I loved Diana Spechler‘s sophomore novel Skinny: After her father’s death, 26-year-old Gray Lachman, who has always had an antagonistic relationship with food, finds herself compulsively overeating. To combat this strange form of grief, she goes undercover at a fat camp. There, she comes up against the questionable practices of Lewis, the camp director, and her devious co-counselor Sheena; and is intrigued by the hot assistant director Bennett and Eden, the half-sister Gray never knew existed.
It was a delight to interview Spechler, and a new experience for me: It occurred entirely over Gchat. In some ways, then, this is less of an interview and more of a conversation about crippling body image fears, the need for outlets, and the merits of an extremely unlikeable narrator.
I really, really liked Skinny – I finished it in two days and was just really fascinated by Gray’s character.
Spechler: Thank you so much! I just got chills. Still so few people have read it, so hearing nice feedback is priceless.
I read novels like yours and cross my fingers that one day I could create a world like you do with the summer camp.
Spechler: It helped that I lived at one. World-building is easier when you’re not so much “building” as “recording.”
Yes, so did you go undercover at a summer camp in order to write Skinny, or for a personal reason like Gray does?
Spechler: I went undercover. I decided in late 2005/early 2006 that I wanted to write a novel set at a weight-loss camp, so I emailed every weight-loss camp in the country. I told all the directors that I wanted to teach creative writing, but I didn’t mention that I was conceptualizing a novel. Shockingly, no weight-loss camp wanted a creative writing teacher. Can you believe it? But one did. So when I got to camp, thinking I was going to teach creative writing, the director told me that instead I would teach water aerobics. I had to make it up. I mean, what the hell is water aerobics? But I did it. I was also in charge of the oldest girls. And then I wound up teaching other stuff, too, like running.
What age group?
Spechler: The kids at the camp were 8-18. My girls were high school age. I loved fat camp. It was the best summer of my life.
How come? Had you attended camps much before this fat camp?
Spechler: Yes, I’d been to camp. We ran around all day in the sunshine. We were part of this very insular world. Everyone got very attached, like a big family, with a lot of dysfunction. I got into the best shape of my life. Also, I fell in love. That was unexpected.
Oh, wow, so was some of the Bennett plotline based on that?
Spechler: But not weight-loss camp. I went to Jewish summer camp throughout my childhood. I also worked at an arts camp for a couple of summers, teaching creative writing. I guess I love camp. Yes, Bennett is loosely based on the man I had a relationship with that summer.
That’s very brave that you could put that into the book, especially considering how visceral the Gray/Bennett relationship is.
Spechler: By visceral…do you mean sexual?
Yes, in part… just how he takes away her hunger, but how she’s wasting away at one point. How she worships his body not just sexually but also because of his discipline.
Spechler: Yes. For her, the whole summer is about the body. She worships his body. She obsesses over her own.