Interview: ‘Skinny’ Author Diana Spechler Went Undercover at a Fat Camp

I have to say — I was reading the book while eating dinner one night, and it was a very emotional experience. Because I gained 15 pounds in the last year and I’m definitely not overweight, but I’m not entirely happy with where I’m at.

Spechler: That’s really hard.

So to read Gray’s self-loathing was tough at times, because it reflected so much of what I’ve been feeling.

Spechler: I totally hear you.

Especially because she’s not fat per se, but unhappy.

Spechler: Yes, she’s about 15 pounds overweight at the beginning. That’s a very uncomfortable place to be. You think, “I could take it off. I have to take it off.” And then you think, “If I don’t get it together, I could gain forever.” It’s awful.

Yes, it’s terrifying.

Spechler: Terrifying is a good word for it. She feels that. She’s desperate at the beginning of the novel.

But it’s ingrained in Gray’s head from the beginning anyway–the way she’s counted calories since she was a child. Is that something that was a part of your adolescence, or did you research that kind of behavior?

Spechler: She’s so afraid she’ll never get a handle on it again. For years, I’ve struggled with body image. My problems don’t mirror Gray’s exactly, but they’re not entirely dissimilar. I was able to get into her obsessive mind because I can relate to obsessing over food and over my reflection in the mirror. Interestingly, writing about my own problems, but making them Gray’s problems, alleviated some of my burden. That was a pleasant surprise.

Did you find solutions, you mean, or it was simply easier to look at it when it was “someone else’s” problems?

Spechler: There’s so much shame around body/food stuff. It’s hard to talk about it. So finally, I was talking about it. I wasn’t admitting that I was the one with issues, but I was still writing about the issues. I got a lot off my chest writing that book. In the beginning, I suffered from a lot of writer’s block because I didn’t want to confront this stuff. It’s too heavy. I’ve been dealing with it for too many years. I wanted to write a book about the body, but I didn’t want to spend years thinking about my own body. I wanted to hold the book at an arm’s length, like it was a dead mouse or something. Not that I would pick up a dead mouse. Anyway, that didn’t work. I had to access my own emotions to make the story believable and true.

And yet, Gray is so unlikeable! That’s part of what so fascinated and even amused me. Did you know at the beginning that she would be so unlikeable? Or was that a realization that came partway through and you had to decide to go with it?

Spechler: Readers dislike self-absorbed narrators, but I couldn’t write Gray without making her self-absorbed. So yes, I knew how she’d come off, but I love her, flaws and all.

I love that you put her in a category with Lee from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. That book really got to me, especially with how Lee just burns bridges with everyone in her life.

Spechler: Prep is one of my all-time favorite novels. Curtis Sittenfeld is terrific. Prep partly inspired Skinny because I was intrigued by what Sittenfeld did with the world of prep school. She made the place so cozy and insular, and used it as a platform to explore American socioeconomic issues. I thought I could use a microcosm like fat camp to explore similarly significant American problems (weight and body image).

That leads in perfectly to my next question — I wanted to talk about these insular worlds. Because both Skinny and Prep capture them so well. I haven’t been to a boarding school, but I went to tennis camp for a few years and remember it with such fondness. I think most people who go to camp do. My question is, then, why do you think we crave/cherish the memories of these insular worlds? Is it because they’re detached from our normal lives, because they’re for a fixed amount of time, etc…?

Spechler: I think it has something to do with the family structure, our first understanding of love. Insular worlds mirror the family structure in an interesting way. A place like camp is especially family-like. We eat all our meals together. We form extremely close friendships. We make enemies. We compete. My first novel, Who by Fire, was partly set in a yeshiva in Israel, another insular world, and the protagonist had run away to that yeshiva because his family had disappointed him.

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