Monday, July 20, 2009

Lost Chapter of The Cassandra Cookbook

This short chapter was supposed to be in the back of The Cassandra Cookbook , but never made it to the published novel due to page count restrictions. For anyone who wants to know the reasons why I wrote the book, this final chapter would explain everything.


A pinch of hard work. A dash of determination. The recipe for this story is very simple: Shawn James tries to create a sweet commercial fiction novel infused with tasteful bits of dark comedy. The end result of the project came out far better than I expected.

I’m not a commercial fiction writer; I’m just a guy who uses African-American fiction to explore concepts and ideas African-Americans don’t usually read about in the hopes of opening up Black people to new ideas. In my first two books, The Changing Soul and Isis, I explored the psychological effects of the ghetto and Egyptian mythology as it related to the African-American family. Having completed both a contemporary African-American novel and a fantasy novel, I was looking for a new challenge. So I decided to write one of those entertaining commercial novels I often read between writing books. With my combined decade of writing experience and reading experience I felt I was ready to try creating a story in the genre.....

The movies Strictly Business, The Apartment, and Clockwatchers and the Simpsons episode “Homer’s Enemy” were major inspirations for this project. I loved the dark satirical comedy Clockwatchers used to make comments about the workplace and how human beings interacted within it. I always got a laugh out of the clever social comments early episodes of the Simpsons made about life in America. Strictly Business was a movie I simply enjoyed watching; the performances were good and its heart was in the right place. The Apartment was an old film that had a tremendous impact on my writing and the development of this novel. After watching Billy Wilder’s great film I realized the workplace had a tremendous impact on the human condition. Watching these movies gave me ideas for a humorous novel that made social comments on the African-American experience in the workplace.

I started writing up a draft of a book called Integrity Sucks. It was a simple straightforward story about the African-American workplace with lots of commercial appeal. I copied the storytelling model of all the movies I had watched to the letter. Following that storytelling formula was my biggest mistake. Most of those movies I watched often showed the workplace from a White perspective. The White view of the workplace was often jaded and cynical; the total opposite of the point of view I experienced in the African-American world of work.

I wanted my story to say something about the human condition within the African-American experience, not be a re-hash of white stories with black characters in it. So I started thinking about my own experiences in the world of work. From what I observed in the workplace, most African-Americans aren’t angry or a bitter about their jobs. African-Americans often see employment as an opportunity for growth and change. To blacks work is a place where poor men and women often oppressed by racism and discrimination have an opportunity to find their true value and actualize their untapped potential.

Focusing on the positive experiences of the African-American workplace I began re-writing Integrity Sucks into The Cassandra Cookbook. The new story I planned would be the recipe for Cassandra Lee’s success working on a licensing deal with ITC Foods. Basically a recipe is a process of combining raw ingredients together through a series of steps to get a certain finished result. Depending upon the experience of the person, combining these raw ingredients together causes them to change chemically, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. While Cassandra had experience in the area of baking and customer service, she was inexperienced in the area of licensing. She has to combine her experience with Simon who is inexperienced with people but experienced with the business of marketing. As these two raw talents work together, romantic chemistry swirls around them. This causes them to change, some sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. However, as she and Simon learn from each other’s experiences they achieve their goals. Simon is promoted to ITC’s baked goods Product Manager and Cassandra expands her business into the Cassandra Brand name.

On the surface of the book would be about a business deal to expand the business of two companies; however the deeper story would be about the personal growth of the people working on the deal. Throughout the story the main characters learn what people are worth. On the quest to preserve the integrity of her family’s business, Cassandra learns how valuable she is. Working towards his promotion, Simon learns what makes the products his company produces valuable are the people behind them. It’s only when he discovers Cassandra’s value as a person, is he able to complete the deal.

With my plot and theme in place, I researched successful business people and their companies so the fictional black owned businesses of ITC Foods and the Cassandra Bakery could be as realistic as possible to readers. ITC Foods was inspired by the Parks Sausage Company, one of the oldest black owned food distributors in the U.S. Established in the 1950s it makes all types of sausage and meat products. The story of the Sara Lee Bakery was the inspiration for the Cassandra Bakery. In the 1950’s the owner of the Sara Lee bakery actually named the store after his daughter and sold it to a corporation. If he only knew his daughter’s name would become synonymous with a worldwide conglomerate that produces everything from cheesecake to handbags!

With the ingredients for writing the cookbook in place I got to work developing Cassandra’s recipe for success. I had a lot of fun writing this story, more fun than I had working on any other novel in my fiction writing career. I looked forward to sitting in front of the computer every day during the two years it took to write Simon and Cassandra’s story. I hope you learned something from reading it.

No comments: