Writing from a Place of Absence

Lindsay Hunter and Roxane Gay

In Conversation

As a symbol of both excess and access, food plays a large role in shaping American life and culture. In Lindsay Hunter’s book Eat Only When You’re Hungry, a father travels through Florida in search of his missing son and is forced to face his own demons. Against the backdrop of America’s fast food empire, Hunter shows how eating can expose both the gratifying freedom and the uncontrollable ugliness that straddles life in this country, threatening to transform the American Dream into an American nightmare. In a lively and animated conversation with the illustrious Roxane Gay at Skylight Books, Hunter discusses the writing of her new novel—how she created her protagonist Greg in pursuit of a feeling; how she grappled with the sociopolitical implications of her narrative’s perspective; how she invented meaning from a place of absence.

Roxane Gay: Hello, Angelinos. Thanks for coming out tonight to celebrate Eat Only When You’re Hungry: A Novel. I love it when it says that, it’s super helpful just in case you weren’t clear…

Lindsay Hunter: Well, even when I first showed this cover on Facebook, someone was like, “Oh, I need that in my life.” And I was like, “Cool, you must really like literary fiction.” But then they thought it was a diet book—and I hear that all the time. They’re like, “So . . . Is it fiction, or is it a dieting book?” And I’m like, “It’s fucking fiction.”

RG: What part of “A Novel” is unclear? Oh, I bet people would think, “Oh, I get it. That’ll be a great diet book with all this delicious food on it.”

LH: You only eat it when you’re hungry, so it’s fine. It kind of works both ways—and I’d love to get the diet guru money, so if you know anyone. This is the cautionary tale of dieting.

RG: It is, actually.

LH: It’s not.

RG: But there are a lot of cautionary tales here. How did you come up with this?

LH: It was something that I’ve wanted to write for a while, but I wasn’t letting myself. I think partly because writing from the perspective of a 58-year-old man felt scary. I sat down to start writing my next book—and it was going to be this, or it was going to be about witches.

RG: Oh, wow. So similar.

LH: And I was like, “Today, I’m going to write about Greg.” I just started writing about him, and I just took it from there. So, yeah. I felt like I knew him immediately. I felt like he was fully formed, and I just went with him.

RG: Do you have a specific process for writing a novel now that this is your second novel?

LH: Oh, yes. I saw Lynda Barry speak once, and she was talking about when she was writing Cruddy. She was typing and typing, and she kept thinking to herself, “This isn’t working. This isn’t working. How would I write a book if I was writing it? How would I write it?” And then she was like, “Oh, I am writing it!” And she thought, “Well, I would paint it first—and then I would write what I painted.” And so I thought, “How would I write a novel? How would I do it in a way that felt doable and fun and rewarding?” I just eschew the picture of the writer who’s fucking toiling and miserable for his art and is just going to create something that’s the great American novel. I just hate that. I thought that if I was writing a novel, I would write it like flash fiction. I would write it so I felt like I was writing something complete every time I sat down. So, I gave myself a word count every day—and when I’m writing flash fiction, I don’t usually use word count, but it felt like something feasible I could do. I think I wrote 2500 words a day, and it ended up being some of my first chapters of the book. And I could feel like, “Oh, I got that done today. I’m not a total failure. You know, I’m building something. I’m constructing something. And, the page numbers are growing, and it seems legit.”

“Oh, I got that done today. I’m not a total failure. You know, I’m building something. I’m constructing something. And, the page numbers are growing, and it seems legit.”

It wasn’t always fun. There are many moments when you want to throw your computer across the room—or you read other books that you really love, and you’re like, “I can never accomplish that,” or, you know, “Who’s going to read this?” I had a moment in the middle of it when I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is a middle-aged, cis-gendered white male. Great. Everyone’s going to love to read that. There’s not enough of those out there.” And then I convinced myself that it was super punk rock to be writing that from the perspective of a thirty-something white female.

RG: Never been done before. So great.

LH: So, it’s really punk rock—and that’s my success story.

RG: So, this book, in addition to a father looking for his son, is kind of a quest—a journey, if you will—in a camper all across the south. Florida, strip clubs, fast food restaurants. America. It’s also about excess and bodies that live in excess. Why did you want to tackle that? This idea of weight and excess?

LH: Personally, I have my own issues with food and weight and all that stuff. I felt like it was something I was thinking about a lot. I feel like when that happens—when I can’t stop thinking about something—it’s something that has to be exorcised in some way. It was definitely something, just personally, that I wanted to write about and sort of figure out as I wrote, which I think is how I figure most things out. I also thought it was a unique way of exploring this character because he is so rooted in his body. His body isn’t just something he’s in partnership with. He drags it around, but it also drags him around.

It’s sort of his way to face everything. It’s his own denial, I guess. I was talking about this with someone in another interview—and we were talking about how eating, overeating, and accessing these kinds of foods, which you can see on the cover of my beautiful book, are a kind of freedom in America. It’s definitely, personally, freedom for me. It’s a very easy way to fill a hole. And I know that’s the biggest cliché ever, but it’s so true.

RG: Oh so true.

LH: Immediate satisfaction. When you don’t have any interest or energy—or there are so many other things preventing you from doing the work—it’s an easy way to feel like there’s some sort of accomplishment that you’ve achieved. It’s a very easy way to reward yourself, and it’s a very easy task to complete. I feel sad, I want, and then I … you know? That’s the fucking American story.

RG: And the dream.

LH: And the dream. Like, I would love a moon pie right now.

RG: I’ve actually never had one. I know what they are, but I’ve never yet had one in life.

