Bodies and Words: An Interview With Diana Spechler, author of SKINNY and WHO BY FIRE
by Molly Rose Quinn
This was a summer of loss. We lost Sheena. We lost Spider. We lost weight. We lost our inhibitions. We lost socks when we sent the laundry out. We lost our minds when it rained too much. We lost track of time in the swimming pool. We lost our old reflections, the stretch of space we could claim on a bench, some cellulite, a roll or two, our salt cravings, our caffeine habits, our distaste for sugar-free Jell-O. And then I lost my hair. –SKINNY
MQ: SKINNY offers criticism and compassion to people that are underweight and overweight. Did you feel that a certain population needed this book? Did you write it for a certain group?
DS: Does it sound narcissistic to say that I wrote it for myself? Body image has always plagued me. At the same time, I think I wrote SKINNY for all of America. And now I’d like to sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee. But really, America is in trouble. We speak dishonestly about food (“Everything in moderation!”), about obesity (“Just control yourself!”), and about self-esteem (“Love yourself!” “Walk off those last five pounds!” “Buy this magical cream that makes your cellulite disappear!”). All that dishonesty only compounds our problems, fueling the diet and food industries, worsening the obesity epidemic, increasing the prevalence of eating disorders, and making us feel bad about ourselves. SKINNY is for anyone who has ever suffered from body image or food issues, for anyone who has suffered from obsession of any kind, and hopefully for anyone who just likes a good story.
MQ: At the Freerange show in July, you performed the true story that SKINNY grew from. You went to weight loss camp, ostensibly, to do research for a novel about weight loss camp. But you yourself were suffering from an eating disorder. My understanding is that you had the desire to write about these issues long before the narrative of SKINNY came together. How did you eventually decide on the character of Gray Lachmann?
DS: I spent the summer of 2006 working at a weight-loss camp, “doing research.” The novel is largely based on that summer. Surrounded by all the inevitable summer camp drama, I kept thinking, “This book is writing itself!” (Of course, nothing proved that sentiment wrong like sitting down to actually write the book.)
Like me, Gray Lachmann is twenty-seven years old when she works as a counselor at a weight-loss camp. In many ways, she is similar to who I was in the summer of ‘06—dealing with body image issues and eating problems, facing a crossroads in her love life. But I couldn’t have my protagonist take a job at a weight-loss camp because she wants to write a novel set at a weight-loss camp. That would have been solipsistic, not to mention boring. So I gave her another reason for taking the job, and her character developed from there.
MQ: In the afterword, you write: “I didn’t feel right including, in the pages of this book, the standard “This is a work of fiction” disclaimer, which states that any similarities between the characters and real people are coincidental. Some similarities might be coincidental, but others are not.” Did you receive feedback about this statement and this sentiment? From editors or readers?
DS: I had a lot of middle-of-the-night panic attacks before the book came out. I thought everyone from the camp was going to hate me. I thought I was going to get sued or stalked or killed. In fact, most people from the camp probably haven’t read the book, and those who have (or the least those who have reached out) have said they loved it. So I was worried about nothing. I’m prone to that.
MQ: You admitted in your performance that you went to camp to indulge your own obsession with weight-loss. Besides your summer at camp, what other research did you do about obesity and eating disorders?
DS: I read a lot of books, observed a lot of people, talked to nutritionists, forced myself to own up to my issues, forced myself to own up to my issues a little more. And a little more. And a little more.
MQ: You admit, as well, that some of Gray’s unattractive qualities and decisions come from your life. Gray suffers from a disease. Did you feel any hesitation or pressure in portraying her as mean or selfish?
DS: Eating disorders are diseases of both mind and body. Anyone who has ever suffered from one knows how consuming it is, how much energy it takes to maintain it. When you’re preoccupied to that degree, you’re selfish. That’s not a judgment, just the truth as I see it. I wanted to portray Gray as accurately as possible, so she has her head up her ass sometimes. She’s self-absorbed because she’s dealing with a serious eating disorder. But yes, writing a self-absorbed character made me nervous. The whole book made me nervous. Dealing with such a hot-button issue made me very, very nervous.
MQ: The characters in SKINNY are ruled by their bodies, and their relationships with their bodies. Gray’s father is obese and dies of heart disease. Spider lives with debilitating allergies. Harriet wears the same heavy black clothing through the hot summer. Were you inspired by other authors or texts which so emphatically link characters to their physical presence?
