There’s no doubt that Jill Marie Denton is what you could call a hustler, though she might prefer the term “Renaissance woman.” As a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef with her own personal catering and food delivery business, she already has a full plate, but that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing a writing career on the side.
You might be familiar with Jill’s writing already, given that she is BE. Magazine’s Resident Baker, a role for which she’s written a handful of columns on a multitude of common kitchen questions, from how to stick to a meal plan and save money on groceries to the real deal on organics and using them in your home.
In addition to her columns Jill is also a novelist, and recently published the first book in her new Second Saga, a series of 5 books following the women of rock band Second on their concert tours, side pursuits and romantic entanglements. The first book, Emmi’s Pride is available now and follows the band’s frontwoman, Emmi Vendetta, in her budding relationship with British actor Simon Pierce. All while exemplifying the word “hustle,” of course–in addition to managing the band, Emmi is the epitome of a Renaissance woman, pursuing interests in the legal and medical fields while scouting, signing, and mentoring a slew of hot new musical acts.
We spoke with Jill about the novel, what it takes to be a writer-slash-chef and how she balances her two careers.
Tell us a bit about you that we can’t find out from your byline.
Ah, the hardest subject for me to talk about! I’m a small-town, small-state girl who busted loose and moved to a big city at age seventeen. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer, a spiteful achiever at times, but fortunately I’ve had the wherewithal and gumption to actually finish what I start. After spending my twenties in transit, trying to figure out who I really was and where I was supposed to be, I ended up right where I’m supposed to be, back home in Delaware and engaged to the guy I wish I’d met fifteen years earlier.
Like so many of our generation, you’re a Jill of many trades (pardon the pun), a chef-slash-novelist. Which came first?
I made my first recipe at 8, but I wrote it down, so I guess both? Really, the pull toward food was a stronger, more guttural need, and writing was the release, the catharsis. They’ve always been in tandem. In middle school, I started writing short stories, poems and opinion articles for local newspapers. By high school, my tales grew into novel-length pieces, and I completed my first novel at 26. By then, I’d already accepted the managing pastry chef position at a local hotel and casino, so both loves have always been vying for attention.
Tell us a little bit about your business as a personal chef.
I cook for those who are unable to, or are just too busy to do so themselves. I also deliver to home or office. The first step is a free consultation, either in person or web chat, so you can see me and I can get to know your needs. I can’t exceed them if I don’t know them, and I want to make sure you get everything you pay for. Then we come up with a plan, whether it’s full-tilt, I-make-everything-you’ll-eat or I-supplement-what-you-make, and we go from there. In the past, I’ve cooked for elderly people with medical or dietary concerns, families facing time crunch, children whose parents work odd hours, and for companies who want their staff to have creative, well-thought-out catering. I also have a full-service, delivery bakery, and deliver to schools, so parents often use me to cater their kids’ birthday events.
Okay, now over to the writing side of your life. Your new book, Emmi’s Pride, is actually part of a series, the Second Saga, about a group of women in a rock and roll band, and their lives, interests and romances. Why did you decide to write a romance novel?
For the most part, my mind created stories more fanciful and metaphysical than romantic, but in 2013, a friend of mine gave me a Nora Roberts novel. I was familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t experienced a marriage of fantasy and romance like that before. The further I dove into her older books, the more I realized the need for women to experience passion in written form. It resonated with me on an emotional level.
Who are your other influences?
As a relatively new romance reader, my prior inspirations weren’t romantic in nature. I preferred classics and short stories growing up. I love Sherlock Holmes and all the TV and stories inspired by that type of suspenseful and smart storytelling. I also fell in love with Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut after being forced to read them in high school. I appreciate shorter chapters, ones that lead into the next, but still tell a concise and well-considered story in each. A little well-placed ironic or satirical humor also helps the story flow, and helps the reader “see themselves” in characters on paper. And to have a character face insurmountable odds and still make it out alive somehow, well… I think we can all relate to that.
How long did it take you to write, from start to finish, to editing? How did you plan out the plot?
Book One: Emmi’s Pride took about 6 weeks to write, and another 2 to edit and fine-tune. It happened very quickly once I had a rough idea of the character progression. The entire Saga, all 5 novels, took about a year and a half to assemble. There are “pantsers” and “plotters” in writing, and I’m a bit of both, meaning some of the plot was plotted ahead of time, but some was also “by the seat of my pants,” so to speak. I had rough outlines in mind, but as I began to write, the stories flowed, carrying me along for the ride. If I had the time, I wrote a little every day.
What did you draw on to create your characters? How did you make the decisions you made in developing each character, setting them in time and place, and so on?
These characters, the band members of Second, have been in my mind since high school. They’re loosely based on old friends of mine or aspects of my own personality. I think we all have multiple personalities, little nuances of character that even surprise us when they come to light, so creating characters with those elements of my own quasi-schizophrenia was liberating.
The character background development was the most challenging part of the pre-writing process. I knew Emmi, for example, was a very headstrong, intelligent and dutiful manager for their band. I also knew that family pressures pushed her to, spitefully, overcome her family’s expectations by finishing medical school and a law degree at a young age. Many of us can relate to overcoming expectations, and though it wasn’t easy for her to finish so much schooling so quickly, modern women rarely choose the simpler path. Second, and all members of it, have their side interests, whether they be medicine, fine art, yoga or travel, as real women would. They all share a love for rock music, they all worked hard over the years to achieve fame, and their paths all converge on London as they begin scouting and producing young talent as a means to one day “retire” from the limelight. And why London? Superficially and selfishly, I love the accent. Also, England’s always been a progressive scene for rock music and development.
