By Scott Stevenson
Tembi Locke is an accomplished actor, TEDx speaker, and bestselling author. She has appeared in over 60 television shows and films including The Magicians and NCIS: LA. Her TEDx talk, What Forty Steps Taught Me About Love and Grief, traces her journey as a cancer caregiver. Her New York Times bestseller, From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, is a Reese’s Book Club x Hello Sunshine pick.
From Scratch is a poignant and transporting cross-cultural love story set against the lush backdrop of the Sicilian countryside, where one woman discovers the healing powers of food and family and finds unexpected grace in her darkest hour.
Tembi is currently on a paperback tour for From Scratch, and will be speaking at Book Soup in West Hollywood tonight (2/4/20, 7pm), and tomorrow at the Palm Springs Cultural Center at noon (2/5/20, 12pm). Tembi will be in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Houston, Dallas, and Seattle promoting the paperback.
The Coachella Review: In your words, describe the story of From Scratch.
Tembi Locke: From Scratch is one woman’s transporting story of cross-cultural love, loss, family, forgiveness and food in Sicily after the death of her chef husband. It is about motherhood, identity, grief, finding family in an unexpected place, and the healing power of food.
TCR: Did the synopsis in your proposal change from the final work? Can you talk about that?
TL: The synopsis changed a little from proposal to print. The book has many complex, interlacing themes. In the proposal, I choose to focus primarily on three key themes—food, Sicily and love. Identity and forgiveness were not explicit in the proposal and became more prominent as I wrote the book.
TCR: When we were in workshop together, I seem to remember you talking about learning about your late husband, Saro, through his recipe book. Did I remember that right? How did your relationship with Saro change your relationship with food?
TL: I wouldn’t say I learned about him through his recipes. The extraordinary thing about our life together was that there were no unknown parts of him. We held nothing back. It’s an aspect of our marriage that I share intimately in the book because I know how rare it is. However, his recipes did play a critical role in my being able to connect to him in a visceral and nourishing way after his death. Those recipes kept him alive for me in the form of taste and memory during my earliest years of grief. His food became a guide out of the darkness.
TCR: American women experience a lot of body-shaming and I’m guessing actresses are particularly prone to this. How do you enjoy eating in a culture that body-shames women? You were married to a Sicilian chef! You came from Texas which has amazing TexMex food and BBQ. I’m curious if you ever had a conversation with Saro about eating and weight control.
TL: In terms of enjoying food, the Italian approach to the table and to food is very holistic, balanced, and rooted in a fundamental understanding of food as pleasure and nourishment. The many toxic, disordered, or extreme approaches to eating are American constructs that had no place in our home. We ate in a well-balanced and healthy way in keeping with the Sicilian traditions of his childhood.
TCR: Your book starts in a linear narrative, then jumps forward and flashes back. Why did you choose a non-linear structure?
TL: Grief doesn’t move in a straight line, nor does memory. I wanted to write about my experiences in a way that reflected the fluidity of life. Also, because the book touches three decades, two countries, two cultures, and three languages, I knew that I wanted a structure that reflected that complexity. So, I chose a mosaic structure with alternating past and present chapters. I knew the reader would be meeting a protagonist, my late husband, when he is deceased. But I also knew that they must fall in love with him the way I did. So I chose to work from the present backwards and then back to the present again. The structure mirrors the way I, the narrator, am toggling between a life that was and a life that is.
TCR: The prose is lovely. How do you work with language? Janet Fitch says she is very precise with how she constructs sentence. Tell me about the time you spend with language and how you balance the tension and lyricism.
TL: I wish I could say I have a “precise” way I approach language. As a first-time author, I relied on my own ear. Which is to say, I read passages aloud to myself. If the sentences were too clunky or laden with clauses, I edited. I simplified. Also, because I am introducing the reader to a place in the world they may have never been, I felt I wanted the prose to be as simple, poetic, and direct as the island of Sicily. I also relied on what I know of dialogue from my career as an actor.
TCR: Your daughter, Zoela, is very much part of your story. Did she read any of your drafts? If so, what was her reaction to what she read? A lot of our non-fiction students work with their significant others. Some authors caution memoirists about approaching the people they write about to avoid hurting them in some way. What are your thoughts about that this?
TL: I approached key family members I wrote about in the book and told them I was writing a memoir. I articulated the story I was seeking to tell and assured them that the purposes of the narrative were a love story and my journey to healing. I was asking them to stand in a state of trust with me. But I didn’t share pages with them. My daughter knew I was writing a book about her father and our love. She was eleven years old when I began the book. So, it would not have been appropriate to have her read drafts in process, nor was she interested. After publication, I read sections of the book to her. I think all memoirists have to find an approach that protects their hearts as storytellers while also acknowledging the potential reactions of the people in their lives.
TCR: At your Barnes & Nobles event at The Grove in Los Angeles, you said your first draft was heavily red-lined and you cut a lot. Can you speak to what was omitted?
TL: My first complete draft to my editor was an exercise in giving her everything, more than could ever possibly be in the book. I wanted to do that so that she could see themes and storylines that might need sharpening and what might need cutting. She could draw connections that I couldn’t see yet. The red-lining and editing was a harrowing exercise in reimagining my story. The main thing we pulled back on was additional chapters on caregiving. Those pages eventually became one impactful chapter. I am so grateful for the redlines and for being in the hands of an editor who wanted to bring the most compelling version of the story to print. Which meant edit, edit, edit.
TCR: Also, I’m thinking of you as a young actress twenty years before the #metoo and #timesup movements. Italy is stereotyped as a patriarchal culture. Hollywood has come under scrutiny for wildly inappropriate behavior towards women, in addition to excluding African Americans from, well, everything. Your book touches on some flirting and xenophobia, but that’s not the thrust of your story. Were their deeper stories about racism and sexual misconduct that you had to cut?
TL: There are no big episodes of sexual misconduct in my lived experience. The minor episodic incidents I have experienced are commonplace in every corner of the globe–they’re not specific to Italy or Hollywood. So that was never a part of the story I was seeking to tell. Regarding race, I address that in the book the way I experience it. Which is to say race is a part of my life and I write about what moving through the world as a black American woman in Italy has felt like. And I write about what my husband felt like as an immigrant here in America. There were not any deeper stories I had to cut when finalizing From Scratch. However, there are stories that could be another book.
TCR: You mentioned to me that you may not have another book in you. Have you changed your opinion about writing another book? Is there another story burning to be told? There’s a recent Instagram post where it looks like you may be itching to tell your parent’s story.
TL: I just submitted a proposal for my second book. Fingers crossed.
Scott graduated with his MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert last December. He is currently steeped in the advertising world of Hollywood delivering commercials and trailers you can’t skip on your mobile device. He loves to explore Southern California. There is always an unchartered neighborhood with an interesting history waiting to be discovered in the City of Angels. It helps if there’s a bar or coffee shop or both located there. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. @scotterson on Instagram