The Chasm of You: In Conversation with Lindsay Hunter
In Eat Only When You’re Hungry, a man named Greg: listless, retired, and worried about his son, Greg Jr., rents an RV and heads to Florida to find him. What follows is a journey through Greg’s past and present, a heartrending road trip through fatherhood, addiction, and the power of self-denial.
I originally set out to interview Lindsay Hunter about her latest novel, and not what it’s like to be alive in 2017, it feels impossible to have any conversation that doesn’t, somehow lead back to the situation we’re all currently trying to exist in. So, instead, we ended up talking about what it’s like to be an artist in a world that makes you qualify that with “female.” – JF
JAIME FOUNTAINE: I read Eat Only When You’re Hungry with this interview in mind, and as I was reading, I kept thinking about all of the dumbass questions you’re going to get about the effect of your motherhood and gender on writing this book, which is about a father looking for his son. I feel like when men write about women, they don’t get challenged in the way women writing male characters do.
LINDSAY HUNTER: Halfway through writing this book, I had a moment of pure horror: I realized I was writing a novel from the point of view of an older, white, cisgendered male AKA a point of view that is WELL COVERED IN LITERATURE.
I was afraid for a long time that he wouldn’t ring true as a male character since he was written by a woman; there is that whole thing where if you’re reading something and the character isn’t immediately identified as male/female, you automatically assume the character is the same gender as the author, which bunks things up when the opposite ends up being true. WHY WE SO BASIC?
I beat myself up about it daily, but I just kept writing it. Then I wondered if a woman writing from that point of view might be subversive in some way, or at the very least interesting. That is my hope, anyway. But I don’t want to flatter myself. I had to remind myself constantly–that I was writing this person as truthfully as he was coming to me, and that it is my own fight against societal norms and the patriarchy for assuming anyone would feel any kind of way about what they were reading. People who are truly reading something glean what they will from it. That is pretty much out of the author’s control. Do you hear me, writers starting out? You cannot control how a reader sees your work.
The fact is, I needed to write him until I was done writing him. I used to say motherhood didn’t change how or what I write, but now I think of course it has. I took this class once where we were given prompts to write. Then the professor would interrupt us and give us this other, totally out of the blue prompt, which took our stories in directions we weren’t expecting.
That is what motherhood does to your brain. You’re going right along and then BLAM, you’re a mom and you’re still like, “Nah this is a story about a plucky Floridian who just kept on keepin on even after having some kids” — Oops nope now we’re in the Midwest now? And we wear leggings everyday?
As a child, you have this hopefully evolving view of your parents, but it’s kind of one-sided, no matter how hard you try to see it from their vantage. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering my parents and their lives, thinking about how they feel about being parents and how they feel as humans. I always have. I have this fantasy of trapping them in a room with a camera and just rapid-firing questions about who they are until I feel satisfied. My mom would humor me but my dad is a private person so I think he’d be annoyed, ha.
But now, as a parent myself, I see how everything I remember must have been colored by the constant anxiety and fear and demolishing love for these jerk children that they were trying to cope with as young parents themselves. I mean, every single day, I make big and little mistakes as a mom. I torture myself wondering which mistakes will stick with my kids, which will confuse them for a lifetime, which will make them doubt themselves, which will make them doubt me…and I’m just a human being! Human beings fuck up all the time! But I have these precious darlings that I must protect! I also have a life that is my own that I also must protect!
I keep saying I want to write about motherhood, but it’s starting to dawn on me that EOWYH is my book about motherhood. Parents are humans; children are humans. There’s a whole universe of possibility in that semicolon. My novel is just a sliver of it.
I can’t imagine that most men who decide to from female perspectives have moments of terror where they wonder if it’s appropriate. That isn’t to say that men are not capable of empathy or imagination, but the more privilege that you carry in this world, the less you have to think about other people on a regular basis.
I’m going to make a gross generalization here. I apologize in advance. But it feels like men feel more self-congratulatory, more self satisfied, for writing outside of their own perspectives. Or maybe they feel they deserve accolades for doing it. It’s the same sort of thing where a man might make a list of his favorite female authors and then stand around waiting for likes.
