“It was really important to me to show two aspects of living in a small town, especially as a young person. That desperate desire to get out and the amazing reasons that you realize, especially when you get a little bit older, why it’s wonderful to be there in the first place.” KJ Dell’Antonia talks with host Mary Laura Philpott about her debut novel, The Chicken Sisters on NPT’s A Word on Words
KJ Dell’Antonia’s first novel, The Chicken Sisters, became both an instant bestseller and a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick; but as this author points out, the concept of “overnight success” isn’t always as simple as it seems. An avid reader and the co-host of the #AmWriting podcast for fellow writers, Dell’Antonia has been working toward this moment for a long time. For this episode of A Word on Words, Dell’Antonia spoke with host Mary Laura Philpott about her career as a writer — and how she came up with this charming story about chicken restaurants, reality television, and a family facing down both old grudges and new challenges.
Mary Laura Philpott: Hey, KJ. How are you?
KJ Dell’Antonia: Hi! I am pretty good, considering.
Philpott: Thank you for joining us for one of these at-home episodes. Where are you right now?
Dell’Antonia: I am in Lyme, New Hampshire.
Philpott: I like your backdrop. Okay, start by giving us the who, what, where of The Chicken Sisters.
Dell’Antonia: The Chicken Sisters is the story of two sisters, Amanda and May — one who stayed and one who left their very, very small town — and the eventual reality TV competition between two fried chicken restaurants, the one they grew up in and the rival that one of them married into . . . that they turn into a proxy for the constant war they’ve been having all their lives over which of them made the right life choices.
Philpott: It is joyful for me to see your face on my screen, and I’m grateful that we have the technology to hold this conversation, even when a pandemic keeps us apart. But I desperately wish that we were filming in Nashville, because this town is full of chicken restaurants and chicken restaurant rivalries.
Dell’Antonia: I know! I wish I was there eating all of it and I’m determined to be there as soon as possible.
Philpott: Were there any real-world restaurant rivalries you had in mind as you wrote this story?
Dell’Antonia: There are, actually. So, the two restaurants in the book are called Chicken Frannie’s and Chicken Mimi’s. And there are two real-life, honest-to-gosh fried chicken restaurants in a small town in Kansas, just like the one in my book, called Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s. Anybody from Southeast Kansas knows these restaurants, and my folks grew up in that town. And I grew up going to that town constantly and eating, I might add, only at Chicken Annie’s. I’ve only eaten at Chicken Mary’s once, because when I was growing up — at least that’s how sort of we saw the rivalry — you only ate in one or the other.
Philpott: That was going to be my next question, about this town you wrote about. So this is based on a real place?
Dell’Antonia: No, no, no.
Philpott: [laughing] No?
Dell’Antonia: So now you have to put all that aside. There are these two fried chicken restaurants, and actually they were once on a reality TV show competition, although I don’t think I knew that and I’ve never seen it. But beyond that, it’s all fiction. My town in this book is much smaller than Pittsburg/Frontenac, which are the towns that the real restaurants are in. The real restaurants have spinoffs. There are, I think, a total of six of them now. So in reality, it’s not like my town.
What I wanted to do with my fictional town is — so you know how you read tons of great books about little Southern towns and tons of great books about little new England towns, but you never read a great book about a little Kansas town? Kansas has plenty of charming small towns, so I wanted to give it its own charming, small book-town.
Philpott: You could have written a fully engaging, fun novel just about fighting chicken restaurants, and I would have read that. But why was it important to make these characters not just representatives of the chicken restaurant foes, but family?
Dell’Antonia: Oh, they had to be family to really fight, I think. You know, rival restaurants are great and all that, but it’s only within a family that everything becomes personal. It was also really important to me to show two aspects of living in a small town, especially as a young person: that desperate desire to get out, and the amazing reasons that you realize, especially when you get a little bit older, why it’s wonderful to be there in the first place. So I really wanted to have two people in a position to have very similar experiences of growing up in a small town and to make two really different choices about it. And then have two really different sets of regrets about those choices.
Philpott: And who better than sisters?
