Living

Jane Green discusses ‘Saving Grace’ and more

Author Jane Green has written 15 bestsellers.Author photo of Jane Green. Credit: Ian Warburg
Author Jane Green has written 15 bestsellers.Author photo of Jane Green. Credit: Ian Warburg

With 15 bestsellers to date, Jane Green reigns as one of the queens of chick lit or women’s literature or whatever you’d like to call that particular genre of novels that takes deep dives into the emotional lives of the double-X-chromosome gender.

Green, 46, was born in England but lives now in Connecticut. She is known for creating heartfelt characters that tend to live in beautiful homes, have multiple talents and generally seem to have perfect lives — until something goes terribly awry.

The heroine of Saving Grace, in stores Dec. 30, is one such woman. Grace is a former cookbook editor who married bestselling novelist Ted Chapman and moved to a fabulous farmhouse along the Hudson River. She’s on the board at Harmont House, a nonprofit that helps families escaping abuse and addiction. She also cooks for the residents of the house — and teaches them how to cook, too.

In short, “Grace’s life looks perfect,” Green writes — and then offers readers some insight into Grace’s thoughts about herself: “If she just keeps running and running, keeps being the perfect wife, mother, cook, the past will surely just disappear.”

Grace, you see, has secrets, of course. And when Grace suddenly faces some health challenges, the cracks in her perfect world begin to widen into chasms, and soon the life she has built so carefully starts to rapidly fall apart.

We caught up with Green to talk about Saving Grace — and find out more about the woman behind the book. Here are excerpts from our chat.

Your heroine in this book, Grace, is a mom in her early 50s who is diagnosed — without giving too much away — with a serious illness. Where did the idea come from? I believe you were recovering from Lyme disease recently — was that the genesis of the story?

The genesis was more a misdiagnosis I had. I was going through a period of tremendous stress and was prescribed amphetamines for ADHD, which eventually, coupled with the stress, kept me up all night and made me slightly manic. I was then diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given very heavy-duty anti-psychotics that really stole my life for a year and a half.

How absolutely horrible. What can you tell us about that period of your life? How did your health impact your life as a writer, but also as a mother and in all the other roles I’m guessing you, like most women, play in life?

I always work. Whatever else is going on, losing myself in the writing is the one thing guaranteed to make me feel better. But it didn’t leave much room for anything else. I turned out to have chronic Lyme disease, and getting out of bed to write the books was about all I could manage. I wasn’t a very good mother, or wife, or friend during that time, but have made amends, and am surrounded by wise and loving people who understood.

I think almost every woman I know who reaches her late 40s or early 50s experiences a point when life presents her, in some fashion, with a huge seismic shift and suddenly there is a “new normal.” In fact, simply the physical, unavoidable changes of aging force all women into a “new normal.” Grace’s story gives us some insight into figuring out how to age “grace”-fully. Can you offer further wisdom, commiseration or something that makes us laugh?

My biggest lesson has been to focus on gratitude, particularly approaching the menopause when we all turn into bears with sore heads. I once wrote the following quote in a book: “The key to happiness is not getting what you want but wanting what you have got.” I can so easily focus on what’s wrong, which only makes me see more of what’s wrong.

When I consciously focus on the good, on all that I am grateful for, it very quickly calms me down. I had cancer earlier this year and am fully recovered, but that very serious diagnosis pushed me into a state of extreme gratitude — life-changing in, surprisingly, the best of ways.

Grace is a great and passionate cook — and so are you. You’ve included lots of your own recipes in this book. Can you tell us about your training as a chef and why you chose the recipes you did for this book?

I trained at the French Culinary Institute, so some of my recipes definitely have a French accent, but I think I have gathered from everywhere, although my food isn’t typically American. I don’t understand the red sauce, at all. Very rare to find that in any of my recipes, and if it’s there, it snuck in without me seeing.

One of the hallmarks of your novels is your ability to create characters that seem so freakishly real — it’s so easy to get into Grace’s head in this book and understand what she’s thinking. What’s that process like for you?

I am enormously disciplined, and I categorize. For somewhere between three and five hours a day I think about nothing but my characters and try very hard to lose myself in their worlds, hence the realism.

And yet, you also still manage, now that you’re feeling better, to take on the roles of mom and wife in addition to being a bestselling author. How do you do it? Can you tell us what a typical day is like?

Much like yours, with less exercise. People keep trying to tempt me to Pilates, yoga and barre method, not understanding that all the classes are morning classes and, were I to go, I wouldn’t get to my desk until around 11 a.m., which is much too late.

I am awake between 5 and 6, cooking breakfast, and at my desk by 9 a.m., often earlier, and 9:30 at the latest. I write until lunchtime, often meeting friends for lunch, running up to the organic market or little restaurants around town, and home by the time the kids get home, when I am back to being Mom. Every afternoon sees me cooking dinner, and we all eat together around a huge kitchen table that seats 14 comfortably. And frequently.

