In Renee Swindle's breezy third novel, A Pinch of Oooh La La (August 5th/ Penguin-Random House) narrator Abbey Lincoln Ross, discovers that her artist boyfriend is having multiple affairs while watching a documentary about him at a film festival. After suffering this spectacular public humiliation, Abbey pours all of all her energy into her Oakland bakery.
The novel, though, is never bitter. A Pinch of Oooh La La is full of sweets and treats and a band of folks who improvise and adapt as they seek the right ingredients for love. And there's plenty of funny. "I love the mix of drama and humor," Swindle said. "Sort of like a Breaking Bad. My last novel was about an alcoholic and when people said they laughed and cried--that was the best."
Baking is the perfect metaphor for Abbey's life as the novel begins. Bakers are in control. They understand that with the right ingredients, combined in precise measurements and a specific order, you get delicious. Abbey is in search of the right recipe for love but, as Swindle said, "there's no formula when it comes to love." Which is why Swindle gets Abby out of the kitchen and sets her on a quest for love.
As Swindle told me about her own recipe for writing novels she was sitting in her Oakland kitchen where she recently conquered her own fear of baking. She had a piece of her own cornbread in front of her. And, there was talk of making scones.
"I get one idea at a time and just start writing. I usually get to page fifty and then start over again. When I get to page 100 I do the same thing until I have a full draft. I'm not good at outlines," she said. "All those starts and stops help me figure out what the hell I'm doing. On this novel, though, after I wrote enough pages my editor made me write a synopsis. That was helpful because it helped me keep the story contained."
And then there's all that jazz that, along with baking, becomes a backdrop for Abbey's journey. The music comes in the form of Abbey's musician father Lincoln who has many children with many partners. In Lincoln, Swindle created a refreshing alternative to the absentee dad as he brings his very extended family together. Instead of the usual loathing that most couples that once loved each other so quickly embrace, Swindle's characters embrace each other and extend the definition of family. Unlike baking, jazz allows, insists upon, improvising. "Abbey," Swindle said, "is very nurturing and she has to figure out when to give and when to not give of herself. She has to let go of her recipe."
A Pinch of Oooh La La is set in Oakland, which Swindle describes as her "funky little city." And while she love's the Oakland vibe, the city has more to offer as a backdrop. "I wanted to set my novel in the world that I see around me everyday. Oakland is racially mixed, socially diverse, vibrant community. It's the world that doesn't always get portrayed in fiction but it's the world so many of us live in."
Swindle feels drawn to dialogue. "Some writers a great at setting. I love to write dialogue," she said. "I like listening to how people speak and how they put their sentences together. Which is often funny."
Swindle's advice to new writers: "Get used to sitting with yourself and playing around everyday so you get the groove of discipline. Cause if you want to write a novel you're going to need that. To be with a book more than not. Like running, start out slow and let it build. Be nice to yourself."
Many Pinch readers will undoubtedly feel compelled to head for the kitchen to get their bake on. Or, like me, visit their favorite bakery. I suggest not resisting.
Renee Swindle is the author of Please Please Please, and Shake Down The Stars. She earned her BA from UC Irvine and her MFA from San Diego State University. More info here.
This article first appeared in FORTHMagazine on August 14, 2104.