Brad Listi (BL): Okay, everybody. Time to get rolling. Very happy to welcome Diana Spechler to tonight’s chat.
Diana Spechler: (DS): Thank you!
BL: Diana, thanks so much for being here, and congrats on SKINNY.
DS: Great to be here.
BL: I’m gonna start with a bit of the obvious. Have you ever been overweight? Is this something you’ve struggled with in your personal life?
DS: I’ve struggled with body image and eating issues since I was about ten years old. I was never overweight, at least not in anyone’s mind but my own, but I know what it’s like to have a dysfunctional relationship with one’s own body and with food. In part, that’s why I wanted to write this book.
BL: Did you find that it helped you reach some kind of definitive understanding?
DS: I learned a lot, but I don’t write to find solutions. I write to explore. Actually…I would love a solution, but I’ve learned not to expect that from writing. What I did come to understand while I was writing SKINNY was that honesty is very important when it comes to how we talk about our bodies. At first, I didn’t want to write the book with emotional honesty because I was afraid of exposure. But once I started giving my characters my problems, they came to life, if that makes sense. By the time I finished working on the book, I did feel some relief from my lifelong struggle with my body, but it was because I’d written honestly about that struggle, not because I did research until I reached a solution. With that said, I did do plenty of research, including working for ten weeks at a weight-loss camp.
BL: Makes total sense. It’s sort of funny how, as writers, we tend to avoid ourselves a bit, particularly in early drafts.
DS: It is funny. I always plan what I want to write and then realize while I’m writing that my unconscious had a totally different plan. I can’t tell you how badly I didn’t want to write a book about a normal-sized woman who thinks she’s fat.
BL: I think I might sort of be a normal-sized guy who thinks he’s fat. Especially as I get older.
DS: Are you asking me to be the judge of that?
BL: It’s a cry for help, Diana.
DS: Post pictures. We’ll let you know what we think.
BL: (I’ll be posting a series of tasteful nudes over at TNB after the chat, everybody. Black and white. Lots of shadows.)
DS: And the world has me to thank.
BL: I don’t know if “thank” is the proper word. “Blame” might be more accurate.
DS: We’ll compromise: “acknowledge.”
BL: Fair enough. So: Ten weeks of field research at a weight loss camp. What was that like?
DS: When I decided I wanted to write this book, I emailed every weight-loss camp in the country, asking to be employed as a creative writing teacher. Only one guy hired me. Apparently, creative writing teachers aren’t in high demand at weight-loss camps. Did you know that? But when I got there, the director told me there was no creative writing class. I had to pick a physical activity. Of course, I panicked. Aside from writing, I don’t know how to do anything well enough to teach it. So he assigned me water aerobics.
BL: At which you’re one of the world’s best, I hear.
DS: I did provide an outstanding water aerobics education, yes. I taught water aerobics for ten weeks. I was also in charge of the oldest girls, which made me want to apologize to my parents for ever having been a teenager. The summer was great fun. It was a kid summer. I hadn’t had one of those since childhood. We just ran around all day. I loved it.
BL: I have a daughter. I’m constantly trying to imagine what she’s going to be like during adolescence. (She’s nine months old.) What was she like?
DS: Aw. What was who like?
BL: The oldest camper.
DS: No…I was in charge of ALL of the oldest campers. Girls.
BL: Oh, Christ.
Evie: I think my uterus just fell out.
BL: Describe the insanity. Just a bit. Make me afraid.
DS: Sometimes everyone was really fun and doling out pedicures, and other times, there would be screaming matches and slamming doors…it was like family. So cozy!
Evie: I hear ya.
BL: And you were bunking with these girls? Like, in the same room? (I’m picturing a big room filled with bunk beds. Like in FULL METAL JACKET.)
DS: Well…like in the book, the camp where I worked was on a boarding school campus. So I had my own dorm room. The campers all had roommates.
BL: Ah. Okay. And here’s a question from Jen, one of our book clubbers….
Jen: What are some of the big differences between the real life weight loss camp that you worked at and the one in your book? I hope in the real ones, the counselors were more… certified.
DS: Hmm. Well…I certainly wasn’t certified.
BL: Yeah…what kind of ‘certification’ are we talking here? I suppose psychiatric or psychological or medical certification of some kind?
DS: I only worked at one camp, so I’m not an expert on weight-loss camps, but of course all of the drama in the book was either invented or amped up. There were no psychologists/psychiatrists. I thought there should have been.
BL: What was there?
DS: My understanding is that other weight-loss camps employ them.
BL: Just, like, a bunch of caring souls, essentially?
Jen: I was wondering if there were people at real weight loss camps that had a degree in nutrition, or stuff like that. That sort of thing. Or is it all really just sorta … whoever ends up there, teachers anything?
DS: I wouldn’t go that far. Where I worked, it was more like a regular camp: The employees were kids, 19, 20, 21, 22. 22 was old. No, I was old. I was 27. No one had a degree in nutrition.
BL: Really? That’s unbelievable. You would think that would be at the core of it.
DS: One would think.
