If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know I started reading a novel a week in early 2011. You can find the log of weekly picks here. One of my favorites on the list is Skinny by Diana Spechler. But Skinny wasn’t my first experience with Diana’s work. I read Who by Fire in 2008. Then I tracked down interviews featuring Diana because she reminded me so much of another writer I admire, Elisa Albert.
Something about Diana’s and Elisa’s work made me feel like I might be able to take a stab at this writing thing. Their voices and their subjects (plenty of Jewish characters and interwoven Jewish topics) connected with me on a deep level. So you can imagine how thrilled I am that after stalking, I mean befriending Diana on Twitter, she graciously allowed me to feature her as my first Reading Log Interview.
NB: Welcome, Diana. First, please tell us about your writing background and where you’ve published your work. And don’t be afraid to drop the O-word. My readers know how much I love my Oprah.
DS: You know, I never watched Oprah until the final weight-loss episode of her final season, and I only watched because a friend of mine was on it, but I loved it. That show is like crack. I can’t believe I missed it for twenty-five years. I’m honored to be a freelance writer for O Magazine. It’s so much fun. I’ve also written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal online, GQ, Esquire, Details, Self, and a bunch of other places. Freelancers aren’t picky. We really can’t afford to be. Although fiction is my first love, writing nonfiction for magazines is instantly gratifying, whereas writing novels requires years of waiting for the reward—if getting your novel out to the public is the “reward.” But I got my MFA degree in fiction, and most of what I read is fiction, and so far, my books have been fiction, so. . . I’m pretty married to fiction, which is not to say I don’t enjoy my extramarital affairs.
DS: “Set at a weight-loss camp in North Carolina, Skinny explores the connection between hunger and love.” Bam! One sentence. But I couldn’t agree more that summarizing a whole novel is a “challenging task.” While I was writing Who by Fire, a novelist friend of mine told me to reduce it to one word. That made me tear my hair out. But when I was making the trailer for Skinny, just a month or so before the publication date, I really had to distill the book, and although it sounds odd, that was when I realized what I’d written.
NB: I can appreciate how well that pitch works even though you had to leave out so much. On a different topic, I’ve seen your honesty in other interviews about having body image issues in the past and how that informed this story. There are some graphic eating scenes in Skinny. After I read the novel, I craved Chinese food for a month. Yet the scene involving the Chinese buffet is so disgusting and full of self-loathing for Gray that you’d think as a reader I’d never touch an egg roll again. While writing the novel, did your relationship with food get even more complicated and negative, or did it help you work through some of those issues?
DS: Oh, that Chinese food scene is disgusting! But it also opened me up and allowed me into the novel. Before I wrote that, I was so afraid of writing about my characters’ body image issues because I didn’t want to expose my own body image issues. I kept thinking about all the people I knew who would read my book and be shocked by my secrets, all the strangers who would judge me, all the critics who would find me appalling, etc. All that worrying consumed me, and was, of course, unproductive. When I wrote that binge scene, when I let my protagonist lose control, I let myself lose control.
Control is a tricky thing when it comes to writing. You must have it and release it simultaneously. Once I released control, I was better able to craft the book. To answer your question (that is what I’m supposed to be doing, right?), writing about food did make me think about food more than I would have liked. There were writing days when I ate nothing and other writing days when I ordered Seamless Web three times. Gross. And for those of you who don’t know what Seamless Web is, be glad. Don’t even Google it. Trust me. But in the end, writing about food and the body allowed me to work through a lot of my own shame surrounding those issues.
NB: Obviously I’m going to Google that ASAP. And speaking of graphic, both novels have some steamy sex scenes. Please tell us how you write scenes like that without thinking of your family and close friends’ reactions.
DS: First, I’d like to say that Steve Almond wrote an article for the Boston Phoenix in 2003 that changed my life, sex-writing-wise, and I highly recommend it. Here it is reprinted on The Rumpus. Second, I’d like to clarify that I have yet to write nonfiction about my sex life. And now, to answer your question: When you write, it’s integral to shut off the judgmental voices in your head. You know, the ones that scream, “You suck!” and, “You’re seriously going to admit to that?” I do my best to silence those voices. It’s taken years of practice.
As far as the sex scenes go, I never worried about my friends’ reactions, but yes, writing about sex for my family’s perusal is awkward. Writing about anything personal for my family’s perusal is awkward. I’m sure it’s not easy for them, either, having a writer in the family. But with each passing year, article, novel, I think we all get a little more comfortable with the arrangement. Still, there is a line in Skinny that continues to make me cringe, especially when I think about my dad reading it: “How had I forgotten the sheer ecstasy of fucking?” I’m dying a little inside re-reading it now.
NB: As I mentioned, you and Elisa Albert are two authors whose work I return to for inspiration when I’m feeling stuck. Are there authors you rely on during a tough writing spot?
DS: Thank you, Nina! That is so nice. Not to make things all weird between us, but I call those my porn writers. They’re the writers who get me in the mood. Mine change all the time. A few have been Antonya Nelson, Aimee Bender, and Rebecca Curtis.
NB: Things could never get weird between us, Diana. 😉 Last question: Can you give us an idea of what we can expect from you next?
DS: I’m superstitious. Can’t talk about it yet. But I promise lots of sex scenes.
Thank you so much for your time, Diana, and for your generous answers. See you on Twitterville! (Follow Diana @DianaSpechler)