Sisters Laura and Stirling Kelso share a deep love for good food, great writing, and the growing city of Austin. Laura, a former food critic for Austin Monthly, is a seasoned Austin food writer who recently made a move to Seattle to begin an exciting new career at Allrecipes.com. Stirling, Laura's younger sister, is an experienced travel writer who recently moved to Austin after working at Travel + Leisure in New York City for five years. Together, these talented two sisters have collaborated on a deliciously entertaining e-book series called "DishLit" that they're publishing week to week.
The first book of the series is called "Lonestar Dish" and follows the lives of three fictional sisters – Carter, Ally, and Taylor Bennett – as they manage their hectic loves lives, crazy professional careers, and numerous culinary adventures in Austin. The book is like Sex & The City meets Pride & Prejudice with a lot food and a lot of laughter. Laura and Stirling talked with TEXAS MONTHLY about DishLit, their love for Austin food, and what we can expect to see in the coming chapters of "Lonestar Dish."
When did you guys come up with the idea for DishLit?
Stirling: Laura and I have been working on DishLit for quite a while. We came up with the concept and storyline about eight years ago. Laura is the one that came up with the idea of putting it on the web and making it an e-book series.
Laura: I thought it would be so fun to link it to real Austin restaurants and coffee shops, since so much of the story revolves around food and eating. Stirling had the idea of including a map with the series, which turned out to be such a great idea. What really drives the story though is the narrative.
I'm very impressed by what I've read thus far. Did you guys ever think of trying to get it published as an actual book series?
Laura: When we first started writing the story, we actually conceptualized it as a TV pilot. I was spending the summer in Los Angeles and Stirling came out and joined me for a while. We shopped the idea around a bit and we got some interest from producers, but TV is such a different beast from publishing. We were in over our heads, but a couple of people said that it would make a really fun book idea and that our chances of selling it as a book were much greater, especially since we didn't have any TV background.
Stirling: We have so many experiences from that trip that will probably make it into the series. The funny thing about L.A. is that you never really hear no, but you rarely ever hear yes. In the intervening time before we published DishLit, we both got so busy with our jobs and life in general, but we never dropped the idea of the story. By the time we were ready to execute on it, the publishing world had been turned upside down. It seemed like everything was moving towards online anyway, so we thought we'd try it out as an e-book series first.
Each of you has a personal background in food. Tell me a little about how food has played a part in your lives and how you guys share that as sisters.
Stirling: Food has always been very much a part of our family life. We grew up with a mother that thought asking what was for dinner was rude. You ate what was put in front of you, and thankfully she had a very diverse palate. She has a Cuban background, so we were eating black beans, rice, cilantro soup, and whatever else was put in front of us. We both had envy from our classmates at the lunch table that were eating Lunchables, PB&J, and things that weren't allowed in our house. We had palate training early in our lives. Going into adulthood, Laura has always been a mentor and inspiration to me. She introduced me to the food world in Austin.
Laura: I had an Internet startup company in Dallas that went bust after the Internet bubble. After the company went bust, I felt like my world had ended. I took three months to travel across Southeast Asia and started sending these emails to my friends and family about all the food I was eating there, which was incredible. When I got back, people kept saying I should go into food writing. I took that encouragement and started pitching to different magazines and newspapers around Austin. I ended up getting a regular gig at Austin Monthly and became their regular food critic. I did that for four years, and that inevitably started opening up more doors. It was so fun, but in the back of my mind I was always like, 'Wouldn't it be great to incorporate food writing into fiction,' especially with this explosion of food bloggers out there.
What was it like for you guys as journalists to approach fiction writing? Is it more complicated? What's it like to have that freedom to write whatever you want and not have to base it on facts and reporting?
Laura: It's very liberating because as a food writer you have to be extremely cautious with the facts you're reporting, particularly when it comes to restaurants because what you write can significantly impact their business. When it came to this project, it was fun to have the characters kick off in all different directions and create experiences that don't necessarily adhere to facts. With that said, all these characters are loosely based on what Stirling and I know, and the restaurants are real. They are always portrayed in a positive light though. We are never going to bash a restaurant or coffee shop.
Stirling: Laura is the writer and I'm the editor. Reshaping the writing to fit the online book display makes the work a lot more difficult because you need the chapters to be small and concise. You have to capture a reader's attention quickly. It's been a lot of fun, but it's definitely a whole new breed of work.
Your characters have the last name Bennett. I have to ask, are you guys fans of Pride & Prejudice?
Laura: Yes! There is a loose affiliation with Pride & Prejudice. You're one of the few people that has picked up on that. We were looking for a very Anglo last name because the sisters' father is a big contrast to the mother, who is this very fiery Latina. He is this centered, philosophical Anglo man, so we played around with some different last names. The last name Bennett is a small nod to Jane Austen, her fictional Bennett sisters, and the way that she developed stories that made you always want to keep reading.
Do each of you have a personal purpose for doing the book series?
Laura: It's a creative outlet for me. It's also a bit of a love letter to Austin, too. I just accepted a job at Allrcecipes.com, so I won't be in Austin much longer. Stirling and I love and appreciate Austin so much, and we see that so many other people do as well. It's a way for us to shine a light on Austin. There are so many incredible food entrepreneurs here that are doing creative things, and it's a nice way to showcase their work. If people want to support the series, we suggest giving a donation to the Sustainable Food Center, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, or Meals on Wheels. It would mean a lot to us if people supported these entities that do such incredible work in town.
Stirling: We're excited about this new medium that we haven't seen before. We've put a fictional story online and we're incorporating real-life recommendations and exploring real-life places. We're really excited by that idea.
Where do you plan on taking the series? Do you know how you'll end it?
Laura: We have a draft complete of Lonestar Dish, which is the first series. That is going to roll out over the next six to eight months. There is a lot that happens to these girls. A lot of the characters they're going to meet are even going to be recognizable to some people.
Does that mean we'll see some Austin chefs in the story?
Laura: Perhaps! People from the food world, definitely. We don't want to give away too much, but one of the characters is going to be making a move, so a new city is going to be introduced. That's going to take book two in a different direction. Spoiler alert: Allrecipes.com is based in Seattle, and that's all I'll say!
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