LH: They’re special. Do you like marshmallow?

RG: I like marshmallows, but I don’t really like marshmallow in other forms. If someone gave me a jar of fluff, I would be like…

LH: I could polish off a jar.

RG: Really?

LH: Oh god. Marshmallows—for some reason right now, I cannot get enough of them. They make vegan ones.

RG: Oh, I couldn’t care about that. I’ll fuck up a marshmallow whether it’s vegan or not. I really like the big ones because the little ones are too uncomfortable in my mouth. They make me feel like there’s a pillow in my mouth. Whenever I look at a pillow, I just want to eat it. Not in a food way. Just something about a pillow makes me want to chew it. There’s something about it.

LH: A crisp, white pillow.

RG: That’s what the big marshmallows are like when they’re fresh.

LH: I like the stale ones, too. Who left these open, animals? A little crunch on my marshmallow.

RG: And then when they give off the little puff of dust? Agh, food is so sensual.

LH: It really is. I try to do those big marshmallows all in a bite, and I can’t.

RG: Oh, yes you can. Challenge accepted.

LH: I feel like we’re dating now, and I’m happy about that. I’m really happy about that.

RG: Let’s get some marshmallows in a hotel room.

LH: And we can bounce on some pillows.

RG: And in the morning, there will be ravaged pillows.

LH: They’re going to be like, “These pillows feel licked. Is that a thing?”

RG: This is Los Angeles.

LH: It’s my dream to lick a pillow.

RG: Everybody’s got a dream. Hollywood.

LH: Hollywood.

RG: Delicious. Did you have to do any taste testing in the writing of this novel?

LH: That’s a great question. My life is a taste test.

RG: Amen.

They’re foods that you can get in a gas station because that’s where Greg would be getting most of his food in this book. And my special addition was the circus peanuts because how can you not?

LH: I feel like what’s really cool is—my editors are here—FSG asked me what foods should be on the cover. So, I basically just named all my favorite food groups and foods that you can hold. They’re road trip foods. They’re foods that you can get in a gas station because that’s where Greg would be getting most of his food in this book. And my special addition was the circus peanuts because how can you not? Also, a good stale circus peanut? Come on, that is gourmet.

RG: That’s the Florida in you.

LH: Right? This book is the Florida in me, so buckle up! Yeah, I didn’t do any taste testing. I wish that I had. That was a huge failure on my part.

RG: But, you know, there’s always time.

LH: Yeah, I feel like that should be an event. We should have a buffet of these foods.

RG: Book launch, surrounded by everything on the cover.

LH: Yes, that’s what I’m saying! I would like to be buried up to my neck—and maybe my arms can come out, so I can hold my book while I read. And then people can just come…

RG: And eat off of you?

LH: And eat off of me!

RG: Like a Sushi Girl?

LH: Yes!

RG: I hope someone is recording this. There’s so much gold here tonight.

LH: After having two kids—we were talking about this earlier—I want everyone to see my body. I mean, it did a cool thing. And it looks like it did a cool thing.

RG: Uh, that’s extra though. That’s an extra $5. [laughter] So, Greg is remarried in this novel. And his first wife Marie is a significant part of this novel. How did you decide to incorporate her into the story? And what were the satisfactions of bringing Marie in?

LH: I really love how she never edits herself for him. You know, even in that first chapter, you see that Deb edits herself and makes sure that she’s not pushing him in any way. That’s the agreement that they have together: “We’ve had enough of that in our lives. We’ll just be cool with each other.” But Marie is just always herself—just out there. She’ll say whatever comes to her brain, and it’s really hard for Greg to be around that because there’s so much that he doesn’t want to face. He doesn’t want to talk about really anything, especially his marriage to her and the mistakes that they made with their son, GJ. She was really fun to write. I don’t think I intended for her to be as big of a part as she ended up being. She does end up to be a larger part of the book, and I feel like it was a way to see a version of Greg that he didn’t give permission for. That’s the version of anyone you want to see. She knew him when he was young and before all of this—and it was so beautiful even though so much ugliness came after. That was just a beautiful part of their lives. I feel like I used her as a way to call bullshit on Greg because the whole book is in his head.

I feel like I used her as a way to call bullshit on Greg because the whole book is in his head.

RG: And she was fun. She was really fun. One of the main characters is GJ, but we never really see him. That’s interesting. Was it difficult to write from a place of absence?

LH: Yeah, I struggled with that a lot. My husband hasn’t read it yet, but he’s reading it right now.

RG: He hasn’t read it yet?

LH: He’s reading it now—I actually told him I didn’t want him to read it until it was finished. I told him the broad strokes—it’s about this guy who goes and looks for his son. And he was like, “Whoa, he has to find him. That’s all there is to it. Otherwise, it’s bullshit. You owe it to the reader.” And I struggled and struggled with that. Ultimately, I decided the book wasn’t about that—that’s why I was struggling so hard with it because it wasn’t about this. At one point, I was like, “Greg is going to find him in a cult, and it’s going to be about the cult.” And I was like, “No, it’s not. It’s not about that.” And then I was like, “Well, I’m going to write it again—but from his point of view.” And then I was going to write it again from Marie’s point of view—“But I think I’m definitely not going to do that. It’s a waste of time.” I feel like in the end, you get to see GJ’s perspective of Greg in a brief but accurate way—and it was enough.

Lindsay Hunter is the author of Don’t Kiss Me, Daddy’s, Ugly Girls, and her latest novel Eat Only When You’re Hungry. Originally from Florida, she now lives in Chicago with her husband, sons, and dogs.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel.