

Jessa: This was amazing. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care.

Jessa: See you.

Zibby: Bye.


THE GOLDEN SPOON byJessa Maxwell

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