KJ Dell’Antonia’s newest novel “The Chicken Sisters” tells the story of two rivaling chicken restaurants and the drift it causes between a family. This topic is familiar to Southeast Kansas (SEK), home of rivaling fried chicken restaurants Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s. “The Chicken Sisters,” inspired by the two restaurants, was chosen as Reese Witherspoon’s December Book Club pick.
Dell’Antonia, who grew up in both Texas and Kansas, was raised alongside SEK’s rivaling chicken restaurants, as they often visited Pittsburg and Frontenac to see family. Even so, she said she never knew the story behind the two restaurants’ rivalry, sparking the idea for “The Chicken Sisters.”
“… The chicken restaurants, I mean, we only ate at Chicken Annie’s because we were a Chicken Annie’s family and that’s how it seemed to work,” Dell’Antonia said. “And I just loved the ritual of it, and also, I was also fascinated and curious, but I guess I never asked—why were there two, right? That were not apparently related but had to be related. So, it stuck in my mind forever and ever and ever, and … when I got around to doing it this time, I guess, I just sort of went looking for a story that fit that. And at some point my mom was like, ‘do you want to know the real story behind Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s?’ and I was like, ‘no, no, no! That’s a terrible idea, do not tell me the real story.’ So, whatever the real story is, and I’m su0re it’s more than what they have on their website—which I have read at this point—I still don’t know it.”
“The Chicken Sisters” follows the stories of sisters Mae and Amanda Moore, and rival fried chicken restaurants Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s, in small Kansas town Merinac as they all are put to the test. Dell’Antonia said one thing she knew from the get-go was that she wanted her story to take place in Kansas “for many reasons.” One reason being that not many stories take place in Kansas.
“… I wanted to have that sort of wonderful, warm town that people are often looking for when they’re looking for a fun book, and I wanted to have it be in this place that I am from—because we went from Texas to Kansas when I was in my early teens and then I lived in Kansas, but never Pittsburg or Frontenac,” she said. “Anyway, it’s like people only say bad things about it, so I wanted to do the good thing. …”
With her novel getting picked up by Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club, it has left Dell’Antonia at a loss of words. Dell’Antonia said the emotional side of how it feels is like “having your favorite teacher give you a big, fat A.”
“How it feels is, like, oh I’ve lost the word,” Dell’Antonia said. “But, she’s really good … I wasn’t necessarily intentionally setting out to read her picks in past years, although I have since becoming one of them, but I’ve often read them and they consistently do what I hoped to do, which was to write a story that grabs a reader and pulls them in and takes them to a different place. She’s really good at seeing that, and so it’s enormously gratifying to have somebody that is that great at picking stuff—you know, tap her fairy wand on me. So, there’s that piece of it that is sort of like, you know you finish your book and even though it gets published you’re always like, well, is it a good one? You can’t tell anymore by the time you’ve dug into it; you don’t know, you can feel pretty confident that it must at least be OK or it wouldn’t be getting out there. …”
Dell’Antonia described the experience as a “huge launching pad,” saying she is “honored and thrilled” to have Witherspoon’s recommendation for her SEK-inspired novel.
“I got to take over their Instagram, and now I’m sort of part of the team,” she said. “That’s really cool. And the book sold more, and when a book sells more, then a book sells more. That’s the way it works, like the more it sells the more book stores bring it in and the more people see it and the more people read it. And, Reese’s word is enough for Target, and Costco, and Walmart … So, the biggest thing it means is just more visibility and opportunity to do what I love to do. I already have a second book with my editor and I’m working on my third.”
Not only did Dell’Antonia intend for “The Chicken Sisters” to bring to life a fictional story inspired by two real life, Kansas chicken restaurants, but she also worked to discuss the idea of what makes a happy family. The novel was directly influenced by Dell’Antonia’s time covering the personal and policy of family with the New York Times.
“… We had everything we needed for that to be happy, like we all had—lots of people with a roof over their head, the full refrigerator, and a job—still feeling really pressured and unhappy around this life that we had created for ourselves,” she said. “So, I think that definitely fed ‘The Chicken Sisters’ because Mae and Amanda have a lot, they want more, they’re trying to figure out what that more looks like.”
For Dell’Antonia, she said she can see herself in her characters as they experience this search for happiness—especially both Mae and Amanda, even with their differing personalities and lifestyles within the novel.
“Yeah, I mean I think probably every author—we’re all in all of our stories,” she said. “… I feel both those ways, I would say I’m definitely more of a Mae than an Amanda, I definitely wanted to get out of Kansas, I was super ambitious, wanted to do things I didn’t think I could do there, but have realized as I got older that there are some more important things that I didn’t realize were important when I was young and so badly wanting to leave. … And I think that a lot of us, no matter where you’re from, find ourselves in that position of really struggling to figure out what it is that we can strive for in life that’s actually going to make us happy, and then that’s really frustrating because if we don’t know who knows, right? So, I wanted to show these women struggling with that and with each other, and with that sort of feeling that thing I did not do is the thing that would have been better.”
While Dell’Antonia still has yet to find out the real story behind Pittsburg’s and Frontenac’s rivaling Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s, she said she is curious and has started to look.
“… I would love to know how they got started,” she said. “I know they say on their website, and it’s a little bit like Chicken Frannie’s and Chicken Mimi’s, you know a coal mining town, but that’s just what Pittsburg is … But I would love to know how there came to be two of them, now I’m happy to find out because it won’t mess with the story I wanted to write. It would be really funny if it was actually started by sisters, and it may be entirely true. That would be hysterical. … I’ve got to find out.”