Chicagoan Emily Belden is getting a lot of well-deserved attention for her first novel, Hot Mess. Set in Chicago’s posh Randolph Street restaurant scene, Hot Mess is the story of Allie Simon, the twenty-something girlfriend of Benji Zane, an up-and-coming chef and darling of the food blogosphere with a troubled past. After dating for a few months, Allie agrees to invest her life savings to allow Benji to reach his dream and open his restaurant but like many addicts, Benji possess a self-destructive streak. Without spoiling the plot, it’s safe to say that Allie is left to learn the restaurant business in 44 days, tutored by Angela, a hard-driven, no-nonsense, older version of herself who helps Allie to evolve professionally and personally with a tough love approach.
Belden, now 31, who just moved from Avondale from the West Loop, grew up in suburban Elmhurst. She attended Creighton University where she studied Journalism. Before graduating, she fell in love with copywriting while taking an advertising class and ended up working as a copywriter at a couple Chicago advertising agencies after leaving school. She also says that she believes she is too creative to work as a straight news reporter, and she is probably correct on that. One example, after writing a blog post in a lifestyle blog that she used to publish about tiling her bathroom floor with 60,000 pennies (all face up for good luck), it went viral and Belden ended up on The Today Show. But that would prove not to be the highlight of her blog — She wrote her first book, Eightysixed: A Memoir about Unforgettable Men, Mistakes, and Meals in 2014, which was basically a collection of longer blog posts. That book was well received and is currently being turned into short online television series called All of the Nope by a California production company, with Belden as the lead writer.
A few years ago, Belden would meet the man that Benji Zane is based on in Hot Mess while getting into a taxi. He was exiting and they made small talk. He was an up-and-coming chef in town to work at Alinea with a lot of hype, and a lot of baggage. They developed a relationship and although it didn’t last long, it introduced Belden to the swanky, Michelin star restaurants that she loves and would eventually serve as the setting for her novel. Before that, Belden had a typical relationship with the food industry, having worked as a server at a steakhouse while in college. But one does not need a culinary degree or be a Food Network junky to relate to Hot Mess, nor necessarily have experienced a relationship with an addict. It’s a book that leaves one wanting to know what happens to its main characters Allie and Benji, so much so that they often forsake sleep or previous plans in the process.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito recently spoke to Belden who is busy with book signings for Hot Mess, working on writing film episodes from Eightysixed and working on her second novel, Husband Material, due out next year.
CA) Do you have a background in the food industry?
BELDEN) I worked in the food industry in college. Once I became interested in the higher end restaurants I worked as a hostess at Acadia in the South Loop for a few months, helping them open the restaurant. That experience really painted the picture for some of the restaurant scenes in Hot Mess. The fictitious restaurant in the book is based on how Acadia looks.
CA) The book is definitely a page-turner. To me, it reminded me of Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, mixed with Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City.
BELDEN) Yes, that’s a great way of putting it. I think what is cool about the book to me is that if you’re a foodie, if you’re really into the dining scene in Chicago or elsewhere, you’re going to love it. Obviously, you’re going to be able to follow along with the dishes and the speak. But if you aren’t a foodie or the restaurant scene isn’t interesting to you, you aren’t alienated because the main character also goes from nothing. You follow her journey and she was eating frozen Lean Cuisine meals for dinner and then is trust into dining at 4-star restaurants. It’s not just a foodie book.
CA) Yes, in the book you write that Allie had to Google a lot of food terms and acronyms in the book.
BELDEN) Right, yes.
CA) It’s interesting, unlike a lot of love stories where we are rooting for the characters, we are basically rooting for Allie and Benji not to end up together. Was it ever tempting for you to have the story go another way?
BELDEN) The way it is now is the way I wanted it to be, but I will say that when we were submitting it to publishers, there was one publisher who obviously we did not go with; they liked everything about the story but they wanted Benji and Allie to wind up [differently].
CA) Oh my God.
BELDEN) My agent is so good at what he does. He told me that, ‘My job is to find the perfect fit for this. I’m going to give it to someone who will be your biggest cheerleader and love it the way that it is. But all things considered, this is a very good deal so think about it.’ But I just couldn’t do it. I just think that was not the love story that was supposed to shake out. It was not too long after that episode that we found an editor at Harper Collins who was raised in Arlington Heights and very familiar and into the Chicago restaurant scene. He heard about it and asked for it and then brought it to an acquisition meeting the next week and it was the first purchase that they made under Graydon House, which is Harper Collins’ edgier women’s fiction company. That’s the type of slam dunk we wanted without having to change major elements of the storyline.
CA) One thing I was wondering, you have the restaurant in the book on the 3300 block of Randolph Street, which is way west of the restaurant row on Randolph.
BELDEN) You must have an advanced review copy.
BELDEN) In the public version, it’s 900 West Randolph. That address was an arbitrary place holder, but the actual address is 900 West. It’s funny because the night I did my Barnes and Noble signing in Chicago was the same night a very large board meeting happened in the West Loop in a long time. They are petitioning to build a 51-story building so they had a meeting about that and the address of the proposed building is 900 West Randolph. So, it was very serendipitous that the night I was doing my signing, they had that meeting. That address is now the center of a very hot topic in the West Loop.
