Nancy Mauro is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel New World Monkeys and The Sugar Thief, a novel about a secret pastry recipe that upends the lives of an entire immigrant family. Nancy grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where her Italian-Canadian family owned the bakery that invented the wildly popular (and equally enigmatic) Persian pastry. She now lives in New York City with her husband, children and a rolling pin or two. You can find her online at nancymauro.com.
Shauna Kosoris: What was the inspiration for your new novel, The Sugar Thief?
Nancy Mauro: In the 1960s, my parents became part owners of Bennett’s Bakery in Port Arthur. They inherited the previous owner’s recipes, including one for the Persian pastry. So I grew up hearing stories of the bakery and, of course, the Persian. My parents left the business in the late 70s, but I was fascinated by how this pastry, with its mysterious origins, persisted, generation after generation.
Where did you get the idea for Sabine, the social media influencer who fled Thunder Bay when she was growing up?
After writing multiple versions of this book and trying to capture historical elements of both Thunder Bay and Italian immigration in the mid-century, I realized it really needed a modern, fictional element. So I started with a character who was a little delusional but funny, who’d bought into a very public lifestyle, and who could carry a fast-moving plot. Sabine voices her feelings in a way a historical character wouldn’t dream of doing.
Wanda, Sabine’s producer, is in many ways Sabine’s opposite. Did you always plan to have the two characters together? Or did one grow out of the other?
Once I decided on Sabine, I knew she needed someone who could give her a run for her money but who had a different approach to conflict. As a result, the story is mainly told in the two-person narrative of Sabine and Wanda. So the reader gets a better picture of what’s going on. And it’s fun to watch between your fingers as these two go head-to-head and as one terrible decision gives way to the next.
Why did you decide to weave Francesco’s narrative into the story in chunks, rather than going back and forth between the past and present more equally?
Sabine’s father, Francesco, is a mystery—to her and everyone around her. He holds the key to her past, but he happens to be dead for most of this story. As Sabine starts to unpack the history of the Persian recipe, she realizes that what she’s really doing is unraveling the story of her father. That happens in stages as she teases the information, piece by piece, from the people around her.
In the Walleye piece about The Sugar Thief, you mentioned that you initially spent a lot of time doing research for the book. What was the most interesting fact you discovered?
Arthur Bennett, who created the Persian, also created another regional favorite that Bennett’s Bakery still makes, the Sally Ann. I heard theories about the Persian being named after General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in WWI. Researching Pershing, I learned that along the war front in France, his soldiers were joined by Salvation Army soldiers—250 female volunteers. To boost morale, the “Sally-Ann girls” started forming and frying doughnuts for the troops, using shell casings as rolling pins and empty tin cans as cutters. If you consider the fact that Pershing’s soldiers were nicknamed “the doughboys,” I think we can safely say that the Persian and the Sally Ann were homages to WWI heroes.
Oh wow, most definitely! So what was the most difficult part of writing The Sugar Thief?
The re-writes. The novel started with a lot of biographical information that tied down the story. Once I let that go and fictionalized the characters and the Persian, it began to move.
What are you working on now?
I have a character in mind right now, a female volcanologist. But I also have an 8-year-old, an 18-month-old, and a full-time job.
Good luck with everything! Let’s finish up with a few questions on reading. What book or author inspired you to write?
It’s more of a lifetime of access to books and authors that influenced me. I have the best memories of spending hours in the TBPL as a kid—particularly the Waverley branch. And my older daughter read her first complete sentence at the County Fair Branch several years ago!
That’s wonderful to hear! Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
I wouldn’t want to be that prescriptive; my goal would be to read widely and often. Of course, my own ability to do that changes as I enter different life phases, so I just roll with it. My husband reads non-fiction, and I read fiction. We’ve hoarded so many books over the years, and one day we’ll get around to reading them all.
And what are you currently reading?
I have The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan queued up for the weekend.