A big bite of food’s deeper meanings
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” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), 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, who brings “Eat Only When You’re Hungry” to Los Angeles on Thursday, spoke with The Times from her home in Chicago.
How did the idea for this book come to you?
I took some time off 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. 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.
Was it hard getting into Greg’s mindset?
As I started, 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 — 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, “This is what a man would think.” Instead I went into it like, “This is a human being that I’m going to follow.” 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.
How do you see Greg’s relationship with food?
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. 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. 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 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 change our brain chemistry and give us this high. I think Greg is your typical middleaged American dude, you know?
In a lot of ways, this is a road novel; it’s a very realistic portrayal of food on the American road.
I remember taking road trips with my family, and we would stop at gas stations and buy Moon Pies and Banana Flips and Yoo-Hoos. That was almost like the point of the road trip. It tastes different if you buy it at a Gas N Go and eat it when you’re driving. There’s a different feeling. It’s freedom. I swear, it’s freedom.