CA) How much of you would you say is in Allie Simon?
BELDEN) I think that there’s a lot of autobiographical elements in the first third of the book. It’s not too much of a secret that when I was in my early 20s I had a relationship with an up-and-coming chef who was very alluring and always in the press and in the blogs. I was sort of the woman behind the man when we dated so I could pick up on a lot of what that was like and use it with Allie, especially being someone who didn’t come from the food world and didn’t know how to cook. It made her evolution very authentic. Once he was out of the picture and she’s running the restaurant, that is all fictitious because that never happened. There are qualities in Allie that I see in myself. How driven she is and how entrepreneurial she is. Ultimately, she is very put together. She has her own apartment, she pays all her bills. That was like me. I was always in a rush to get all that stuff together. I’m very loyal, I’m very all-in. As a writer, I really write what I know so that is what makes it very authentic and very voice-driven.
CA) I also sense that there’s a decent amount of Angela in you as well.
BELDEN) Yeah. The backstory of how Hot Mess came to be is that I dated this chef that everyone wanted to do all these projects with and one day he brought me to a vacant restaurant space in Wicker Park. I was wondering why he brought me there. We got there and this woman was there and she was the already appointed general manager of this restaurant. I was wondering, ‘Did I miss something? Is someone really opening a restaurant?’ I remember also wondering if he wanted me to buy him in. I had these thoughts in my head. The woman that was there, her and I became friends. So even though I didn’t date the chef for a long time, we became very good friends and are still close friends today. A few years ago, we were hanging out and I asked, ‘Do you remember that time? What if I gave that guy my life savings to open up a restaurant?’ She just answered and said, ‘I’ll tell you exactly what would have happened. He would have dipped out at the last minute, you would have been out of $30,000 and you and I would have been sleeping at the restaurant, working 80 hours a week to earn your money back.’ That was it. It was a quick answer, but that was the moment that I knew this book was meant to be written.
CA) Did this chef have a drug issue as well?
BELDEN) Yes, he had some addiction issues in the past and when I dated him I was the only person behind him even though I had no experience with that. The funny thing is, some of the early feedback that I’ve been getting about the book from industry people isn’t about the food or the restaurants. It’s regarding the addiction angle of the book and they are telling me that I absolutely nailed it. For me, it’s not the entire book and it’s not a super dark story, but to have that angle be authentic and to know I got it right is a very big deal because it’s such a sensitive issue.
CA) The social media angle is prevalent throughout the book and you see the generation gap between Allie and Angela when Allie’s looking for re-Tweets and Angela is looking for the Chicago Sun-Times.
BELDEN) Exactly. That’s a good pick up.
CA) It seemed that in some ways Angela was an older version of Allie, but it also seemed that Allie grew a lot. From her knowledge of the restaurant industry, getting that 40-day crash course; but also, she seemed to really grow a lot throughout the book, realizing going for the ‘bad boy’ is not the best route.
BELDEN) Exactly. What’s key for any writer who writes fiction is that you really want your characters to evolve. From chapter one to the end of the book, you really want to see some serious evolution in that person and you want it to be natural and for it to be understandable how they went from point a to point b. And in every single chapter you want them to be doing something. You almost need a little story arc in every single chapter. That’s the bread and butter of a fantastic novel but it’s hard to do.
CA) I think you accomplished what you were trying to do.
CA) This goes back to me saying that I think there is some Angela in you. How does a first-time novelist get a two-book deal?
BELDEN) They signed Hot Mess and one of the things that made it so desirable was that they loved the voice-driven writing, where it feels like I’m sitting you down and telling you a story over coffee or wine. That’s why people finish the book in two days and cancel their plans to finish it. It’s not a very common style of writing and when they signed that book they asked my agent what else does she have. She called me right away and told me that she couldn’t say nothing and said, ‘Tell me you’re working on something but haven’t started it yet and here’s the idea for it.’ So, she and I spent the next hour brainstorming ideas. I kind of had something in mind but I definitely didn’t come anywhere close to putting pen to paper, so her and I busted out a one-page synopsis of a half-cooked idea and sent it to them the same day and they loved it. So, when I signed the two-book deal it was for the manuscript of Hot Mess and this one-page synopsis of this other idea.
CA) And that will be Husband Material?
BELDEN) That’s correct.
CA) Without giving too much away, can you tell me a little about it?
BELDEN) It’s in the beginning stages. It’s completely different than Hot Mess. It’s still voice-driven but it’s a more complex plot. It has to do with a character who is just about to turn 30 and is also a widow, her husband passed away at one of those tough mudder types of race during their first year of marriage. The book takes place five years after his accident when his ashes are returned to her because the mausoleum was in the path of a California wild fire and as a preemptive measure, they returned all the ashes to the next of kin. So, five years later, her husband’s ashes turn up at her doorstep. It’s a story of someone dealing with that, reconciling with that. At this point she’s been a widow longer than she was a wife. It’s a much more complex plot and nothing at all like Hot Mess but still very voice-driven. It’s not a dark story.
Husband Material is slated to be released in March 2019. Hot Mess was recently released. For more information on that, click here.