Sure, we do a lot of interviews here with bakers and pastry chefs--but what about the other people who create sweet art that might not be edible? For instance, the cupcake novelist? Enter Heather Hepler, author of the newly released novel The Cupcake Queen, a sweet coming of age story featuring heroine Penny Lane (read the book for the explanation!), a high schooler who has recently been uprooted from New York City to move to a small town where her mother has decided to open a cupcake boutique. It's a delicious tale both literally and figuratively--let's discuss with the author, shall we?
CakeSpy: First off: what was the last baked good you ate (cupcake or otherwise)?
Heather Hepler: The last baked good I ate was a piece of homemade challah. I love baking bread, but my usual fare is usually dessert… cakes, pies, cookies, and of course cupcakes. But, I will tell you a secret. I have a hard time with cupcakes because it’s hard to have just a little more. I mean, with a cake or a pie, you can sneak a sliver more, but with cupcakes, you have to commit to a second cupcake. And suddenly you’re the “woman who ate two cupcakes”!
CS: Now that we've gotten that out of the way--please, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you get into writing novels?
HH: I’m from everywhere it seems. I’ve moved around a lot in my life. I spent most of my childhood in Texas, but I moved out west when I was sixteen. I then spent the next fifteen years bouncing along the West Coast (Nevada, Oregon, California, Alaska). I loved living near the mountains in Nevada and near the water in California and Oregon. Alaska was beautiful, but so cold. I then headed east – way east. I lived in a tiny town on the coast in Maine for several years. Now, I’m back in Texas. This is the longest I’ve lived in any one place since I was a child. I’m starting to feel the moving urge growing.
I start writing novels at the urging of a friend. I tried it for fun really, which was the best way. If I had thought then that someone might want to publish what I’d written someday, I would have probably frozen.
CS: In your novel, the heroine Penny and her mother move from NYC to a small town to open a cupcake shop. Why a cupcake shop?
HH: Other than the aforementioned issue, I love cupcakes. I love that they can be decorated so beautifully that they can only be called edible art, but I also love the ones you see at the elementary school bake sales with a splotch of icing and a dusting of sprinkles. I also loved the idea of a shop that only sold cupcakes, like it held them in such high regard that nothing else was needed. Of course I wrote this way before the recent cupcake boom. That my book came out in the middle of it is one of those life mysteries. Pure serendipity.
CS: I suspect that cupcakes may be symbolic in your book. Am I right?
HH: The cupcakes are both symbolic and well, just cupcakes. They become for Penny, a girl dealing with the meltdown of her life, a way of making sense of things. As her life becomes increasingly chaotic and out of her control, her cupcakes become more important. It’s her way of making some beautiful out of the pain she’s in… her way of whistling in the dark.
CS: Here's an open-ended question: what do cupcakes mean to you?
HH: Cupcakes are what you want them to be. They can be fun (a bucket of faux popcorn or a fish swimming in its bowl) or beautiful (a Van Gogh or a basket of flowers) or nostalgic (a yellow cupcake with chocolate frosting from a can and a mound of rainbow jimmies) or simply a way of sharing something personal with someone else. There’s something really wonderful about baking and sharing what you’ve made with someone you love. I know it’s probably cliché and corny and all that, but there’s a certain beauty in a cupcake’s simplicity.
CS: In the novel, Penny creates some very creative cupcakes. Did you actually do any recipe testing for any of the unique cupcakes featured in the book?
HH: I did. My son and I (he’s eight) devoted a whole afternoon to trying out cupcakes and decorating them. Our kitchen was covered in frosting and candies and cupcake batter that missed its mark. We made many of the summer cupcakes – the crabs and the sailboats and the beach. (Brown sugar makes excellent sand). We also made the rock, paper, scissors cupcakes, but I have to confess something. The rock pretty much just looked like a blob of grey frosting…. Not terribly appetizing.
CS: I hear that you've hosted some "cupcake days" on your book tour. What happens on a cupcake day?
HH: Cupcake days are very fun. We start with plain cupcakes and a rainbow of frosting and every kind of small candy you can imagine. Then participants get to make whatever they can dream up. After they finish, I’ll judge them and pick a winner. The winner gets a copy of my book, but really everyone wins because they get to eat their own cupcake creations. One winner made an Ipod on her cupcake. Another created a lighthouse. There are an awful lot of very creative people out there.
CS: In the course of writing your book, did you conduct any sort of cupcake research? Please, tell us more.
HH: I have to admit that a lot of my research was done a long time ago. I used to work as a baker and cake decorator when I was in college. It was really fun and really hard work. I admire anyone who works in the culinary industry. The creativity and stamina involved are mindboggling. I tried not to look at too many decorating books because I didn’t want to copy their designs. I wanted to come up with ones on my own for Penny to make. I have to be careful when I’m writing. Anything I read or see or hear gets thrown into the blender that is the writing center of my brain. I wanted to be sure that Penny’s ideas were unique to her.
CS: Hey--you also have a blog, In the Crazy Kitchen, which is a yearlong experiment. Once again: please, tell us more!
HH: I read the funniest thing in one of Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks. She confesses to be a negligent mother outside of the kitchen. That made me laugh because ever since my son was old enough to hold a wooden spoon, we’ve been in the kitchen together. We’ve made several gingerbread houses and a giant gingerbread cookie that was actually a replica of the human body with all of the major organs in different colored royal icing. We’ve made glow-in-the-dark slime and homemade cheese. We’ve made just about every baked good you can imagine except croissants. That is on the list, however. I started the blog for two reasons. First, everyone told me I had to have a blog for my website. Frankly no one wants to hear about what I did that day or that week. No one in their right mind would care at all that my cat is on a diet or that I have mushroom outbreak in my garden (both are true, by the way). The second reason was that writing a blog would force me to write down what we did each week as a sort of record of fun things throughout the year. I hadn’t counted on how many parents have told me they are enjoying it because it gives them ideas for things to do with their kids.
CS: What is your favorite type of cake?
HH: My favorite cake is lemon with lemon curd and fresh blackberries, but I also love vanilla cake with dark chocolate frosting and spice cake with penuche. Yum. The only cake I’m not that keen on is Boston Cream Pie, which is a cake for goodness sakes… even if they do call it a pie.
CS: Any advice for hopeful writers?
HH: Pay attention to the world around you. I always get asked where I get my ideas and I always laugh at the question because the truth is ideas are everywhere. Just today I saw a woman with a rocking horse bungee corded to the top of her car and man wearing a skirt (or what looked like a skirt) at the grocery store. I saw a squirrel fight off three birds for a pecan and win. Those are all stories. All you have to do is let them be.
You can learn more about Heather Hepler via her website; keep updated with her adventures via her blog; and most importantly, you can buy The Cupcake Queen and her other novels online or at your local bookseller!