Author Interview - LARA M. ZEISES (Plus, Give Away!)

Today we have the prolific YA author Lara M. Zeises joining us! Lara is the author of eight books, including TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD STARLET (under pen name, Lola Douglas) and ANYONE BUT YOU. Recently, her new book THE SWEET LIFE OF STELLA MADISON got released, and Lara is here to tell us more about it. (It's a very fun, upbeat read!) Also, don't forget there is a give away for the book, which you can read more about at the end of this interview!

As for the illustration of Stella, I wanted to go for the cute look to match the book. Used a bit of a French vibe and of course, I couldn't forget adding sweets to it.


SWEET LIFE is a novel about a girl named Stella who finds herself flailing in some uncharted waters.  Her dad is this reluctantly world-famous chef, and her mom runs a demonstration restaurant.  Stella's idea of gourmet is a bacon double cheeseburger, but because of who her parents are, she's serendipitously offered a summer internship at her local newspaper writing about (you guessed it!) food.  She gets some help from her mom's hot new intern and finds herself crushing on him hard, even though she already has a boyfriend, Max, who is super sweet and who, at the beginning of the book, tells her he loves her.  Stella's confused by her affection for both boys at the same time, and these feelings are complicated by what's going on with her parents, who have been separated for six years but never actually got a divorce and remain each other's best friend.  Finding out that both of them are dating other people hits Stella pretty hard.  So, basically, it's a book about a girl trying to figure out what it means to love and be loved, set against this hyper foodie backdrop.

2) What inspired you to write the story?

Stella's mom's restaurant, The Open Kitchen, is based almost entirely on a real place my family and I love called Celebrity Kitchen, which is on Concord Pike in Wilmington, Del.  My mom had her 50th birthday party there years ago, and we all just fell in love with the place.  Stella's dad, Andre, was inspired by a real chef named Phil Pyle, who I met through Celebrity Kitchens, and who's this fantastic storyteller.  He was trained atLe Cordon Bleu in Paris, and told us all of these stories about how over there, when you make a mistake in the kitchen (or, at least, when he trained), the instructors would flick you with knives.  He's got the scars to prove it!  He also told us about one final exam where he had to butcher a cow or something, head to toe, blindfolded, while describing how he'd prepare each cut of meat as he was butchering it.  I turned to my mom and said, "Some day I'm going to put that man in a book."
I was supposed to be working on a collection of linked short stories, but my editor wanted something that would appeal to a larger audience.  I said, "I want to write a book about a girl named Stella.  I think her dad is a chef," and Jodi (Keller, my then-editor) said, "Okay, so go do it."  So I did.

3) Which character in THE SWEET LIFE OF STELLA MADISON do you relate to the most and why?

I worked in journalism briefly, and there are parts of Stella's internship based on my own experiences at the Wilmington News Journal and Baltimore Sun.  I'm also an only child, as is Stella, and have curly hair that frizzes up whenever it's humid/about to rain.  Even so, Stella's way more confident than I ever was (or probably ever will be), and she's also less of a go-getter than I've always been.  Writing the character of her friend Kat was fun, because she's very happily single, not afraid to speak her mind, and very much into calling people on their crap - Stella included.  But in terms of relating?  I'd have to say Max, oddly enough.  Not just because he's a total romantic (as am I), or because he's something of a home body (ditto), but because when I was revising the manuscript, I was thinking of ways to make Max super appealing and sort of imbued him with a lot of my fiance's interests and mannerisms and sayings and even his fashion sense.  I needed to be a little in love with him (Max, I mean), because if Stella was believably torn between these two boys, the reader had to be, too.  I don't love novels where the heroine obviously belongs with one guy and obviously doesn't belong with another. 

4) Did you encounter any challenges while writing THE SWEET LIFE OF STELLA MADISON? How did you overcome them?

