I was in a writing workshop with JoAnna Novak at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007. As I recall, she was writing prose about movies, and I thought her prose was so inventive that I told her she should be a poet. She later got an MFA in poetry (probably not thanks to my encouragement), which I think is integral to the often lyrical prose of her newly released novel, I Must Have You. The novel is about the relationships between three women living with or recovering from eating disorders: two teens, Elliott and Lisa, and Elliott’s mother Anna. Elliott is a young diet coach who publishes a “thinspo” (thinspiration) zine for her clients. Lisa was her favorite client, but is now recovering from anorexia as she also explores a relationship with a 19-year-old drug dealer, the same one Elliott’s mother is having an affair with. The novel explores the intersections and divergences of desire and control with a 1990s-laden prose so compelling that you’d think Novak was the highly literary child of Amy Heckerling.
JoAnna Novak is the author of I Must Have You (Skyhorse Publishing 2017) and Noirmania (forthcoming from Inside the Castle 2018). She has written fiction, essays, poetry, and criticism for publications including The New York Times, Salon, Guernica, BOMB, The Rumpus, Conjunctions, and Joyland. A co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher Tammy, she lives in Los Angeles.
MICAH BATEMAN: What do people get wrong about eating disorders?
JOANNA NOVAK: They’re not these monastic prisons of piety and perfectionism all the time; they’re not always about control; they’re not sexless; they’re not desireless. Other things, too, because I’m assuming some people still think they’re about appearance and intake. Food is the knife you play with to see what kind of daredevil you are.
Oh yeah — and there’s a pervasive misconception that they “end.”
What is the relationship between eating disorders and sexual desire? Your novel covers a woman’s desire for a younger man, teenage heterosexual desire, as well as teenage same-gender desire. And all three of your central characters — Elliott, Anna, and Lisa — control (or don’t control) and consent (or don’t consent) to their desires and impulses differently.
In its earliest iteration, a document on my laptop, the novel was called Girl Crush: Irregular Verbs of Being, so I appreciate you asking about the erotic. Like I said earlier, I think there’s a fundamental misperception that people with eating disorders — especially anorexia — are anhedonic, frigid, numb to the pleasures of physical intimacy. Maybe this stereotype is just residue of the fasting saints, the ascetic martyrs whose anorexia mirabilis Rudolph Bell explores in Holy Anorexia (Joan Jacobs Brumberg does so, too, in Fasting Girls), but it also promoted in Marti Noxon’s new Netflix movie To the Bone, and that’s not how I saw Elliot…
Anyhow, I’m bored by that stereotype, so I wanted to explore the way that an eating disorder might be a conduit for obsession in a desirous way. There’s this kernel of envy that can spark eating disorders — envy of someone else’s social status or physical appearance or family situation or Limited Too sweatshirt, in my characters’ world. And the thing about envy is that it can lead to fixation, and that’s one step toward falling in love. There’s some of that happening with the two teen protagonists, Elliott and Lisa.
In the book, though, sexual desire is a way to transgress the societal mores that impact all three protagonists’ sense of bodiedness. Elliott, her mentee/BFF Lisa, and Elliott’s mom Anna are all negotiating their physicality within a thin-is-good paradigm, but there’s not a similar paradigm that dictates their sexual expression. Lisa is 14 and having sex with a 19-year-old, but that’s her choice.
How are eating disorders gendered?
The NEDA statistic I’ve internalized is, “20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from eating disorders at some point in their lifetime,” so I imagine that when most people picture someone with an eating disoder, that figure running on the treadmill or hinged over the toilet is a woman.
Is it still more “normal” for women to be on diets than men? Maybe? Our culture considers dieting a rite of passage for women — pre-wedding, post-baby, etc. And the diet is this process that seems to promise it will lead the dieter to a more ideal state of womanhood because the ideal body is the thin body or the toned body. I don’t know that that strictly slender ideal exists for as many men, so perhaps that’s why a man with an eating disoder poses some kind of gendered challenge. If realistic portrayals of women with eating disoders are rare, realistic depictions of men with them are almost non-existent.
Your book’s release coincides with Roxane Gay’s Hunger and the conversations surrounding that. What’s the difference between addressing fatness, as Gay does, and thinness, as you do?
I feel like I should get on the table (food pun intended) that I’ve had an eating disorder for the last 20 years, and that has manifested in anorexia, purging anorexia, bulimia, exercise bulimia, and ED-NOS (not otherwise specified). My weight has been everywhere from medically underweight to medically overweight.
Still, one difference I imagine is the sense of bodiedness that discussions of fatness vs. thinness assume. Our culture, I believe, still prizes thinness, and maybe it’s safe to assume that discussions of thinness presuppose that that “thinness” is good. Harriet Brown writes so insightfully about the ways that even our doctors make all kinds of assumptions and judgments about “fatness” — i.e., whether or not it can be a companion to health — that only maybe are representative of scientific findings.
