Author Kim Fay joins Zibby to discuss her latest historical novel, Love & Saffron, which was an instant national bestseller. The two talk about the relationships that inspired the friendship at the center of the story, which family memories helped Kim set the scenes, and how the pandemic helped her write the book quickly. Kim also shares why she wanted the novel to revolve around food and how she likes to practice self-care.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kim. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love.

Kim Fay: Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here, Zibby.

Zibby: Your book just got right into my heart. These characters — I won’t give anything away. Towards the end, I felt like I knew them. Everything that happened to them, I felt like I was going on the emotional journey. There is something about this epistolary form, which is so rare these days and so amazing. Tell listeners a little about what your book is about. I read the backstory of how it came about during COVID. Please tell that whole thing as well.

Kim: The in-a-nutshell thing is always so hard. In a nutshell, it’s the early 1960s. A young, budding food writer in Los Angeles sends a fan letter and a little gift of saffron to an older magazine columnist who she admires up in the Pacific Northwest on one of the islands outside of Seattle. This correspondence that begins from this fan letter — the women begin writing back and forth. As they do, they begin opening their hearts to one another, sharing food with one another, but through food, finding paths into different parts of their lives that they hadn’t really explored. There are so many backstories to this novel that it’s hard. One of them is, I was a bookseller in the nineties. When I left the bookstore and moved to Vietnam to teach English, my really good friend, Janet Brown, moved to Thailand to teach English. She and I started corresponding. That was 1995. We have been corresponding ever since. It’s one of the correspondences that did not fall to the wayside as technology came along. For a long time, I’ve really wanted to honor that friendship and honor that experience. That’s one example of just a lot of the things that were floating around in my head and floating around in sketches on little pieces of paper.

When lockdown hit here in Los Angeles — I know it was like this was in a lot of places. When we got locked down and we got the orders, we were not allowed to leave the house. You could go grocery shopping. It was intense, as it was for a lot of people around the country. For some reason, the next day, the day after we locked down, I sat down at my computer, and all the other things I’d been working on just fell to the wayside. This piece came forward. I started writing and writing and writing. Within a few months, I had a book. I think one of the reasons I was able to write it so fast is I wasn’t writing for publication. I was writing it as a gift to this friend, Janet, and also to Barbara Hansen, who is the food writer who the young character, Joan, is based on. I wasn’t thinking, as you often do when you’re writing a book, what’s my audience? Where is this going to go? Is my agent going to like it? Will she be able to find a publisher? It was like, can I offer a little comfort to these two friends during this dark time? I finished it. I sent it to them. They loved it. That made all of the writing worthwhile. Then I just set it aside. It wasn’t until later that it floated back to the surface and went from agent to editor to publication.

Zibby: Wow. That’s amazing. Tell me a little about how you came up with these characters. Were they based on you? There are so many specifics even about food and landscape and then so many things like their relationships, the details. There’s this part when you said, “I have been thinking –” This is written from Imogen, Immy’s point of view. “I have been thinking about Francis too. Of course, I’m always thinking about him. He’s my husband, and every day, I’m doing something for him, ironing his shirts or emptying his ashtrays.” I loved that. It’s so blast from the past.

Kim: It is. The cabin is a real place on Camino Island. Francis is my Great-uncle Frank. Immy is my Great-aunt Emma. Oh, my gosh, I remember — it’s sad that the smell of cigarette smoke makes me nostalgic. That place, they would play Pinochle. They would be playing cards. It would just be filled with smoke. Aside from cigarettes, there’s a lot of memories that go into this book. A lot of the detail I was able to capture because — for example, I said Joan is based on Barbara Hansen, who was a pioneering Los Angeles food writer. Barbara and I have been friends for ten years, but I’ve always been a little bit obsessive about her. I have access to the LA Times archives. There was a point in the last ten years where I went online and read all of her columns. There were hundreds. There was a lot of pre-research that went into this book that I didn’t know was going to be the research for this book because I’d already done it. I had all of these pieces from her professional life. She and I had talked a lot. There were just wonderful details. Yes, she did get her first agent through Helen Gurley Brown while she was writing an article about her. There are all these fun details that I was able to weave in.

Since, obviously, I wasn’t born in the early sixties — I was born in the mid-sixties, so not my time period. The part of me that’s in the book is the part that discovered the world through food. I grew up in small towns around Washington, real meat and potatoes, Scandinavian communities. It wasn’t until I started traveling in my early twenties, out of the country, that I really learned that the world was so much bigger. Most of the ways I discovered that was at the table. No matter where you are, what country you’re in, what language barriers there are, once you sit down at a dinner table or once you walk into somebody’s kitchen and start cooking with them, it all falls away because there’s not a single person in the world who doesn’t eat. We all have to do it. Some of us like it. Some of us don’t. We all approach it differently, but we all have to do it, one of those commonalities that you can’t deny. That’s where I come into the book. I was just really curious about food and how it connects us.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. Even how, in addition to the food, which of course, we relate to as much today as we would have in the past — it’s the same flavors, which is amazing.

Kim: I never really thought about that. No matter what they were making, cilantro still tastes like cilantro.

Zibby: Everything else can change.

Kim: That’s fantastic.

Zibby: You can use that if you’d like.

Kim: Thank you. I’m going to.

Zibby: Go for it. I like how you did, though, want this story rooted in time in reality. You had things like the Cuban Missile Crisis and President Kennedy’s loss, or assassination I should say, and even what the Book of the Month club pick was and how people didn’t even like Rabbit, Run by John Updike at the time. At least, these people didn’t really love it. There was something very history meets the personal. Yet it was a timeless narrative because also, friendship, the bonds of friendship. It could be emails. It could be letters. It doesn’t matter. Some of those feelings, they also don’t go away.

Kim: Exploring friendship, I think because we were all so cut off during the pandemic from one another in just a physical way, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what friendship means and how essential it was during dark times, which is kind of how it came into — when I was talking about President Kennedy’s assassination in the book, I was really conscious of what was happening in our country and how we were all so divided but yet united over this national/global situation that was happening. I was just thinking about how important human connection is and trying to capture that in these episodes from another time period but that have relevance today.

Zibby: Interesting. What else was from your, aside from the smoke — give me a few other little details.

Kim: Except the smoke inside. The cabin was my aunt and uncle’s cabin. I spent my summers there. The crab pots and just running around out front, clams, that was all — you have some memories that you hold in your head and heart that are, I don’t want to say that they’re more valuable than others, but they have a certain preciousness. Those memories have always been precious to me. One of the reasons that was really a stand-out when I wrote the book was because I went back to the island in 2018. I won’t go into the very long story. When I went back to see the land — I wanted to see the land that the cabin had been on. The cabin was still there exactly as it had been fifty years earlier. The family who lived in it let me come inside and be back in that space where I spent my childhood. It was very alive for me when I wrote the book. Also, I love LA. I love Seattle. Shorey’s Bookstore that’s gone in Seattle, Frederick & Nelson department store that’s gone in Seattle, the Grand Central Market as it used to be in Los Angeles, not as it is now where it’s been gentrified — it used to be very much a blue-collar market. El Tepeyac, where there’s a scene in the book that I won’t give away, that’s a legacy restaurant. That’s still there. I do go there. I wanted to just pull in all these things that I really love about place because place is such an important part of story to me. We are so shaped by the places we live in. That was also an element I wanted to capture in the two characters.

Zibby: That’s literally what we say. One of the main things we look for in a book — I started this publishing company called Zibby Books. We’re only doing twelve books a year. Strong sense of place. Strong sense of voice, strong sense of place, two of the most important things because books have to take you somewhere everyone wants to go. I long for that. It’s fun to sink into characters, their interior lives and everything, but it’s where they’re set too. That I got to be in this cabin or slipping down rocks, all those feelings, it’s the magic of books, how you feel like you actually — it’s like a dream. You feel you actually kind of did that even though you totally didn’t.

Kim: Very much so. I was obsessed with Harlequin romances when I was growing up. This seems like a non sequitur, but it wasn’t the romances, it was the place. Harlequin romances, especially back in the fifties and sixties — I would get them at those little weird strip-mall bookstores in small towns. They always took place on a Greek island or Paris or Turkey or all these places I’d never — I’d have to go look on a map and find them. I read these romances looking for the details of place.

Zibby: Wow. Maybe I’ll buy that. There might have been an extra something special.

Kim: I’m sure I loved the romance too, but it’s what I remember when I look back. I can still remember Under the Stars of Paris because I can remember the descriptions of the city.

Zibby: That’s funny. A lot of people, that’s all they’re going to get of that place, is what you put in your novel, is their impression, what authors do. You got to do it justice, really.

Kim: It’s magical. I love reading books from other countries, by authors from other countries, by authors who’ve only visited other countries because you’re always getting different perspectives, if someone is a visitor, if someone was born there. I know that’s why a sense of place is so strong in my book, because it’s so important to me when I read.

Zibby: I just feel like you did such a nice job of showing the evolution of a relationship, that actual deepening and what little phrases and how closeness morphs over time. It’s really interesting how you do that through language, how one does that. It’s what we share. It’s what we say. It’s in these little things that take someone from here to here. You had to figure out how to do it for both characters in tandem.

Kim: It was a very organic process. It might be because I do think about women’s friendships a lot. I laugh because I was doing a talk, and I talked about how I can remember when I met one of my very best friends from the bookstore. When we first started having coffee, it was like a crush. It was this, will she like me? Did I sound stupid? Oh, my gosh, do you think she’ll want to have coffee again? I was talking about that evolution. Then a really good friend that I have here in Los Angeles who had seen the talk, she texted me. She said, “Oh, my gosh, I felt that way when we met.” I said, “So did I.” Your really deep friendships, there’s that bit of venturing in. Then you start to reveal. Then there’s the opening of trust. Then once the trust opens up, you just kind of fall into a well together, which is the process of how this book evolved. Then after that, it becomes very smooth in a way. I’m trying to figure out how to describe it. There really is a beautiful, organic process to the development of our deep friendships. I know, obviously, they occur in different ways. That was one thing I wanted to explore in this book, is how people become friends in an honest and genuine way.

