What was your inspiration for the book?
In the spring of 2009 my then eight year old daughter brought home a Ziploc bag of Amish Friendship Bread starter. My initial response had been a shake of the head—the starter looked so unappetizing that I couldn’t see how it would be worth doing. But as I read through the instructions, I became intrigued, and by the time I tasted the bread, I was hooked. As I was finishing the last piece, I saw a woman in my mind who was reluctantly holding up a bag of the starter, regarding it with a frown. I didn’t know where she had gotten the starter but one thing was clear—she was enveloped in sadness, stuck in the day-to-day motions that mimicked life when in fact she hadn’t felt alive in years. I knew right then that I wanted to find out more, and I started writing that night.
What is Amish Friendship Bread? Is it really Amish?
Amish Friendship Bread is a cinnamon-sugar cake-like bread made from a sourdough starter that’s shared and passed along from friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor, coworker to coworker. The first documented appearance of Amish Friendship Bread was in the early 1990’s when a Girl Scout troop sent a letter almost identical to the one that circulates today (the leader of that troop actually contacted a couple years after my book was out). To my knowledge no one has been able to definitively determine if it originated from the Amish (one of the key ingredients is a box of instant pudding, so I’ll let you be the judge). Amish Friendship Bread is less about the actual recipe and more about sharing and community, key principles often associated with the Amish, which is why I think it bears that name.
Tell us about the “Six Degrees of Friendship Bread.”
Whenever people tell me they’ve never heard of Amish Friendship Bread, my response is always, “I’ll bet I can find someone within six degrees of separation [the concept that everyone is six steps away from any other person on Earth] who has received the starter or baked the bread.” And I always do.
Some people call Amish Friendship Bread a culinary or viral chain letter. Can you tell us about that?
When you receive a bag of starter, the instructions tell you how to care for the starter and then, on Day Ten, divide it and give three bags to three friends, saving one for yourself. Theoretically, if everyone you gave it to did the same thing, after five rounds there would be 1,024 bags of starter floating around out there. After ten rounds, there would be 1,048,576 bags. And after twenty rounds, 1,099,511,627,776 bags (yes, that’s over one trillion). It’s exponential growth—and on top of that, each bag of starter makes two loaves of bread! Of course not everyone chooses to bake or pass on the starter, but imagine what it would be like if everyone did (wait, I did that, didn’t I?). And while it is like a chain letter, the good news is that even though the instructions tell you to pass it on, there’s no threat or negative consequence if you don’t.
Give us a taste of Friendship Bread and some of the characters you created to tell this story. Who was your favorite, who did you connect with the most?
I have a tenderness for the scenes where Julia Evarts can’t get out of bed or where her husband Mark is fumbling with a broken token of love. It makes my heart ache when I see Julia’s sister, Livvy, going about her life so earnestly but also with so much fragility that I’m worried she might break. I’m grateful that Madeline Davis, owner of the tea salon, gives cellist Hannah Wang de Brisay a book that changes her life. Edie Gallagher sometimes shouldn’t speak her mind, but I’m glad (most of the time) that she does. I’m cheering for Connie Colls, from the Avalon Wash and Dry, that she might find her way in the world. I had a lot of fun writing the anecdotal characters, the people from the town of Avalon whose lives were touched by the bread, and I do have to say that Gloria, the psychic, makes me laugh, and I’m charmed by Double A, the biker who bakes. This my roundabout, duck-the-question way of saying that, as a mother and author, I don’t play favorites—I love them all.
As a mother of three children, was it difficult to write about Julia’s relationship with her son?
When I first started writing the novel, I didn’t know about Josh. When the story started to unfold, I felt a shock and sadness as if I were hearing the news from a friend—I experienced a kind of disbelief, a how-could-this-happen sort of response. I did think about my kids during this time, but as a writer I had to keep writing and follow the story to the end because I wanted to know if Julia would be okay.
Do you think a single act—such as baking for a loved one—can really have the kind of ripple effect you write about in the novel? Is it possible for one person to be able to bring together an entire community like Julia does?
Absolutely. Granted, I am of the “anything is possible” mindset, but I think history has shown that a single person can make a big difference. In the case of Julia, it was never her intention to play the role she did. She just did something that felt good and wanted to share it, as did Madeline and Hannah, and so on and so forth.
Do you still bake friendship bread? What are some of your favorite recipes?
I bake Amish Friendship Bread about twice a month. I’m always experimenting with new ways to use the starter in recipes, and I have virtual kitchen assistants who help me test and tweak recipes through my website, the Friendship Bread Kitchen (www.friendshipbreadkitchen.com). There are many sweet bread variations (lemon poppyseed, zucchini chocolate chip, butterscotch, and apple spice to name a few), and you can make biscuits and pancakes, too. The cranberry-walnut-flax is one of my favorite recipes for muffins, and we just came up with an amazing recipe for a chocolate cherry almond Amish Friendship Bread. But the basic recipe that comes with the starter is the simplest and the best.
How do you find the time to write as a mom of three young children—whom you homeschool?
I write whenever I can, as often as I can, and I never force it unless I’m on deadline. I’ve discovered that I’m a better writer because I’m a busy parent—I don’t have the luxury of writer’s block. When I was single with no kids, I took a whole year off to write and in the end, even with an agent agreement in hand, I couldn’t cross the finish line. My husband Darrin is a big reason I’m able to pull it all off—he knows how important writing is to me, and he does everything he can to support me by being with the kids when he’s not working or letting me sleep in when I’ve been writing all night.
My next novel, The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society, which is also set in the town of Avalon, Illinois. The heart of the novel is about how we honor and celebrate the memories that matter most in our lives, through the help of our family and friends. Readers will recognize some of their favorite characters from Friendship Bread, and meet new ones, too. Oh, and there’s also a goat!