Sweet secrets

September 2022

Is it cherry? Is it strawberry? What about raspberry? Is it an exotic blend of fruits or simply heaps and heaps of bubblegum-pink sugar? It’s a question that has boggled Thunder Bay for decades - what IS the secret of the Persian’s distinctive pink icing?

Author Nancy Mauro isn’t about to spill the jellybeans.

“I wouldn’t divulge the secret of the real Persian—even if I knew it,” says Mauro about her new novel, The Sugar Thief. “I created a fictional version to show the great care that went into crafting it, handing it down, and finally recreating it.

The fictional recipe had to be complex and dramatic enough to undergo several lifecycles.”

The Sugar Thief is about a social media influencer from Toronto who returns to her home of Thunder Bay for her father’s funeral and hoping to shoot to YouTube stardom by sharing the secrets of the family’s bakery. It’s vaguely autobiographical, as Mauro is the daughter of Ralph Mauro, co-owner of the local Bennett’s Bakery/Nucci’s Bakery line. Her father, along with his brother Vince Mauro and cousin Mario Nucci, are credited with making the city’s iconic ‘Persian’ famous. Originally invented by Art Bennett, the Persian was thought to be named after WWII general

John J. Pershing, but somehow, over the years, the name was changed.

“As young men, my father, his brother, and their cousin scraped together enough to buy Bennett’s Bakery in Port Arthur,” says Mauro. “What they inherited with that bakery was a pastry we now call the Persian. Over time, it became a local favorite, and long after my dad left the bakery business, the Persian became pretty famous. Growing up, my family upheld the Italian culture they’d left behind, even though they had to assimilate, in many ways, to the new world. So, I started to see the Persian as this quirky symbol of letting go of the old world and reaching for something unknown in the new. From there on, I let go of the autobiographical and created fictional characters who could bring this to life.”

With such a wealth of personal history from the outset, I was curious as to how The Sugar Thief came to be, and whether it was a sudden inspiration or long slow percolation of story threads.

“It took me over ten years to write this book!” laughs Mauro. “I wrote thirty-four versions before I could admit that the story wasn’t coming together satisfyingly. I shelved it for a long stretch. Then, one day, right before the pandemic hit, my editor at Penguin Random House Canada called me and asked if I was ready to take another crack at it. We were all home-bound in New York City, and I had a bit more time to write without the daily commute to the advertising agency where I work. I re-plotted and re-wrote it in a year and sent it off to my publisher the week before my second daughter was born.”

There’s a famous debate in writing circles – plotting (drafting a story outline) vs pantsing (seat of your pants make it up as you go.) I asked Mauro which side of the fence she fell on.

“I’m a Plotter in many ways,” Mauro says. “The structure, the characters—their tensions and motivations--I need to have a grasp on it all before I start. But when it comes to research, I dig in when I have to. Research adds color and accuracy, but it’s easy to get lost in those details.”

Mauro has worked as an advertising copywriter in both Canada and the U.S. and lives with her family in Brooklyn. Her debut novel, New World Monkeys, was a USA Today “New Voices” selection and was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books. It’s also based in a small town, and I asked her if her life growing up in Thunder Bay shaped her as a writer.

“I never really saw Thunder Bay as a small town,” Mauro admits. “I have lots of family here, which gave me a sense of security to be a curious person and a storyteller. I think we make manageable environments for ourselves wherever we are. Over the years, my neighbourhood in Brooklyn has taken on a small-town feeling. We walk everywhere, know the shopkeepers, and always run into friends on the sidewalk. And yet, there are 114,000 people in the neighborhood alone.”

With two successful novels under her belt, I asked Mauro for a hint of her next project!

“All I know about it right now is that it involves a strong female protagonist and a volcano!” she laughs. “So, stay tuned.”

If anyone can pull it off with wit and heart, it will be Mauro! Check out her website at www.nancymauro.com. The Sugar Thief and New World Monkeys are available online and in bookstores around the world.

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at www.hleightondickson.com

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