Five Questions for Diana Spechler
Contributor

 

This week, novelist Diana Spechler, author of the recently published novel Skinny, answered five questions by Cristina Fahrbach-Connors about her novel, her writing habits, and teaching and studying creative writing.

 

Cristina Fahrbach-Connors: In Skinny, you write about body image issues, yet you appear as someone far from needing to have weight concerns yourself. What inspired your book and do you feel this dichotomy alienates readers? Can you talk about how those who appear "perfect" have issues of their own and can relate to your book?

 

Diana Spechler: People of all shapes and sizes suffer from body image issues, largely because the media suggests that women should be skinny, curvy, air-brushed, hairless, and twenty-two years old. Consciously or unconsciously, many of us strive for that ideal, and the diet industry exploits our desperation. We buy their products. The products fail us. Then we feel like failures and seek the next quick fix, and so on. What a mess. That mess was part of my inspiration for SKINNY.

 

As for “those who appear ‘perfect,’” who are those people? I see models walking around New York City and sure, they’re beautiful, and sure, I love to stare at them, but they’re still people. They have problems we can’t see: divorced parents, phobias, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, bunions. One day, they’ll be thirty and out of work. Everyone has problems.

 
Cristina: In the name of research and authenticity, you worked in a weight-loss camp one summer. How did the camp feel upon learning about your book? Have you been contacted by the teens who confided in you?

 

Diana: So far, everyone from the camp who has reached out to me has done so with good will. I worried that people would take the book personally, or confuse it for nonfiction, but instead, they seem to think it’s pretty cool that I was inspired by that summer. It was a really special summer, and although I fictionalized it, I captured some of its essence, which those who were there have enjoyed revisiting.

  

Cristina: Do you have "writing partners"? At what point do you show them your "first draft"? How does this help and/or hinder your process?

 

Diana: Like many writers, I started out in writing workshops, majoring in creative writing in college and then heading straight to an MFA program, so for about six years; I was putting everything I wrote on the chopping block for a group of eight to ten people. I loved it. It was helpful to hear a variety of opinions, to have my bad habits pointed out to me, and to hear which aspects of my work elicited strong reactions. But once I was done with school, I let my circle of readers dwindle. I found I no longer needed so many voices in my head. These days, I show all of my fiction to my friend and fellow novelist, Cristina Henriquez. We’ve been writing partners (we say “writing soul mates”) for almost a decade. I also have a few other writer buddies with whom I trade work sporadically, and now of course I have my agent and my editor, both of whom are sharp readers. I never show anyone my pages before I feel that there’s nothing more I can do. I have to get to the point where I think, “I can’t see this thing anymore.” Then I solicit outside help.

 

Cristina: You've taught (and teach) a lot of writing workshops (extremely well, as I can personally attest to). What do you feel is your responsibility as a writing instructor?  Should you be encouraging a student who wants to get published, but you don't think has a lot of merit both generally as an individual and more specifically in a project they've undertaken? At what point do you tell a student to cut their losses as a writer and/or turn their writing efforts to a new project that might be more fruitful?

 

Diana: Thank you! As an instructor, I don’t read student work to assess whether or not it’s “publishable.” Honestly, I have no idea what’s publishable. I’m often surprised by what gets published and what doesn’t. I read student work with an eye toward craft, asking myself, “Is this engaging?” and “What could make this better?”

 

I think instruction is integral to becoming a writer. Writing is a serious artistic pursuit, and it should be treated that way. We all have to train. With that said, I can help a student improve his writing, but I can’t keep his ass in the chair. And keeping his ass in the chair, day after day, year after year, is the most important part.
 

Cristina: What do you think your protagonist discovers about her view about overweight women, particularly in connection with her own body issues and how does she grow from the start of the novel to the end?

 

Diana: The protagonist of Skinny, Gray Lachmann, isn’t particularly heavy, but her issues with weight are complex. Her father was obese, her mother is borderline anorexic, and Gray has recently become a binge eater. She’s terrified of gaining weight. She’s angry with her father. And she’s grieving his recent death. All of those emotions get mixed up in her head and manifest as anger toward fat people. Late in the book, she finally self-reflects, admitting the source of her resentment: Fat people are the visible manifestations of the parts of herself she tries to hide.

 

 

In addition to Skinny, Diana is the author of the novel Who By Fire. She has written for The New York Times, GQ, O Magazine, Esquire, Self, Details, The Wall Street Journal online, Nerve, Glimmer Train Stories, and elsewhere. She received her MFA degree from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University. She teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio.

 

Cristina Fahrbach-Connors is a New York attorney who blogs at Size and Substance and is working on her first novel. 

 

Connect with Diana and Cristina here at She Writes through their profile pages. 

 

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Comments
  • Teresa K. Thorne

    You are so right-on about what women deal with re self-image.  Thank you for writing about such a difficult/complex subject.

  • Valerie Nieman

    Sounds like a great read! Thanks for this interview.

  • Nelle Douville

    Body image issues can be quite debilitating. As a transsexual woman, I'm not certain of placement in this group, but if it were so, it would be the 'all out war' category. ;-)  It is delicate and serious issue subject matter. I'd like to read your novel... when I drum up the courage. That we write on these things is good.

     

    I'm curious... was writing the novel an extension of your perception of the body image issue, or did your writing alter your perception - did your characters make you see or feel a little differently?

  • Anne Clinard Barnhill

    Interesting and the book sounds great!  I have a short story in my collection, What You Long For, called "The Confessions of a Fat Woman" which takes a look at body image and sort of turns it on its head.  This is indeed a subject to which all women in our culture can relate--fascinating that the writer worked at one of those camps.  Thanks!