Dell’Antonia: Who better than sisters, exactly.
Philpott: KJ, reality television plays a big role in what goes down between these sisters. Do you watch shows like the one that you depict in the book?
Dell’Antonia: I love Cupcake Wars. I like baking shows. If I’m flipping channels, the shows I will settle on are the ones where people pick a house, the ones where they renovate a house really, really, really fast against a completely artificial deadline that they have imposed upon themselves and have all kinds of problems with it. I guess I really watched the kinds of shows that Mae was on during the highlight of her career. I watch a little less of the shows where there are actual, real people having actual, real human conflicts because they make me very stressed.
Philpott: I agree with you, they make me nervous. When real people are fighting on television, I have to look with only one eyeball.
Dell’Antonia: Unless they’ve baked two different kinds of cupcakes and they’re being judged for that. I can deal with that.
Philpott: What is it about those shows, or about the reality TV world, that provides such a great structure and backdrop for storytelling?
Dell’Antonia: Oh, it’s perfect for storytelling, because you can have someone right there in the book trying to push the story in different directions. So in my book, I have the character of the producer/host. I blended them into one, in this case. And she is really manipulating the people around her to get the very best story. And hey, that’s what we want as readers, too, the very best story. To have your characters not just making bad or challenging choices because of their own fears and beliefs, but to have someone actually going, “Yeah. Why not? Why not? You should absolutely do that thing” — that is really helpful from a novelist’s perspective.
Philpott: It’s like you’ve got somebody else in there with you pulling the marionette strings, and you’ve made her a character.
Dell’Antonia: That’s right.
Philpott: What is your taste as a reader? I’m curious as to whether you set out to write the type of book that you like to read.
Dell’Antonia: Oh, I absolutely did. I like my fiction mostly light. I like a good long book, but I don’t . . . I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t want to work really hard to either follow the story or to be with the characters. I like to want to spend time with the characters in a book that I am reading, and I really like to be able to see them evolve. I like to watch them changing. Every so often you’ll run into — and I do not criticize other authors’ books because writing a book is really, really hard — but every so often, especially in literary fiction, you will run into a book where the characters don’t change. And I assume that’s on purpose. They start here and they end pretty much here, and in the interval things happen to them. I find that really frustrating. I like the character to be influenced by what’s going on around them, and I want a satisfying ending. I know that in life, often things happen to us and we do not change or improve. And we do not get a satisfying ending. I don’t really need that in my books.
Philpott: This seems like as good a moment as any to mention, in full disclosure, that you and I know each other. We’ve been friends for years. In fact, there is a character named Mary Laura in this book, which is my favorite thing ever. So I knew what your answer was going to be to that question, but I wanted you to answer it for our viewers, because I love your perspective on change in characters, as well as redemption. You’ve told me before you love redemption.
Dell’Antonia: Yeah. I want to be satisfied. I want to see somebody who’s been making a mistake do something better. It’s really great if somebody who’s been bad is punished. That doesn’t really happen in my book … well, a little bit maybe. Yeah, I like a good satisfying ending. And I want to say about the character named Mary Laura: the little town in Kansas, where my folks grew up and where these restaurants are, it’s a super Catholic town. Basically, everyone of a certain age’s first name is, in fact, Mary. And there was a time when everyone in the book’s first name was Mary. They were all Mary-something. It was Mary Mae, and Mary Amanda . . .There’s an early draft where everyone is named Mary. But I realized after doing it that it’s also super confusing. So that was —
Philpott: Fair enough.
Dell’Antonia: It had its own challenges.
Philpott: I love hearing all these things about how it changed from draft to draft. When you think about your book’s literary heritage, what writers do you look to who have done what you’re doing or what you’re aiming to do?
Dell’Antonia: Jennifer Weiner, for sure. Elin Hilderbrand, Anna Quindlen. Those are great writers. I mean, I also have deep, deep, deep admiration for Barbara Kingsolver. I love her work. Jane Smiley, Ann Patchett . . . I think I skew a little lighter than those writers do, at least at this stage of their career, but people evolve. Maybe I will evolve, too.