Of course I also have days where I fly off to glamorous places, or speak at luncheons or charity events, or go off on tour around the country. And days when I go on television, which is always exciting because you never know who you’ll meet in the green room, but most of the time I am exactly like you.

When I heard you speak at an event last year, you mentioned that Martha Stewart is a friend and that she has come to your house for dinner. Can you treat us to a fly-on-the-wall story of what that was like? How intimidating is it to have Martha over for dinner?

It was the first time she had come to the house and I wasn’t the slightest bit worried about the food, but at about 11 o’clock that morning I went to the guest bathroom and froze in horror. I had been planning to paint and the walls were covered in different paint swatches, with a cracked bar of soap on the sink and a scuzzy old towel. It looked horrendous. I went tearing off to Home Depot, and by 3 o’clock I had repainted, accessorized, and the bathroom looked as if it might have quite happily been in the pages of Martha’s magazine.

I made coulibiac — a puff pastry stuffed with a lemon-scented rice and salmon — and it was delicious. Martha thought so, too. She made no comment about the bathroom. Which I think is a good thing.

Saving Grace

by Jane Green

St. Martin’s Press, $26.99 (in stores Dec. 30)

Audiobook: Macmillan Audio, $39.99; read by the author.

The woman behind the book

In the spirit of the season, we asked Jane Green about her own holiday traditions — and her end-of-the-year musings.

Favorite holiday tradition: Christmas Eve, gathering friends and family to string popcorn and cranberries and put the finishing garland on the tree.

Favorite holiday movie: The Family Stone. Oh, how I love that movie. Everything about it is perfect.

What you’ll be whipping up for holiday treats: My pumpkin-gingerbread trifle that may be the most decadent recipe in the world (it’s in my new cookbook, Happy Food, that is a free gift when you preorder Saving Grace online). (Note: See janegreen.com for details on the cookbook; the recipe for the trifle, which is also in Saving Grace, is included here.)

Favorite books of 2014: The Madwoman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh, Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead, Us by David Nicholls.

On your list for most ridiculous news story of 2014: Breaking the Internet with astoundingly unnatural, and thus absurdly compelling, buttocks.

On your list for most interesting news story of 2014: And frightening: the rise of ISIS. It makes me think of the Edmund Burke quote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

On your personal resolution list for 2015: Stay in a place of gratitude. Be kind. Get rid of that holiday weight.

If you didn’t have to be writing every day, you might be: Going slightly crazy.

What you’re working on now: About to start the next novel, Meant To Be, while editing Summer Secrets (out June 2015) and writing a treatment for a series of YA novels that may be the most exciting thing I’ve done in years.

Pumpkin-gingerbread trifle

Serves 8-10

Make the custard the night before, and chill overnight.

For the pumpkin custard:

▪ 3 cups half-and-half

▪ 6 large eggs

▪ 1/2 cup granulated sugar

▪ 1/2 cup packed brown sugar

▪ 1/3 cup molasses

▪ 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

▪ 1 teaspoon ground ginger

▪ 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

▪ 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

▪ 1/4 teaspoon salt

▪ 3 cups pureed pumpkin, or about 1 1/2 cans

1. Butter and flour a baking dish.

2. Scald half-and-half in a heavy saucepan (take to the edge of boiling, then remove from heat).

3. Beat two eggs, sugars, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt. Mix in pumpkin and half-and-half. When it is smooth, pour into buttered baking dish, then put it into a larger baking dish and fill larger dish with hot water to about an inch below the rim of the custard dish.

4. Bake at 325 degrees for 50 minutes, then start to check it. You want a set, firm custard — when a knife is inserted in the center, it should come out clean. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

For the gingerbread:

▪ 3 cups all-purpose flour

▪ 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

▪ 2 teaspoons baking soda

▪ 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves

▪ 1 teaspoon ground ginger

▪ 3/4 teaspoon salt

▪ 1 1/2 cups white sugar

▪ 1 cup vegetable oil

▪ 1 cup dark molasses

▪ 1/2 cup apple juice

▪ 2 eggs

▪ 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

▪ 1/2 cup chopped crystalized ginger

1. Butter and flour a 10-inch springform pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a bowl, stir together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, cloves, ground ginger and salt.

3. In a separate, large bowl, mix sugar with oil, molasses, juice, eggs and fresh ginger. Mix in crystalized ginger. Stir in flour mixture. Pour into prepared pan, then bake for 1 hour. Cool for about 16 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely.

For the assembly:

▪ 1 quart heavy cream, whipped until stiff

▪ 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

▪ 1/4 cup crystalized ginger

▪ Gingersnaps

▪ Calvados (if desired)

1. To assemble in trifle bowl: Whip the cream with vanilla, then fold in crystalized ginger and set aside.

2. Spoon half the pumpkin custard into the bowl. Layer half the gingerbread on top of that and half the whipped cream on top of that. Do it again. Top the final layer of whipped cream with gingernsnaps, or gingersnap crumbs, and, if you like, drizzle with Calvados.

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