The Book Nook: Interview with Amy Wallen

by Lori Walker
published in Reading

I love craft books and I love food. So when I saw How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies by Amy Wallen come across my desk, I just knew I had to investigate further. And what a treat! Not only does Amy provide fantastic advice, but the recipes she weaves throughout look super yummy. I was also pleasantly surprised that she included recipes for savory pies for those like me who don’t have much of a sweet-tooth.

Read on for this fantastic interview!

About Amy Wallen

Amy Wallen is the author of How To Write a Novel in 20 Pies: Sweet and Savory Tips for the Writing Life, the Los Angeles Times bestselling novel MoonPies and Movie Stars, and the memoir When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories

As writer-in-residence at Ocean Discovery Institute, Amy teaches personal storytelling to young people traditionally excluded from science due to race, income status, and educational opportunity. She also facilitates and co-teaches manuscript workshops in San Diego and France (at which she serves pie). For several years, Amy was associate director at the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and a novel writing instructor at UCSD and UCLA Extensions. 

She is also the creator of Savory Salons—literary salons with pie—a day of discourse with successful authors on the writing life, and the founder of DimeStories—three-minute stories told by the author and featured on NPR.

You can follow Amy on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

About How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies

Providing comfort food and inspiration for the aspiring novelist, How To Write a Novel in 20 Pies offers novelist and writing coach Amy Wallen’s insider secrets on living the writing life. Filled with chapters about writing, revising, submitting to an agent, and book promotion, this book combines Wallen’s experienced writing advice with the brilliant illustrations of Emil Wilson, including recipes for literary success and the full recipes for 20 sweet and savory pies.

As a novelist, memoirist, and associate director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute, Amy Wallen has a few things to say about the writing world, many of them irreverent and snarky. From her perspective as a teacher, mentor, and published author, her belief is that the way to survive the hard knocks of writing a book and trying to get published is to bust a gut working, laughing, and eating pie.

With chapters including “Oh Agent, Where Art Thou?”, “Revising, Rewriting, and Reimagining,” and “The Joy of Rejection,” Wallen balances out the challenging stages of the writing process with both sweet and savory goodness, featuring recipes for chocolate pecan pie, salmon and portobello pie, and the recipe for the best cherry pie ever.

Throughout the book, Wallen demystifies the vagaries of the publishing business, providing delicious recipes that will keep your belly full even when you’re staring at an empty page. Her writing advice is neatly paired with the brilliant illustrations of Emil Wilson, who shares her sharp wit, sardonic look at the demands of the writing life, and her mad love of pie. Combined, the stories, lessons, images, and recipes will provide encouragement and camaraderie for the novel-writing journey, from putting pen to page, to finding an agent, to celebrating publication—all with a piece of pie.

Interview with Amy Wallen

Lori Walker: First of all, I’d love to hear more about your journey to becoming a writer. How did you get your start? What was that magical moment you knew?

Amy Wallen: So many authors answer the same, but I’ve always written stories. When I was a child my family traveled around the world living in places like the Southern US, Africa, and South America. 

My first “book” was “self-published” (Scotch tape and Big Chief perforated tablet pages) when, at the age of 7, I wrote a few lines about each place we had lived, and I drew a picture of each place. Colored pencil was my medium. I suppose that was my first illustrated book. When I was 12, I wrote a book of short stories collected in a Snoopy spiral notebook for my brother for Christmas one year. 

But my start came later when I was asked to be a member of Janet Fitch’s writing group. For four years I drove to Los Angeles every two weeks for her read & critique group. She was one of my toughest and best teachers who I felt gave me the answers to all the questions about writing that I didn’t know I had. 

The magical moment when I knew I was truly a writer was when my first novel was published and when someone asked me how it felt, out of my mouth came, “I feel legitimate.” 

LW: You’ve written a novel. You’ve written a memoir. Now a craft book. Can you tell me a bit about why you’ve chosen to write in so many genres and how you pull it off?

