As a contestant on the reality cooking competition show “Chef’s Special,” Dahlia Woodson is looking to reinvent herself and find a new path forward. London Parker, the show’s first nonbinary contestant, has figured out who they are and wants to show the world what they can do. Dahlia and London’s chemistry is dynamic, and their cooking is delicious . . . but the course of love and reality TV never runs smoothly. We asked Anita Kelly, author of Love & Other Disasters, to share the secret sauce of their storytelling.
At multiple points in the book, Dahlia focuses on the building blocks of cooking—starting with something simple. Do you have an equivalent of that for writing? When you start with the basics of a story, what does that look like for you?
For me, stories always begin with characters. I usually think of one main character and a problem they’re struggling with, and then it’s like, all right, who are they going to meet who’s going to help them keep moving? Who’s going to tell them they’re OK? I can never start a story until I know my people.
Both London’s sister, Julie, and Dahlia’s brother, Hank, are fantastic characters. Was that close sibling dynamic something you wanted to explore? Do you have a sibling or friend who fits in that category?
I have always been so drawn to siblings as important parts of stories. I grew up with two older siblings of my own, along with a ton of cousins who were all very close in their own sibling dynamics. I also watched how close my parents were with their siblings. So it probably has been ingrained in me from personal experience. But it’s also just this idea of someone who is literally with you your entire life (if you’re lucky), who has to love you through every single one of your embarrassing, confusing stages.
It was also important to me, since both Dahlia and London have struggles with their parents, that they still had a solid family foundation through their siblings. Someone who would still have their backs, like you said, no matter what. Someone who could remind them they were loved and had a soft place to land back home, even when their Los Angeles lives got complicated.
While filming “Chef’s Special” in LA, Dahlia spends a lot of time thinking about “LA Dahlia” and how she’s different from the person she’s been at home. Was that something you wanted to tap into, how coming to a new place and breaking out of our routines can open us up to new things?
LA Dahlia was probably the most personal part of this book, when I think about it. I grew up in a small town on the East Coast, and as an angsty teen, I used to fantasize about breaking out and escaping to California, which seemed like the epitome of romance and adventure and freedom. I was that weirdo who spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas instead of . . . anything else I should have been listening to as a ’90s kid. Anyway, I have been able to travel quite a bit since my teenage years and will always have wanderlust in my bones, but LA still seems particularly magical to me. I think the idea of LA Dahlia was probably me manifesting my deepest teenage desires.
LA Dahlia is, of course, the same person as Maryland Dahlia, the same person as Massachusetts Dahlia. They all matter, and they are all her. But allowing ourselves to dream big, to live out untold versions of ourselves, is something that traveling to a new place can absolutely help unlock.
Dahlia and London compare notes on their chosen comfort foods. Is your own favorite comfort food hidden in their answers?
Funnily enough, not really. For London, I have to give credit to my brother-in-law, who really knows food. I am, in fact, not much of a foodie at all, and when I was just starting to draft this book, I asked him what he would consider a great meal. I can’t remember what his full answer was, but he was super enthusiastic about how much he loves just browning up a bunch of Brussels sprouts with a ton of butter, and I was like, now there’s something I would never do. But London Parker would.
For me, anything involving cheese or ice cream is my comfort spot. If it’s covered in cheese, I will eat it. And especially during the pandemic, I have gone through, like, multiple cartons of Ben & Jerry’s a week and am not ashamed. If I ever develop an intolerance to lactose, I will need a lot of emotional support.
In all seriousness, though, I think love should feel a lot like comfort food, which is probably why I put such emphasis on it in this story. A healthy relationship and our favorite foods are both deeply personal and full of reliable joy.
Often in romance novels, the sex is idealized—perfect bodies, perfect synchronicity, sweeping waves of passion with nothing messy or awkward or unsure. But in one of their very first sexual encounters, Dahlia argues for the importance of recognizing her and London’s individual imperfections. What went into making that choice?
I could talk about this topic for a long time, but painting sex—and bodies—as imperfect and messy and funny is one of the most important parts of writing romance to me. Because that’s what sex is! Bodies and sex are so freaking weird! Sex can be all of those things—messy and funny and imperfect—and it can be sensual and serious and hot.