Philpott: You host a podcast with fellow writer Jessica Lahey called #AmWriting, where you talk about writing both fiction and nonfiction: the process, the roadblocks . . . I recommend this podcast to everybody I know who is writing — especially right now when we’re all isolated — because listening to that podcast makes you feel like you’re part of a community and you’re not all alone. I’m curious as to whether there’s one major lesson or a couple of big lessons that come to mind, when you think of what you have learned on that podcast, either from a guest or just from the conversations that have unfolded over the years.
Dell’Antonia: I mean, with all the guests that we’ve had — and we have had a lot — one of the biggest things that I have learned is that this is hard for everyone. That is something that I deeply, deeply appreciated. I’m in the middle of revising what I hope will be my second published novel right now and it is going terribly. It is agonizing. It is flat-out the worst. And to have talked to so many people and had them say, “It took me so long, and it was hard, and I kept putting it aside,” or, “At one point it was this, and it turned into that” — that’s really helpful. And even just to go back and remember that everybody was named Mary in my book at one point is to remember that books go through a lot of evolutions. That is one great thing that I have learned from being a podcaster.
I’ve also learned that it’s really important to be professional in the way that you approach your writing life — to take a professional and serious approach to getting the work itself done. You need to take your own work seriously, which is so hard. And it’s, in fact, possibly the theme of the book that I’m struggling so hard to revise right now. I think we all look at our own work and think, “That’s just piddly, silly work. There are a thousand things I could do that would be more important than my piddly, silly work.” And it’s really hard — even after you’ve had success — to take it seriously. To spend the time on it. To put in the hard work that’s necessary to make it happen, and to set aside other things that you could be doing, to make it happen. To talk to so many other people who have a hard time taking their professional selves seriously, that has been extremely helpful.
Philpott: Why do you think that is? Why do you think it is so hard to take the work of writing as seriously as you would take another job? Why is that a hurdle so many people face?
Dell’Antonia: Well, nobody typically wants you to do it when you start. Some people really don’t want you to do it. Your parents will definitely tell you that you should absolutely do something else. Everybody says it’s hard and you’ll never make any money. And all of those things are somewhat true. And also, I mean, you’re making something up out of your own head, or you’re putting your own spin on something that happens in the real world. So whether you’re working in fiction or non-fiction, the easiest thing to say to yourself is, “Somebody else’s thoughts about this are so much more important than mine.” And honestly, if that’s not the way that you think about it, then that’s a little crazy, too. Like, “No, no. My words, the things that I have to say about this topic that many other people have talked about, are absolutely the most important.”
Philpott: Then you have whatever the opposite of imposter syndrome is.
Dell’Antonia: Yeah. Poseur syndrome? To find that balance . . . It’s not that I think my take is so important, but I do think it is important enough to get it out there. It’s really challenging. And of course, especially for women — who are taught often that we need to be nice, and our opinions, if expressed, should be expressed politely and with a lot of caveats that would allow for other people not to be hurt or offended or think that we are being bossy.
Philpott: I want to pull back the focus to a slightly higher level and talk about your career as a whole. You were an attorney at the beginning of your career. You were the editor of the Motherlode column at the New York Times for many years. You’ve written a great non-fiction book called How To Be a Happier Parent. And here you are with your first published novel, right out of the gate, becoming a bestseller. It would appear, at least from where I sit, that you are highly successful at whatever you set out to do. In fact, I remember your telling me once that you had toyed with the idea of becoming a pastry chef, and then you sent me this box of cookies that you made, and they’re more beautiful than anything I’ve seen in a pastry shop. So this is what I want to know: Where does your work ethic come from? What is this common thing that you bring to everything you set out to do?
Dell’Antonia: I seem to be unable to stop. I would say two things about that. The first is that there are lots of failures along that route that you did not bring up. There was my attempt to become the editor of the children’s section of the New York Times Book Review. I went in for a great interview, which imploded completely when the person interviewing me said, “Well, you have to move to New York, it’s the center of the literary universe.” And then I was like, “No, I actually told you before I came in that I couldn’t move back to New York.” Anyway, that was one, and there are tons of others, plus my whole legal career, which is just . . . [laughs] So, not a march up the ladder of success without pauses.
