Chicago was so influential to Lindsay Hunter that she dedicated her second book to the city. Hunter doesn’t claim living here made her a better writer, but it helped give her permission to be herself and to be comfortable in her own voice — which is great news for us, because her work is sharp and funny, smart, and interesting.
It’s no surprise that Hunter’s new novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, is all these things. It tells the story of Greg — an overweight middle-aged man — and the search for his missing addict son, GJ. The novel tackles failure, addiction, family relationships, and mortality. It’s so compelling and rich that it will certainly end up as one of my favorite novels of the year. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lindsay Hunter over the phone about her novel, FSG, and Chicago.
Rachel León: So let’s start with the cover. You’ve had some fantastic covers, but this one is by far my favorite.
Lindsay Hunter: Oh my God, I love it so much.
Rachel León: Are you happy with it in relation to the story?
Lindsay Hunter: I’m really happy with it. FSG did something different this time around that they hadn’t done with my past two covers — even though I think they did amazing jobs with those as well — but they gave me a questionnaire with questions like, what would your dream cover be? What are some major themes that you see in the book? What are some sort of art reference we can look at? They really let me run wild with my ideas. So I really felt like I was part of the process — which is a lot more similar to how my first book went, with Featherproof in Chicago, which was very collaborative.
So I had a few ideas. One of the ideas was well, he’s on a road trip and he’s a food addict, so I envisioned it kind of looking like an RV looks, just every surface completely covered with wrappers and food to the point you don’t even really know what you’re looking at. But they actually went on Amazon and went to gas stations and got food and arranged it and photographed it. They even said ‘here’s the receipt, is there anything missing?’ And I got to say, ‘yeah, can you add some Yoo-hoo and some circus peanuts, and some this and that. And they did.
Rachel León: That’s cool you got to be part of the process. . . . I’m curious about the origin of Eat Only When You’re Hungry. Did it start with an idea, a character, or the premise?
Lindsay Hunter: I was going to write a novel about witches or I was going to write about this character Greg, who really didn’t have a name when I was thinking of him. I had a writing sabbatical when I took off from work. I sat down the first day, and he just kind of poured out of me. So it started with him. I think if I would’ve gone with the witches it would’ve started with a trope or plot, but with this novel it started with this character.
I could see him, I just knew him. He rose fully formed in my heart. Even in my early drafts, you find out about GJ being missing in the first few sentences, but I don’t think I knew that when I was thinking about him until I really sat down and was like, okay, he has this weird relationship with his son — why? And then I just sort of followed it from there. I loved him and felt really fascinated by him and wanted to do him justice.
Rachel León: That was actually going to be my next question. I thought Greg was a fantastic character and felt so vivid and real, and I wondered if it took time to get to know his character, but it sounds like he came to you easily.
Lindsay Hunter: Yeah, very. I feel like that’s when you have to pay attention as a writer. They aren’t going to let you push them to the side to work on something else. They’re there and they are real to you for a reason.
And it’s such a pleasure. I feel like it’s an exercise in therapy almost. And I’m sure other writers feel this way, too, just like you’re mining your body for these hidden fossilized remnants that you dig up and you use and they come through in your writing. So it was hard in that way as any worthy thing is, but it was also really fun, and it felt like it was mine. I feel really proud of the book and feel like it’s mine in a way that I can stand up and claim.
Rachel León: You cofounded Quickies!, which focused on flash fiction, and your first two books were story collections. But your last two have been novels. Do you find yourself now gravitating towards longer fiction?
Lindsay Hunter: Well, when I was in grad school I was working on longer stuff. I was working on a novel for forever. It was basically the same scene over and over again, so I can’t really call it a novel, but that’s what I was hoping it would end up being.
Then with Quickies! I found this really wonderful place for myself in flash fiction. Having written these two novels and spending so much time with them, I feel like these days I’m gravitating back towards the short story. I’m slowly working towards a new collection that I hope to place one day.
Actually, Laura van den Berg, who is also on FSG, she was just tweeting the other day that she just turned in her novel and now she’s going to reteach herself short stories. She’s got a few collections and is a really wonderful short story writer, as well as novelist. But I remember reading that and thinking, oh my gosh, that’s exactly what I’m doing — trying to reteach myself how to do this thing. I was writing yesterday while my kids were napping. Before these novels, I could write a piece of flash fiction and I knew the beats and I knew the trail. Not in terms of plot or anything like that, but just how it physically feels to sit down, and for how long, and write a story. And now I find myself like, what is even important to this story?
So I need to re-find the rhythm. It’s like if you’re a runner and you don’t run for two weeks and you run, you’re like, oh my God, I don’t know how to run anymore. But you do — it’s there. You just have to get back into it, so that’s what I’m focusing on right now.
Rachel León: You mentioned writing while you’re kids are napping, which makes me curious about your writing process. Is finding time to write a constant balancing act?
