Meeting the Mainstream: Jillian Medoff
(April 6, 1998)
I read Hunger Point by Jillian Medoff over this past winter break and found it an intriguing work of fiction. It's the story of a twenty-something woman named Frannie caught up in a world of dysfunctional relationships. These days, of course, that could describe just about any of us, but the combination of despair, black humor, and this young woman's journey into a healthy functioning person really hit the spot. And, I was impressed that she managed to work in an obscure reference to 70's made-for-television movie Bad Ronald, an all-time favorite of mine.
This is not a romance novel, although there is an HEA ending with a romantic sub-plot. Still, there is such a wealth of family and male/female relationships to be mined here that I considered myself fortunate to track down the author and interview her briefly.
Hunger Point involves the painful and painfully funny connected lives of Frannie, her anorexic sister Shelly, their mother (for whom dieting was the sick point of connection between her and her daughters), their father, and a host of secondary characters, including a doctor with whom Frannie becomes involved, Frannie's grandfather, and the man with whom Frannie's grandfather sets her up with. Because the dieting experience between mother and daughter is such a Jewish thing, it resonated strongly with my own personal experience, and Jillian and I started with that.
--Laurie Likes Books
Your book resonated so much because of the whole Jewish mother-daughter diet experience. Do you hear from gentile women as well as Jewish ones? Do you know if there is the same sick sort of bond in the gentile experience?
Definitely. In every mother-daughter experience, there are crazy pockets of feelings and behaviors and I've heard about so many. I've been amazed, frankly, how many mothers and daughters have come forward and shared their stories with me. Gender politics in our culture are not defined by any one race or religion. Problems with body image, self esteem, depression, rage - they affect all women, across the board.
You yourself suffered from anorexia. Is that the primary reason you became a writer, to write this book?
I am a writer, first and foremost. I have recovered from anorexia and bulimia after almost a twenty year battle with both, however, I only used eating disorders to inform my work as a novelist, not as a genre. In fact, Hunger Point originally began as a study of a particular family, and it was a story of three generations, the theme being: what does one generation owe another? Frannie, her mother, her grandfather, and Abby (who was her sister in an early draft) all lived together in a condo in Miami - there was no discussion of eating disorders per se. As I got deeper into Frannie's character, I realized that the truth of this family stemmed from their relationship to food, eating, hunger, and all the idiosyncratic behavior that surrounds these issues. I'm sure my interest in and struggle with this subject stemmed from my own eating disorder, but it was not, by any means, the catalyst for writing the book. Not so ironically, I came to understand much more about myself than I ever intended while writing Hunger Point, but I consider that the end, not the means.
Frannie underwent such growth in the book, and as someone who reads romance where growth in characters is also expressed in male/female relationships, I particularly enjoyed her growth as her romantic relationships. She was initially involved with a rather scuzzy doctor who treated her poorly, and then, as she became more of a "well" person, she became involved with a more loving man. Let's talk about this progression and how else you showed her growth.
I think Frannie's growth is illustrated best in her relationship with her family, which in turn, enabled her to function better with men. To me, her particular problems stemmed not only from a lack of self esteem, but from a lack of boundaries, and a distinct absence of "comfort zones" within her family structure. Once she was able to understand herself and how she was functioning within her own family system, she was able to assert her own independence, take a step beyond her familiar behavior, say "no," then engage with a man in a healthy way. Granted, the book ends with Frannie having a lot more ahead of her, but I think she began to value herself in a way she never did before. Given the mixed messages from her family, the media, and men, it was difficult for her to assimilate an identity so she constantly sought some external way to define herself. Slowly, she began to recognize who she was and what she was capable of. Without this foundation, she would never have been able to grow into more healthy relationships, most specifically, with men. A lot of her work was inward and was specifically about recognizing what she wanted and needed from a relationship. Too many women are caught up in pleasing men as opposed to working out what they need for themselves. Frannie had to step away from unreliable, selfish men and become a little more selfish herself to appreciate what a good relationship could be like.
The grandfather character and how he was interconnected with the male protagonist was wonderful, and I loved the humor in that, as well as the dark humor that went throughout your entire book. There's nothing like some good, mean-spirited humor, if you know what I mean. Talk about the specifics (such as the grandfather-as-yente and the "hero's" family) and then about humor in general.
