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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cassandra Cookbook Easter Eggs

The first draft of The Cassandra Cookbook was completed in 2004. It was about 350 pages and 71,000 words. At the request of some literary agents who felt the story didn’t have enough detail, beefed up the books descriptions to make the original 87,000 word manuscript.

The original title of the novel was Integrity Sucks. I felt it was too cynical and changed it to The Cassandra Cookbook.

Originally, the main focus of the book was supposed to be the Simon James character. I switched the focus to Cassandra Lee to craft a more balanced storyline and to appeal to female readers.

Cassandra is the fourth novel I’ve written using a revolving first-person perspective. The first is the unpublished The Changing Soul, The second is Isis and the third is The Temptation of John Haynes. I often use revolving first person for novels because I feel it allows the reader become involved with the story and to make observations about what’s going on.

I started writing the Cassandra Cookbook in November of 2003 after a major period of depression. I took a receptionist job at a law firm in 2002 where things didn’t work out. After I lost that job, family and friends blamed me for that failure, and I blamed myself. It was only years later that I learned I was discriminated against by that employer and that “bad attitude” people thought I had was me reacting to the racist treatment I was receiving on the job. Looking back, I should have known something was wrong when they were talking about hiring someone else when I was at the interview. 90 days later they offered me the receptionist position as a consolation three months later. Lesson Learned for me from those experiences were to decline any job offer from employers talking about hiring someone else or that doesn’t’ come within two weeks.

Dealing with so much stress, I wanted some sunshine in my life. Which is why The Cassandra Cookbook has such an upbeat whimsical tone. The mood I wanted to set for Cassandra was similar to 1960’s Doris-Day/Audrey Hepburn movies. Cassandra was supposed to be cute and sophisticated with a bit of quirkiness; a romantic comedy with its own unique visual style and style of humor. I really needed to laugh then so I decided to write a comedy instead of my usual dark dramas.

While I was inspired by modern influences of films like Clockwatchers, Strictly Business, and The Frank Grimes episode of The Simpsons “Homer’s Enemy”, The Cassandra Cookbook was originally designed to be an African-American romantic comedy about the workplace in the style of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.

I’ve always been a big fan of Billy Wilder’s films like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. Wilder’s comedy was often subtle and sophisticated with a deeper underlying social message commenting on society between the lines of his stories.

With Cassandra I wanted to make a commentary about African-Americans in the workplace. Moreover, I wanted to make a commentary on ethics and getting ahead. So many people think it’s okay to get ahead at any price and will step on the next man to get that success. What they don’t consider is how other people pay for their actions.

ITC Foods is inspired by the black-owned Parks Sausage corporation.

Cassandra Lee is inspired by actress Salli Richardson. As I was planning the Cassandra Cookbook (Integrity Sucks then) I was stuck. One day in 2003 I was watching The Jamie Foxx Show in reruns and caught the episode Salli guested in and got so inspired I got a breakthrough on the development of the Cassandra Lee Character. I always saw great potential for comedy in Salli, and I always believed Wilder’s quirky comedy style would be a great fit for her sophisticated presence.

Salli Richardson is also the inspiration for the character E’steem in Isis and The Temptation of John Haynes. Yeah, I base a lot of characters on Salli. But that’s because she’s a great actress.

In the name Casandra Lee The reader can find Sara Lee, reference to Sara Lee baked goods.

The name Cassandra Lee is inspired by B-movie hostess Elvira and the Sara Lee bakery. Elvira’s real name is Cassandra Peterson, and I’ve always admired her efforts as a businesswoman. Over 25 years she’s turned the Elvira character into a licensing and merchandising empire.

The story of the Cassandra bakery is loosely inspired by the true story of the Sara Lee Bakery. The Sara Lee bakery was originally named after the owner’s daughter. After reading about the history of the Sara Lee bakery, and how the father sold off the store I came up with the idea of a family business being sold off to a corporation.

I set the story of The Cassandra Cookbook in Downtown Brooklyn because I feel that shopping district is highly underrated. I thought it was a great place to tell a unique New York Story. The outer boroughs like The Bronx and Brooklyn have some great neighborhoods, but rarely does anyone pay attention to them because everyone is so focused on Manhattan. I felt it was time to give Downtown Brooklyn its due.

