Interview with KJ Dell’Antonia, Author of The Chicken Sisters

“There’s just something about being in a place where what matters most is right in front of you.”

That’s one of my favorite lines from KJ Dell’Antonia’s warm, funny, and enveloping novel, The Chicken Sisters. It’s something we all need to hear sometimes—even when we’re not two sisters embroiled in a reality TV show about rival fried chicken restaurants.

Mae and Amanda grew up in a tiny Kansas town that’s serious about chicken: the rivalry between two chicken shacks goes back three generations. Their mother still runs Mimi’s, while Amanda married into Frannie’s—and she’s been banned from Mimi’s ever since. Mae fled the coop (sorry, can’t resist) and built a life in Brooklyn that’s tidy and perfect, at least on social media. When the reality TV show Food Wars pits the chicken restaurants and the sisters against each other, Mae and Amanda have to figure out what they really want, and what they’ll do to get it.

The Chicken Sisters is full of family, secrets, and TV personalities, which is enough to make it a must read, but it’s also about accepting what makes us who we are, even when it’s messy, and being open to what comes next, even if we don’t always know what that means.

KJ and I first talked back in June when the book was supposed to hit shelves, then, like so many plot twists this year, it was pushed back to December. It turns out this story is exactly what we need right now: comfort food in paperback form. If you don’t believe me, just ask Reese Witherspoon! Or the New York Times bestseller list on which it debuted last week.

Sara Shukla: You managed to have a book launch party, 2020 style, at Still North Books in Hanover, New Hampshire. For all of us dreaming of being inside a bookstore again, how did it feel? How did you coordinate it?

KJ Dell’Antonia: We did, which was so great. There were never more than a couple people there at once, because there’s not supposed to be, but it was still really exciting to do something in person. I took my dog, and I took my son. I had a Google doc, and you had to say you hadn’t left our state, and do the COVID form, and what time.

We were super masked, and everybody bought more books, besides mine, so it was good for the bookstore. It was between three and six, so it was getting darker as we were in there, and there was just this warm glow feeling to it.

Huge congrats on being selected as Reese’s Book Club pick for December! How did you find out?

We were sitting around, the whole fam, watching Brooklyn Nine-nine as you do when you’re all at home together and need a little Andy Samberg, when my phone rang.⁠

My phone never rings. ⁠It was my editor.⁠ My editor never calls.⁠ I, of course, it being #2020, assumed the worst. “Oh, no,” I even said. I answered the phone, everyone staring at me, dead sure she was going to say they were terribly sorry, but what with the way things were they just couldn’t publish the book at all.⁠

Instead she shrieked “this is the best phone call I’ve ever got to make”! And we all shrieked and there was wild celebration and champagne.⁠

It was like that! I did not know my book was a contender. I assumed they’d sent it to her, because you can bet she gets ALL THE BOOKS, but I don’t know how it made its way to the top of the pile. It’s just magic. She picks the books, it’s not a publisher thing or marketing or anything. It’s just her, and she liked it, and that makes me feel wonderful.

You’re from Kansas. The book is set, well, not exactly in a “suburb of Kansas City” as Mae tells people in New York. Marinac is more like an outpost. Still, I’m currently obsessed with Ted Lasso, and I have to know if you’ve seen it.

I love Ted Lasso! Ted Lasso is the best.

Yes! Thank you. Now back to Kansas. So many of us have this push-pull dynamic about where we’re from—I know I do. Our past shapes us, yet we don’t want it to define us. Was it liberating to write about two characters’ journey in this, to explore through fiction these feelings that so many of us have?

Oh absolutely, because you can personify them in different people, which is really nice. It was nice to find an outlet for my deep and abiding frustration for The Wizard of Oz. To put that in a character’s mouth felt really good. None of it is exactly how I feel, but it’s all things I either have felt, or have seen people feel, or can imagine feeling, so it was really nice to sort of set up both sides of it: the wanting to stay, the wanting to go, the wanting to come back, to have a way to fit them all into something.

And it was really fun to create. I mean, I grew up in a great place. I was frustrated with it at the time, but in theory we all should be. It was really fun to show the Kansas that I experienced. You know, people have some really rigid views about Kansas, especially now, with the political situation and everything having been so ugly. It was nice to be able to create and show some of the appeal, some of the great things about a place.

