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When Amy York leaves for college, her dad sends her along with some practical advice about men, namely that they fall into one of three categories: forks, knives, or spoons. Amy takes his advice to heart, and soon the Utensil Classification System gains popularity – a dating guide for Amy and her friends as they navigate college relationships and beyond. With warmth, humor, and insight, author Leah DeCesare takes readers on a nostalgic coming of age journey where a group of young women learn about love and loss, hope and heartbreak, and most of all, about themselves. I am so pleased to welcome Leah DeCesare to BCB today to discuss her debut fiction novel, Forks, Knives, and Spoons.
Tabitha Lord: Where did you come up with the idea for the Utensil Classification System? Was it something you made up specifically to anchor the story, or was it a piece of good advice you received as a young woman?
Leah DeCesare: The initial inspiration came from my father. I’ve carried the central idea of this book with me since 1988 when my dad sent me off to college with the advice that my character, Amy York’s, dad sends her off to Syracuse University with: There are three types of guys: forks, knives, and spoons. That tidbit was true and when I shared this system with my college friends it took off, with everyone adding descriptions for new utensils and talking as if it were an understood concept, for example, “I met this complete fork last night.”
That idea sat with me for decades, but there was no story around it, so when I finally sat to write this book, I had to build the characters and their arcs and let the Utensil Classification System (the UCS) become a backdrop and an organizing idea serving the characters and their growth. In the end, I had a story about friendship and learning to believe in oneself.
TL: Amy, one of the protagonists in the story, clings rigidly to the classification system, only to find that it’s blinded her somewhat to the red flags in her relationship with her boyfriend. Conversely, her best friend Veronica, who is amused by the system but skeptical, comes to embrace it by the end of the story. Can you talk a little about the girls’ journey to enlightenment with regard to their romantic relationships, and how their understanding of “the right guy” evolves with experience over time?
LD: I feel that finding the right partner in love and life is often a matter of learning about ourselves first. It’s about being confident enough to reject a guy, even if they express an interest in us, even if it seems practical. Amy was so committed to her father and his system that she missed signs and ignored warnings from friends. While his intent was to guide her, she still needed to learn more about guys and herself in order to better apply her father’s lesson. Veronica’s struggle was with image and social perceptions and her desire to live more authentically. She had to stretch outside of her parents’ expectations and find the courage to stand up for what she wanted, but she had to examine her own judgements and insecurities first.
Both of their journeys required them, each in their own way and circumstances, to believe in themselves, to find that inner strength and confidence to do what they knew was right for them. Believing in themselves opened them to trust their hearts and make better decisions romantically.
The Utensil Classification System becomes a tool to help them understand the opposite sex and navigate dating and love. In labeling guys and defining types, they work to figure out their own likes and dislikes, their own needs and wants in a relationship.
TL: One of my favorite things about this book is how nostalgic I felt while reading it. Coming of age in the 80’s myself, it was like a walk down memory lane. From the pay phones to the music, I found myself smiling fondly. Why did you choose to set the story in the 80’s and 90’s rather than today or even ten years ago?
LD: It was a conscious choice to set Forks, Knives, and Spoons in the late eighties into the early nineties for a few reasons. First, it’s a period I know and could realistically convey the college culture at that time, but I also wanted to show some timeless truths about growing up, coming of age, and seeking love despite cell phones and technologies. If it were set in present day, some of the incidents could have unfolded differently – or not at all. Certainly, today, handwritten letters and phone calls on the hall payphone are extinct, and finding someone in a crowd outside at a fire drill or at a party is easy by comparison.
I mistakenly thought it would be “easy” to write a period I had lived, but it took a lot more research than I expected. I had to be sure not to have anything out of chronological order, for example, my editor found that a Sega video game I mentioned in the book was in the right year, but my characters were playing it in April when it didn’t actually come out until September that year. I changed it! But I found it really fun, myself, to revisit old fashions and music, and to return to a time pre-Internet and pre-Always-Accessible.
TL: While they didn’t take up many pages, some of the minor characters in the book were quite memorable and vividly portrayed. Do you have a favorite? If so, who and why?
