Kim-Joy is wearing heart-shaped sunglasses indoors. She says she gets migraines from the harsh lights in the office she’s sitting in, so she brought them to protect her vision, and why wear plain sunglasses when they could be heart-shaped? But that’s the thing about Kim-Joy, who’s also wearing a pink and orange spotted sweater and has streaks of pastel in her hair — she never settles for the merely practical.
As the runner-up in the ninth series of the Great British Bake Off, Kim-Joy has built her baking career on her adorable, colorful creations, many of which resemble animals. She even has an entire book dedicated to bakes that look like cats. But beneath the cutesiness, there’s deeper purpose. Kim-Joy has been up front about her struggles with anxiety, and how baking helped her open up. Now, she’s channeled those themes into a new creative endeavor — not a bake, but a graphic novel.
Turtle Bread, written by Kim-Joy and illustrated by Alti Firmansyah, will be published in e-book format on May 2, with a print edition published in the fall. The story follows Yan, a shy woman who joins a baking club, and slowly begins to, well, come out of her shell. “Turtle bread is a metaphor throughout the story,” says Kim-Joy; it symbolizes the good that can come out of being vulnerable. And it’s filled with illustrated recipes for Kim-Joy’s favorite bakes, like Victoria sponge, “pigfiteroles,” and of course melonpan buns, aka turtle bread.
Kim-Joy wants to bring joy into her readers’ lives, whether that’s through baking or by assuring them that, whatever they’re facing, there are people out there who will support and love them. I spoke to Kim-Joy about turning her creativity to fiction writing, finding the confidence to apply for Bake Off, and why everyone should try drawing cat ears on their cookies. Plus, read on for an an excerpt from Turtle Bread.
Eater: You’ve already published cookbooks, you’ve already written about yourself in other places. What made you want to expand into fiction?
Kim-Joy: It’s something that I knew that I wanted to do. In my baking, I love magical bonkers things, so I guess people might assume that I’d write something fictional that’s sort of fantasy-based, but actually it’s more like the things that I love reading myself. I love reading books about mental health and people’s stories, where it’s all character-driven with people who aren’t quite perfect in some way.
Are there any novels or graphic novels or anything else that you were reading that really inspired you here?
There’s a film called Mary and Max, it’s a claymation film about a little girl who grows up over the course of the film. She has a lot of mental health issues and very low self esteem, and she gets a random phone number and starts a pen-pal relationship with this old man in America who’s autistic. In a way they’re totally different, but they also bring a lot of comfort to each other. It’s really dark and sad, but also funny. I love that film and I don’t think you see an intergenerational friendship that often.
So that’s where the idea of an intergenerational friendship as the basis of my story came about. The main character, Yan, a lot of her experiences are based on experiences that I’ve had with social anxiety and low self-esteem issues. And she joins this baking club and befriends Bea, and she’s a lot older and she’s vibrant, she seems super confident. But they both benefit from each other, and then they’re both vulnerable in different ways.
What made you think that a graphic novel was the best medium to tell this story? And How did it come about that you developed this?
I was chatting to Chip [Mosher] when he used to be at ComiXology, and my partner Nabil has his games and comic book shops, so it’s always something I’ve been surrounded with. I think a visual medium tells a story really well, and Alti [Firmansyah] did an amazing job. There’s also the recipe sections, because I love Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up, and how there’s these little segments on how to tidy things up. So I interject a bit of that, but baking rather than tidying.
There have been quite a few graphic novel cookbooks to come out in recent years, and it’s such a good way to bring you through a recipe and show you what you need to do without either a million photographs or trying to parse a really dense paragraph of writing.
There’s a beauty of it being illustrated. Because I’ve done a few cookbooks now, when the photographer comes and takes a picture, it’s so different from real life. You’ve got the perfect lighting and everything’s so controlled, but real life isn’t like that. And I feel like an illustration is something that more people can relate to, rather than the perfect photo.
How did you go about choosing which recipes you wanted to include in this book, and recipes that fit the narrative that you were constructing?
Obviously it’s called Turtle Bread, so I had to have that in it. Turtle bread is a metaphor throughout the story. Other bakes are just ones that I love. I love bakes with faces and bakes with a bit of personality, and with those you can see how each different character decorates in their own way. It can reflect some of their personalities through the baking.
