Book editor-turned-author Lisa Graff’s sixth middle school novel, A Tangle of Knots (Philomel, 2012), which debuts next month, incorporates an unusual feature: a range of carefully selected cake recipes that help illuminate the various traits of its key characters. School Library Journal spoke with Graff about this unique idea, the baking skills she honed for months while writing the book, and what’s next on her to-do list.
Can you tell us about your new book, A Tangle of Knots, and how it came about?
A Tangle of Knots takes place in a slightly magical version of our world, where most everyone has a special talent—something he or she is uniquely gifted at, often to a supernatural degree. The main character, eleven-year-old Cady, has a talent for cake baking: she can bake the absolute perfect cake for any person she meets. When Cady moves into an upstairs bedroom of the town’s Lost Luggage Emporium, she encounters several different characters with a wide array of talents, and discovers that her fate is intricately linked to each of theirs.
This was a book that came about by degrees. Several years ago I saw a feature on a television show about the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama— which buys lost luggage from airports and bus depots and resells it to the public—and something sparked. I knew I wanted to set a story in a similar venue, because I loved the idea of an entire warehouse full of unclaimed belongings—so many hopes and dreams lost and resold. There was something really compelling about that to me. But the story itself was a long time coming. I kept having an image of a young girl opening up a powder blue suitcase, searching for something, but I simply couldn’t figure out what. When I finally landed on the notion that perhaps it was the suitcase that was searching for the girl, well, then I knew I was getting somewhere. The story became a fantasy, and things flowed very quickly from there.
The book has a wide cast of characters, many of whom have special talents. What would you claim as your special talent?
I am unnaturally skilled at packing suitcases. Honestly. I could fit an elephant in a duffle bag if called upon.
Adoption plays a role in this book, when you were writing this book did you think about your readers who may be adopted?
I did and didn’t. With all of my books, I always try to strike a balance between events that will excite and surprise a reader, and emotional discoveries that will feel truthful. Since A Tangle of Knots takes place in a fantastical world, Cady’s adoption story is pretty far out of the realm of what I am imagine most adopted children today experience (she begins the book as the sole child in a “Home for Lost Girls”). That said, Cady does grapple with anxieties of where she’s come from, and where she belongs in the world, which I think are issues that most of us, adopted or not, can relate to.
Your character Cady has a talent for cake baking and the book contains a number of actual cake recipes. Why include recipes?
I’ve always loved books that included recipes, or sprinkled asides that take you out of the action of the story for just a moment. Each Little Bird That Sings (Sandpiper, 2006) by Deborah Wiles springs to mind as a particularly lovely example. In my book, Cady is constantly thinking about the other characters in terms of what cakes they are, so I thought it might be nice for the readers to get a chance to see that, too. Each recipe in the book represents one of the nine key players in the story, whose personalities—spicy, zesty, sweet—are perfectly encapsulated in a cake.
All of the recipes in A Tangle of Knots are ones that you adapted especially for the book. Which is your favorite?
I tried out and adapted about 30 recipes over the course of six months, to land on the nine final recipes that appear in the book. All of the cakes are delicious, of course, but my favorite is probably the garlic cake. I’m particularly proud of that one because it was entirely my own creation—I knew I wanted to include a recipe for a cake that sounded disgusting, but actually tasted quite delicious. So I tinkered with some old recipes I found, and came up with this garlic cake. It’s savory instead of sweet, and amazingly tasty. It’s made with garlic and Parmesan and a dash of pepper, and it tastes incredible with stewed tomatoes or a good chili.
A video on your website shows you baking one of the cakes in a tiny New York City kitchen. Did you actually bake all the cakes there? Did you have any help?
That video was actually filmed in my friend’s Brooklyn kitchen, which is about twice the size of mine, if you can believe it. I did bake most of the cakes in my own tiny kitchen, and I was constantly inviting friends to help me. There were a couple months where I was averaging two cakes a week, so mostly I needed volunteers to help me eat it all! Embarking on an epic cake-baking experiment is a good way to make friends, I’ll say that much.
The book definitely has a magical air but is set in Poughkeepsie, NY, my hometown. How did that come about? Did any places or buildings from Poughkeepsie inspire you?
I’m originally from a small mountain town in Southern California, and when I moved to New York City for graduate school I didn’t know a living soul. So when Thanksgiving rolled around that first year I was invited to spend the holiday with my stepmother’s extended family, who I’d only met twice before that. They live just outside of Poughkeepsie, and for a small-town girl who’d recently been thrust into the big city, that first trip up on the train was quite literally a breath of fresh air. There were trees, and water, and deer! I guess the place really did feel a little magical, being both so near the city and so similar to the home I’d come from. When I began writing this book and was looking for a semi-fantastical location in which to set it, I remembered pulling into the train station on that first Thanksgiving, and I knew Poughkeepsie would be a perfect fit for the story.
What are your favorite fantasy books?
Growing up I always enjoyed fantasy books that kept one foot in the real world. Roald Dahl’s Matilda (Penguin, 1988) was a huge favorite when I was a kid. Since then I’ve expanded my fantasy vocabulary a bit, but I still tend to shy away from the really “high fantasy.” These days I find that beautiful writing draws me in more than anything else. I love, love, love The Lost Conspiracy (HarperCollins, 2009) by Frances Hardinge, and also Fly by Night (HarperCollins, 2005) and its sequel. I could gobble up anything that woman writes. I’m also quickly becoming a big Kristin Cashore fan. Bitterblue is next on my list.
Who is Ilsa Neal?
Isla Neal is my not-so-secret alter-ego, who—along with co-author Martin Leicht—writes The Ever-Expanding Universe series, a humorous sci-fi girl-power romp for teens. The first novel in the series, Mothership (S&S, 2012), came out this past summer. The series is very different from the middle-grade books I typically work on, both in tone and content, and I’ve had a blast doing it.
What are you currently working on?
Right now Martin and I are hard at work on the third and final book in the EEU series (the second book, A Stranger Thing, is finished and comes out this November). And I’m just dipping my toes into the waters of a new middle-grade novel, tentatively entitled Dummy, about a ten-year-old Manhattanite struggling with a particularly difficult year at school.