Of course, I am as much of a sucker in my own romance reading life for toned bodies, hunky muscles and magically perfect sex as anyone. And I’ve written some of that, too. Seriously, I am always down for beautiful people really knowing how to please their partners. But I think it’s not only more honest but also simply more interesting to write about the more diverse realities of bodies and sex. The more we normalize talking through sex, laughing through sex and doing whatever the hell wewant during sex (with consent), the better our relationships with our bodies, our partners and our sexualities will be. I do think there’s more imperfect sex these days in romance, along with more inclusion of characters on the asexual spectrum as well, which is great.
It was really important to me to get the sex in this book right. I wanted to have on-page sex with a nonbinary character to show that even people with complicated relationships with their bodies and identities can still have great sex, while still being respectful of London’s autonomy. I can’t profess to have gotten it perfect, and if any other nonbinary or trans folks out there have feedback about how I could do it better next time, my ears are always open.
Cooking is a lifeline for Dahlia, and it’s something she leaned into during a difficult period in her life. Does cooking have that same significance for you?
For sure. I am only physically able to cook when I am doing mentally OK. Like, to have the energy and the focus to make a full-ass meal for myself? Whenever it happens (and during the pandemic, it has not been often), I know I’m doing OK. And I always feel really, really proud of myself. Even if it’s only something simple.
Dahlia needs that feeling, of feeling proud of herself, of feeling in control of something. And she can only find that, in the beginning of the book, through cooking. I am not actually a great chef, but I do deeply understand that feeling. Writing is similar; I can only do it when my brain is working right. Each meal, each page written, is an accomplishment to be proud of.
I love how Dahlia and her brother use top 10 lists to combat the sads, such as Top 10 “Lizzie McGuire” episodes and Top 10 cheeses. I’m going to boldly assume that this is a personal tradition of yours, and if so, what is the craziest top 10 list you’ve ever come up with?
OK, I am sad to say top 10 lists are not a regular part of my life these days, but I am a staunch supporter of a good list, and once upon a time, I did have a journal that I dedicated solely to list-making. I lived in Boston at the time, and “Favorite Things I’ve Seen While Riding the T” was probably my favorite list in it. If you’ve ever ridden the T, you get it.
There’s a deeply personal and moving scene in which London sees messages of support and thanks on their social media accounts for the representation they offer. Does that mirror your own experience with readers’ responses to your stories?
Readers have mentioned that section as being particularly moving, and when I read it now, I agree. But it’s funny because writing those messages was so hard when I first drafted this book. I was cringing the whole time I typed them out, like oh my god, this is so cheesy, help. There’s something difficult about accepting simple, genuine kindness and support. We have all been so hardened. But I’m glad I forced myself to write them. Because you can find simple, genuine kindness and support, even on the internet. You just have to force yourself past all the trash fires to let yourself accept it.
I’m no London Parker—I would never survive on reality television—but I have been incredibly humbled and moved by the response to this book. People have mentioned it being the first book they read with a nonbinary character, and I actually love when people mention that it took them a while to get used to reading they/them pronouns for London, but that by the end, they got the hang of it. Because for a lot of people, that’s an honest experience! And the only way to normalize something is to have access to it. I am by no means the first romance author to write a nonbinary character, but it still feels like a privilege to be able to provide that first experience on the page for some people, to show the importance of getting even more gender-diverse stories out there.
Something else I’ve heard that’s made me think a lot is gratitude from people who might be cisgender but are in relationships with nonbinary or trans or gender-nonconforming people. That it’s comforting to see a relationship similar to their own in a romance, to see both themselves and the people they love depicted on the page. Whoever you are, it means something to actually see your own experiences, or even something close to them, in the medium that you love.
I also love, of course, when Dahlia’s storyline hits with people—that desire to want something different and meaningful for yourself but not knowing quite how to find it—because I think that’s a part of so many of us. Overall, I was so anxious to put this book out there—you often only imagine the very worst criticisms that you know you could receive—and the response so far has meant more than I could ever possibly express.
Author photo by Anita Kelly.