Midwestern Gothic staffer Carrie Dudewicz talked with author Noley Reid about her book Pretend We Are Lovely, writing about disordered eating, how nostalgia influences setting, and more.
Carrie Dudewicz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Noley Reid: I moved to southwest Indiana thirteen years ago for my first tenure-track teaching job. From fifth grade through graduate school, I lived in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. There is a ton I miss: being surrounded by conversations in different languages, being called Ms. instead of Mrs., friends and neighbors of every possible skin tone, intimate concerts at The Phillips Collection and Shakespeare at the Folger, and access to top-notch and varied groceries. But there is also a ton I am grateful to the Midwest for: honest and earnest students, a cost of living that allows a college professor to buy a house and travel some, and somewhat more relaxed and realistic body standards. What I am most grateful to the Midwest for is my husband. We met as soon as I arrived to Evansville, Indiana, and have been inseparable since. He’s a Midwestern boy from Lincoln, Nebraska, and now our ten-year-old son is a Midwesterner, born and raised.
CD: In Pretend We Are Lovely, each member of the Sobel family gives their perspective of their seemingly average family that is actually struggling to hold itself together. Two of the family members shun food and embrace thinness, while the other two eat everything in sight and use food as comfort. Why did you decide to tell this story through each family member’s perspective?
NR: I’ve written a lot of child narrators and when I began writing this book, I intended Enid, the younger daughter, to narrate all of it. But there is so much that happens in the dark rooms each of the family members goes to that I quickly realized every character needed to voice her or his own life.
CD: Another author with a Midwest connection, Roxane Gay, came out with a book this year on a similar theme of Pretend We Are Lovely. Hunger, by Gay, is also about the relationship between suffering and food, and struggles with body image. Why do you think stories like this are now being told? How important do you think it is that stories about these topics are written and read? Gay makes it clear in her memoir that writing on this subject was extremely difficult and even scary; did you have a similar experience while writing your novel?
NR: I don’t know why our stories are being allowed now except that social media helps individuals connect with other individuals of a like mind and form groups to offer nurturing encouragement along with political advancement of their like minds. And the more we see fat people claiming their space—instead of apologizing for it or being bullied about it—the more we accept ourselves and accept difference in those among us.
Writing the disordered eating of extreme calorie restriction and bingeing wasn’t difficult for me. I have lived with both obsessions many times in my life and likely always will. Making the obsessions part of my characters’ lives, writing their shame and terror, has made me see myself more clearly. And it has made me accept my food obsession and its physical consequences to my body. The alternative is far too damaging as well as, in my experience, futile.
CD: Even though you set Pretend We Are Lovely in Virginia, was your experience writing it at all influenced by the Midwest, since you currently live in Indiana? How so?
NR: I do think the book is influenced by my experience here. I don’t know that I could have reached for size acceptance for the large characters without my experiences here in the Midwest. That’s not to say it’s all roses here for me or other fat people. There is discrimination we experience every day and it hurts. But seeing my own fat body reflected back to me in the bodies of my students, my neighbors, my son’s friends’ parents, shows me (and all of us) I am human, we are all human. Had I stayed in D.C., the book and I would likely be much darker.
CD: The character of Holly was fascinating in that even though she was the mistress, a character type typically given less sympathetic treatment, she actually was a bit of a hero to the Sobel family. Why did you choose to make Tate’s mistress a complex and likable character, and concurrently, why did you decide to deviate from the “normal” happy ending of the broken family becoming whole again?
NR: Holly is the why-now factor in the Sobels’ life. Sheldon, the family’s son/brother, has been dead for seven years, so why is this the summer and fall when everything comes to a head? Because Holly exists and Francie, Tate’s wife, knows it. Beyond setting the story in motion, though, Tate, the father, needs to learn a lot about parenting before it’s too late and Holly, despite being a college student with no parenting experience, is the one to teach him. For all that to work, she had to be a nuanced, dynamic character.
CD: Why did you choose to set this novel in 1982 rather than the present?
NR: When I was a kid, my family moved a lot. The way I responded to that was to always pine for the last place we’d lived before the most recent move. When I was five, we moved from Dallas to Blacksburg, Virginia. We stayed there four years then, in 1982, moved to Falls Church, Virginia, which turned out to be our last family move. So I had nine school-age years to pine for Blacksburg. Not only did I set Pretend We Are Lovely in Blacksburg during 1982, but I placed the Sobels in my family’s house there, on Eheart Street, with the girls riding the same school bus routes I took. Nearly every place in the book was a real place then and some still are today. Carol Lee Donuts, a place so important to the book, was on College Avenue back then; it still exists now but in a different spot. There was Mr. Fooz; Macado’s; the Farmhouse; Books, Strings, & Things, and Gillie’s. My heart stayed behind in Blacksburg, I guess, so I wrote Pretend We Are Lovely to go back and find it.
CD: What authors have influenced your writing the most? Who do you love to read?
NR: I think I’ve been most identifiably influenced by writers as teachers and mentors, my graduate faculty at George Mason, for example: Susan Richards Shreve taught me to plant immediate and unstoppable trouble in the opening of a story or novel and Alan Cheuse epitomized graceful modesty and kindness. In the pages, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Frederick Busch, Louise Erdrich, Eudora Welty, Cormac McCarthy, Gina Berriault, and Dan Chaon have all shown me how to write better.
CD: Where do you write? Do you have a time of day or specific spot for writing?
NR: On the couch in my living room, with my two dogs (Bugsy and Henrietta) snoozing beside me. When I lived alone, I wrote in the mornings before speaking at all so I’d be closer to my dreams. That sounds super weird but I found that state most conducive to writing first person narrators’ voices. Now that I no longer teach but have my own family, I write once my husband and son have been packed off to work and school.
CD: What’s next for you?
NR: I’m writing essays about my experiences with food obsessions, online dating as an anorexic with too much skin, and finding love. I’ve just started writing a memoir, as well.
Noley Reid is author of the new novel Pretend We Are Lovely, which The O, Oprah Magazine, called “scrumptious.” Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Bustle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Publishers Weekly, The Southern Review, and Other Voices. She lives in southwest Indiana with her two best boys.