DS: Not consciously. It was just really important to me to explore the relationships people have with their own bodies. When Gray is restricting her caloric intake and exercising obsessively (rather than bingeing), she worries a lot about becoming disconnected from her body. She associates that disconnection with weight gain. She feels that when she’s focused on her body, she can stay thin, and when she disconnects and lets herself go (how terrible is that expression?), she gets fat. By showing other characters’ personal struggles with their bodies, I hoped to say, simply, that we all have body struggles. In one way or another, we all feel sort of betrayed by our physical selves.
MQ: My understanding is that Bennett is the only character that is really physically healthy, and takes care of himself. The campers categorize him, too, by his physique. Would you say that Bennett has a healthy relationship with his body? Or, a healthier lifestyle? How did Bennett’s character come to be for you?
DS: Um, I dated him. Or rather, I dated someone a lot like him the summer I worked at camp. My “Bennett” was also the camp personal trainer, and also had a sexy southern accent and some serious muscles. Bennett is the healthiest character in the novel, but he’s also a bit of a fast food junkie. Furthermore, he “disappears” and holds people at an arm’s length. He excuses himself from intimacy. So yes, he likes his own body, but he also focuses on fitness more than he does on interpersonal relationships. Is that healthy? Who am I to judge?
MQ: Gray is not quite likeable, though her narrative style is captivating. I found myself being slightly disturbed at her decisions, yet consuming her delicious voice swiftly and with pleasure. It really made me think about the tension between character and voice. Gray’s actions in these pages made me skeptical about her moral accountability. But, she’s someone whose wit and crass observations I could snuggle up to with joy. How did you accomplish this?
DS: Thank you! While I was writing SKINNY, I did my very best not to worry about whether or not readers would like Gray. I knew she was a difficult character, but I wanted to write a difficult character. So I wrote her the way I wanted to write her, and pulled no punches. Of course, when you’re writing for public consumption, you do have to consider your audience, but at the same time, if you pander, the writing sounds disingenuous. You have to strike a balance. The best way I know how to do that is to let my characters be themselves, even if they have some unsavory traits.
MQ: At a few points Gray subtly addresses the reader, or the fact that she has readers. The most specific examples are close to the end: “I intentionally omitted something. Of all the parts of my story I would rather not remember, this part ranks fairly high.” And a few chapters before that, “It is time I explained what I did to my father on my twenty-sixth birthday.” How did you arrive at this style?
DS: It just felt natural. Even when she’s not directly addressing the reader, I imagine that Gray is aware of telling her story to an audience. The book, in a way, is a confession. I love The Catcher in the Rye and Lolita, in part because they’re “confessional” novels with personable narrators. In several ways, The Catcher in the Rye influenced me more than any other book. It was my first influence, and it has stuck with me.
MQ: Food permeates each of Gray’s observations about the world and the people around her. Eden, an out-of-shape teen, keeps a blog of favorite recipes and chefs. She loves to cook and find the best ingredients. Lewis, the egotistical camp director, makes a living by packing his summer camp with sugar-free Jell-O, and other inexpensive, prepackaged foods. Would you say that this is a book about food, too? Do you think one’s taste and enjoyment of food is inextricable with their body image, wherever they land on the spectrum?
DS: Having an eating disorder means having a dysfunctional relationship with food. In a way, people with eating disorders are the truest food-lovers in the world, but at the same time, they can’t really appreciate food. How can you appreciate a gourmet meal if you’re obsessing over how many calories it contains? How can you appreciate the taste and texture of gelato if you zone out and eat a gallon of it?
Yes, this is a book about food, but not in the “foodie” sense (I hate that word, by the way). It’s a book about the way people relate to food, use food, and let food stand in for love.
MQ: Do you think it’s possible to write fiction about a social issue without engaging in the more objective discourse about that issue?
DS: My favorite novels are not just entertaining, but also meaningful—socially, psychologically, and emotionally. One of my favorite novels, for example, is Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s not only a riveting story, but an exploration of obsessive love and of confinement vs. freedom. Forgive me if I’m stating the obvious, but a good work of fiction should make the reader think. That is, no good story is just a story; it’s also a commentary.
DIANA SPECHLER is the author of the novels Who By Fire (Harper Perennial, 2008) and Skinny (Harper Perennial, 2011). She has written for The New York Times, GQ, O Magazine, Esquire, Self, Details.com, the Wall Street Journal online, Nerve, Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, Lilith, and elsewhere. She received her MFA degree from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University. She teaches writing in New York City.
MOLLY ROSE QUINN is a writer who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. She is the Managing Director of Freerange Nonfiction.