I met today’s featured debut author, Jessica Harlan, back when we were both working for a home furnishings trade magazine at Fairchild Publications in New York City in the 1990s — she was writing about housewares, I was writing about furniture. Since that time, both of us have sort of changed gears but have found our niches, and I am so excited to see her first cookbook become published, so excited that I will be making my first Ramen noodle recipe this week. Congrats, Jessica!
Name of book: Ramen to the Rescue Cookbook
Book genre: Cookbook
Date Published: September 6, 2011
Publisher: Ulysses Press
What is your day job? Freelance writer and recipe developer, About.com Guide to Cooking Equipment
How did the idea for this book come about? The idea was actually my publisher’s, and they were looking for someone to write it. They were seeing a growing interest in kitschy comfort food, and they felt like ramen was something everyone could relate to.
Tell us about the submissions process. Was it long and tedious, or quick and painless? Well, since my publisher found me, it was somewhat painless. I needed to submit examples of my recipes and writing, and give them some ideas I had for the book. The worst part was that this took place around the winter holidays, so there was a lot of playing phone tag with the acquisitions editor, and I was so eager to get everything finalized!
Do you have an agent? How long did it take to find a publisher? I don’t have an agent (yet!), and my publisher was looking for someone to write this particular book. A friend put me in touch with them.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? It was really hard to stay on track, and to break down the daunting task of the entire book (120 recipes, not to mention the introduction and appendices!) into smaller chunks. I tried to set mini-deadlines for myself but in the end I was working my butt off trying to get it done!
What motivates you to write? A lot of my motivation comes from fear and stress! I work best under pressure, so even when I have months to do something, I often find myself waiting til the last minute, and then cranking it out. Of course, that also causes lots of sleepless nights, anxiety and worries that I won’t be able to get it done. But I always manage. In terms of my motivation to being a writer, I think it mostly comes from my love of sharing information. I love being able to help people by relating my experiences or recommendations.
Did you experience writer’s block? If so, how did you overcome it? I am not sure if it would be termed “writer’s block,” but it definitely got difficult to motivate myself, or to come up with more recipe ideas (I guess that’s recipe writer’s block!). Sometimes I’d take a break from it for a day or two, other times I’d try to find inspiration by looking at other cookbooks or watching food shows on TV.
What is the biggest misconception about writing a book? I don’t think people realize how difficult and time-consuming it is, and how usually, there’s no big financial payoff. This is especially true with cookbooks. For each recipe I wrote, I had to come up with the concept of the recipe, figure out what ingredients I’d need, shop for them, cook the dish (and remake it if it didn’t turn out), and finally, write the recipe. I try not to break down how much work I did (and how much I spent on groceries) compared to the advance I got. It’s definitely a labor of love, because you’re not going to get rich becoming an author.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? I loved the process of dreaming up a dish, or thinking of a certain ingredient combination or cooking technique, and then trying it out and having it turn out the way I’d envisioned. I also had lots of fun researching ramen noodles, i.e. their history, how they’re made, and their role in culture, history and world events.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I’m just getting started on promotion, but I’ve done a lot of it via social media: Facebook and Twitter. Plus I’m lucky to have a few well-placed friends who — fingers crossed — might be able to get my book covered on some high-profile websites and publications. My publisher’s marketing department has been great to work with too — they’re pursuing leads for me and sending my book out to the media. For other writers, I’d say, just start by spreading the word among your friends. You’d be surprised with how well-connected some of your friends and contacts might be.
How has life changed for you since the publication of your book? The day that I got my advance copy in the mail also happened to be my 40th birthday. And I feel like holding my book in my hands made me feel so much more at ease with hitting this huge milestone. I’m also at work on my second book (this one’s about quinoa, and I’m co-writing it with a good friend), so I feel like my career will hopefully be much more book-oriented going forward.
My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I’d definitely agree with this quote. I feel like all the opportunities I’ve gotten have been lucky in a way (that I happened to see a job listing or met someone who could help me get a gig), but that nothing would have come of these opportunities had I not had all of the work experience I’ve amassed over the years.