There were a couple.  The first draft took me a long time, much longer than normal, because while I was writing it, my third Lara book (I also publish under the pseudonym Lola Douglas) came out to mixed reviews and less-than-stellar sales.  I'd slaved over ANYONE BUT YOU and thought it was some of my best writing, so I took this very hard.  ANYONE came out the same week as my first Lola book, TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD STARLET, and also right after I moved into my first (purchased) house, and while I was in the middle of revising MORE CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD STARLET.  So in this perfect storm - of being a new homeowner, of being a working writer, of promoting two new books, one of which was floundering - I got completely burned out.  It took me about 18 months or so before I could even approach the revision seriously.
When I did start revising hardcore, I was teaching a lot of writing courses, and it was making me question things that I don't normally think about.  For instance, in teaching character I'm always talking about motivation and what's at stake - what does she want?  What's standing in her way?  How does she overcome that obstacle?  What's the resolution? - but I don't approach the creative process from that standpoint.  It's much more organic and messy and then later, after I've done a revision or two, and know my characters very, very well, I can clarify that other stuff and layer more of it in.  But this time around, I was asking myself these questions early on and not really knowing the answers.  Stella's not an easy character to summarize, and what she wants isn't cut and dried.  It's not like, "I like this boy - can I get him to like me?"  It's more like, "I have a great boyfriend who adores me, and I have a crush on this hot older guy who isn't as adoring but who seems to understand me a better, and OH MY GOD, HOW DO I HANDLE THIS?"  And while the novel deals with love, both in concept and practice, it's not entirely a love story.  It's a book about family, about friendship, about figuring out who you are, what you want, and where you belong in this world.  Which, now that I say that, are the themes of pretty much EVERY book I've ever written. 

5) Can you describe the publishing process you went through?

Since I'd already had that collection of linked short stories under contract, I didn't have to "sell" SWEET LIFE.  I just swapped it in for the other one.  I wrote a very messy, somewhat different first draft in which Stella didn't have a boyfriend and Jeremy had a girlfriend.  During the revision process, my editor suggested that Jeremy might be more likeable if he didn't have a girlfriend (because he always flirted with her), and that Stella's confidence level might seem higher if she was the one already in a relationship.  I started thinking about what it must've been like growing up with parents who separated but never went through with the divorce, and who seemed to be closer than when they were still "happily" married.  So with the new storyline hashed out, I did a major revision, and then from that draft did a more minor revision.  Jodi and I had worked together on two books prior to SWEET LIFE, and this was pretty much our process on all of them.  Once the manuscript was accepted, it went through the typical copyediting/proofreading cycles, followed by galleys, and eventually publication.  Nothing too out of the ordinary, except that working on this book helped me fall back in love with writing all over again.

Thank you, Lara! Readers, if you like THE SWEET LIFE OF STELLA MADISON, you can order the book here!

Also, commenters of this post will have a chance to win a signed copy of THE SWEET LIFE OF STELLA MADISON! Plus, if you tell me about your favorite memory from a restaurant, you will get two raffles--double chance to win! The winner will be announced on Saturday, so stay tuned!



Enjoyed this interview? If you're an author, editor, agent, or illustrator and would like a five question interview and a drawing of your character (or of yourself), email me at rtlovejoy (at) yahoo (dot) com. Check out the FAQ page for more info.


  1. Wow, great interview. I enjoyed reading the publishing process. Wish I had a story to swap out! ;) Best of luck to you!

  2. Great illustration, Realm! Thanks for posting the interview. It is reassuring to hear from other authors how life can interfere with writing. I feel guilty sometimes when I stop working to deal with some 'real-world' crisis, but it obviously happens to everyone.
    Favorite restaurant memory...shortly after I decided to jack in my publishing job and go to culinary school, my husband and I won a gift certificate for a *very* pricey restaurant in the city. It had an open kitchen, run be a famous chef who was an idol of mine. My poor husband...I spent all evening watching the kitchen and barely spoke a word to him the whole night! (This is probably not my husband's favorite restaurant memory!)

  3. Another great interview and illustration, Realm! I can't wait until we start seeing your work on bookshelves someday.

  4. This illustration is wonderfully sweet, girlie and foodie--nice!! And the book sounds like something I'd LOVE...I'm a closet foodie and I am also a girl who grew up with parents in an interesting industry (but wasn't interested in following their footsteps).
    Very. Cool.

  5. Great interview, ladies! I love that illustration.

    Favorite restaurant memory...Probably the first time I ate Indian food, which was my freshman year if college. Less to do with the restaurant (which was very nice, but largely unremarkable), and everything to do with the food, which knocked my socks off. I grew up on backwoods Maine fare-- boiled cabbage & potatoes, fiddleheads, etc.-- and I never knew there could be so many tastes in one dish before I had my first mutter paneer with garlic naan.