AW: I’m not sure any of my books were a choice. I don’t mean to get woo-woo about the process, but each book happened by happenstance. 

The novel started when I was doing morning pages. I mostly journaled and one day was tired of complaining and meandering on and on about my woes. I was tired of listening to myself, so I took a character who I had created a few weeks before in a workshop and let her write my morning pages. And off we went. She started telling me her story, which I thought was going to be a short story, and 300 pages later was a novel. I’ve always thought of Ruby as the writer, and I was just the typist. 

My memoir happened because I went to grad school so I could get those letters after my name in order to get a teaching job. Since I had a novel published I decided I would study creative nonfiction instead and hone my ability to write essays. A lot like my first novel, I had one essay I was working on and 300 pages later it became my creative thesis and then my published memoir. Maybe I just don’t know when to put my pen down. 

This third book came to me while standing in front of my novel writing classes. All the students sit looking up at me as though I have the secrets to writing a novel. I figured that’s why they signed up for the class, so I wanted to share all my secrets. I took my class curriculum and personal stories I share in all my classes and put them together to encourage all writers that the secret is persevering. 

Writing my books and seeing them published has been living my dream. And, I wanted to help my students and other writers to live their own dreams. 

How did I pull off writing three different genres? I guess I pulled a Nike and Just Did It. I didn’t think about the fact that I was writing different genres until I got to the other side of them. I just keep writing what wants to come out. I just write. 

LW: What does a typical day of writing look like for you?

AW: Every day seems to be different. I love editing and revising as much as I love creating a new story, so when a story grabs me I can be at my seat for hours. But when the book throws up an obstacle, I find myself up and about more. I walk my dog more than she wants to go out, I ride my bike on every errand I can think of, and I make more pies. 

Sometimes, yes, this can be procrastination, but usually for me, it’s when I’m percolating ideas. I don’t walk with anyone but my dog because she doesn’t interrupt my thoughts, I don’t ride my bike with anyone else in tow, and making pies is pretty solitary, except for the eating part. 

Then, when I’ve got the book at a place where it needs polish and shine, I am at my desk for hours at a time again, and my bike tires go flat, my dog whines to go out, and my husband loses his pie belly. 

A typical day of writing starts first thing in the morning. Post-dog walk, I take a big jug of water and climb the stairs to my attic office, I open the work-in-progress document, reread the last couple of pages, and set to writing. 

I don’t write an outline, but I do make lots of lists and as my fingers move across the keyboard and my head thinks of what’s to come, I jot down notes of what I don’t want to forget to include. So, my desk is an utter rainbow of sticky notes of all my reminders-to-self. If my typing slows, I’ll scan the notes for what I wanted to make sure to include, and then I include it.   

I feel writing is a 24/7 job. Even when I’m at the grocery store I’m thinking about a story or ideas. 

LW: I love the unique decision to weave a craft book with one of the timeless procrastination methods, baking. I think for nonfiction writing, be it memoir, essay, or even this craft book, coming up with the structure can be difficult. Can you talk about how you came up with the structure?

AW: Procrastibaking. That’s the term I’ve heard a lot. I love the word, but not sure I believe procrastination is what I am always doing. I could very well be lying to myself, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But, I consider cleaning out my fridge as procrastinating, and pie baking is more of a meditation for me. It’s where my mind settles and I can revisit something that, prior to baking, I couldn’t figure out for the story. 

A lot of people, Mark Twain for one, and me, go for walks to let the story percolate or simmer, or what it feels like to me is that the scenes settle. Baking is where my ideas can finally settle rather than floating around inside my head not knowing where to fall. It’s like I leave my desk, and my ideas can find a seat as the music of musical chairs stops. But pie is twofold because it is also comfort food. 

Yes, structure can often be one of the hardest parts of writing a book-length manuscript. I think memoir may be the hardest to figure that out, but maybe that’s my own experience, or maybe the nature of the beast since it can be hard to determine what sets the story off on its trajectory, because it’s the specific story and situation we want to read/write about, not the chronology of the life (that would be autobiography). 