Lindsay Hunter: I stopped working after my second son was born. He’s seventeen months old now. So I stay home with my kids and absolutely love it, but even when they’re napping there’s anywhere from an hour and a half to two hour window. That’s nothing. That’s enough time to just start to get in the groove of writing. I think I wrote six hundred words during their nap yesterday, and for me that’s not even establishing what the story is going to be.
It’s better than nothing, but it’s different than when I wrote Ugly Girls. I was pregnant with my first child back then, and when I finished Ugly Girls he was a baby. And when I wrote Eat Only When You’re Hungry, any moment I was writing those books and my son was alive, he was at a sitter so that I could focus on the task at hand because it’s not fair to say I’ll just fart this thing out while he’s watching TV. It’s impossible. I need the psychic permission to just fully focus on something.
I can only speak personally because it’s different for every parent on how they get the time to do what they need to do, but for me it’s not even a balancing act. Nothing is balanced. It’s mostly I’m a mom to my two little boys and when I can find the time, I work on stuff. I’m trying to be okay with that.
I think coming from the indie world people are very prolific, very fast, and always working. That’s what we want to do. The more traditional publishing route is to give it time and space and see where it goes and let your readers breathe a little bit. That’s the balance I’m trying to find, that it’s going to be okay. But yeah, it’s hard to find time. I’m good at asking for what I need, so if I need time to write I definitely get it, but I’m letting myself just be a mom for a little bit.
Rachel León: Your last three books have all been published by FSG. Have you worked with the same editor on all three books?
Lindsay Hunter: Yes, Emily Bell. She’s an amazing editor. She’s the editor to Amelia Gray, Catherine Lacey, Laura van den Berg, Jac Jemc, Maryse Meijer — she has a whole harem of amazing writers under her wing. She just knows what she likes and she stands up for it.
All of our voices are so different, but I think we all have a unique voice. We’re not all traditional narrative fiction. We all have our own thing going for us, and she fights for it and demands it from us. I remember when I got my copy edits back for Ugly Girls, which is a nightmare for a copy editor. It’s just vernacular with made up words left and right. There’s comma splices everywhere, and it was my first copy edit of a novel. I remember being like okay, accept, accept, accept, and she was like ‘you need to reject what this copy editor is suggesting you do’. I remember thinking, wow, she’s really fighting for this mess. It was a purposeful mess. I know what a comma splice is, and I know punctuation, but I thought I should listen to the copy editor. And Emily Bell said, ‘no, you need to listen to yourself’.
This is such a different book for me, and I was really scared of what she would think. But she was like, ‘I’m so proud of you, this is totally different, I’m glad you trusted yourself to go in this direction. I love it’. I just feel completely spoiled. I feel like I have the best editor and the best publishing house in the whole world. I don’t know how I could be so lucky, but she’s awesome.
Rachel León: You dedicated Don’t Kiss Me to Chicago. Has living in Chicago informed your work in any way?
Lindsay Hunter: It’s everything. It’s a big city, but it’s small; it’s a city of neighborhoods. It’s a place where you could start a reading series called Quickies!, and people would come and listen to you and they would be genuinely excited to hear a new reader and to let you just be who you were.
I feel like there’s no place like it. It’s where I found permission to be myself. That’s partly due to the grad school environment I was in, and largely to the community I found. I never felt like taking a risk was a bad thing. I felt like it was always just going to be fun. It’s unbelievable what a little tiny bit of confidence will do for you as a writer. It’s a breakthrough that every wannabe writer has to have.
It’s so funny, I was just watching a video of Peter Dinklage give a commencement speech at Bennington and he was like, ‘the world is going to tell you can’t do these things, and I’m telling you, you should never even ask’. I remember thinking, that’s how it felt when I started out. I decided I wasn’t even going to ask anymore. For a long time it felt like I don’t write like these writers in The New Yorker, and I don’t write like so-and-so famous writer and I’m definitely not going to get a Pulitzer anytime soon, why bother.
But eventually you get to a point where you’re like, fuck it, I’m not going to ask anymore. I’m just going to write what I want to write. And Chicago and it’s literary citizens and it’s people say, yeah, great, do it again….I haven’t been as present in the literary community for a few years, but when I was present it was bar none just the best.
Rachel León: Do you have a favorite Chicago indie book store?
Lindsay Hunter: You can’t ask me that! I love them all! No, I can’t name a favorite, but they’re all really supportive. I wish I could have my book launch at each and every one of them.
Rachel León: You’ll be at Women & Children First on August 18. Want to tell readers about this event?
Lindsay Hunter: Yes, that’s my official Chicago book launch. I’ll be at Women & Children First on August 18. What’s exciting about that, besides that there is going to be cake, is I’m going to have a representative from the Chicago Childcare Collective come. They’re an organization that gathers volunteers to help parents out who want to fight any sort of injustice but have children that need watching. The Childcare Collective will help partner you with volunteers who can help.
So they’re going to come and hopefully raise a little money for their organization, and I’ll read from the book and take any questions, and then we’re going to eat some cake and drink some wine! It’s the end of this tiny book tour I’m going on, and I’m so happy it’s the last one because it’s the perfect culmination to end it in my home.
Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter
Published August 8, 2017
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.