    *happy sigh*

    Damn, now I'm hungry. :-)

  6. I like how it seems as though you've taken some elements from your own life and given them to Stella, while still making her different enough that writing her was probably a process of discovery. While writing about what you know definitely holds some water, I don't understand authors who write carbon copies of themselves into characters...I know if I tried to write a character with exactly my life story, I'd be bored to tears before the first chapter was written!

  7. Thank you, all!

    Dreamstate -- Wow, that sounds like a fantastic memory! I can imagine it must have been quite a treat.

    Joanna -- Omg, I am a TOTAL foodie. If you ever happen to be in Seattle, you should go to the Elemental--it's foodie heaven right there!!

    Sunna -- I remember when I first had Thai food when I was a kid. I thought it was so amazing and flavor-packed!

    Rachel -- I know what you mean. I tend to love writing about charas that are different from me, although parts of me seep out in both writing and painting.

  8. Another great interview and illustration.

    I'd love to win this :) My favorite restaurant memory is .... well there's two.

    The silly one: when I was nine and my little sister was three. We went to a sit down pizza hut with my grandparents and cousins who were in town, and these two guys with really long 80s hair and lots of jewelry and sat down near us. My sister couldn't stop watching them, and at one point she pseudo-whispered to my Mom "Hey mom look at the girls..." but my mom shushed her. So she tried again, louder "Hey mom look at the funny girls." My mom shushed her again so she got even louder - so she was yelling and she said: "Hey mom look at the funny girls with the hair all over itself." And everyone looked at the two guys. I was mortified then, but it's a funny story to tell people now.

    The first time I ate thai food in San Diego, I ate at this cute little restaurant in Pacific Beach, and the food was AMAZING. But I didn't realize how spicy - spicy really was for Thai food. I cried all through dinner.

  9. This sounds like such a fun book! I just finished reading Julia Child's biography, My Life in France, and now desperately want to go live in Paris where I will teach myself to cook and basically be fabulous at all times. So I appreciate the "French vibe" of the cover!

    I think my favorite restaurant memory has to be the first time I tried the cheese ravioli at a local restaurant in my home town. When I was younger, I was a ridiculously picky eater. I lived on Cheerios and more Cheerios, with the occasional plain pasta thrown in. So one night my family went out to eat with a big group of friends and I had to order something that I had never tried before. I realize cheese ravioli isn't the most interesting thing I could have chosen, but this dish was DELICIOUS! I've gotten it every time I've been there since I was about twelve years old... which was quite a few years ago.

    So in conclusion: Pick me! I want to read this book!

  10. Suzie -- Hahahaha--that is SO hilarious! You told it so well, I can imagine it clearly!

    Dee -- It is a really fun book! I want to go to France ever since I read "French Women Don't Get Fat." Also, after "Eat, Love, Pray," I want to go to Italy. Cheese ravioli sounds good! Cheese is my most favorite food ever.

    Thanks for sharing your memories, ladies! We're getting some good raffle competitions here...!

  11. I've been on a hunt as of late to find some great new YA to read, and I definitely think Stella's character will draw me in. The cover art couldn't be more fantastic!

  12. Oh, what a great interview! And an ADORABLE illustration!!!

    My favorite memory the time my Dad took my little brother and I to Texas Road House. My brother saw people throwing the peanut shells on the floor, and he got very upset (he was five) and said they were making a mess. When my dad explained it was okay, my brother proceeded to eat like fifty peanuts and throw every shell--with passion!--on the floor. :D So funny.

  13. Kody -- Thank you! Haha--must have been confusing for your brother to see people throwing shells onto the floor!

  14. Great interview, thank you! It sounds cute and interesting, and I'm definitely all for the food (lol, I'm a pig).(:

    Hm, I don't have a particularly funny experience at the mall; my family is all pretty calm. But my favorite memory of a resturant is probably at McDonald's at midnight during a roadtrip. I'm starving then, and chicken nuggets are my addiction.

    Anyways, I would love to win this book! Haha, and it'll definitely whet my appetite for new books.


  15. Jenn -- Thanks! Hah--When I was a kid, McDonald's was the coolest place in the world and I collected the free toys pretty obsessively. Now, I won't go there unless I'm out of options...and the toys aren't cool as they used to be! Those poor kids...


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