I’ve felt stifled my whole life by that. I just want to be on the same playing field. Make a list of your favorite authors, how about? Don’t qualify it by gender. If you’re going to do that, why stop there? Why not favorite male authors? These people mean well! But they don’t even know how it makes this female-identified writer feel like I’m being patted on the head in the best case scenario, chucked on the chin in the worst case scenario.
There’s a reason that imposter syndrome is mainly a female-identified thing. It’s funny, though, because it’s something that’s gotten worse over time for me rather than better. I started out just writing what came. I just wrote what felt fun to write, what felt meaningful.
Then when people started reading, started reacting, that’s when I felt simultaneously accepted and misunderstood completely. And some interviewers would laud me for writing like a man. At first I was flattered! But that starts to worm in; it starts to wear on you. I write like a man? How do you mean? Maybe you mean you like what I write despite my gender?
That said, my favorite authors are female. My favorite books are written by women. Who am I to talk?
I think it’s funny (not actually funny) that we both added “not all men” qualifiers when talking in generalizations. Because, even after a lifetime of hearing “pretty good for a girl” and “you’re not like those other girls,” (always “girl”, never “woman”) you still have to let the men in your audience know that you understand that they’re the good ones. They never have to prove it the way we do.
Yes! And the high school girl in me is like, I don’t want to come off as a man hater! I love men! I want men to love me! LOVE ME DATE ME TELL ME I’M PRETTY BUT ALSO FUNNY AND SMART! And actually OH GOD I WAS ABOUT TO ADD YET ANOTHER QUALIFIER ABOUT HOW A LOT OF THE MEN I KNOW IN THE LIT WORLD AND BEYOND ARE WOKE AND THEY TRY AND YADDA YADDA JUST KILL ME
(But they are. Shout out to Ryan Bradford, Justin Hudnall, Richard Thomas, Matt Korvette and all of Pissed Jeans, okay, I’ll stop.)
In literature and film (and sometimes in real life), road trips are a time for self reflection and discovery, a literal way to see the world differently. But on his trip, Greg is not, like, getting woke. He’s only barely reconsidering the ways in which his actions have affected people, which I think is a much more realistic.
He wants this trip to be transformative. He wants this grand gesture to end in some kind of miracle. But he’s also too afraid to face anything. Does he actually want to find GJ? Does he actually want anything?
I think that’s kind of a through-line in everything I write. My characters sort of see the work they have to do, they even talk about it or take big clumsy steps toward something, but then there is the actuality of the work. It’s like they’re playing Tetris and the blocks are coming down slowly and they’re organizing them but then the music starts speeding up and the blocks start falling faster and it gets harder and they give up.
I don’t know why I love to write that kind of thing! I guess there’s poignance for me in that initial kernel of hope. Like, I know something needs to change. I’m going to try to change. Isn’t that beautiful and sad in its own way?
**Minor spoilers here**
I really wanted to write a novel with some kind of hope or redemption in it. I thought I’d written a hugely hopeful book here, but when my agent read it he thought it was so, so sad. And it is, it is!
But I stand by that moment at the end when Greg is reflecting on the letter GJ sends him and where GJ might be now, and Greg decides to let it go, decides to let GJ have the hope and the redemption. He decides to feel happy for GJ, or at the very least he decides to take himself out of the equation.
GJ isn’t where he is in spite of Greg; he isn’t there because of Greg. He’s just there, and he owned his feelings and offered them to Greg, and it’s a step Greg never took, so maybe there truly is hope for GJ. Maybe he’ll be able to let go in ways Greg was never able to. In the end Greg is just driving anywhere, the way he was throughout the book. But maybe GJ is actually going somewhere. That was my intention, anyway. I’m sure readers will have their own ideas!
I don’t know what this says about me, either, but I thought the end was a hopeful one. Greg comes to understand his place in his son’s life, which is something a lot of bad parents never do. He’s letting GJ be a real person and not an extension of himself.
