Author Kate Jacobs is clearly a metaphorical thinker. Her first novel, the bestselling The Friday Night Knitting Club, used knitting as a metaphor for female friendships. It told the story of the entwined lives of members of a New York knitting club who gathered at single mother Georgia Walker's yarn shop, and used the craft to highlight the tension some of the characters feel between feminism and domesticity.
Her latest novel, Comfort Food, features cooking show host Gus Simpson who has "a lot on her plate." Jacobs describes the main character's journey in hunger-inducing terms: "You have to learn to eat everything on your plate. You have to learn to savour the different tastes on your plate. How does this character go from saying she has this emotionally overloaded plate to taking what life is giving her and putting together an emotionally nourishing meal?"
"I was thinking about what brings a family together and what pulls them apart, which brings me to thinking about dinner: the cooking, and the sitting around a kitchen table."
Currently settled in southern California but originally from Hope, British Columbia –- a plate's throw from my Vancouver home –- Jacobs laughed that she could speak Canadian with me, referring to grade one instead of first grade and talking about wool as a generic term for not-necessarily-sheep-based yarn, things I hadn't even realized were Canadianisms. She also gives the funniest example I've heard about the difference between the two countries: "Canadians ask about the weather, and they really want to know how the weather is." I wish that were a metaphor, but our obsession with weather is a literal truth.
Unlike The Friday Night Knitting Club, which gathered its mostly unrelated characters in "a family of choice," Comfort Food is literally about family dynamics, with "two daughters and their mother going through this dance of redefinition," said Jacobs. "The daughters want their mother to recognize them as adults instead of just children. And the main character, Gus, is realizing she needs to be seen by her daughters as so much more than their mother."
"It's much more about work in a way that Friday Night Knitting Club isn't, even though they spent a lot of time in the yarn shop," Jacobs explained as the core difference between her two novels. "This is more about career, and what are you willing to do for your career. That's a question more than one character finds themselves asking in Comfort Food."
"Our work lives, that's where we spend the bulk of our day and it's very significant," she continued. "We all have goals and ambitions, but those can change over time, and what you're willing to do to achieve them can change over time. The characters are looking at that."
Jacobs, who began her career as a writer and editor at magazines like Redbook before writing fiction full-time, devotes a lot of effort to connecting with her readers both online and in real life. "I like the idea of having a community with readers."
For The Friday Night Knitting Club, she has finds herself calling in to book clubs almost every day – in fact, she counted 37 calls in April. "What's neat about that, and this gets back to having that community of readers, is that it's nice to have interaction with readers. Because writing is so solitary, it's nice to hear what readers think and to hear their emotions and responses. It's very enriching."
She and her husband –- her "tech half" –- created a website for The Friday Night Knitting Club. It uses the fun conceit that Peri, one of the characters who takes web design classes, had created a site for the Walker and Daughter store. Jacobs pointed out that some visitors were puzzled to learn that neither the store nor the characters were real, however.
For the new novel, Comfort Food, the website idea is that the fictitious cooking channel is promoting a show, which happens to have the same cast of characters as Jacobs' book, of course. The site offers information on the book and characters plus a game, quiz, and a recipe swap, featuring some of the foods mentioned in the book and inviting readers to submit their own.
It's not just the Walker and Daughter website that makes some readers think Knitting Club is more truth than fiction. "People I know tend to pick out the nicest, sweetest characters in the book and tell me on the sly that they know – and they're quite serious – that they were the inspiration." Is it ever true? "No." She also added: "I have a lot of people vying for Anita because she's so nice. But nobody's vying for Darwin" – the strident feminist who initially can't see the value in the knitting club.
"Of all the characters, Darwin is most like me, but how I was 20 years ago when I was a teenager," Jacobs explained. "My interpretation of feminism when I was a teen was to reject everything any domestically inclined woman had to teach me or tell me and simply focus on going to school, getting good grades, being professional I had this black and white certainty, but I'd never been out in the real world. My mother was still making meals for me."
Jacobs hears from readers who wonder if Friday Night Knitting Club's main character Georgia Walker was a real person, or even, oddly enough, if Jacobs herself is Georgia. "People often ask me 'which character is you,' and it's hard to explain that none of them are me, but all of them are me, but none of them are me, and have that make any sense," Jacobs said.
She refers to her characters as you or I might talk about a friend, and in fact she says "I guess I have a bunch of imaginary friends." She hasn't ruled out revisiting those friends in a future book, either, though she won't reveal what she's writing about for her next book.
Friendship is an important theme in her books, and it's been an important theme in Jacobs' life, too. She's still in close contact with her grade one (or first grade) friends from Hope. "It makes you feel secure, it makes you feel loved, it makes you feel understood," she said about those close bonds. "All of these things are crucial to being happy, and so I think connection and friendship are at the core of being happy. Sometimes that's about romantic relationships, but there's a whole other part of relationships that has nothing to do with romance."
She's often questioned by readers about some of the less-happy choices she made for her first novel, which is largely a celebration of female friendship. "Unless something sad or tragic takes place, we don't turn to our friends and say 'you know what, you really mean a ton to me.' We don't say that. We just go on with our lives."
"When a book has a neat and tidy ending, you can put it back on the shelf and have your emotions about it, but maybe you don't think about some of the things in the same way because you're not as caught up in it," she added.
Jacobs' own happy ending hasn't ended yet, with the highly anticipated Comfort Food released this week, The Friday Night Knitting Club in the top five of the New York Times Best Sellers list, and a movie version in the works starring and produced by Julia Roberts – a happy coincidence, given that Roberts, a famous knitter, is mentioned in the book. As with Comfort Food's main character, Gus Simpson, Jacobs has a lot on her plate. Just don't make the mistake of thinking she is Gus Simpson. Not even metaphorically.