BL: So do you feel like the camp is effective? I mean, what is the stated goal? These kids are showing up, hoping to lose weight, no? Did you find that the overall impact was positive? Negative? Neutral?
DS: I think weight-loss camps are diets like any other. The kids do lose weight. Of course they do. But like any diet, the weight-loss ends when the eating plan does. Most go home and regain.
BL: So what’s the solution? Why is obesity such an epidemic in America?
DS: The environment was so structured, it would have been impossible not to lose weight. We exercised all day and ate fewer calories than we expended. I’m not a scientist or a doctor, so there’s a lot I don’t know, but I will say this: The food lobby is extremely powerful. We hear a lot of deceptive messages. For example… “Eat whatever you want. Just take the stairs instead of the escalator.” Really? Is there anyone here who could eat “whatever you want” and then work it off by climbing a flight of stairs? That’s the food industry at work.
BL: So…tell me about BodyConfessions.com.
DS: Sure. While I was writing SKINNY, I was sort of “confessing” my own body secrets, attributing them to fictional characters. It was so cathartic, I wanted to give that gift back to the world. And so Body Confessions was born.
BL: Sort of like Post Secret in a way, no?
DS: Yes, kind of like Post Secret, except it’s user-generated. I don’t moderate. And to my previous point, I should add that it’s not just the food industry that’s responsible for deceptive messages. Society at large is, too. There are ways we’re allowed to talk about food and our bodies and ways that are considered socially acceptable. Body Confessions gives people the chance to say the socially acceptable things. And that’s important. Lying/hiding compounds our shame and worsens the problem.
BL: What you mean by “socially acceptable?”
DS: It’s okay to say, “I really shouldn’t have that cookie…but okay, I’ll have one!” It’s not okay to say, “I just ate everything in my fridge. I ate a whole block of cheese and a baguette. I ate a pint of ice cream.” It’s not okay to say, “I count calories in my head all day long, and then I work them off at the gym.”
BL: I do that, kind of. Christ. I’m a mess.
DS: We’re not allowed to admit to obsession/dysfunction, unless we’re in therapy or part of a recovery group. Or unless you’re a writer.
BL: I seem to have no problem with it.
DS: Nah, you’re just a typical novelist.
BL: I count calories in my head.
DS: Oh, yes, lots of people do.
BL: And you want to know why? I watched some thing on 60 Minutes once about these people who believe that a severely restricted caloric intake leads to longevity. It always goes back to longevity for me.
DS: You do love longevity.
BL: I think I want to live a really long life so that I can have the longest possible amount of time to do something interesting and important or something. It’s like I’m hedging my bets.
DS: You’ll wait until the last minute, and then when you’re 107, you’ll find the cure for cancer.
BL: It’s gonna happen. I can feel it. And then I’ll die.
DS: I believe in you. Just keep drinking red wine and climbing stairs.
DS: Okay, you’ll need one of those camel pack things.
BL: Check. So here’s another question from the peanut gallery….
Evie: Forgive the less than cerebral question, how did you come up with the name Gray? It is one of my favorite names for a girl.
DS: I love it, too!
BL: So here’s an additional, related question: Now that you’ve named a character Gray, could you ever name a potential child Gray? Or did you just sort of preclude that from happening?
DS: No, I could never name a child or pet after a character. And there’s a section in the book where she explains her name: that when her mother was pregnant with her, she was so excited (she’d been trying for years), she wanted to name the baby Silver, the shiniest name she could think of. But her father was superstitious. He thought silver was a thing to steal. So they compromised: Gray.
BL: It’s a cool name.
DS: There’s a great novel–Special Topics In Calamity Physics–that has a protagonist named Blue. I like that, too. What I was trying to show was that Gray’s father was possessive of her, even back then, which is a major theme in the book. He was always afraid of losing her. Of someone “stealing” her.
BL: So before the chat started, you and I were on the phone, and we were discussing the “state of modern publishing.” So let’s talk a bit about publishing and writing and so on. The business of writing, as it were.
BL: We have to do it. It’s an interesting time to be a writer. That much we can say — right?
DS: Are the book club members writers? I’d love to get a feel for who’s out there!
M.J. Fievre: I do have a question about process…
M.J. Fievre: Do you start with an outline?
DS: I wish! I always think I’d be so much more productive if I could get it together to outline. In fact, I’m going to do it for my third novel. Just to try it. But for the first two, no, I didn’t outline. I just did A LOT of rewriting.
BL: How much is “A LOT”?
DS: I’m terrible at planning ahead. In life, I mean. So outlining is unnatural for me, but I think it could be really helpful. I couldn’t even begin to quantify the number of drafts/extent of revisions.
BL: Well, how long did it take you to write the novel?
DS: I worked on this one on and off for four years. For a long time, I was having writer’s block, which is really just a fancy name for self-doubt. I was afraid of exposure, like I said before. I was afraid to write this book about eating/body issues because I didn’t want people to think, “That author must have eating/body issues.” So I was holding the work at an arm’s length, and the writing wasn’t working. Once I stopped fighting with myself, the writing came more easily. The book didn’t need to take four years. But c’est la vie.