You’ve obviously become known for a lot of your cute bakes, but it’s also clear from all your recipes that these require a lot of technique and skill. I’m curious, do you ever worry that people maybe miss the skill because they’re like, “Oh this pigfiterole is so cute”?
I think it’s more so that most people look at it and go, “Oh I can never make that.” That’s definitely the reaction I get rather than people looking at it and going, “Oh, yeah, I could do that. That’s okay.” What I worry about more is people not giving it a go because it might look intimidating, but I guess maybe that links into what I was saying before: Because it’s illustrated, it actually looks more accessible in that form.
I find a lot of people look at the cookbooks and say, “Oh that’s too hard.” Even though I write bits with ways to adapt recipes to make it easier. And in my newest cookbook I’ve put little pauses to indicate difficulties to try and get everyone to bake stuff. I don’t want it to be just people who are good at baking. I consider myself a bit of an experimental baker and I like to make mistakes along the way and see what happens. I think we should just bake, and if it doesn’t work out in the end, it’s fine. It’s a process.
You’ve mentioned in a couple interviews that you really started making friends through baking. Did you have your own baking club? What were the experiences you were thinking about when you wrote Yan?
The first time I really met people who were into baking was actually when I went on Bake Off. I loved baking because you could make something and give it to somebody and it makes you feel productive and useful, you bring a smile to people’s faces, and it’s such a great thing for your confidence. I was in a board game club where I met Nabil, and I brought him a bake. I think that brought us together.
I really struggled with Bake Off, but also it increased my confidence. So the baking club in the story is all fictional but rooted in my Bake Off experience. None of the characters is exactly one person, but there’s little elements of people who I met in the tent, about how different people approach their baking.
What gave you the confidence to even apply to Bake Off in the first place?
I don’t know, it just sounds like a really bizarre thing [to] go apply for a TV show about my hobby I really love and be judged about it! But I’d been into baking for a little while and friends said, “You should apply for this show.” And I was like, “No, I couldn’t ever do that.” It’s still a bit surreal to me that I went on the show. But then I met my partner Nabil through board games, and my confidence started to really grow after meeting him. You know when you feel like you get a stable base, you feel like you can venture out a bit?
My social anxiety has gotten a lot better and it’s partly been through saying yes to the things that terrify me the most. So I went to university and I was like, “I’ve just got to try and make friends, going to go out and do this and do that and join this board game club and keep trying to push myself.” I think Bake Off was basically the next extreme step.
This story does deal so much with anxiety, and you’ve been really open about your experiences both for yourself and also working with people with anxiety. What do you hope people learn about that from this book?
All the characters are lonely in their own way, and all experience their own issues, but it’s the baking that brings them together. So it’s about learning that just because you might seem okay on the outside, it doesn’t reflect your inside. I hope it’s a comfort to people who do experience anxiety, social anxiety or any kind of mental illness or mental health issues, or anyone who feels different and doesn’t quite fit in as well.
I work with a charity called the Wren Bakery, which is local to me in Leeds, and in a way that is also an inspiration for the comic because it’s a charity and a cafe working with women who face a lot of disadvantages, and gives them opportunities towards employment, gives them baking skills and barista skills. They can work in the cafe and get psychotherapy at the same time. I think therapy is so daunting, to go into a therapy session and start talking about yourself, it’s a bit weird. So baking is such a nice intermediary thing. You can talk or you can just bake, it’s nice to have an activity that you’re centered on. That’s another inspiration, looking at how baking and mental health are so interlinked.
Both writing and baking are these processes of creation, right, and I’m curious how you’d compare the two?
It’s definitely a new skill. At first when I was writing the comic, even though I had the story fully in my brain, it was just making sure I got it out in the right kind of way. So I felt like I did a lot more. With writing a comic there’s a lot more sitting down. I love creating. Whether it’s baking or whether it’s writing, that’s my favorite thing about having been on the show — being able to create and do what I love.
What kind of things are you baking these days? What recipes are you excited about?
Because I’ve just released my cat themed baking book, Bake Me a Cat, I’ve been doing a lot of cat-themed baking. Most recently I did some calico cat cookies. It’s just a shortbread dough and you can color it a bit orange, and a bit brown with some cocoa powder, and roll it out, and then you get your cat cutters and you can stamp different shapes out, and it’s really fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
An excerpt from Turtle Bread:
Excerpted from TURTLE BREAD courtesy of Comixology Originals.