Did you have to do a lot of research in order to write about the various interests of your characters, such as what it’s like to be on a concert tour, or filming a television show?
Absolutely. I’ve been a renaissance woman for a long time, and knew a little about a lot of things, but I had to spend hours a day researching all the work that goes into building a music career and all the side interests the girls dabble in. I had to learn about pediatric medicine to better construct Deis’ story in the third novel, I had to understand impressionism to better explain Rai’s love of art in the second book, and detailing the exhausting process of marketing and promoting as either musician or actor required a lot of digging. Fortunately, the more I learned, the more I found to write about, and the faster the novel construction progressed.
What was the biggest challenge of writing a novel?
Ugh, can we talk about writer’s block? I don’t think anything’s more frustrating than knowing where a story’s going, but not be able to get there, even with an outline, spelunker’s helmet and Sherpa guide. I had to walk away a few times, regroup, reread the first chapters, and resign myself to just “type through it.” The more I talked about the characters and storyline to my fiancé, the more inspiration I found, also. I think many of us have to make difficult decisions and progress without being confident, and talking through it helps. This was no different.
Many romance novels get flak for relying on stereotypes or out-of-date archetypes for characters. Your main characters are all very strong, unique, independent women. Did you make this choice consciously? Did the media, feminism, etc. have any influence on you as you made decisions for your characters?
When I started reading romance, I realized something very quickly, especially in books written fifteen or more years ago. Even the “strong” female protagonists still needed the male counterpart either financially or emotionally. While I think we women understand the draw of a physical or emotional romance, it was a little insulting to see single moms and “career women” falling for these arrogant, long-haired cavaliers for flimsy and antiquated reasons. It’s insulting to both women and men to be pigeon-holed like that. Modern men try to grapple with our need of independence and we write them like white knights, giving readers a false sense of their intentions. I left home at seventeen, graduated with my Associates just after my nineteenth birthday, and have a Master’s degree and my own business. I’m surrounded by contemporaries who’ve also graduated college, have their own belongings and goals for themselves. I couldn’t, in good conscience, place a self-reliant, confident and career-focused woman with some suave, bravado-driven frat guy. And if the male antagonist didn’t add to the female lead’s life in some way, other than just as a sex partner, she’d move on for greener pastures. Modern women don’t have time for games. So a little feminism is certainly in there, but mainly, it’s just my being a modern woman rubbing off of the page. And if I’m the only romance writer taking on the challenge of pairing modern women with modern men, and tackling interracial coupling (as I do in Book Two), so be it. As Amelia Earhart once said, “Never do things others can do and will do, if there are things others cannot do or will not do.”
What can we expect from the rest of the books in the Second Saga?
Emmi’s Pride sets the tone for the series, but also serves as an intro to the other band members. Each of the following books focuses on another member, and their past, present and future as a musician and woman. They lived their twenties together as sisters, constantly on the road together and learning about each other, but now they get to focus on themselves in their thirties.
Do you have any advice for budding novelists?
Please, dear God, just write. Don’t worry about who’ll eventually read it, who’ll eventually be your agent, or what everyone’s going to think. Nothing destroys creativity faster than advice. Write, write like the wind, and leave the marketing and promotion for afterward.
A tougher subject, for certain. For as many advocates of culinary school there are, there are detractors. I will say, though, if you’re seriously considering becoming a chef and not just a line cook at a chain place, do 2 things as soon as possible. One, call a culinary school or community college and ask for a tour. Culinary education is not cheap, and it’s especially expensive at universities and private institutions like the one I attended. It’s important that you see and experience the education you’d be paying for, and while you’re there, talk to the students currently enrolled. Are they working the industry yet? How do they feel about the level of education they’re receiving, and if they know former graduates, where are they working? Nothing worse than graduating school with $40,000 in school loans and only finding work in quick service. Don’t fall into the trap of paying more for education on the assumption that you’ll make more when you’re done. Two, call your local restaurant, the one that’s not a chain and that has entrees in the $20-$35 price range. Ask, nicely, if you can meet with the chef, see the kitchen, or observe during service. Once you see that it’s not so glamorous, you might change your mind. Also, ask the chef and the owner of that place how they feel about hiring graduates from that program you visited in Step 1. You might be surprised by the answer!
You’re obviously a hard worker, running your business, writing on the side. How do you balance it all?
If I didn’t love it all, I wouldn’t be doing it. That’s the best I can figure. I get tired, I sleep. I get inspired, I write. I’m fortunate to be in a good place in my life after years of abusive relationships, unnecessary compromise, and sidestepping my passions. Now I get to enjoy them all, and I find time for them all because I do. I stand back, in awe, of working mothers who somehow raise children, make deadlines, put on makeup and manage themselves without falling apart. Women are so much stronger than we give ourselves credit for, and I hope to keep featuring strong women in my novels to encourage the next generation to never underestimate themselves or settle for less than contentment.
Also don’t forget to check out her new book, Emmi’s Pride, and her Resident Baker columns here on BE. Magazine. If you have any questions for Jill, on food, cooking, writing or anything else, leave a comment or use #askjillmarie on social media!