First time novelist Sabrina Elkins reminisces about writing her first sex scenes and the path that led her from those giggle-inducing tales to the steamy culinary love affair between Cami and Julian in Stir Me Up.
Zola:Stir Me Up is infused with culinary finesse—from main character Camille’s relationship with her French chef father to the way she copes with emotion, cooking is everywhere in the novel. What experience helped you dream, or rather, ‘cook up’ such gourmet dishes in your writing?
Sabrina Elkins: The first thing I knew about Stir Me Up was that I wanted the main character to be an aspiring chef. I’ve always loved everything to do with food and cooking, my mother’s baking is unreal, and I’ve actually had a few jobs in the culinary industry, typing up recipes and menus for chefs at a five-star hotel, and also working briefly as a prep cook for Spago in Beverly Hills. It’s a passion I have, and a hobby, professional kitchens are fantastic places, and the dishes in the novel are just a part of me. They came out organically. Writing this element of the book was incredibly fun for me. Seriously, like a party.
For Cami, food is an all-encompassing part of her life. It’s how she relates to her father, it represents her future, and it’s also how she tends to express her feelings for people. Throughout the course of the story, she feeds or cooks for almost everyone, particularly for Julian. As her feelings for him alter and deepen, the dishes she makes for him grow increasingly sensual, until ultimately, she finds herself lost in the creation of this rich and velvety soup, which she makes just for him and brings him late one night. He awakens, drowsy from falling asleep at his desk, and pulls the spoon from her hand to try it. As soon as this happens, we know the first kiss is only a matter of time.
Zola: Are the recipes included at the end of the novel of your own creation?
SE: I really loved my editor’s idea to have a few of the recipes included as a free bonus at the end of the novel. I’m even more excited to hear people have actually started making and enjoying these recipes and the ones on my website. I did create all of them, though not all in the same way. The muffin recipe is developed and adapted from several recipes that have been passed down through my family for generations. The midnight soup was created under the advisement of an executive chef friend of mine. I actually wrote that scene with an imagined recipe at first and then had to go back and change the language so that it matched up with the real dish.
Zola: After a career in newspapers and copywriting for film, you’ve made your literary debut with this novel. But on your website, you mention that it all began when you wrote romantic stories for your friends on how they would get together with the boys they were crushing on. When did you decide to take your storytelling to the next level? Do you still have those original stories?
SE: Ha ha. No, I don’t have those stories any more. But I do remember how I wrote about the sex. I was way too young to have any knowledge of this subject whatsoever, had never been kissed and hadn’t read anything more than kissing in a novel ever. So, when it came to the all-important hot part, I just said, “Then he warmed me outside… and inside.” My friends adored this line. It had to appear in every story. And it would send them into fits of giggles every time.
Seriously though, it took a long time for me to find the confidence to try to write a novel for publication. It took many compliments from the employers and editors I worked for to help me start to think it might be possible. Ultimately, I decided to walk away from full-time reporting and pursue a career as an author after caring for a close relative who died suddenly and unexpectedly. I realized then that time was limited, and whether I met with success or failure, I had to pursue what I really, truly wanted without delay.
Zola: Camille’s eventual love interest, Julian, is an ex-marine who was seriously wounded in an IED in Afghanistan. How did you make Julian’s military storyline so realistic? What kind of research did it require?
SE: First, thank you for the compliment; I’m glad to hear you feel Julian’s recovery was handled in a realistic manner. This aspect of the novel was of paramount importance to me. My goals were to portray Julian’s situation as accurately, and also hopefully as sensitively as possible.
Accomplishing this to the level where my editor and I were both satisfied required many stages of research. Initially, I handled it much as you’d handle a research paper – by reading books, watching documentaries and finding academic and news articles online. I had many long discussions about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) with my sister, who is a professor with an expertise in the area of trauma. Also, a military expert who is a friend of mine aided me in outlining the process of what would actually happen to Julian from a military perspective.
Additionally, there were a handful of other people I spoke to repeatedly about Julian’s condition, including a psychologist who specializes in intimacy and rehabilitation issues for amputees, a physical therapist who works with amputees, and the aunt of an amputee vet who had experienced a situation very similar to Julian’s. Their insights were invaluable to me. But even with the help of these and other experts, it still took me a very long time, really up until the final revision, to gain what I feel is any sort of true understanding of the emotional aspects of Julian’s recovery.
Zola: A main source of conflict in the novel occurs between Camille and her father, who desperately wants her to attend college though all she wants to do is become a chef. As the mother of three, what is your take on reconciling the desire for your children to follow their dreams with the hope that they continue on to higher education?