Our stereotypes of fatness and thinness are different, too, but I’m interested in one thing those poles of bodily categorization have in common — and that’s the sized body’s capacity for sexual expression. A person whose body represents an emaciated extreme of thinness is seen as, perhaps, starved of desire or lust, in the way that a person whose body represents an equally extreme state of fatness is frequently shown to be — at least in our culture’s depictions of such bodies — “too fat to fuck.”
Your novel is about the social reproduction of eating disorders (how they pass from one person to the next via social pressures), but these disorders are treated medically in hospital settings. Are you thinking about anorexia within the paradigm of illness? What does that paradigm offer or leave out?
“Reproduction” is an interesting word in this context. Are we going to view the ‘90s as the last hurrah of print media for the masses? Anorexia could be passed around like an issue of Seventeen, it seemed to me. And for the characters in I Must Have You, the disease is both a way of being inculcated into something and being superior to something else. It’s exclusive and excluding, but it also offers great intimacy. The paradigm of illness defines the “sick” in opposition to “well.” It’s not that simple, especially with regard to eating disorders, those spectral and spectrum-bound issues, issues that become inextricably linked to a person’s identity.
I like your metaphor about Seventeen, because aside from confronting eating disorders, your novel also takes on the ‘90s itself. It’s one of the more pop-cultural-laden novels I’ve read (to my delight), and the pop cultural bromides are built into the DNA of your prose, especially when you’re writing from the vantage of the young teen diet coach, Elliott. Her ‘90s pop vernacular speech had metabolized and internalized a lot of mass media speech and images, and I thought that was interesting as it was voiced by this young teen who refused to be nourished by food.
This is such a smart assessment. The characters in I Must Have You — especially Elliott and Lisa — live in the aftermath of Clueless, which, in my own experience, completely changed how I thought about speech. The movie came out when I was about to start fifth grade, and my friends and I emulated it as thoroughly as 11-year-olds could: marabou pens, mini-purses, fake cell phones (yikes), not to mention the speech, the cultural shorthand.
But what I hope to show in the novel is the way that those pop cultural references and allusions can be coopted. Elliot, for instance, doesn’t really see herself as one of the masses for whom pop culture is designed. She’s kind of elitist, which comes from all the power she thinks she has both as an anorectic and a diet coach, so her speech and her zine (Real Talk: Meal Talk) is thick with these references because she feels like she’s sneakily appealing to her audience. Of course, you can’t use language of the captor and not admit to being captive, and Elliot is definitely misusing pop culture. She’s “too much,” which is something one can lose sight of — like, how to exist in a way that’s not all or nothing — with an eating disorder.
What’s your particular obsession with the ‘90s?
I have a deep, wistful longing for a ‘90s I was participating in only as a subscriber to Harper’s Bazaar and In Style, my magazines of choice starting in third grade, when I stopped reading Highlights. You might call it the cultural ‘90s, the fashionable ‘90s, the adult ‘90s. I graduated from eighth grade in 1999 (our class song, like everyone else’s that year, was Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”). Those lyrics really capture the ambivalence of the ‘90s, an ambivalence that’s not problematized: “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s fine/I hope you had the time of your life.”
With no chronology whatsoever, there were the excesses of economic prosperity, the rise of conscious consumerism, the backlashes of grunge and Marc Jacobs and heroin chic; there was Fiona Apple and the Spice Girls. Maybe those two poles — Fiona Apple and the Spice Girls — represent the cultural spectrum that makes the ‘90s seem, still, so irreverently manufactured, but also brutal and earnest and raw and alive. I think one way to discuss this is to say that in the span of a decade, something like grunge for instance, went from obscure, to popular, to dead, and even into nostalgic mode after the death of Kurt Cobain.
How has the internet changed the print culture of “thinspo”?
The power of zooming in cannot be overemphasized. But also searchability, which lets the consumer of thinspo engage in a steady dosing that feels a lot more active than flipping through a magazine or even cutting pictures out and gluing them into a notebook, which I did. When I was a lot younger, the internet made me feel like a detective tracking down something vital whenever I did something like search “Calista Flockhart weight,” “Victoria Beckham height weight,” “Audrey Hepburn waist diameter.” The internet made me feel like I was living Nancy Drew and the Case of the Thigh Gap.
But I can’t really say that the internet is better or worse than print because there are a lot more voices on the internet. On the internet, we consume images in community. If you see a thinspirational image on Instagram, for instance, odds are you’ll see commenters both gushing over and hating on that body or trying to ascertain whether it was altered (I remember reading several fervent discussions about this picture, actually, which is quite old). With print culture, you consume that thinspo, that triggering image, usually, in a more solitary space — just you and your thoughts.
Where do, say, trauma triggers and eating disorder triggers differ, and where do they intersect? What might asking someone with an eating disorder about triggers contribute to the more general conversation about trigger warnings?
Triggers are unavoidable. The mind is a tenacious documentarian, sifting and culling sensory data every minute and fitting it into an individual’s trajectory.