BL: I think a lot of writers struggle in that way. How did you ultimately overcome the self-doubt?
DS: I overcame self-doubt because I realized I had to choose between protecting my ego and writing an honest book. In my life, the writing wins every time. It means more to me than anything else.
Art Edwards: Diana, what do you make of all this self-pub, ebook stuff? Is this something you’re excited about as an author, or not, or meh?
DS: Self-publishing…I’m not sure what I think of it in general. I do know that it used to be a great way to lose money and now, from what I’m hearing, people are making money off of it.
BL: What’s your writing routine like? Are you an everyday person? Or do you work in bursts?
DS: My routine changes all the time, but I do try to write everyday. Before my book came out (you know, when life was normal), I was in a good routine: three pages long hand as soon as I woke up, and then 1,000 words typed. Then I would edit/read/teach/whatever in the afternoons/evenings. But a book release is time-consuming, so my routine right now isn’t much of a routine at all.
BL: It seems like, increasingly, authors have to accommodate for a non-writing period as their books come out. And not necessarily a small one, either.
DS: Absolutely. Because we’re in charge of our own publicity. Not entirely, but largely.
BL: Right. How do you find that part of the process? I think it’s a source of great frustration for most writers.
DS: Luckily, I love a lot of that stuff. I love giving readings. I love talking to readers. I love visiting book clubs. I’m a very social person, and the isolating part of writing starts to make me a bit crazy, so when I have a book come out and suddenly there’s a burst of social activity, I’m thrilled.
BL: What’s next for you? Working on another book?
DS: Yes, but it’s early days, so my lips are sealed. (I’m superstitious.)
BL: Understood. Alright, everybody. I think it’s time we launch into the vaunted Lightning Round. Diana: we discussed this earlier.
DS: I’m ready. Fingers on home keys.
BL: Okay, folks. Here we go:
BL: Salinger or Carver?
DS: Oh no! Both!
BL: Twisted Sister or Sister Christian?
DS: Not too familiar with either. I like the sound of the first.
BL: Beach vacation or mountain vacation?
DS: Mountains, in the summertime.
BL: Grapes of Wrath or The Wrath of Khan?
DS: Never read the latter. The Wrath of Khan?
BL: (Star Trek reference.)
DS: I’m a girl, Brad.
Art Edwards: Muscle relaxant or relaxing massage?
DS: Both. Simultaneously.
Jen: Thunderstorm or snowstorm?
M.J. Fievre: Vanilla or chocolate?
BL: Texas or Alaska?
DS: My family is in Texas, so Texas.
Evie: Skort or culottes?
DS: Never. Never ever.
BL: (I don’t even know what that means.)
DS: Evie’s funny.
Art Edwards: Baseball hat on a showerless day, or “No way I’m leaving the apartment?”
DS: Hood. No hat. Or ponytail and headband.
BL: Gin or vodka?
DS: I quit drinking six months ago! But it used to be vodka.
BL: (You should stick to red wine, everybody.)
Evie: American Idol or The Voice?
DS: I don’t have a TV.
Art Edwards: Wash rag, scunchie or luffa?
DS: Just hands.
M.J. Fievre: Facebook or Twitter?
DS: Facebook. But I have both. Twitter scares me.
Evie: iPod or gramophone?
DS: Gramophone. Anyday.
BL: Kanye or Jay-Z?
Jen: Angry Birds or Farmville?
DS: What??? I’m laughing.
Art Edwards: REM or DMC?
BL: My favorite writers are dead or my favorite writers have yet to be born?
DS: Dead, I guess. Salinger, Carver…
BL: Alright, folks: Five more, and then we’re going to leave poor Ms. Spechler alone. Fire away.
M.J. Fievre: Palin or Trump?
DS: Ugh. I’m puking. I guess I prefer Trump’s hair.
Art Edwards: Galaga or QBert?
DS: Art, you’re over my head. It’s the quaaludes.
Art Edwards: Groovy! Wii or Will Farrell?
Jen: Iced coffee or iced tea?
DS: Iced tea.
Art Edwards: Ringo or Keith Moon?
DS: Who’s Keith Moon?
Art Edwards: Child!
BL: Oh wait. We have more…
Evie: Subway or taxi?
Art Edwards: Red Sox or Yankees?
DS: I hate sports. But I grew up in Boston. Go Sox?
DS: Actually, I love watching gymnastics and figure skating. And synchronized swimming.
Art Edwards: I’m done.
BL: Last one…
Evie: Purell or wet ones?
DS: Evie! You are hysterical. Purell.
BL: Alright, folks. There you have it.
DS: We’re ending with Purell?
BL: I think we’ve reached the perfect note on which to close. We keep it classy here, Diana.
DS: And sterile, apparently. Hey, thanks for talking with me, everyone!
BL: It’s been a great pleasure. Thanks so much for taking the time.
M.J. Fievre: Thanks so much Diana!
Art Edwards: Thanks, Diana!
Jen: Thanks, Diana!
BL: Thanks to everyone for participating — and be sure to tell your friends about SKINNY! Good night!