LD: I have a soft spot in my heart for Ian, Veronica’s friend from home. He’s just a guy I want to confide in and have as a friend. I also loved writing the scenes of Joey’s Italian family gatherings, I still laugh reading them, and the characters who pop in and out there feel like family. I hadn’t intended to write a sequel, but I’ve been getting a lot of requests so I am starting to think about these characters in the next phase of their lives. It will be fun to revisit them and dive a little deeper into some of the more minor characters in a second book, perhaps.
TL: I loved Joey’s family! Those scenes reminded me of my own Sunday dinners at grandma’s! Let’s talk about you and your writing career for a minute. Your Naked Parenting books are non-fiction, but you ventured into fiction with Forks, Knives, and Spoons. Can you talk a little about how these experiences were similar and how they were different?
LD: It was actually a surprise that my first book was nonfiction! I’ve always wanted to write novels, since I was very young I’ve written fiction. I even sent the first five chapters of a story to one of the major publishing houses in New York when I was in fifth grade.
The Naked Parenting series stemmed from my work as a doula and birth and early parenting educator as well as from my Mother’s Circle blog which I’d been writing since 2010. Because I was immersed in that world, Naked Parenting became my first published book instead of the novel I’d always expected would be my first.
In so many ways they are vastly different writing and creative experiences. I found writing the parenting books much more straightforward; a much easier process. Writing a novel is like solving a puzzle. There are so many moving parts to keep track of, so many details and timelines and story arcs. If you change one things, you need to sift back through and change that thread throughout a 100,000 word document. Writing the parenting books was more like writing longer, linked blog posts, it was more linear and logical, still creative and fun, but it has the goal of imparting knowledge, of sharing information in an accessible way, while fiction writing feels more wide-open to me. I find fiction writing to be harder, especially for a full length novel. It was so satisfying to tell what I hope is an entertaining story, but also to share some truths about coming of age, about finding true love. Fiction involves character development and story arcs, human interactions and dialog, it’s about creating tension, managing pace, strategically revealing backstory and leaving hints along the way. It’s an invigorating challenge.
TL: I know from our previous conversations that you are one busy woman, juggling many different projects and managing most aspects of your publishing career. How do you balance the different kinds of work, organize your days, and hold space open for creativity?
LD: Busy is the way most of us roll these days, isn’t it? I feel busy but not stressed and I think that is part of the balancing act though I don’t always succeed at balancing everything. There are things I wish I’d gotten to, or time that slipped away, wasted on something dumb, but I value getting good nutrition and good sleep and I never feel guilty about doing things for myself to feed my spirit. I make time to visit with friends, to play tennis, to read … to do things I enjoy and care about beyond writing, marketing and “work” stuff.
A big credit to my ability to balance everything is my extremely supportive husband — he’s my steak knife! He’s my best friend, a true partner in our marriage and in parenting and with us both working from home, we find ways to share the household and family stuff that work for both of us.
Another way I get tons done is because I kind of don’t care much about TV, I often feel like I’m missing out on pop culture references and good stories, but I simply don’t watch anything but a little news during breakfast and lunch. Not watching TV buys me a lot of time.
TL: What are you working on next? Can we get a little sneak peek?
LD: I’m working on my second novel, a story completely unrelated to Forks, Knives, and Spoons. It is set in the present day in the Stonington and Mystic, CT area about a doula, haunted by regret, who gets too close to one of the families she’s working with and crosses emotional and physical boundaries.
I’m still refining my elevator pitch, and of course lots can change through the editorial process, but I’ll try this version out here for you: “Being a doula is an intimate job, but things get too close with one family when Josie, grief-stricken and burdened with guilt over her son’s stillbirth, lets her desire to squelch her pain overshadow her morality. Justified by this client’s secrets she risks her sterling reputation before learning to forgive and be forgiven.”
TL: Sounds good to me! I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for chatting, Leah.
Leah DeCesare is the award-winning author of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS and the nonfiction parenting series NAKED PARENTING, based on her work as a doula, early parenting educator, and mom of three. Leah’s articles have been featured in The Huffington Post, the International Doula, and The Key, among others. In 2008, Leah co-founded the nonprofit Doulas of Rhode Island, and in 2013 she spearheaded the Campaign for Hope to build the Kampala Children’s Centre for Hope and Wellness in Uganda. In a past life, Leah worked in public relations and event planning. She now writes, teaches, and volunteers in Rhode Island where she lives with her family and their talking cockatiel. You can find her at www.LeahDeCesare.com.