Nowhere but Home, bestseller Liza Palmer’s Texan tome, is the kind of novel that sucks you in like sweet tea through a straw—the kind where a talented woman realizes her worth and starts living an authentic life. The kind you might call “chick lit,” if you want to be a jerk about it.
“Ah, ‘chick lit.’ The head-patting, oft times said with an annoyed sigh label forced onto women writers who just thought they were writing ‘books,’” says Palmer. “I think Jennifer Weiner said it best: ‘When men write about relationships and family, it's literature, but when a woman does the same thing it's dismissed as 'chick lit.' If a man writes about a family, it's like, ‘Oh, he's really writing about America.’ If a woman writes about a family, it's just assumed that she's writing about herself.’”
Palmer is writing about Queenie Wake, the daughter of small-town strumpet Brandi-Jaques, who meets an early end when gun-wielding friend Yvonne Chapman catches her in bed with her husband. As soon as she hits 18, Queenie takes off for anyplace but there, cooking in professional kitchens across the country. Over a decade later, she’s fired from a Manhattan hotel for harassing a customer over condiments—“‘Who puts ketchup on eggs?’” she seethes—and, without prospects, temporarily returns home to North Star, Texas. Tortured by her family’s reputation, living with sister Merry Carole and star quarterback nephew Cal and pining for the childhood sweetheart who took a reputable bride, Queenie takes a job cooking last meals for death row inmates that forces her to confront the past.
Capturing the society and culture of rural Texas, from intricate rivalries to the number of hours it takes to smoke a perfect brisket, is an impressive feat—especially for a fourth-generation suburban Californian. Nowhere but Home, Palmer’s fifth novel, is the first to depart California, and the move to Central Daylight Time required copious research. She spent time in Austin, at a Smithville B&B that only offered one VHS movie (Hope Floats, which was filmed in town), and hours exploring Huntsville prison’s website. “Nothing didn’t go past a couple of Texans on the way to publication,” says Palmer. “I knew that if I got anything wrong in this book, forget it: ‘That Californian, let me tell you...’ I would have been skewered.”
Heartthrob professor Hudson Bishop, a rakish Californian studying the psychology of prisoners where Queenie comes to work, is a more familiar character. “I was hoping I’m not as much of a jerk as Hudson is, but we have more similarities than I like,” says Palmer.
One similarity is an interest in what makes people tick. To get inside their heads, Palmer meets her characters on their own terms. “I think you have to identify with all of them, right?” she says. “Queenie was very close to me, as far as trying to jump around from place to place.” Merry Carole is always trying to do the right thing. Queenie’s childhood sweetheart Everett is “trying to do the right thing by everybody, but he does the wrong thing by everybody,” Palmer says. “The only one I don’t identify with is Brandi-Jaques, but I don’t think I’m supposed to.”
Perfecting death row dinners proves to be Queenie’s calling, and it’s only a matter of time before the big one comes up: Yvonne Chapman orders chicken fried steak with cream gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans cooked in bacon fat, one buttermilk biscuit, and a slice of pecan pie with ice cream, aka the Number One. It’s the famous dish Brandi-Jaques used to serve out of a shack–maybe the only good she ever did in her short life—and it’s up to Queenie to make the most of the opportunity to confront her mother’s killer. “That scene absolutely wrecked me,” says Palmer. “I realized that with Yvonne Chapman, the only thing she would want to know was if [Brandi-Jaques’] girls were okay, and Queenie is finally able to rid herself of the shackles that her mom chained on both of them. It was really amazing to see those characters become who they are in that moment.”
Palmer took some time to become who she is: she began writing professionally at age 33. Her first novel, Conversations With the Fat Girl, has been optioned for an HBO series. “It’s one of those careers that you feel calls you, and it’s almost like a curse at the same time. What are you doing to do? You’re going to be the one who gets to do that? Who thinks that?” says Palmer. “I think that’s one of the hardest lessons to learn: to know your own worth.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @mlabrise.