I should mention that until the conversation about trigger warnings in college classrooms, I didn’t realize people talked about triggers outside of the eating disorder community. I learned the term on a really wonderful pro-recovery message board called Something Fishy, way back in 1999. Even then, it seemed sort of artificial. Like, a nice try. As someone with an eating disorder, I might be able to avoid certain explicit triggers — say, trying on a bunch of jeans after enjoying a big meal — but that doesn’t mean that, if I don’t go to the mall, I’m not going to hear a song or smell a smell or see an anorectic at the grocery store and be affected. This has been my experience with eating disorder triggers — and, to some extent, trauma triggers, too.
Asking people with eating disorders about triggers might highlight the ubiquity of them, though I don’t mean for that to be a justification for censorship. People just exist with totally individual degrees of porousness, and we could all probably do well to remember this. (This is why I’m a writer?)
The novel seems structured around exactly how disordered ideation spreads: specifically from mother to daughter, and from peer to peer. How else does disordered thinking reproduce exactly?
Disordered thinking is so intoxicating, especially in adolescence, when you’re trying to take a stab at crafting an identity. The really sticky part about eating disorders is — and I’m reiterating a bit from above — is how they make you feel part of something (i.e., “I’m an anorectic,” like, “I’m in that clique, I wear that badge”) and still singular. Your own personal disorder always feels weirder, stranger, more intense, than how you imagine anyone else’s — which can be really far from the truth, but that notion is appealing.
In the novel, I also try to show the way authoring can be a way of reproducing disordered thinking. Elliot is a writer and publisher. She’s an eighth-grader, and her zine is kind of a sartorial mash-up of Cosmo and Bustle and the writing I had to do when I was on something called YA library board as a kid — so not necessarily the vehicle one would think of as delivering disordered thinking, but that’s absolutely what the publication does. Of course, I’m interested in making that sort of murky: to Elliot, anorexic thinking or even restrictive thinking about food isn’t disorder. Her normal is what a doctor would call “disordered.”
What are the challenges for describing that reproduction in the form of a novel? I’m thinking especially about how the reproduction of ideation might be thought of spatially — in relationship diagrams, say — and how your novel proceeds chronologically from within the space of a single weekend.
Ooh, relationship diagrams — I think I drew some Venns, to be honest, while I was revising. What I liked about keeping the novel’s timeline to a single weekend was the limits it forced me to work within. I’m really averse to talking about cause, singular, with eating disorders, and by keeping the book sort of hyper-present, I sidestepped some of that explaining or delving into backstory that may have otherwise happened.
Were you worried that your novel might reproduce that ideation? If so, what was your process like for depicting the disorder without romanticizing it?
In moments of wild grandiosity, yes, I did worry that the novel could give readers the eating disorder bug…though, maybe ‘worry’ isn’t the right word. It was more like a thought — sure, my book might bring the idea of, say, anorexia to the reader’s consciousness. But I didn’t concern myself too much with whether or not I was romanticizing because, frankly, I think that’s sort of futile. When I was a kid, before I had an eating disorder, I found the DSM-IV Case Studies book entries romantic, whether they ended in recovery or a funeral home.
Since your novel has come out, you’ve written about Marti Noxon’s Netflix film To the Bone and argue that the representation of the thin body, because of our a priori obsession with thinness, is always a glamorization of the thin body, however much Noxon’s film might’ve aimed otherwise. And now I’m wondering about the difference between print and film. Is there a difference for you with how each can treat eating disorders?
This might be damning to admit, but I think prints — okay, language — is a more sure-fire way of romanticizing an eating disorder. That wasn’t my intention, but I accepted it as inevitable. You have to know, though, that I found DSM-IV case studies describing anorexia glamorous when I was young and in the thick of my illness…okay, and even now, still, when I’m not too actively engaging in any one behavior or another. Language has this power because readers are imaginative and empathetic, and for some reason film doesn’t always allow me that same point of entrance.
In To the Bone, the anorexic protagonist, Ellen (Lily Collins), does this measuring of her upper arm. And I think I should have found it totally romantic or triggering, at least: it’s something I did in my past, something I was so committed to that I actually once straight-razored a line at that point I measured. I don’t know if it’s because the scar faded or if the scenes were just too prescriptive, but I didn’t feel so much glamour in those moments on screen. There’s the noise of the movie that interferes, maybe: if I were reading a description of that behavior, the words would be echoing in my head. I’d be alone and, in that triggered way, turned on.
What’s the next phase for eating disorder discourse and literature? Where does it need to turn from here? What are your ideas for your next project(s)?
I hope we’re reading about eating disorders and eating disorder behaviors outside the illness narrative. Personally, I love reading men who write about complicated relationships with food and their bodies — Brian Oliu is someone whose work in that terrain I always admire. In order to evolve, though, I think readers need to be ready for — hungry for — eating disorders to appear in fiction and poetry and essays by writers of all ages, background, colors, sizes, identities.
I’m working on a new novel right now and it feels so removed from eating disorders. It’s about the mall and relationship consumerism (a.k.a. reality TV) and fame, and I was about to say there’s hardly any food, but now I’m checking and I mention bananas and turkey jerky in the first five pages.