So, where does this story begin and/or end is a common question when writing memoir. Obviously, the author hasn’t died, so the life hasn’t ended but the story to be told needs to have an ending. That’s a part of the examination of what the writer wants and needs to tell. My memoir started in the middle and the story fanned out from there, but it took me a few drafts to figure that out. 

For this most recent book I naturally felt it should be structured in the order it takes to have an idea, write a solid book, find an agent, get a publishing deal, and have a book out in the world. Each of those require consistent persistence, and I wanted to help writers to keep going no matter how long it seems it takes to realize their aspirations and achievement of each of those steps. 

Of course, the order of the pies was another structure that had to lie parallel to the narrative about writing and publishing. The recipes and the personal essays that go with each recipe have an overall arc as well. The theme of the book is perseverance, and the recipes build in momentum and difficulty. I wouldn’t say any are difficult, but they do get fancier, because after all don’t each of the steps toward finishing and publishing deserve celebration pies?

LW: So, your title says “How to Write a Novel,” but you also include advice on writing memoir in this book. What are some of the similarities and differences between fiction and memoir?

AW: Yes, the title, like the rest of the book, is irreverent. The book tackles all types of creative writing, and it focuses on how to pursue the writing life. 

There are many differences and similarities between memoir and novels, but I’ll share a couple of my own personal experiences when switching genres from novel writing to memoir. 

One similarity in fiction and nonfiction is both have a main character in a particular situation, which sets the character off on a journey. All characters have wants and needs. 

One area where the two genres differ is the main character in a memoir has two voices—voice of experience and voice of innocence. The voice of experience is telling the story. The voice of innocence is to whom the story is happening. 

As a novelist, this was hard for me to get my head around. I could hear the little girl telling the story, me as a child. But I couldn’t figure out how to bring out the older, more experienced me examining the situation from a distance, from experience. 

It took me reading many memoirs and examining how others had done it, and the description in Fearless Confessions by Sue William Silverman. It wasn’t that I didn’t already analyze and think about my childhood and have an adult perspective, the difficulty for me was seamlessly allowing both voices to exist side-by-side in a scene on the same page. 

In fiction, this had always been a shift in point of view and worked either inside the point of view character, or from a more distant perspective within the same point of view. Eventually, it clicked for me, and I was able to not just tell the story of my peripatetic childhood, but could reveal how it made me who I was and who I am. 

Both genres need conflict, tension, suspense. And, both genres require the writer to use their imagination. Memoir is not just the transcript of a recording of your life. Memoir is a litany of memories, but memories come from our imagination and the “creative” part of creative nonfiction is how to put the story together, how the story develops. This is true of fiction as well. 

As mentioned above, the structure of a memoir, as in fiction, plays an important part. In fiction, this same building of the story is done by fully understanding the motivations of the characters. So, in some ways that’s what a fiction writer does as well—examines the whole of the character—how they got to be who they are now.

The best writing is when none of these building blocks and character developments are seen. We can just read the story and not think about whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, just that it’s a story that transports us to another experience by another human being.  

LW: How do you know when a nugget of an idea has the legs to become a full-fledged book or story? What is your process for getting it there?

AW: If a character in a story has much more to reveal than just what happens in one short story, then the writer should keep going. Every character has a want and a need. When these are resolved, then that’s when the story is complete. One story may turn into a novel because there is more to what the character needs to learn. 

If it’s just an idea about where a story might go, writers have different ways of testing it out. Some sit down and write it and see where it takes them. This is me—I write from the seat of my pants. Curiosity keeps me digging. If I am not curious after a few pages, I know the idea won’t intrigue anyone else. 

Others prepare an outline. This is a great way to see if the story can be plotted out. My third book was sold on proposal, so I wrote it after I got a book deal. But the chapter outline I wrote to sell the book were all chapters I was certain I could solve for X. I felt confident the trajectory had a beginning, middle, and THE END.