SE: My goal in writing the character of Christophe Broussard, Cami’s father, was to portray a man who was fully three-dimensional, who started work at a very young age, because he had to, and while being highly driven and satisfied with his success, does wish for more options to be available to his daughter. As a parent, I do sympathize with Cami’s father’s reaction. There’s no denying the hard work and long hours that come with his profession.
In terms of my own life, I was brought up to believe that being successful meant going to college. But as an adult, I’ve come to see this isn’t necessarily the case. I know many highly successful professionals, artists, authors, and business owners who never went to college. I know others who’ve gone to a prestigious college only to wind up taking a menial job they don’t like. I think the key thing for me for my children, and also the fundamental desire Chris has for his daughter, is to have them see a career as more than just a means to an end. Of course I want my children to be successful and have happy, prosperous lives. But beyond this, so much time is spent in a career; my more profound hope is that their professions are ones that also offer them a degree of personal fulfillment.
Zola:Stir Me Up seems to fit perfectly into the emerging genre of New Adult Romance—stories that feature characters ages 18-26 and commonly thought of as a bridge between YA and contemporary romance. With this novel already successfully published, do you have plans to continue exploring this genre?
SE: New Adult definitely seems to be an emerging market now, and one I find fascinating. I love characters who are in their late teens and early twenties, as this is the time when everything about adulthood and independence is fresh, intimate relationships are starting to mature, and goals for the future are beginning to develop. I don’t want to pin myself to a certain genre, as my tastes and ideas for books run the gamut from early readers to adult contemporary. For now, however, I do like this age range and think it offers a lot of potential.
Zola: Before writing your debut, were you always interested in romance novels? Are there any romances or novels of other genres that inspired you to try your hand at the craft?
SE: I’ve always loved romance novels and novels with highly romantic themes. They are my favorite to read, and I’ve always known any novel I’d write would be highly romantic. That being said, there really isn’t a single book or author that inspires me. Rather, it’s more like a lifetime of reading and admiring novels of all kinds has led me to the point where when I turn to express myself, it’s in terms of a love story.
Different works influence me for different reasons, and these span many genres. In children’s literature, the books I think are most beautiful include Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows and To Kill a Mockingbird. In contemporary YA, I’m most affected by John Green, Katie McGarry, and Tammara Webber. I like several bestselling authors in YA paranormal and dystopian, and think Hunger Games is exceptional. On the adult end of the spectrum, I deeply admire Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway and Michael Cunningham. For sensuality, I’ve studied the works of Anaïs Nin and poet Pablo Neruda. I’m also in long-standing love with titles by David Guterson, Caleb Carr, Amy Tan, John Irving, Abraham Verghese, Per Petterson, Audrey Niffenegger and Anne Tyler. Authors and writing professors Hubert Selby, Jr. and Ron Carlson have been pivotal to me as well.
Stir Me Up: Apple Muffins with Cinnamon Swirl and Streusel Topping
WARNING: These muffins have a tendency—when hurled at guys—to make them fall in love with you.
INGREDIENTS FOR MUFFIN BASE:
2 cups flour, all-purpose unbleached
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt)
1 tsp. vanilla
2/3 c. sugar
1/2 cup (8 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, melted
INGREDIENTS FOR FILLING:
1 jumbo apple, peeled and diced or sliced
2 Tbsp. cinnamon sugar
INGREDIENTS FOR STREUSEL TOPPING:
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. butter, room temperature
1/8 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray entire top and insides of muffin tin with generous coating of non-stick cooking spray.
Make muffins: cream butter and sugar together, then add vanilla and eggs as it continues to mix. Set this bowl of wet ingredients aside. Then, in a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients. Blend wet and dry ingredients together. Hand mixing is preferred.
Each muffin tin will eventually be 3/4 filled with batter. Place half this amount of muffin batter into each tin. Then add apples and cinnamon sugar to each tin, pressing gently. Top this with remaining batter until each is 3/4 full. Use a butter knife to spread batter evenly. The idea is to get the apples in the middle.
Make streusel: Once your butter is fully at room temperature and very soft, mix ingredients for the streusel together with a fork until fine and crumbly. Add some crumbs to the top of each muffin and press down very gently with the tips of your fingers so they adhere.
Bake until lightly browned, 12 to 14 minutes for regular sized muffins, 15-17 for jumbo muffins. Remove carefully from pan, using knife to loosen top and sides.
Makes a dozen regular or six jumbo muffins.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.