Cassandra was originally supposed to live in Greenpoint Brooklyn, but after my sister and I took a trip to Brooklyn to go to the Department of Education we got lost and wound up in Brooklyn Heights. I fell in love with the brownstones and tree-lined streets there and changed the setting to that neighborhood. Brooklyn Heights is a great neighborhood with lots of unique shops and atmosphere. Very quiet and very serene.

Brooklyn Heights is actually the same neighborhood where The Huxtables lived in during the run of The Cosby show. Downtown Brooklyn is a short walk or drive away.

Cassandra’s pink Escalade is a car that reflects her character. It’s strong and stylish. The pink color represents her quirky style.

Cassandra’s bedroom is very significant to the story. A woman’s bedroom is her personal space, the one where she puts her personal touch on a home. It’s her comfort zone, where she expresses herself and where she feels most comfortable. This personal space is decorated with her accomplishments as a baker and shows how hardworking and creative she is.

When Cassandra moves out of the bedroom into the home office, it symbolizes how she is being taken out of her comfort zone. In the home office she has to adapt to a new approach to business. It’s only when she’s comfortable in the new business environment that she returns to the bedroom.

The color pink is used throughout Cassandra’s business because it’s considered soothing and relaxing. I read in an article that some insane asylums and prisons paint the walls of their institutions pink as a way to help control the inmates moods. I felt correlating pink with comfort food in retail would be

Cassandra’s best friend Molly Follows is inspired by actress Queen Latifah.

Molly’s restaurant Perch is inspired by many of the quirky shops I experienced while walking around DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in Brooklyn when I was going to a job interview in 1999. It’s a great neighborhood with very unique and original stores and quirky restaurants with great atmosphere. DUMBO is place I’d recommend people check out whenever they’re in New York City. Highly underrated.

The character of Gerald Davis was based on several college educated black men I had the displeasure of working with at STRIVE and other jobs I had. Many brothas with college degrees I’ve run into are often arrogant, condescending and conceited. I thought that this kind of brotha would make for an excellent antagonist for Cassandra. I also felt Gerald would be a nice contrast to Simon and Carlton, who are down-to-earth easygoing guys.

Cassandra’s fiancĂ© Gerald’s attitude toward homosexuality is a statement I wanted to make about the issue of Down Low in the Black community. I wanted readers to understand the issue of down low men centers around honesty, not homosexuality.

I felt it was dishonest for a man to mislead a woman by pursuing a committed relationship with her while pursuing men on the side. A relationship to me is about two people coming together to know each other intimately. If one of the partners isn’t being open and honest about their intentions from the start then the relationship is doomed to fail.

I also wanted to make a statement about how Down Low men had a sense of entitlement. Many black males who operate on the Down Low are extremely selfish and think the world should revolve around them. I feel it takes a tremendous amount of hubris for a man to believe that people have to share him in order to be involved in a committed relationship with them. Moreover, these men are so selfish that they don’t consider the risks they’re putting both their male and female partners at for veneral diseases and HIV.

Gerald is the third man to get kicked in the nuts in one of my stories. The others are Adam The Clown in All About Marilyn and Lucifer towards the end of The Temptation of John Haynes.

Carlton Lee is inspired by the icon Harry Belafonte. I wanted Carlton to be a rock solid salt-of-the earth guy with a big heart and a kind soul, a neighborhood guy who took pride in what he did and how he did it. His shop wasn’t just a store, but a part of himself. Harry Belafonte to me seemed to be that kind of guy in real life.

Helen Lee is inspired by the legendary Dihann Caroll. Dihann Caroll has an elegance and sophistication that I’ve always admired. Plus Helen’s ambition for success was a great contrast to Carlton’s easy everyday approach to business.

Simon James is a character based on myself. The character’s career at a Midtown Manhattan 9 to 5 office job is something I always wanted to have for myself, but could never really achieve after college.

The Dead End Road sign in Simon’s cubicle symbolizes his frustration at his lack of growth at ITC.

Simon’s creativity and imagination are shown in his sarcastic celebration of 9 years at ITC by putting a candle in a muffin and making a wish.

The Simon James character is supposed to be an everyman, a regular brotha everyone can relate to and identify with. Joe Average. He’s a clean-cut guy who plays by the book. He was supposed to grow into a guy who starts using his creativity and imagination to make things work for him.

Simon James is actually the second of three characters based on myself, The first character based on me is John Haynes, in The temptation of John Haynes, and the third is Eric James in All About Marilyn.

