The author of the Teeny Templeton series talks red velvet cake, secret family recipes and reveals the title and plot of her next book.
by Erin Z. Bass
Michael Lee West lives on a farm in Lebanon, Tennessee, but her series of quirky Southern books about character Teeny Templeton are set in Charleston. West says her characters, like Teeny, tell her where they want to live, what they want to do and, most importantly, what they want to eat. A foodie as much as a writer, West loves to bake (she’s been stuck on Cinnabons lately) and continues to perfect her mom’s gumbo recipe.
“I’m not as much of a traditional cook as my mother. When I’m writing hard, I’ll eat anything they throw at me – jelly bellies, candy bars, potato chips,” she says. Although West tries to remove herself from the writing process and let characters like Teeny come through, she gets consumed when she’s writing and “things just fall away around me,” she says.
She’s written a total of eight books, the first a memoir of food and family, followed by five about Southern women and their families, and, more recently, “Gone With a Handsomer Man” and “A Teeny Bit of Trouble,” both about Southern gal Teeny Templeton. (“A Teeny Bit of Trouble” is included in our Summer Reading List.)
Teeny has developed into her own brand and has her own website, blog, mystery club and cookbook. This Southern belle with frizzy hair and a bulldog named Sir works in Charleston as a pastry chef and can’t help from constantly stumbling into trouble. Readers can see pieces of West in Teeny’s obsession with food, and recipes for things like her red velvet cake and Aunt Bluette’s Fresh Peach Pie are included in the backs of the books.
West says her writing is inspired by Southern giants Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Lee Smith. “The thing about Southern writing is the voice and the characters, and the story comes out of that,” she says. “You just have that voice and it carries you on.”
Find out more about how West found her voice, why she’s so obsessed with food and what trouble Teeny will find herself in next in the interview below. And join us on Twitter from 1-2 p.m. CST time tomorrow, May 25, when we’ll be chatting with West about her latest book, summer reading and all things Teeny.
What do you think it is about the summertime that makes people want to curl up with a good book?
From reading the bio on your website, it sounds like the Teeny books may have started with a recipe for red velvet cake. Can you tell us more about that?
MLW: That book did, but my first book was published in 1990, and it started with a dream. I do trust in the subconscious mind to kinda show me the way, so whenever I dreamed about red velvet cakes, Teeny just showed up fully formed. I didn’t have to really dig for her. Also, it helped that while I was writing, I was having asthma attacks. I’m allergic to anything chemical like bleach or Febreze and really can’t live on a farm without encountering some kind of obnoxious odor. I was always struggling to breathe, so whenever Teeny couldn’t breathe, it was usually because I couldn’t breathe.
How did all your food references and even the recipes in the back of the Teeny books come about?
MLW: I’m pretty much obsessed with food. I’ve always included, in most of my books, recipes. There’s always usually one in there. “She Flew the Coop” was all about food in the South. Of course, I wrote a foodie memoir.
It sounds like your family has its own secret recipes?
MLS: Well, we have a lot of ‘em. I talked to my mother last night. She’s 84, and really she’s not very well, and she told me all about the chicken gumbo she made. It was the best gumbo she ever made. Everything that they make – or we make – is the best. Now, mine is, and I’m a lot more critical of my cooking, but it’s the best gumbo, it’s the best barbecue, it’s the best everything. Food just is kind of important. I don’t know why. My worldview is food, and most of my characters have that. It can’t be avoided.
Where are you originally from?
MLW: I was born in Louisiana, and my whole family still lives in Mississippi and Louisiana. I have no relatives in Tennessee, except for my mother, who’s still living, and my brother and a niece.
Where in Louisiana?
MLW: I was born in Lake Providence. It’s in the upper corner near the Arkansas border, not too far from the Mississippi River, and then my father was the manager of a dime store, the old Morgan & Lindsey in that little town, and then he was transferred down to New Orleans. I lived there for my early childhood. Then, we moved to Tennessee.
MLW: I tried to put her in Tennessee, and it just didn’t work. Teeny’s just one of those characters. I just have to take myself out of books and totally remove myself and I just have to see what the characters do, and this was the case with Teeny. I wanted her to be from Tennessee, because that would have made it a lot easier if I can just look out my window and I’ve been living here since I was in the third grade, so it’s easy. No research. But she would not make it easy for me.
I had been to Charleston. There is no Spencer Jackson, but I’d been on carriage rides through Rainbow Row. My husband interviewed in Charleston many, many years ago for a residence at the medical center in Rheumatology, and I was driving all over the place. We loved Charleston, so I guess maybe that connection because I had been there and I remembered that and maybe subconsciously Teeny said this is where I want to be.
Did she request a peach farm too?
MLW: These things just come up. I don’t know. It always surprises me. As long as I am taking myself out of the book, I am always surprised. If I’m in there, it’s not nearly as much fun.
I saw on your website that the next book in the series is going to be “Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
MLW: I need to update that. Actually, the title is going to be “A Teeny Slice of Scandal.” My editor came up with that one. We’ve been back and forth on that for a long time. We had decided on “A Teeny Touch of Scandal,” and then about two weeks ago she said how about if we change the title to “A Teeny Slice of Scandal?” I like it better.
It’s a little more food related.
MLW: Yeah, there’s doughnuts on the cover of this one.
So far, your Teeny covers have been great.
MLW: They do all that. I’ve always loved covers, but I sure have loved the Teeny covers.
Can you give us any hints about what Teeny might be up to next?
MLW: Her mother returns. Ruby Ann comes back, and she has a dead hooker in the trunk of her car, named Sugar. But Sugar might not be dead.