Bestselling author Beth Harbison tells the story of adorably flawed private chef Gemma Craig and her rocky path to true love in When in Doubt, Add Butter.
Finding love is a perennial theme in women’s fiction. How do you keep it fresh?
I sit down and try and figure out, what is this romance arc going to be? I just look at a different aspect of what happens when you fall in love. Because so much happens when you fall in love that if anyone tried to depict it exactly, I think you’d get into detail overload and no reader would be able to identify.
You have written fiction, cookbooks, and romance. How did that influence this book?
I’m a total foodie, and I did work as a private chef. That influenced Gemma as a character, because it’s “write what you know.” Unfortunately, I did not have a hot male client like Gemma’s Mr. Tuesday. I’ve always said that plotting is not my strongest suit—I’m much better at doing a slice of life.
Did you base any of the characters in the novel on people you know?
The picky eater was based on my best friend, who has severe allergies. Willa, the grossly overweight client, was sparked by a conversation with a friend of mine. When he was trying to lose weight, he would have a banana and plain yogurt for dinner. So I came up with a dish I put in the book: a shrimp scampi and a salad that was higher in protein and lower in calories than the banana and the yogurt.
In some ways, food seems to be a metaphor for life in this book.
It probably was a metaphor for food [laughs]. It wasn’t intended that way, but throughout history, food has been something that brings people together. You know, like when you’re having a party and everyone gathers in the kitchen. I do love butter, but if I have one overriding philosophy with cooking, it would be “when in doubt, add garlic.”
Fate is such a theme in this novel, especially the many near misses Gemma has with Mr. Tuesday. Do you believe in fate?
I do believe in fate. I met my first boyfriend because I failed out of seventh grade. That was the topic of last year’s book. Sometimes fate seems to me to be kind of heavy-handed. My best friend of 22 years died suddenly, and he loved baseball. Suddenly, everywhere I went, I heard “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
In some ways, Gemma is so brave, quitting a job for a riskier freelance career, for instance. In other ways, as with love, she isn’t as brave. How did you balance her two sides?
If someone is just bold about everything, they’re going to be boring and unrealistic; we all have strengths and weaknesses. I have much less fear about my career than I do about my personal life. That’s not to say I’m so brilliant, I’m going to be a bestseller forever. But I could work at Sephora if I needed to. But when I fall in love, all my eggs are in that basket. I’m not thinking, if this doesn’t work out, I can always go on Match.com. I’m all in.