You edited and wrote for the New York Times Motherlode blog for five years, and you published the nonfiction book How to be a Happier Parent in 2018. Writing essays can be more instantly gratifying—and lower stakes—whereas a novel requires so much grit and faith that all the work you’re putting in will maybe, one day, hopefully be worth it. Once you committed to writing a novel, was it hard to change course and run the marathon? (Ahem, asking for a “friend.”)

I think I kind of had run out of essays. I just wrote so much in that format that I struggle to do it now. Every so often I’ll come up with one or a couple will sort of roll up, but I think I boiled all that. Because I had that habit of always siting down, because I had that day job with all the deadlines, sitting down to do the work wasn’t that hard. Not getting the sort of immediate gratification of having people read it, and people respond, that was definitely a change. And I kind of got around that by talking to my writer friends: “got this much done today! Did this, did this…”

Once I had this sort of massive, unwieldy draft, I did a lot of reading up on story, and analyzing the books that I liked, and I could tell that there was good stuff in there, but that it was messy. So I was trying to figure it out myself, and a wonderful—she calls herself a book coach but I call her a developmental editor, because I think that’s more descriptive to people—dropped into my life. Somebody introduced us, then she was going to be on the podcast, and the whole time I was thinking, “I would never work with someone on the guts of the book, because then is it really your book?”

And the more I listened to what she did I was like, hmm, maybe this is a really good idea. Maybe I should do this. And I did, and it was the best thing ever. It probably saved me a year.

It also created a little community around my book—just her and me, but somebody I could talk to, somebody to whom I could be like, “Well, would Amanda really do it this way? Or how would Mae be feeling at this moment?” It was huge. And it’s still absolutely my book.

I love that. In my writing group we talk about how revelatory it was to read each other’s full drafts for workshop then go the bar afterwards—remember bars? We’d talk about these characters who had only lived in our heads like they were real people. It was so affirming.

Yes! And it’s good practice because that is how your readers will see and feel them. And it felt very weird to do that, at the beginning. It felt like, well, they’re not real! I mean, I made them up. But the more I did it, the more solid they became, and that helped the work. It helped the characters to evolve, and it also just changes your feeling about the weight of what you’re doing.

Did that help you reach into their backstories more? We not only learn who these characters are but why. In your process, was that something you had to sort of flesh out as you wrote, or did you know the characters first?   

I think I’ve always done that to some extent—had imaginary characters that had a massive backstory. That’s something I did as a kid. But I also think as a journalist, it’s super fact heavy. So creating this world of facts about the characters—not like what their favorite color is, but why they would behave in a certain way—was because otherwise you can’t be sure they actually would. You can’t have somebody make a dramatic choice or dramatic decision unless you really believe that’s why they would have actually done it.

I’ve been binging your podcast, and it feels like hanging out with writing friends, something I dearly miss doing in person. What do you get out of it as a podcaster?  

I get a set date with one or two best friends, depending on who’s doing what, pretty much every week. That why we started it, Jess and I, to make sure we talked. We get to reach out to authors that we would like to talk to, and ask the questions that we would like to ask. We absolutely ask people that we are fans of, and that has been super fun. And giving people the community of writers that we have found so helpful feels really great. It’s really fun for us to have an ongoing project that ties us together too. We get a lot out of it.

I want to note—with no spoilers—that I loved the ending of your book. There’s that adage “end the story where you want readers to imagine it continuing…” There’s momentum right up to that last page, and there’s a final moment, but in my head the characters keep going.

I am guilty of having written an epilogue, which I’m going to put out into the world in a week or so. People did want a little more, to know what happened, so I did write a tiny epilogue.

I’ll take more!

And you can sign up for KJ’s email list here to find out what happens.

KJ Dell’Antonia is the former editor of the Motherlode and still sometimes contributor to the New York Times. She is the author of the book How To Be A Happier Parent, as well as the instant New York Times bestseller and Reese’s Book Club Pick, The Chicken Sisters. She co-hosts the weekly #AmWriting podcast with Jessica Lahey and Sarina Bowen, and her Instagram is an excellent source for what you might want to read next.  

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