Out of Twenty – Diana Spechler, Author of Skinny, Answers Nine Questions

Diana Spechler, auhor of Skinny

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing the which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! I first heard of Diana Spechler, author of the novel Skinny, when Jennifer from The Literate Housewife summed up just how awesome she thought Skinny was. I had the opportunity to meet Diana the week of Book Expo America at the HarperCollins offices, and I asked her if she would be interested in twenty questions. Diana played along and answered nine questions.  Here is what Diana had to say about reading, writing and 1940’s love songs.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I’m the author of the novels Who By Fire (2008) and Skinny (2011); a contributor to the New York Times, O Magazine, GQ, Esquire, Details, Self, and other publications; a scuba diver; an early riser; and a lover of porch swings and flip-flops.  Also, I’m nosy, so I like to write about the drama of human relationships. Is that broad? That’s very broad. But it’s a fair description of what I do.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

Tea, pacing, crying, running, and yoga. Also, I have a writing dress. I pull it out in the summertime. It is so ugly and comfortable. I got it at the Gap.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?

My latest novel, Skinny, a story set at a weight-loss camp, is about the connection between hunger and love. It explores eating disorders and the agony of negative body image.

Just about everyone in this country has issues with eating and/or with their bodies, and it’s no wonder. Everywhere we go, we see ads telling us to eat high-fat foods in excessive quantities, or to be skinny and fit and twenty-two years old.

I’ve always had body image issues and I thought that writing a book about the body might let some light in for me. It did, and in many ways, that insight changed me. Writing a book inevitably changes the writer. For me, writing is a detox, cleansing me of my obsessions. Since writing Skinny, I’m certainly not free from body obsession—I don’t expect I ever will be—but I do feel as though I’m on the other side of it, in a sense: Because it’s no longer as mysterious to me, it’s no longer as painful.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

I just finished re-reading The Great Gatsby, one of the most beautiful books ever written.

I have so many favorite books and authors, I could never name them all, unless you were willing to stick with me for a few days, but here are a few.

Books: The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Mystery Ride by Robert Boswell, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, That Night by Alice McDermott, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and recently, The Adults by Alison Espach.

Authors: Antonya Nelson, Aimee Bender, Joy Williams, Jeffrey Eugenides, Cristina Henriquez, and Aryn Kyle. (Those last two are my friends, so they’re also two of my favorite people.)

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

I read constantly. When I’m not reading at least one book with a couple more in the queue, I feel off-kilter. I do try to avoid “voice-y” work (i.e. Lorrie Moore) when I’m writing a novel because reading voice-y writing while writing is like having a song stuck in your head while trying to compose a song.

What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?

Gray, the protagonist of Skinny, loves self-help books. Ever since her father died, she’s been reading them voraciously. But I would encourage her to stop seeking and start reading good fiction about seekers—Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, perhaps, or Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?

The first story I ever wrote was called Shana and The Magic Quilt. The story was about a girl named Shana and, well, her magic quilt. I think the quilt flew around the room or something. I was seven years old and the story was twenty-four pages long, hand-written. I gave it to my mother to type for me. She still has it. My writing style has certainly changed since, in many ways, perhaps because I no longer collaborate with my mother.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always read constantly and voraciously, but I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye when I was thirteen, and thinking, “You’re allowed to write like that?” And then: “I want to write like that.” I finished the book and immediately started it again.

Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

I love research. It’s a terrific way to procrastinate. For Skinny, I worked undercover at a weight-loss camp for ten weeks. I was in charge of the oldest girls and I taught water aerobics. I went to the camp because I knew I wanted to write a novel set at a weight-loss camp, but I didn’t start writing until I got home.

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About: Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who By Fire (Harper Perennial, 2008) and Skinny (Harper Perennial, 2011). 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 Writing School.

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  1. Ha! I love the ugly Gap dress! I have loved all of these interviews with Diana. she has such a great way about her. I did read Skinny, and read it in lightning speed. I did have hangups with the book, but I’m sure that has everything to do with my body image issues as well! I was incensed that Gray was all flipped out over 15 pounds, even though I knew it wasn’t so much about the pounds as her anxiety. I am definitely wanting to read Diana’s other book Who By Fire.

  2. I have Who By Fire with me and I really want to get to it soon. This was such a fun interview! I liked the bit about working at a weight -loss camp undercover.

  3. I chuckled over the writing dress. I agree with Kathy, we need a photo for reference.

    I’ve not read Lorrie Moore but I’m not sure what Diana means by voice-y. Perhaps she means, conversational?

  4. Much as I like the Gap for other clothes, I agree that they do come up with some phenomenally ugly dresses. And I’m picturing Diana skulking around at the weight-loss camp, writing notes down in a top-secret notebook.