I had the great pleasure of speaking with Tembi Locke this month, whose debut memoir From Scratch hit the shelves just over a week ago, and it has already landed on the New York Times best-seller list. It is also Reese Witherspoon's pick for her Hello Sunshine book club!
Tembi Locke is an accomplished actor who has appeared in over forty television shows and films, including The Magicians, NCIS: LA, Animal Kingdom and Dumb and Dumber To. She is also a TEDx speaker, and her talk, “What Forty Steps Taught Me About Love and Grief,” traces her journey as a cancer caregiver. She is the creative voice behind The Kitchen Widow, a web series and grief support community that has received mentions in The New York Times and The Guardian.
Tembi's debut memoir From Scratch chronicles three summers she spends in Sicily with her daughter, Zoela, as she begins to piece together a life without her husband in his tiny hometown hamlet of farmers. Where once Tembi was estranged from Saro’s family, now she finds solace and nourishment—literally and spiritually—at her mother in law’s table. In the Sicilian countryside, she discovers the healing gifts of simple fresh food, the embrace of a close knit community, and timeless traditions and wisdom that light a path forward. All along the way she reflects on her and Saro’s incredible romance—an indelible love story that leaps off the pages.
Karin Gutman: When I first met you, you referred to yourself as a Grief Advocate. Can you describe what that is?
Tembi Locke: It’s a term to explain the work I do as a public figure advocating for greater care and connection for family caregivers and grieving families, especially at end-of-life care. The work is born of my direct experience as a long-term caregiver, mother and now widow. I use my personal story to inspire people, communities and health care professionals to call on the art of comfort when it matters most.
Karin: What do you mean by ‘the art of comfort’?
Tembi: “The art of comfort” is a term that refers to the lost art of knowing how to comfort and care for another human being through grief and illness. I borrow it from Val Walker's wonderful book, The Art of Comforting.
Karin: You are an actor by profession, so I’m wondering if moving into the world of writing was a big leap for you?
Tembi: Writing was not a big leap because both acting and writing are, at their core, storytelling. As an actor, I tell a story through behavior using given circumstances. In my work as a writer, I do the same only the characters are on the page.
About three years into my husband’s diagnosis, I started writing to make sense of my lived experience as a young mother and primary caregiver. I thought that I would perhaps write a book on caregiving. That book never got written. However, FROM SCRATCH, as a fully formed book idea, began to come into my imagination years after his death, longer still before I gave myself permission to write it.
Karin: What is the underlying theme of the book? What is it really about?
The book is a cross-cultural love story set largely in Sicily. It has interlacing themes of family, loss, motherhood, identity, forgiveness and the search for home. And it is also a love letter to the natural world and the food I shared at the side of a chef. It has been called Eat Pray Love meets The Year of Magical Thinking and Under the Tuscan Sun. So there’s the sense of embarking on a journey of self-discovery. However, this is one that is prompted by deep grief and plays out through the lens of motherhood.
There is no way to prepare yourself for the internal landscape for life after death. Life is fundamentally different. The book is my attempt to make sense and meaning of such a deep and life altering love and then loss.
The title, FROM SCRATCH, also has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it is directly connected to the theme of food in the book. But it is also about building an improbable love and life from scratch and then having to start over from scratch.
Karin: Can you describe your process of writing the book?
Tembi: Blessedly, I work well with deadlines. Once I sold the book, I created a page count schedule and mini-deadlines in order to deliver the manuscript on time—literally pages per week/month. I dreaded the idea of falling behind or feeling any additional overwhelm than I already felt. So I held myself accountable by working with Shawna Kenney as my weekly coach. She kept me accountable to the schedule. Then I met my “pages per month” goal any way I could. Lots of espresso. Lots of time thinking about the book away from the page. It was challenging, I won’t lie. I often felt the pressure to get more writing in. I had panics in the middle of the night, but learned to use short chunks of time and submitted to the creative fits and starts of it all. And because parts of the story are emotionally wrenching, I also allowed for the light writing days or no writing at all. For me, excavating memory has to be a gentle process.
Karin: Did you document your journey as it was happening? Through your husband’s illness and after his death?
Tembi: I have journaled off and on my entire adult life. Those journals were instrumental in my being able to access memories, as were letters, texts, photographs and emails. I also had over five years of writings and essays from workshops and classes at UCLA.
Karin: What was the most challenging part of the process? The most rewarding?
Tembi: The most challenging part was psychologically convincing myself I could do this—so hard. And it was making peace with the very haphazard writing practice I had while also auditioning, working on set and being a mother. The most rewarding part was when I held a galley of the book in my hand for the first time. There is no feeling like it. I danced and drank champagne.
Karin: Since you’re writing about family, did you need to get permission from family members to put this story out in the world?
Tembi: I chose transparency. My book is set in two countries with three languages. I knew every family member would not be able to read the book. So I felt I had to tell them I was writing the book, share its intent, and be specific about the parts of their story that touched on my story. And, in certain cases, I asked some people if it was okay to include a specific detail.
Karin: Were you ever concerned about writing about your daughter?
Tembi: The book is a love letter to my daughter. I was always aware of her, as both a part of the story and as a future reader.
Karin: What did you discover about your story and yourself through writing the book?
Tembi: I discovered a bravery I didn’t know I had. And honestly, that I am an awful mess during copy edits.
Upcoming Book Events
May 17th / Los Angeles: Diesel Books Luncheon in Los Angeles, 12pm
May 18th / Pasadena: Pasadena LitFest, 3-4pm
June 14th / Houston: Brazos Bookstore, 7-8pm
August 7th / New York City: Bryant Park Reading Series, 12 pm
October 26-27 / Austin: Texas Book Festival