Cooking competition shows are beloved for their delightful cast of characters, methodical rhythm, and delicious artistry. They have also been safe havens for queer people to find representation. It only stands to reason, then, that novels can do the same thing for readers, and Anita Kelly delivers and then some in their first traditionally-published novel, Love & Other Disasters. Kelly’s characters are engaging, lovable, quirky, and real. Recently-divorced Dahlia is trying to discover her new place in the world, and where better to do that than the stage of Chef’s Special? She also finds friendship with nonbinary contestant London, who is navigating coming out so publicly. The friendship quickly spins into love (and heat), and I had the chance to speak with Kelly about all of this love (and surmountable disasters).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jen St. Jude
Love & Other Disasters is your first traditionally-published novel, and it joins your two self-published novellas, Sing Anyway (2021) and Our Favorite Songs (2021). All three books exist in the same universe; how did you first dream up this world?
Romance is a world of escapism, but I think what makes it such a popular and powerful genre is that it’s a hopeful escape. I wanted to make a hopeful queer world where everyone could be whoever the hell they want, where there are trials and tribulations but everyone treats each other with care. I wanted to create a world where queer people could imagine themselves hanging out and thriving.
The characters of L&OD are more based out of the East Coast, where I grew up, while the characters of my novellas are based in Portland, Oregon, where I now live, so there are little parts of me throughout the different books. But I do picture lots of possible paths crossing for all of my characters in their futures.
Jen St. Jude
What has been your favorite part of seeing Love & Other Disasters in the world so far?
Oh my god, there has been so much that I never could have even imagined. People have cosplayed the cover; bookstores have put it into subscription boxes with neat L&OD-themed treats; book clubs are reading it; people have made art projects inspired by the book and the cover; my publisher just commissioned a Rice Krispie treat artist to recreate the cover in Rice Krispies…!! Honestly, it has been incredible. The book-loving community shows their creativity and talent in so many ways I’d never be able to think up on my own.
Of course, my favorite thing has been when readers have reached out to express thanks for seeing themselves portrayed in a book, sometimes for the first time, or to share a particular thing in the book that really resonated with them. For some reason I didn’t believe readers would actually do that, but they have, and it’s been so touching. Or another example—when I went to a local bookstore to sign pre-orders, quite a few customers wrote notes with their customization requests that said things like “please write anything you’d like to another nonbinary person” or “thank you for writing about a nonbinary person” and I had to hold myself together in the store, but each one made me want to cry onto the pages. People have just been really kind.
Jen St. Jude
Both main characters are going through incredibly difficult life transitions; London is coming out to the whole world as nonbinary on network television, and Dahlia is navigating the aftermath of a divorce. How important was it to treat these experiences with respect while also balancing levity, romance, and heart?
There’s a craft book for romance writers that talks about the importance of each of the two main characters in a romance having their own emotional wounds, and that almost everything they do in the book should be informed by those emotional wounds, and how they work through them to achieve a happily ever after. So now every time I start a book, that’s the first question I ask: what is each character’s emotional wound? How are they going to work through them while still reaching for that happy ending?
For Dahlia, I wanted to show a divorce that was hard and messy but not tragic, that didn’t come about because of cheating or abuse or hard feelings but just…wanting different things. Fighting for your own happiness instead of staying inside a role you knew you couldn’t fulfill. Dahlia feels so much guilt about her decision to divorce David, but it was still a decision she made for herself despite all those tough emotions. I find that so brave, and wanted that bravery to carry her through the rest of the book.
For London, I’m extremely sensitive about not writing what some call “tragedy porn,” ie. stories that capitalize only on the hardship and trauma of marginalized characters. I have a hard time with the phrase sometimes, because now any time I write anything about my queer characters living through experiences that are Not Perfect—like competing against a transphobic contestant on a cooking show, or dealing with trolls, or trying to love a father who doesn’t use their correct pronouns—a voice in the back of my mind is always shouting careful, careful, careful! But my hope is that the trials London has to live through are only part of their story, and that the main focus is their joy and confidence in who they are. That the crux of their plotline is the same as any other love interest’s in a romance novel: falling the fuck in love.
Jen St. Jude
So many people will love this book, but who do you picture as your ideal reader? Who do you write for, first?
