One of the perks of judging the Shirley You Jest humor book contest is that I get to talk to a few of the winners.
Author J.W. Bull (that’s her over to the left) won first place in the LOL Fiction category. We discussed her book Pickin’ Tomatoes, which is about a single, 40-year-old, jobless new mother named Maggie who enters a food writing contest (even though she is not a food writer), somehow manages to win and launches into a whole new life.
Here’s how one very biased Amazon reviewer described Pickin’ Tomatoes:
“I bought this book hoping it would be awful. You see Pickin Tomatoes is up against my book in the finals of the Shirley You Jest Book Awards. Within the first few pages I was sorely disappointed. Not only was this book not awful – it was really, really good. The words flowed across the pages – funny and witty, the story dragged me into its soul – captivating and touching, and the (sic) protaganist, Maggy Malone, touched my heart making me laugh and even cry.”
In addition to being an author, Bull, whose real name is Jennifer, is a violinist in The Georgia Symphony and a wife and mother.
JD: Your book about a woman who won a writing contest has won a writing contest. Are you now wishing you had written a book about a woman who receives a large inheritance from a distant relation?
JWB: Actually, I wish I had written a book five years ago about a woman who receives a large inheritance from a distant relation. Inheriting money during the Bush years versus inheriting money during the Obama years…hmm…
JD: I am nodding in sober agreement. What was the inspiration for Pickin’ Tomatoes?
JWB: In 2006, I was looking at a paperback in a grocery store and I thought to myself, “This is crap; I can write better than this.”
I had no inspiration beyond that really, just the need to best the drivel in the grocery store. I sat down, came up with an idea for a middle-aged woman reinventing herself, began typing, and the book, The Chef of Hearts was born. Many years later (umpteenth rewrites, a multitude of gnawed cuticles, and two agents come and gone), I hired an editor and The Chef of Hearts grew into Pickin’ Tomatoes. I renamed the book Pickin’ Tomatoes because it was a random, different title and people might be intrigued to read it.
JD: You’re married. How did you and your tomato pick each other?
JWB: First of all, to clarify to all my friends, family members and violin student parents, my husband is definitely an heirloom tomato–not a roaming roma tomato like Maggie’s husband, Richard. You don’t know how many comments I get about that. Hello, people, this is what writers do, they make up stuff. It’s called creativity. Second of all, as to how we picked each other–Curtis and I met at Furman University his freshman year, my sophomore year. We both had signed up for a mentoring program, and I was his big sister. We’ve now been together for 26 years and married for 22 years. He’s my best friend, my better half, my soul mate. Can’t get better than that. Unless of course, he’s on the golf course, and then he’s on my shit list. Just kidding…OK, maybe not.
JD: This book probably made you an expert on tomatoes. What’s the big deal with heirloom tomatoes? They look scary, and they’re more expensive, which is why I never buy them. I want to love heirloom tomatoes, Jennifer. Help me love heirloom tomatoes.
JWB: Heirloom tomatoes are uglier, tastier and more reliable than other tomatoes. The way I see it is, those pretty tomatoes that you gravitate towards in the produce aisle are pretty yes, and cheaper yes, but they have zippo flavor. It’s not the looks that count, it’s what’s inside. With tomatoes and soul mates.
JD: In addition to writing, you play in the Georgia Symphony. Do you have any funny symphony orchestra stories you like to tell at parties?
JWB: My all-time favorite story took place a couple of years ago. You’ll read a variation of it in my next book, Musical Chairs. We were in a particularly delicate, exposed section of the piece and the violins were playing tremolo while the rest of the orchestra was quiet. Now for all you non-musicians, tremolo is an effect that sounds almost like trembling. (See below.)
On the violin, you achieve it by rapidly repeating the note over and over at the tip or the top of the bow. So there we were, at the tip of the bow, tremoloing–that’s not a word but it should be)–and the guy sitting right behind me had a malfunction with his violin. His bridge, which holds up the strings, snapped with a loud, echoing pop, shot out of his violin and propelled across the stage. Now, as a musician, you have to be prepared for anything happening. Grandma can be out in the audience hacking up her lungs, junior can be having a meltdown tear fest, or a cell phone can go off, blasting The Baha Men singing “Who Let the Dogs Out.” But you never let it get to you. The show must go on. So when this violin malfunction occurred behind me, I reacted with the utmost aplomb. My bow screeched to a halt, careened off my violin, and I crouched down in my chair, convinced there was a sniper taking shots at us. But the show did indeed go on. The guy with the broken violin quietly slipped out a side door. I sat up, put my bow on the string and once again began tremoloing as if nothing had happened. Granted, at that point I was tremoloing mentally, physically, and musically, but I am nothing if not professional.
JD: Ha. You handled it better than I would have. What are the similarities between writing fiction and playing symphonic music?
JWB: They are both forms of expression, as is cooking. And in all three forms of expression, I tend to get in the zone, blocking out everything else. All I hear is my music unfolding, all I see is my story developing, and all I taste is my cooking progressing. If I had to be honest though, the biggest difference between all three forms of expression is my comfort zone. Writing and cooking come easily to me. Violin performing does not. I have to work at it, and I also have to deal with my nerves. I get very nervous playing the violin in front of people and continually fight with my inner demons. But hands down, on a good day, when all the planets are in line and my inner demons are quieted, there’s nothing like playing in a symphony. It’s a slice of heaven.
JD: Do you write with an audience in mind? I don’t mean kowtowing to an audience. I mean, “I think this group of people would enjoy this book I am writing and oh, by the way, that’s the kind of thing a publisher will definitely want to hear”?
JWB: I wrote Pickin’ Tomatoes with middle-aged women in mind. You always read chick lit stories about a young women–and there’s nothing wrong with that. Musical Chairs is about a woman in her 20s. I wanted to target women my own age–40-something, give or take seven years…ouch.
JD: Which humor writers do you enjoy reading?
JWB: I like Janet Evanovich. Her voice is quirky like mine.
JD: Tell me about your next book, “Musical Chairs.”
JWB: Musical Chairs is a mystery involving Maggie’s cousin, Molly Malone –a plucky part-time symphony player and full-time Irish fiddler. The book has musical quotes at the beginning of each chapter, just like Pickin’ Tomatoes has culinary quotes, and the story is divided into four parts that correspond with the movements of Dvorak’s New World Symphony:
1. Adagio-Allegro Molto
3. Schertzo: Molto Vivace
4. Allegro con Fuoco
At the end of the symphony, the end of the story, the murder is solved.
I want to do for classical music what multiple authors have done for gourmet food: make it fun and interesting for mass market. If I can convey my love for music and make people laugh I will have found my niche in writing. Plus, I even have a slogan: Musical mysteries…notably funny. Kind of catchy, huh?
JD: Love it. And thanks for name-checking Dvorak’s New World Symphony in this interview. That’s definitely a first for this site. Good luck!
Check out: Pickin’ Tomatoes on Amazon