Today we will get to know CNN producer and debut author Mayra Cuevas. Her book SALTY, BITTER, SWEET releases today.
Seventeen-year-old aspiring chef Isabella Fields’ family life has fallen apart after the death of her Cuban abuela and the divorce of her parents. She moves in with her dad and his new wife in France, where Isabella feels like an outsider in her father’s new life, studiously avoiding the awkward, “Why did you cheat on Mom?” conversation.
The upside of Isabella’s world being turned upside down? Her father’s house is located only 30 minutes away from the restaurant of world-famous Chef Pascal Grattard, who runs a prestigious and competitive international kitchen apprenticeship. The prize job at Chef Grattard’s renowned restaurant also represents a transformative opportunity for Isabella, who is desperate to get her life back in order.
But how can Isabella expect to hold it together when she’s at the bottom of her class at the apprenticeship, her new stepmom is pregnant, she misses her abuela dearly, and a mysterious new guy and his albino dog fall into her life?
Crystal: Mayra, thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your writing life and your debut novel SALTY, BITTER, SWEET. What does writing mean to you and when did you begin to consider yourself a writer?
Mayra: It was in the eighth grade. I was really into Julia de Burgos’ poetry back then and only beginning to understand the healing power of the written word. Julia’s work inspired me to write my own poems, as a way to cope with some difficulties at home. After many tries, I wrote a poem that I thought was pretty good — about how your feelings can be like a storm. My English teacher at the time, Mr. Antonio Colorado, was this super encouraging person. He knew I loved books and always lent me new titles to read and pushed me to work harder on my poetry. I gave him a copy of the poem I had written and he asked me if he could read it in class. I agreed, under the condition that he did not reveal my name. I mean, it was eighth grade, I didn’t want this to be the end of my social life. But when he read it, everyone went quiet and listened. And something magical happened, I felt connected to everyone in the room. In that moment, my words mattered and I felt seen for probably the first time. And what was even more amazing, after he read the poem, there was a discussion and people were talking about my words and how it affected them. I’ll never forget it.
Crystal: How has your career as a journalist prepared you for writing young adult novels? Was it a fairly smooth transition?
Mayra: No! (laughs hysterically) I *thought* it would be a smooth transition! But boy was I wrong. When I started writing fiction back in 2012 I remember thinking, ‘Oh I’ve been a professional journalist for over ten years, how hard can it be to write a novel?’ Well, as it turns out, writing a novel is very hard. And getting published is even harder. But there are two skills that transferred from journalism into publishing: 1) resilience and 2) working with editors.
Years of getting my story pitches rejected prepared me for the soul-crushing rejection I faced in the publishing world. My first manuscript was rejected by 200 agents! And somehow I managed to keep going.
My news background also prepared me to work with editors. I had lots of practice getting my news stories edited, nitpicked and pulled apart — that’s just the nature of the news business. And it’s no different in publishing.
Crystal: I’m guessing you’ve spent quite a bit of time in kitchens. What are some of your most interesting cooking experiences or other memorable moments around food?
Mayra: I’m a total foodie so when it came time to research Salty, Bitter, Sweet I went all out!
I reached out to the amazing Carla Tomasko, the pastry chef at Bacchanalia, one of Atlanta’s top restaurants. She agreed to serve as my guide through the workings of a real high-end kitchen. She also shared her story of working as a woman in a male-dominated environment and as an immigrant from Ecuador. She also recounted how her Latin roots helped shape her craft.
The time I spent in Bacchanalia’s kitchen was amazing! I got to see how the executive chefs prepared the day’s menu, how they selected ingredients and crafted the most exquisite dishes. All the while, I was taking copious notes of every detail I could use to make Isa’s journey as authentic as possible. I think it paid off because it seems to be everyone’s favorite part of the book!
Crystal: What do you love most about your characters Isa and Diego?
Mayra: They are two young people who are going through their own private pain — as we all do. At first, Isa sees him as a threat to the delicate balance of her new life. And in a way she is right to feel threatened, because Diego has arrived to upend everything she thought she wanted. In turn, Isa will help Diego make peace with his own life decisions.
Yes, there are some romantic moments, but it’s mostly about meeting someone who sees you for the first time and loves you in spite of all the broken bits.
Crystal: Though some things in Isa’s life seem to have some relationship to parts of your own life, were there things you needed to research as you wrote your way through this story?
Mayra: There were two main veins of research: the world of haute cuisine and the multiple locations where the book is set — six cities in total.
For the kitchen research, I interviewed and spent time with two amazing female chefs: Carla Tomasko, the pastry chef at Bacchanalia, one of Atlanta’s top restaurants, and Daniella Fitzgerald, who spends her days cooking for rich folks in yachts. She had some hilarious stories!
I also read memoirs like 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line by Veronica Chambers and Eric Ripert, and watched documentaries like Pressure Cooker and Three Stars.
For the travel research I watched a million YouTube videos and read as many travel blogs. I also engaged an all-things-France expert to make sure every detail of Isa’s journey through Lyon was authentic.
Crystal: Are any of your favorite foods mentioned in the story? Can you tell us about one or two?
Mayra: Like Isa and her abuela Lala I enjoy bridging my two worlds by making Spanish flan and All-American apple pie — my husband’s favorite.
The flan recipe belongs to my Venezuelan friend Paula. I love that recipe because it’s been handed down through generations and it survived a political revolution.
Crystal: Have there been any big surprises along the road to publication?
Mayra: The most amazing surprise was being invited to join Las Musas, a Latina authors collective. These women are incredibly talented, supportive and generous. The founders did a wonderful job of creating a space where we can uplift each other and our work, share important news, and have each other’s back. I love these women and I’m humbled and proud to be part of this community.
Crystal: Are there any current YA books that you wish had existed when you were younger?
Mayra: All of the books from Las Musas!
Crystal: *Hurries off to visit the webpage for Las Musas* That looks like a wonderful group! Can you tell us anything about your current projects or your writing plans for the future?
Mayra: My short story Resilient will be published as part of the anthology FORESHADOW: The Magic of Reading & Writing YA (Algonquin Young Readers). I’m also co-writing a novel with Atlanta author Marie Marquardt, which can be best described as a feminist unicorn.
Crystal: Thanks again for your willingness to share your time and even your recipe with us! We wish you all the best with your debut.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Mayra Cuevas is a professional journalist and fiction writer who prefers love stories with a happy ending. Her debut novel, SALTY, BITTER, SWEET, launched March 3 with HarperCollins/Blink. Her debut fiction short story was selected by best-selling author Becky Albertalli to appear in the Foreshadow serial anthology Issue 04 in April 2019. She is currently a special projects producer and writer for CNN. She keeps her sanity by practicing Buddhist meditation and serving on the Board of Directors of Kadampa Meditation Center Georgia. She lives with her husband, also a CNN journalist, and their cat, in the charming town of Norcross, Georgia. She is also the step-mom to two amazing young men who provide plenty of inspiration for her stories. You can visit her online at mayracuevas.com.