And I would say that probably my defining characteristic is that I’m extremely ambitious. Whatever I am doing, I want to do it as well as possible. It is hard for me to do anything on a small scale. Reading is the one activity that can slow me down and stop me. I need to be doing something all the time.
Philpott: You seem to me to be a very curious person, someone who will look at a problem and take it apart and analyze all the pieces.
Dell’Antonia: Sometimes. Sometimes I just want to be like, “You already picked an obstetrician? Great. I’m going to go with the one you picked, because I know you did the work.” I totally did that. If I want to, yes. If I don’t want to, then I’m just not going to do it.
Philpott: You mentioned that not everything on this path has been an instant success. And I love to ask this question of debut novelists, because I know that a lot of times the “debut” novel, the first one that we see on bookshelves, isn’t the first novel that someone wrote. Do you have a novel in a drawer somewhere?
Dell’Antonia: I have a completed novel in a drawer, which, much to my chagrin, I seem to have let my mother read and also my neighbor across the street read, because they both brought it up. I had totally forgotten that. I finished it before I started with the Motherlode column, which didn’t leave me a lot of time for writing fiction. So I have that, and then there are lots and lots and lots of scraps of novels in various and sundry places.
Philpott: Do you think you’ll go back to the scraps?
Dell’Antonia: I don’t. No, the scraps are old, they’re from a different point in my life. I’ve got a lot of ideas. I don’t think I’m going to go back to those.
Philpott: Before we wrap up our interview, I have to ask — any tips on frying chicken?
Dell’Antonia: Yeah! Frying chicken is easier than it sounds—
Philpott: When I do it, it fills my kitchen with smoke. I can’t seem to fry anything successfully.
Dell’Antonia: Our family pandemic purchase was a deep fryer, so we have a metal fryer. But when we tried out the recipe for the family fried chicken that I have on my blog, I created it with my kids and we cooked it both ways. We did it in a giant cast iron frying pan on the stove, and in the deep fryer. And the deep fryer is, yes, less smoky, but the result isn’t any better. So my big tip for frying fried chicken is that you want to put a mega-ton of seasoning in the flour part. So you want to go dry, wet, dry, and you want lots of salt and pepper and then lots of spices and all kinds of good stuff in that second pile of dry, because otherwise it doesn’t taste like anything. Plus, a little bit of cornstarch makes it crispy.
Philpott: Okay. Lightning round. How many books are you typically reading at once?
Dell’Antonia: Two or three.
Philpott: Okay. Fiction? Non-fiction? A mix?
Philpott: How many books are you typically writing and/or editing at once?
Philpott: Two in different phases?
Dell’Antonia: Yeah. Because I don’t ever want to be not working on something. When it’s pencils-down and something goes to an editor, I start something new. So it’s fairly rare for me to only have one thing going.
Philpott: Pandemic fantasy-world question: If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?
Dell’Antonia: I would go back to Spain, to Madrid. I’ve got friends there and just had some wonderful trips there, and I would like to go. And I’ve been working on my Spanish all through the pandemic, so after I visit all the human beings that I love and miss so much, I would like to go back to Spain.
Philpott: What is something you love to do that is not like writing at all?
Philpott: You live in a good spot for that.
Dell’Antonia: Yeah. I do a lot of hiking and a lot of walking. And I guess you might say it’s like writing because you can think while you’re doing it.
Philpott: If you and I were to meet up in a library or a bookstore, what section would I find you in?
Dell’Antonia: You could find me in any section. I love them all. You would probably find me talking to a bookseller about what they have read most recently that they loved best.
Philpott: Smart. KJ, thank you so much for joining us today.
KJ Dell’Antonia: Thank you! This was so much fun.
KJ Dell’Antonia Recommends
One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London
A Star is Bored, by Byron Lane
The Lager Queens of Minnesota, by J. Ryan Stradal
The Shame, by Makenna Goodman
Eliza Starts a Rumor, by Jane L. Rosen