Zibby: Aside from the two you sent it to, did other of your friends respond just as positively? Has it been a bonding thing now with all of you?

Kim: It has. It really has. I received a really beautiful email from my high school best friend. She talked about how a good friend breeds good friendships. The response to the book both from people I know and people I don’t know has been phenomenal because it’s always been personal. I have received so many emails or messages through social media from women who’ve told me that the book has inspired them to reach out to an old friend, a friend they may have lost touch with or perhaps just a friend where life gets going and it comes down to the Christmas letter every year. Most of them have done it through a letter. Most of them have said, I’ve sat down, and I wrote her a letter. The personal response to the book from all sides has been extremely gratifying.

Zibby: I know the holidays are so far away, but I feel like for the holidays this year you should pair this book with Anna Quindlen’s book, Write for Your Life, because it’s all about that, and maybe even — there’s another author, Gina Hamadey, who wrote a book about gratitude and writing thank you notes. I’m blanking on the exact title. A bundle of those three books with a gorgeous box stationery all wrapped up or maybe even a pen or a thing of coffee or tea, I would totally want to buy that.

Kim: I’m always like, you have to have tea when you sit down and write a letter. To me, it’s a ritual. I just bought some new stationery when I was up in Seattle. I was sitting down to write a letter. I have to clear my desk. I have a fountain pen that I love, a Pelikan fountain pen that was given to me when I was in my early twenties. Then I brew a cup of tea. I put on Miles Davis. Then I just sit and close the door. It’s just me, the piece of paper, and the friend that I’m writing to. I miss rituals so much.

Zibby: That is a meditation. That’s a self-care meditation. That seems like such a perfect antidote to life’s craziness, that scene you just said.

Kim: Very much so.

Zibby: Could someone create that scene for me somewhere? I don’t even drink tea. It doesn’t matter.

Kim: It can be a cup of coffee if that’s what you prefer, or whatever.

Zibby: No, the scene needs tea. I agree with you.

Kim: It does need tea. It also needs any technology that’s in the room put in the closet. That’s another thing I do. The only thing in my office that — I’m looking around right now — that has technology is my laptop. There’s no other technology in this room. If I just fold my laptop and put it in the closet, then my room is — there’s two typewriters. I guess that’s the most technology here.

Zibby: I have my typewriter, my grandma’s typewriter. This book came out. People are loving it. I’m not surprised because as soon as I heard about this book, I was like, oh, I’m going to love that book.

Kim: That makes me so happy.

Zibby: Friendship, food, and love, I’m in. Yes, thank you. I like all those things. So do lots of other people. How has it been with this book coming out into the world and the positive response you’ve been getting?

Kim: It’s good. I guess it just makes me so happy because I put so much love into this book. That that is being responded to — obviously, it was written faster than anything I’ve ever written before since my first novel took fourteen years. It’s also written from a different place. This book changed me. It taught me what I really want to write. I found that the response, I’ve been able to be more interactive this time around. I don’t know if this is answering your question. Because of social media, I’ve been able to have conversations online with readers in ways that weren’t available the last time my book came out. I’m kind of weaving all over here. The response that has meant the most to me as far as out in the world has been the independent bookseller response. Indie bookstores have taken this book under their wing. They have treated Joan and Imogen, the two main characters, as if they were dear family and friends. I was five and a half years at The Elliot Bay Book Company. I worked at Traveler’s Bookcase down here. I worked at Latitude 33 in Laguna Beach down here.

I know what it means to have a bookseller love your book. I know what it means to have a bookseller pick your book and to hand-sell it. When I say that, I mean an indie bookseller, a person who is not an algorithm. That has been the most meaningful part to me as far as any kind of reviews you get or that kind of thing. I’ve also met so many booksellers I didn’t know before and had the opportunity to engage with them in new ways. I think it has to do — almost every single one has reached out to me with a personal story that they relate to the book. That’s what I’m finding really interesting. Whether it’s somebody whose mother had the magazine that had Butternut Wisdom in it, that column that I mention, or whether it is — I’ve heard from a lot of people who are in mixed marriages and said the book meant a lot to them or different things that they went through in the sixties as women and then just the food as well.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Kim, thank you so much. This has been such a joy. I’m excited for you. I feel like my time reading this book — it’s so slim. I just read it all in one sitting. Even that moment for me felt like a little slice of the scene that we both were talking about. I didn’t have the tea. I wasn’t writing. There was no Miles Davis. It did allow me to step out of my life and pause with no technology for a while and go to another time.

Kim: I’m glad. I’m really glad. Thank you so much for having me. I love talking to you.

Zibby: You too. I’m eager to see what comes next from you and whatever else you have up your sleeve. I’ll be following along.

Kim: Thank you. You have a good day.

Zibby: Thanks. You too. Buh-bye.

Kim: Bye.



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