I write first and foremost for the romance reader. For the queer romance reader, in particular, but really for the romance community as a whole. I just love romance so much; I have studied literature all my life and it’s the first place where I’ve felt truly at home, where everyone is honest and unpretentious about what they want to read and write and just love the shit out of it.
I think especially through Book of the Month, this book has reached a much wider net than I ever expected when I wrote it, and so I’ve been tagged in quite a few reviews where it’s like, “Loved the LGBTQ+ rep! Loved the characters! Just didn’t like [things that inherently makes it a romance novel],” and I finally figured out, like, okay, these people just don’t love romance. And that’s cool! It’s actually been really healthy for me to figure that out, and I’m still really glad and appreciative that they gave my book a shot. But I’m still going to always be writing for the romance community.
Jen St. Jude
People (myself included) LOVE cooking competition shows, and books about cooking shows seem like natural companions. What drew you to this setting, and why do you think it resonates so much with so many?
Food is such an important social glue. I think it works so well in romance because like the appeal of a happily ever after, it’s universal, but like every relationship between two unique people, it’s also deeply personal. It’s also just so fun and compelling to read about, because it can be done with such joy. And you can learn so much about a character from the things they like to cook, from the way they like to cook, what food means to them, what personal and cultural and familial histories it connects them to.
I’ve always loved food, so writing about it has always been easy for me, but I wrote a cooking show in particular as a kind of writing cheat. Because a competition sets up so many natural stakes and conflicts, along with an easy-to-use timeline for pacing and plotting. My next book takes place on the Pacific Crest Trail, which sets up a similar easy-to-use timeline to map out the plot—like okay, each chapter they will be moving closer to the end of the hike, just as with Love & Other Disasters, every chapter brought them closer to the finale of the show. The third book of the series is the first where there’s not some big adventure going on; it’s just about people living their lives and going to work and I’m like, shit. This is so much harder! Haha.
Jen St. Jude
Along those lines, are there any other books about baking or queer romance you’d recommend to people who love Love & Other Disasters?
So many! I think a natural recommendation is Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall, the first in a series of queer romances that take place on a Great British Bake-Off type show. Battle Royal by Lucy Parker is a romance between two reality cooking show judges, and for anyone who loves bread, Farah Heron’s Accidentally Engaged will make you want bread SO BAD. TJ Alexander also has an upcoming queer romance, Chef’s Kiss, that involves cooking and a nonbinary love interest as well. Roan Parrish’s slightly-magical queer Hannukah romance, The Remaking of Corbin Wale, also has some of the best and sexiest baking scenes I’ve ever read.
Jen St. Jude
You write your characters with such loving, perfect details that I can’t help but believe they’re real people. What’s your approach to getting to know your characters, and helping readers get to love them, too?
I am very much a character-driven writer—my previous answer about the easy setup of the cooking show might have made it clear that plot is, uh, hard for me—so I’m very glad my characters ring true to people. The truth is that I am just a very soft person and only want to write about people I either want to be friends with or people that I aspire to be. Any time I read a book where people write about cruel or manipulative characters I’m always in awe, because that must take so much talent! My characters say one mean thing to each other and I’m like, oh no, take it back, they didn’t really mean it!
I will say that it often takes me writing a whole book to really get to know my characters, but knowing them well is super important to me. Which is why I will go back and re-read and revise my manuscripts a million times before I show them to anyone, to make sure my characterizations are fleshed out and consistent from the beginning.
Jen St. Jude
What’s next for you and your characters?
My next novella, Wherever Is Your Heart, is out March 1st and features a butch/butch pairing where the entire plot is basically mutual pining. My next full-length novel, the follow-up to Love & Other Disasters that takes place on the Pacific Crest Trail, will be out in February 2023, and I am super excited (and nervous) to be able to talk about it more soon.
Love & Other Disasters
By Anita Kelly
Published January 18, 2022
Jen St. Jude is the managing director at Chicago Review of Books and has work in Catapult, Gigantic Sequins, and The Rumpus. Her debut YA novel, IF TOMORROW DOESN'T COME, will be published by Bloomsbury Children's in 2023. Find them on Twitter: @jenstjude.