Exactly! It’s so hard as a parent to separate your ego from your parenting. I never want to be one of those parents who are like “Ugh don’t embarrass me, spawn!” And I don’t care about all of the obvious things like how my kids dress or what they’re interested in.
BUT children also have a way of knuckling into that hidden part of you that you lie to yourself about and exposing it to everyone before you’ve had a chance to make your peace with it. So like, I didn’t know that I have a sensitivity to people thinking my kid is polite! When we’re in public and he throws a fit, I have to talk to myself very clearly about how the tension I feel is mainly about what I think people are thinking, not about the actual behavior. He’s 4! He’s gonna lose his shit! I know that logically.
Most of the time I can handle it. Sometimes it takes me by surprise and I find myself worrying about whether fellow parents think I’m a terrible mom because my child is writhing on the floor of a grocery store because he can’t have Doritos. And I snap at him or yank him up or whatever, and that is confusing for a child! When your shit gets mixed in with your laser focus on them, it is very confusing. They do not have the tools to be like oh, Mom is having a moment. (Just now I kissed my son and he told me my lips are stinky. JFC.) And that gets magnified the older they/you get. In EOWYH, Greg and Marie are living their lives! They don’t stop at every moment to be like, how is this affecting GJ? Because how could they? So GJ ends up schlepping their shit right along with his own. And maybe at the end, he’s finally dumped that load. And Greg has realized what a freedom that is. Greg is still schlepping his parents’ shit. Maybe it’s too late to dump that load, but he recognizes what that means for GJ, and he’s happy for him.
**MAJOR SPOILER** I really liked that we never saw GJ, except through his father’s eyes. I think it made the end hit harder. “Dad, I reject your narrative.” is such a brutal sentence after all that’s happened.
There were definitely moments where I wanted to write something from GJ’s point of view. Or give his side of his childhood. But at the end of the day (literally at the end of each day while writing this) I had to decide whose story this was, what story I was telling. My husband (who hasn’t read it) told me I owed it to the readers for GJ to be found, and I worried about that a lot. GJ is kind of found. I didn’t want this to be like TAKEN: THE NOVEL. GJ disappears; it’s what he does. And really, the book is about Greg and his non-journey. I feel like I could write a novel from GJ’s point of view and another from Marie’s. But this is Greg’s novel.
Which made it hard to kind of show what was really going on! That moment in GJ’s letter is one. And the moment when the doctor is describing all the food and wrappers in the RV is another. Marie and Deb get some digs in too. You get glimpses of the crisis Greg is in as he’s setting out to resolve GJ’s crisis. Blind looking for the blind, ha.
EOWYH was so much from Greg’s perspective that we saw him how he saw himself, while the reality seeped in through the cracks, which is how that kind of self-denial works.
Yes, totally. It’s like no matter how self-aware you *think* you are, there’s this whole chasm of you that other people see. It’s so unfair, ha.
I didn’t mean to make so much of this interview about the differences in how men and women are perceived, and what it means to write about that, especially as a woman, but it’s 2017, so here we are.
Yes, here we fucking are. I think it’s bizarre that we are still having these kinds of conversations. Last night I saw a preview for the new Charlize Theron movie and it said THIS IS THE FIRST FEMALE 007 and immediately, like it was my body calling up ancient biology in a violent surge that forced its way out of my mouth, I said, “oh, FUCK YOU.” Why does everything, when it comes to the *other*, have to be qualified in such a way? Do people not see how it perpetuates stereotypes, how it auto-proves privilege, and how it’s just plain BORING at this point? Like how about THIS IS THE NEW 007 instead?
Here’s my advice: if you’re a man writing a female character, or a woman writing a male character, just take a deep breath and remember that all you’re doing is writing about human beings doing human things. WOW, what a world opens up at that point. Oh shit, your female character is holding a hammer, look at you! Wait, are there glimmers of tears in your male character’s eyes? THREE SNAPS.
And if you’re making a listicle of some kind, don’t qualify it with “female” or “POC” or “queer” or whatever. Just challenge yourself to make a diverse, inclusive list. HMM BUT THAT’S HARD? I don’t care. It’s 2017, and we have a barnacle for president. Do good work.