Janis Owens spins yarns whether she's writing a cookbook or unraveling the psyches of the fictional Catts family in her novels.
To her, both literary forms start with storytelling, something Owens is quite good at, being the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher turned insurance salesman. Hear for yourself: Owens is one of the featured authors at the Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
A Florida native, Owens, 49, lives in Newberry but was born and raised in Marianna in the Panhandle. She calls her people "Crackers," and everywhere she goes she has to explain what that means to her. Up North, it's not always easy.
Owens uses the word to describe thrifty country folk who value family, religion and tradition, including a vast menu of homemade specialties.
After writing three novels (My Brother Michael, Myra Sims and The Schooling of Claybird Catts), she turned to food as the central character for a memoir. But she ended up with a more traditional cookbook, The Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, Down-Home Family Stories and Cuisine (Scribner, 2009). Since its publication in the spring, she has been traveling, talking and cooking to promote it.
She also spent three months as writer in residence at Fairhope Center for Writing Arts in Fairhope, Ala. There she began work on a new novel and wrestled in the evening with her cottage's friendly ghost.
We caught up with her last week just after she'd returned to Newberry from the Southern Books Festival in Nashville.
How was Fairhope?
I wrote a lot; got about two-thirds of the new novel done. I got a little homesick, though. I would write all day and — the little cottage is supposed to be haunted — and at night when the lights went down I started thinking about the ghost. I never did see it.
Tell me about the new novel.
These are different characters than the Catts, though the story is still in west Florida. I am about two-thirds of the way through. I have the ending done but I have structural things to work out. My creative process can be lightning fast or snail slow and I have no control over it.
How different is it to write a cookbook compared with a novel?
It's all storytelling; it's all a creative pursuit. Cooking is like writing a book. Both have ingredients, you cook them for so long and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't and you don't know why.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a family cookbook?
It's easy to write a family cookbook these days because there are many ways to get it published. I encourage them to do it. Right now it's hard to publish a book anywhere in New York but there are a lot of small presses that might work regionally.
How important are stories to cookbooks?
They were important to me. The food in my cookbook is the character and the main protagonist is the culture, or my family. I am telling their stories and their culture through food. I wanted the book to have that feeling of churchiness and come into my kitchen and have tea and I'll tell you all these crazy stories and then we'll eat.
Has writing the cookbook changed the way you approach a work of fiction?
When I wrote my first novel, it was on complete instinct. Now the further I get along, I begin to understand the mechanics of it. People love to meet new people in a story and the cookbook made me understand that. The book opened up that door to talk about (my Southern culture and heritage).
What surprised you most about being a cookbook author? Do people react differently to you?
Yes, there is a difference. As a novelist, you have readers who have fallen in love with your novels. You have this intimate experience because readers give their hearts to you. With Cracker Kitchen, outside of Florida especially, I've had to do a cold sell of what the culture means. I've had to till up new soil.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.