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Culinary arts and creative writing come together in Jen Nails’ new book

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Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

The pasta machine is a family heirloom. Manual, of course. Approximately 60 years old, it has been used by at least four generations of Nails family chefs, producing countless spaghetti dinners.

Two of those chefs—author Jen Nails and her father, Frank—take turns at the crank. Jen rolls out strips of “friendly” white dough, and he feeds them through the machine. Like magic, out comes fresh spaghetti. Meanwhile June Nails, wife, mother and retired Valley High English teacher, sets the table. Every so often somebody checks the tomato sauce, which simmers on the stove.

It’s the first day of Spring Break at the Adelson Educational Campus, where Jen works as a librarian and creative writing instructor, so she’s visiting her parents’ Summerlin condo. “Being a librarian is so perfect for me,” Jen says, “because I get this whole education about writing for children by being a children’s book librarian.” Working in education is as much a Nails family tradition as cooking up grand Italian meals. Her dad is a retired Las Vegas High administrator and Bishop Gorman football coach, and her sister is a teacher, too.

Jen has combined her love of cooking, family and education and whipped it all up into a middle-grade novel titled One Hundred Spaghetti Strings, published this month by Harper. The book follows the travails of plucky 11-year-old Steffy Sandolini, who uses cooking to navigate some pretty serious issues. It also seems to be a perfect fit for Las Vegas, where children can grow up faster than they might in smaller, less sin-focused towns.

Steffy faces a deadbeat dad struggling with addiction, a mom suffering from a traumatic brain injury and a mercurial 13-year-old sister. Even the best pasta is hardly up to that challenge. Is it too much for young readers to handle?

Jen struggled with that question while writing, agonizing over how much to include. She ultimately decided not to sugarcoat reality. “At one point I said to my editor, ‘I kind of wished somebody would have explained it to me when I was growing up.’ If any addiction is in a family, nobody says the words. No grown-up wants to talk about it. My editor and I decided that it’s okay to put it in, because kids deal with it.”

Publishers Weekly hails One Hundred Spaghetti Strings as a worthy endeavor: “Steffy’s growing understanding of what makes a family and journey to find her voice through food are powerful, and her story is rich with fodder for discussion.”

Jen isn’t your typical quiet librarian or shrinking violet author. She’s expressive and extroverted, with short hair and a big, toothy smile. Before settling back in Las Vegas, Jen spent 20 years in New York City, working as an actor and improv comic. She landed a few commercials and performed with Upright Citizen Brigade. “She’s a very funny person, a gifted performer and a passionate artist, as well as an amazing teacher,” says Las Vegas podcaster Matt Donnelly, who performed improv with her in Upright Citizen Brigade.

One of the best parts of One Hundred Spaghetti Strings is its intimate connection with the culinary arts. From her loving descriptions of cooking and eating, it’s clear Jen loves food with the same passion as so many Las Vegas chefs. She named the chapter titles after dishes, like “Chocolate Chip Banana Bread on the Flower Wreath Plate,” “Leftover Polenta” and, during one narrative low point, “Cheerios and Toast for Dinner.”

Recipes for all of the dishes young Steffy creates are included in the back of the book, written from the character’s point of view. They’re based on Jen’s own family recipes, including the spaghetti and sauce, which is now ready to eat.

So what’s next for Jen, besides an imminent homemade meal? She’s finishing a master’s degree in library science and in the “very beginning stages” of her next book. “It took me a while—I’m at the tender age of early 40s, we’ll call it—it took me a while to feel like, ‘I’m good,’” Jen says. “I like the balance of writing and being a librarian. I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, you might be on top of a mountain right now. Maybe there’s not another one to climb.’”

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