Photo by Stephanie Ewens Photography
Jessa Maxwell seems poised to take the world by cake with her clever and entertaining debut The Golden Spoon. Combining a bucolic country manor setting, a myriad cast of colorful characters, a culinary bent, a dark and stormy night, and plenty of pop culture savvy with a dash of timely commentary on ambition, sexism, and ageism, Maxwell's murder mystery has something to satisfy many tastes.
Maxwell, pseudonym of writer and illustrator Jessica Olien, shares with Mystery Scene reflections on her experience writing her first novel (during a pandemic no less), as well as what is next for her as The Golden Spoon hits shelves and (soon) the small screen as a limited Hulu miniseries.
And of course, we couldn't let the author go without asking her to contribute a recipe for our "Recipes & Reading" series. Click the image below for the recipe to Maxwell's World's Best Blueberry Buckle.
Mystery Scene: For the fun of it, say The Golden Spoon was a metaphoric literary bake. What kind of treat is it and what are your recipe’s ingredients (influences/inspirations/themes)?
Jessa Maxwell: Hmmm, The Golden Spoon is a multilayered confection with a lot of character, a dash of heart, all sealed within a fondant of mystery!
The story is told through multiple points of view belonging to the characters Betsy, Stella, Hannah, Gerald, Pradyumna, Lottie, and Peter—all of whom (except Betsy, the host of the show) have come to Grafton Manor to compete on the streaming service Flixer’s feel-good food competition show Bake Week (a la The Great British Bake Off). Each person is quite different, but who was easiest to write and why? And conversely, who was the most challenging to bring to life on the page?
I loved writing all of the characters, but I think Pradyumna and Betsy, who are possibly the most different from me, were the easiest and most fun for me to imagine. Stella, the character closest to me in age and personality was the hardest to fill in. That seems pretty typical for me I’m discovering. The closer to me a character is, the harder to write!
In addition to a novelist, you are a journalist, cartoonist, and children’s book author. In 2020, The New York Times ran your comic “The Pressures of Pandemic Cooking,” about how being home and having time and looking for new ways to comfort and share fed (and challenged) us. Were you a pandemic cook? Perhaps a pandemic novel writer? Both?
I wrote The Golden Spoon in the summer of 2021, so we’d been pretty deep into the pandemic by then. I do think the quiet and isolation made for an easier time concentrating. I loved to bake and cook before the pandemic, but I definitely improved during, spending far more time looking at recipes and venturing outside of my comfort zone with new foods. While I was writing that summer I loved to take breaks and go on field trips to NYC’s Eataly to buy ingredients for new recipes I was trying.
It felt as if a lot of care was put into deciding what each contestant was going to bake at each stage of the competition, both in terms of the authenticity of the recipe and the personality it was matched to. What was your own relationship with baking before writing The Golden Spoon and what kind of research did you undertake for the book?
I honestly did very little research aside from googling a few technical terms related to camera equipment! I think having watched a lot of baking shows in the past I had filled in the blanks in my imagination already. I’m lucky that what I wrote ended up being pretty accurate and there wasn’t much need to change things!
There is a purposeful decision in The Golden Spoon to hold back both who the murder victim is, as well as who the culprit is, until nearly the end of the novel. Was this a device you had in mind from the very start? If not, how did the narrative take form over the course of your writing?
Yes, I love this device in both books and on-screen. White Lotus did it recently and it was fun to imagine who would end up dead and who would snap over the course of the show. I knew the victim in The Golden Spoon pretty quickly, but it took me a little longer to decide who was capable of murder.
Get the recipe for Jessa Maxwell's World's Best Blueberry Buckle created by Julia Rutland.
Some of the themes you explore through the story include ageism and sexism—in society and in the workplace—both as microagressions, but also as blatant manipulation or harassment of women. Have you had to deal with these issues? What are the conversations you hope to spark?
Thank you for asking; the issues that come up in the book mean a lot to me. I think most women have had to deal with some form of sexism and we certainly are all victims of ageism. There is really no escaping that. As someone who was ambitious, I had trouble finding mentors who were actually being purely helpful when I was young. There is often a predatory element. I think (hope) that as more women come into positions of power that kind of imbalance will be less. I think the “me too” movement was an important moment. I hope ageism is addressed directly soon as well.
You once tweeted “I need some sort of debutante ball to reintroduce myself to society.” In a sort of cosmic parallel synchronicity to some of your characters' career journeys in the book, The Golden Spoon has been picked up by streaming service Hulu for development as a limited series with showrunner and producer Aline Brosh McKenna. Do you feel as if life is imitating art at all? How does it feel to have your debut novel take off so quickly and to be given this expanded platform?
I feel like it has happened over the course of quite a few years now actually! But yes, I have been very fortunate. It’s definitely every author’s dream to write a book quickly and have it sold at auction and also sell the film rights. But I try to recognize that the adrenaline from that kind of experience doesn’t last long. At the end of the day it is the writing that is most important and fulfilling to me. I am so eager to keep exploring new subjects and characters!
Our readers are always want to know: What reads are you enjoying from your nightstand (or shows/films from the screen or stage) right now?
Right now, the top of my nightstand has a copy of Bonfire of the Vanities folded open. I am also reading Anxious People and am excited to get a copy of the new Lisa Jewell. I adore her! I am watching Poker Face and loving it. It’s like a modern-day Murder, She Wrote!
And finally, though The Golden Spoon is just arriving, do you already have something else cooking, so to speak? More for fans of your work to be on the lookout for next?
Yes! I have several books in various stages and am currently trying to figure out which one to focus on first—whether I want to stick close to The Golden Spoon or if I want to venture into new territory.
Jessa Maxwell lives in Jamestown, Rhode Island, with her husband, two cats, and a three-legged dog. The Golden Spoon is her first novel.
3/15/2023 This article was edited to include Julia Rutland as the recipe author for the World's Best Blueberry Buckle.