Lindsay Hunter’s first novel, 2014’s “Ugly Girls,” continued the dark and sometimes shocking themes she debuted in her 2010 story collection, “Daddy’s.” Her new novel, “Eat Only When You’re Hungry,” out Aug. 8 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is just as dark as her other books, but with a very different protagonist.
Greg is a 58-year-old retired accountant who lives with his second wife in West Virginia. A compulsive overeater who also has a drinking problem, Greg resents his obese body but can’t quite bring himself to get help for his addictions. When his drug-addicted adult son, Greg Jr., goes missing, he rents an RV and heads to Florida on a quest to find him.
Hunter will read from “Eat Only When You’re Hungry” and participate in a conversation with “Hunger” author Roxane Gay at Skylight Books in Los Angeles on at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 10. She spoke with The Times from her home in Chicago.
You started your career with short fiction, and this is your second novel. Was it easier writing long-form fiction this time around?
There were a lot of things that I did with “Ugly Girls” that I wanted to fix, or make up for, with “Eat Only When You're Hungry.” [In] the process of writing both of them, I gave myself a daily word count, because that's just how I roll. It's a way to feel like a success every day. So the process was very similar, but this time around I kept a journal, because I felt like with “Ugly Girls” there was a lot of me — and other people — questioning, “What were you thinking when you did this?” I wanted to keep better track of my intentions, even though I never read that journal again. It pains me to even think about opening it. But I have it if I need it. I wanted to be really aware of what I was doing, and I wanted to make sure that I was being honest with myself every day.
With my first novel, it was kind of like hacking at a 100-year-old hawthorn tree with a dull butter knife. I felt like, “I will get there, but it will be painful, and it will take a long time.” This time around, I gave myself permission to have control. I remember being really exhausted every day, and your emotions about what you're writing change so often. One day I would feel like I was making a noble pursuit, and the next day I would feel like, “What the hell am I doing?” And the day after that, I'd be, like, “I am brilliant, and my son is going to be so proud of me.” But at least I felt like there was a way in which I was taking ownership of it in a way that I hadn't let myself with “Ugly Girls.”
How did the idea for this book come to you? Did it start with Greg, or was it more you wanting to write a book that dealt with addiction?
I think Greg immediately was who I wanted to write about. I took some time off from work to start working on my next novel, and when I sat down the first morning, I had two ideas. I was going to write about witches or I was going to write about Greg. And that morning I was, like, “Well, I think I want to write about Greg today.” I saw him perfectly, I saw his loneliness and I saw his feeling of being trapped in his body. He's got these layers of being trapped. He's trapped inside his mind. He's trapped inside his body. He's trapped inside his chair. He's trapped inside his home. And it's not necessarily that he wants to escape. I could see that so clearly, and I wanted to just see what would happen with him. And I wanted a little, tiny, tiny bit of grace. I wanted the book to have some sort of tiny little bit of hope for him, even if that meant him being at peace with just one little thing.
Greg seems like a departure from many of your other characters. Was it hard getting into his mindset, this man who's in late middle age and who's dealing with issues of overeating?
As I started writing it, I didn't worry, like, “Oh, I'm just this 35-year-old lady in the Midwest writing about this middle-aged man who has all these addiction issues.” It didn't hit me till the middle of writing it that I thought, “Oh, my God! Is this authentic? Are people going to read this and be, like, 'What are you talking about? You don't know anything about this.’” But I feel like that's a good thing. I didn't go into it thinking, “Well, this is what a man would think.” Instead I went into it like, “This is a human being that I'm going to follow.” I felt like that was good news. I felt like at least I was being true to who I saw him as, rather than this trope. But even today, I struggle with food issues. I was anorexic in high school and in college, and that was very familiar to me, that sort of leaning on food stuff, hiding it from yourself. That was something that I never admitted to myself that I wanted to explore, but it just naturally came out.
I was anorexic in high school and in college, and that was very familiar to me, that sort of leaning on food stuff, hiding it from yourself.
— Lindsay Hunter
How do you see Greg's relationship with food? What kind of power do you think food has over him?
I think it's a really easy, doable, tactile way to fill a hole. It's a way for him to have control over a moment, even though he's completely out of control. But in his mind, it's a way for him to treat himself, to reward himself by filling this hole. And the hole is never filled, and that's a huge problem, but it holds this power over him that he can happily succumb to. He's surrounded by it. It's so easy to procure, especially when he's alone and no one's watching him. And he's not even watching himself. So I think for him it's a way to feel triumph in a small moment, even if it's completely, very quickly followed by the lowest feeling. It's a way for him to think, “All right, I don't want to focus on this emotion here, I'm going to focus on getting a sack of burgers, getting some tacos, filling myself with whatever I want to eat.” It's freedom to him.
Do you think that food, in particular fast food and junk food, has some kind of control over the psyches of Americans in general?
Definitely. It's so easy to come by, it's so pleasing. It's a very American thing. It's instant gratification. That's who we are. And again, it's a way to feel rewarded, it's a way to feel pleasure. You know, I can't wait for Fridays, because that's my day to gorge on chocolate. [Laughs] That's what I reward myself with. I don't drink, I don't do drugs, but Fridays, I'm, like, “Oh, I'm going to eat so much chocolate.” It's so easy. And there's all this scientific research that sugar and fat go to these parts of our brains and change our brain chemistry and give us this high. I think Greg is your typical middle-aged American dude, you know?
In a lot of ways, this is a road novel; it's a very realistic portrayal of the American road, where you see the same fast-food restaurants over and over again. It brought home to me how much that's become part of our shared culture.
Totally. I remember taking road trips with my family, and one of the main things that we would do was stop at gas stations and buy Moon Pies and Banana Flips and Yoo-Hoos. That was almost like the point of the road trip. My mom was the mom who never let me have Lunchables; I had to have homemade sandwiches with carrot sticks. I remember she came to school one day and was lecturing my friends because their lunches were unhealthy. [Laughs] I went grocery shopping at Target today, and I could have easily bought a bag of Ding Dongs or something. But it just tastes different if you buy it at a Gas N Go and eat it when you're driving. There's just a different feeling from if you took it home and sat on your couch and ate it. It's freedom. I swear, it's freedom.
Do you think that Greg sees the parallel between his addiction and Greg Jr.'s addiction?
I think Greg would say, “I did the best I could.” [Laughs] I think he would say a lot of things before he would accept that. I think he would say, “You know, Greg Jr.'s an adult now. He could've learned from us. He had everything. He had a caring mother and I didn't.” But at the end, I think he might accept it. He definitely knows that he can't impose himself on Greg Jr. anymore. He would probably want to still be in Greg Jr.'s life, but he realizes that he does more harm than good. He's redeemed a little bit in the end by just accepting it instead of railing against it.
Both Greg and Greg Jr. have to be alone to indulge in their addictions. They have to be away from their loved ones.
If someone else sees it and someone else talks about it, it makes it real, it makes it something that Greg has to answer to, or stop. If it's something that's just internal, it's almost like the animal part of him, it's instinctual, it's primitive. It's his lizard brain. Then he doesn't have to really face it. No one's making him face it. If he's not being seen, then maybe it doesn't even really exist.