Ruth Reichl draws on Gourmet as novel inspiration

Ruth Reichl
Ruth Reichl
Lynne Sladky / AP

Associated Press

For years, fans have been telling Ruth Reichl that they love her novels. Problem was, she hadn’t written any.

Reichl, author of two best-selling memoirs and the former editor-in-chief of the now shuttered Gourmet magazine, finally won’t have to correct her readers in May, when her first novel, Delicious!, is published.

“I can’t imagine a life without fiction, it’s sort of the thing that keeps me together,” she said in an interview Saturday at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. “And I always said, if I didn’t have a day job I would write a novel, and then suddenly I didn’t have a day job.”

That abrupt switch came in 2009, when Conde Nast closed the nearly 70-year-old Gourmet, blaming the weak economy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel’s plot also features the end of a venerable food magazine, but it is not autobiographical.

Instead, it follows a protagonist Reichl calls “the anti-Ruth,” a young woman named Billie hired at the magazine just before it closed and who stumbles upon a collection of mysterious letters hidden in its library. The letters, written by a plucky 12-year-old name Lulu to legendary chef James Beard during World War II, came to Reichl in a vision when she returned to Gourmet weeks after it closed to clean out her office and took a last look at the library.

“I just had this sudden inspiration of what if I had opened this [door] and it had been this fabulous, magical library, and what if I had found these letters?” she said. “That’s why it’s set there but it’s really not about the magazine.”

The true tale of Gourmet will be in one of Reichl’s future memoirs, she said, but first she is finishing up a combination memoir and cookbook based on her Twitter feed. And she is starting a new novel, putting into practice what she learned while writing her first.

“People would say, ‘Oh, your memoirs read like novels, you'll have no trouble writing fiction,’ but I had to learn to write fiction,” she said.

While the Lulu character and her letters were easy to write, building the rest of the novel around them was not, she said.

“I essentially had to write a book and throw it out,” she said. “The thing I didn’t know was that I needed to know all the back story of all my characters, but my readers didn’t really need to know all that.”

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