JAMESTOWN, R.I. — A Rhode Island author with two personalities came to Curiosity & Co. on Wednesday.
Jessica Olien — who’ll win you over with her adorable characters like the misunderstood pink deep-sea dweller “Blobfish” — and Jessa Maxwell, the writer of the locked-room mystery “The Golden Spoon,” where someone turns up dead.
That said, it wasn’t a surprise when it took about an hour for someone to pick up a knife and carve into the delectable blueberry buckle cake brought to life from her recent murder mystery. The cake was made by Lindsay Haigh at The Village Hearth, who was a contestant on Season 9 of FOX’s Master Chef.
No one at the Jamestown bookstore wound up dead though.
Instead, guests got an inside look into the brain of a writer and illustrator who took only three months to write her first novel for grown-ups.
Let’s start with the basics.
Her name actually is Jessica Olien, whose cartoons and illustrations have appeared in the New Yorker, Spiralbound, the Hairpin, and Condé Nast. She worked as a journalist and lived in Egypt, Thailand, and the Netherlands, according to her biography.
The Golden Spoon isn’t her first project aimed at a mature audience. She’s published articles in a number of publications that include Slate, Salon, Bust, Pacific Standard, The Atlantic, and others.
Olien is a jet-setter and obsessed with looking at pictures of corgis.
But the fun-loving side of Olien has a darker personality interested in mysteries, murders, and cooking.
That person is Jessa Maxwell, the pen name Olien uses for her newest novel. It’s also the name of her grandma, which she borrowed to differentiate herself from her kid’s book line.
She wrote “The Golden Spoon” while self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic — a scary time, but also an opportunity for Maxwell to take flight.
“I wrote the novel in three-and-a-half months,” Maxwell told a crowd gathered upstairs at Curious & Co. “If I didn’t write the novel I would have gone and buried my head. This was my chance to write a novel and my family was very supportive.”
She dove into the book, writing at a freakishly fast pace.
According to Medium’s guide for new novelists, “there are two types of writers of novels: plotters and pantsers.”
Plotters carefully outline their story; Pantsers (like Stephen King) let their pen loose on the page.
Olien said she is somewhere in the middle.
“I knew where I was going with the book, but I didn’t know how I would get there,” she said. “I would push ahead and fall back and get rid of 10,000 words, then push ahead again. I’ll probably always be that way.
“I didn’t know who was going to do the murder. I knew who the murderee was, but not the murderer.”
The book didn’t initially jump onto shelves. Olien hired a second agent to help sell it.
“My literary agent actually did not like it,” she said. “I had to find a new agent (Alexandra Machinist) and I got this really great one. She turned around and sold the book. It was like the dream. I had an auction for the book, I think six publishing houses were interested in it.”
A couple of weeks later, Olien had another auction for the television rights.
“It was really like when you’re writing, what you fantasize about happening,” she said. “It was like that. It was really special.”
In an exclusive report in February 2022, Deadline.com said the online streaming giant is working on turning Olien’s “darkly comic mystery” into a limited series, produced by the creator of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” creator, Aline Brosh McKenna.
“The Golden Spoon” revolves around six contestants participating in a bake-off at a “leafy and imposing” Vermont mansion in a fictional city that is the home of celebrated baker and perfectionist Betsy Martin.
“As the baking competition commences, things begin to go awry,” according to notes from the bookseller. “At first, it’s merely sabotage — sugar replaced with salt, a burner turned to high — but when a body is discovered, everyone is a suspect.”
Each character is deliberate and reviews have praised Olien for broaching the subjects of ageism and sexism.
The book begins with a handy press release (at least for us journalists) that gives you all the nuts and bolts to follow along.
Stella Velasquez is a former journalist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., (just like Olien); Hanna Severson is an Eden Lake, Minn., who is the pride and joy of the local diner; Gerald Baptiste is a Bronx, N.Y., man who’s a math teacher and makes “highly scientific” baked goods; Pradyumna Das is the CEO of an app that finds free parking spots; Lottie Byrne is a retired registered nurse from Kingston, R.I., with an impressive collection of mixing bowls, and Peter Gellar is a Woodsville, N.H., man who builds homes and delicious treats for his husband, Olien writes.
“Every time a new chapter started there would be a new point of view, it moves the story forward in time,” said Olien, who told the Globe she wanted the characters to see through the eyes of their own expertise. “You don’t see the same time period in two characters’ eyes.”
Nearly all of the book is written in the first person and present tense; however, the part about “Bake Week” host Betsy is written in the third person. She isn’t included in the book’s press release but Olien writes about her in the prologue.
Olien said it is because the host of “Bake Week” is a figure of authority.
“It gives you distance and allows you to look at all the contestants,” Olien said. “Writing in the present tense — it’s a trend. ... It’s really fun imagining something happening as it’s happening. You’re immediately in the character.”
Olien had some inspiration from the “Great British Baking Show”, a 10-week baking competition involving amateur cooks. There are six seasons available on Netflix. She watched “a lot” of it. Her husband, Tim, joined for two seasons.
She’s also a fan of Netflix’s “Knives Out” and Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” both mystery/comedies.
“The thing with that show (Great British Baking Show) is you get to know all the characters really well,” Olien said. “You root for all of them and get to know their background. There’s always a couple of them who are deeply annoying. You want them to get kicked off.”
Or in Olien’s book, found dead.
There is no sequel planned for the book, which received three-star reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal, but Olien said she left room for another installation.
“I’ve always wanted to do like kind of a closed-room-style mystery,” Olien said. “I fantasized about doing that for a long time and using multiple perspectives, and I just thought it’d be such a fun thing to do. I’m very grateful that I pulled it off.”
Carlos Muñoz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ReadCarlos and on Instagram @Carlosbrknews.