The name Simon is my father’s name and my middle name. I wanted to pay tribute to my father with this character.

Laura Charles is inspired by actress Jada Pinkett. As I was writing Laura I imagined Jada Pinkett playing her. Laura was supposed to provide a contrast to Simon’s straight-laced ethical approach to business, and a foil to Simon’s boss David comedically.

The name Laura Charles is from Vanity’s character in the movie The Last Dragon. The Last Drargon is one of my favorite movies. I always go out of my way to mention The Last Dragon and House Party in my novels in some way because both are unique one-of-a-kind films I feel everyone should see at least once in their lives.

Rob Carson is inspired by actor Charles S. Dutton. I’ve loved Dutton’s work since I first saw him in Roc back in the day. I thought he’d be great to voice a tough yet friendly boss.

Rob’s character is neutral and this neutrality is reflected in his grey suits and transparent desk and office furniture.

David Bennett is inspired by actor Keith David. I’ve always been a fan of David’s work and I’ve always wanted to see how he’d handle being a straight man in a comedy.

David’s greasy hair symbolizes how slimy and dishonest he is about business. David is a shallow character who focuses on external image than internal character. That’s why he wears the designer suits It’s also why his office is so uninspired. He’s a man of few ideas and little imagination.

I always thought Charles Dutton and Keith David would make for a wonderful comedy team not unlike the the late Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in Trading Places. I often imagined them trading barbs with lightning fast wit.

Smitty is inspired by actor Richard Roundtree. He’s supposed to be an old-school savvy business guy with a bit of smooth style.

#3C is the apartment I lived in at 3430 Park Avenue in The Bronx.

167th Street is the street I used to live on when I lived at 3430 Park Avenue in The Bronx.

The Cassandra Cookbook was the first book to get serious attention from literary agents. After submitting over 400 e-mail queries over 2004-2006 I got over 25 requests for partials and one request for a full manuscript.

Unfortunately they were all rejections.

I wanted to self publish the book in 2007, but my six-year-old Dell Inspiron 2500 died. Being broke and jobless, I had to revise the book by hand using loose-leaf paper.

In 2008 when I finally found a new job I invested the paychecks from the first 90 days of working towards self-publishing The Cassandra Cookbook. I spent over two thousand dollars promoting Cassandra, giving out copies to vendors, sending books to book clubs and bookstores.

For all my efforts the Cassandra Cookbook was a critical success, but a financial failure. To date, The Cassandra Cookbook is the worst performing title of all the books I’ve self-published with just six copies sold.

The lessons I learned from the failed Cassandra Campaign were not to be so generous in handing out books. Especially when I found out one of the copies I gave out wound up in the trash.

I also learned to be a bit more thorough on editing. And to be more careful with cover design. The Cassandra Cover is reviled by the public especially most African-Americans. I caught so much hell for making the Cassandra character blonde and light skinned. Many called me color struck, which I took extreme offense to.

I also learned not to be so eager in promoting a book. Sometimes something we love the public hates. Since the failure of The Cassandra Cookbook I’ve scaled back my promotions to a bare minimum.

I was deeply hurt by the poor reception The Cassandra Cookbook got. Even more disappointed from the reception it got African-American readers. Many thought it was an actual cookbook and not a novel despite the fact that it was denoted right under my name. I thought brothers and sisters were smart enough to understand a figure of speech or a tongue-in-cheek reference, but at the Harlem Book fair I was proven wrong. Two years straight.

I had high hopes for Cassandra’s story and I really believed in it. I thought Black folks would like a quirky intelligent comedy with a positive message. Unfortunately, Most didn’t get the humor, and many more just didn’t like the way it was written. Most missed the visual imagery on the surface and the literary subtext buried beneath the storyline. I don’t know if I want to ever write a full-length comedy novel ever again.

Because of the poor performance of Cassandra, I delayed the eBook release for three years. I couldn’t stand to look at Cassandra’s manuscript for a long time. It took a lot for me to go back to those pages and re-edit them to prepare the eBook for release this year.

Now that I’ve finished re-editing for the eBook I’m taking the original Cassandra Cookbook out of print and putting it out of its misery. After three years with no sales, I feel there’s no need in throwing good money after bad. The revised eBook will remain in print for those who want it re-titled A Recipe for $ucce$$. You can get a copy for free on Smashwords.

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