LW: What is one of the biggest mistakes that you see beginning writers make and how can they avoid it?

AW: Not writing from their gut. I’ve seen too many writers try to follow what they think is supposed to be done instead of reminding themselves of their own hopes and desires for the story. I’ve seen too many writers try to follow everything their writing group or early readers tell them to do. They end up confused about what they even meant the story to be in the first place. 

On the other hand, some writers only listen to their ego and don’t take any advice, and this also gets them no place but a book that is about one thing with very little depth. 

To sum up, beginning writers would do best if they took in advice, considered the source, their original intention, and how the two mesh. Can that scene that the group said to get rid of be rewritten from a different perspective? There’s a reason it was written in the first place. But listen to your gut. If it feels right to let it go, then hit Delete. 

LW: I want to know all about the illustrations! Why did you decide to use illustrations? What was the process of working with an illustrator like? How much creative control did you have? How did you collaborate with Emil Wilson on the artwork?

AW: I always saw this book as illustrated with whimsical characters. My friend Emil is mentioned in the book as a friend in our Janet Fitch group. We are both pie bakers and I knew his illustrations, so I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in collaborating. He was very much interested. I already knew our senses of humor connected, so that was no issue. 

I sent him my proposal and because he is an art director in advertising he was able to help put together one of the most top-notch proposals. My idea and narrative, along with his whimsy, set off to the agents and publishers hand in hand. 

As far as creative control, I wrote and he drew. I handed him what I had written and he always came up with something I loved. We meshed well. It was a partnership in creativity. 

I learned later that most writers have an illustrator assigned to them, but that wasn’t the case with this book, so I guess I was very lucky to know Emil would be a good fit.

LW: A lot of authors are creating playlists to accompany their books, but this being a reading column, I’d like to know what your “reading playlist” is. I know How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies is a craft book, so maybe what are some of the top books that you recommend to people?

AW: The first song I would want to go with this book is “I Can See Clearly Now” because this is a book on perseverance, on how to keep pushing through all the obstacles, riding over bumps, and going around detours in the writing life, from putting your pie butt in the chair all the way through to publication, and hopefully, by the end, the reader can see their path and at least know they can return to the book for more pushes and nudges and pie, that I’m there for them when the going gets tough.  

But you didn’t ask for songs, you asked for books. 

For me, what got my foot tapping was Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I got up and started to dance when I read Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write. 

To help my novel-writing students learn to boogie, I teach them the basic steps with The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. 

But to really jive and get down, we do exercises in What If? edited by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. We rock out and go deep inside our writing with Naming the World edited by Bret Anthony Johnston. 

For any wallflowers who come to my creative writing workshops, we work on stepping out with Now Write! books, both the fiction and nonfiction editions, edited by Sherry Ellis. 

Sue Silverman’s Fearless Confessions answered many questions for me about the voice of innocence vs voice of experience when writing my memoir, and it’s a wonderful waltz through the corridors of revealing truth and finding metaphor and beauty in moments of life. 

I also believe that one of the best dance partners to have is other books, not just how-to, but being the apprentice to the author of books one loves. The best way to learn the steps is to take the arms of someone else and follow what they do. Then learn how to lead. 

I love quirky off beat stories, and some of my all-time favorites that inspired my own were Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Greeley, and Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, and Claire DeWitt’s crime novels as I’m working on my next novel which is about a menopausal Nancy Drew, so I’m trying to figure out the crime/mystery drama. Here I go working on a whole new genre again, a whole new melody.

Lori Walker is the Operations Maven at DIY MFA. She is also the producer and co-host of DIY MFA Radio and editor-in-chief of, among other roles. Lori is a copyeditor for Amanda Filippelli and collaborating fellow for The Poetry Lab. She writes personal essays and memoir in Tulsa, where she lives with her husband and cat, Joan Didion. You can follow her on Instagram at @LoriTheWriter.

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