For me, humor has always been a way of deflecting pain. The truth is, most humor (especially most black humor) has very painful, very intelligent underpinnings. In Hunger Point, the humor works to soften the characters, engage the reader, and make the issues more accessible. The paradox is that with humor, the pain is so much sadder because you're being allowed to laugh at a moment where you shouldn't (i.e., at the idea of the grandmother having a heart attack and choking on a bran muffin at the same time) and so you, as a reader, become more self conscious. When it works, it can be very powerful. As a writer, I found Frannie's voice difficult to slide into and I had to work very hard at it. I'm not that funny a person in real life, but on the page, I am completely uninhibited. It's one of the mysteries of writing fiction, I suppose.
All the relationships in your book were screwed up. Is it possible to have a relationship in real life that isn't?
Yes, of course, but you have to work hard at it and allow for it to be screwed up at least once in awhile. Our human failings and dark sides are what make relationships live.
What are you working on now?
My next book, The Sum of the Parts, is exclusively male. It's a father-son story about a man who works in the breast implant industry whose father is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The son is a marketing manager for a medical company that imports and sells implants. The book is set in 1988 when silicone was still on the market.
The man's ego deteriorates at the rate of his father's decline. It's about heroism, war, and again, identity. Thematically, it's about memory, and how the images we maintain of our parents are largely the myths that we want them to be. The mother emerges as the hero, which I think is vitally important - and rare - for this kind of book. Hopefully, it will be published by Judith Regan at HarperCollins (she published Hunger Point). It's going on the block in six weeks, so we'll see.
About a year ago I read She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb, and there was a big to-do because it was written by a man in a woman's voice. Apparently the literary world was taken by a storm because no one could believe a man could capture a woman's voice so well. While this disturbing book was interesting, and while the premise was not something I would imagine a man writing, I didn't share in the astonishment that the author was a man. To me, the story was female but the voice was male.
How does a writer show the voice of the opposite sex, and do you expect men will read your book, or do you think your audience will again be primarily women?
My new book is in the third-person, but a very close third-person, so I hope I'm getting the main character right! It's difficult to do. One way to go about it is to study other books that get it right and take a leap of faith, working from your own imagination. I do a lot of research - not just reading fiction, but also a lot of non-fiction about men, the issues they deal with, and how their thought processes work. It's largely psychological, I suppose. Also, you deal with subjects that interest them. For the past 19 months, I haven't read any fiction at all by a woman writer - nothing. i have only read books by men. It's just something I chose to do to keep me away from reading anything that moves me toward a female voice. I hope it helps, but we'll see!
I thought Wally Lamb did an excellent job, frankly. I think you're right, though, that he took on female subjects so it helped him make his point. As for the audience of my new book, I don't know. I don't really write with an audience in mind. I write for myself and hope someone else likes to read it. I suspect it will be primarily women, simply because women tend to read more fiction written by women. I don't know much about the market or who responds to what. In fact, I tend not to pay attention to that at all. It can be very paralyzing if you allow it to be.
What do you read? What were your writing influences, and which authors of today will be seen as literary in the future?
I read primarily literary fiction. My influences have come from a wide range of writers I've read and studied with over the years - Nabakov, John Updike, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and many literary scholars. I studied high-brow literature in college and grad school and found that the masters were brilliant and what contemporary fiction does is comment on the classics in their own unique way. I think Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Don Delilo, Grace Paley to name a few, are authors who will be considered literary far into the future.
What is your background and how much of your own story was in Hunger Point?
My background was very different from Frannie's. I was raised in an all-Jewish family who moved seventeen times by the time I was sixteen - my father was in sales. I went to seven elementary schools, two junior highs, and two high schools. Crazy in its own way. I suppose my story was a combination of Frannie's and Shelly's. I was well-educated, bulimic, shy, withdrawn, and always fighting to define myself. Shelly died, I got well, but there was a time when I could've gone either way.
Talk some more about the deeper issues that concern you. I assume mental illness and eating disorders would be on the short list.
Ultimately, I am concerned with identity and family systems. There's this saying that good writers try to work out one or two issues over the entirety of their career, but I don't know how true that is. Human connection is of vital interest to me, however, as I continue in my work, I am realizing that this plays out in so many ways. Mental illness and anorexia are important, however, I'd researched and worked with both for so many years, I really had to move on. I'm very involved in the relationships between men, as well as the relationships men have with women - from a male point of view.
How does an idea come to you? Do the characters begin to live and you suddenly find yourself taking dictation? Do the characters ever demand you change direction? Finally, do you feel yourself in the same emotional state as a character - for instance, when you're writing a sad scene, do you feel sad, etc.
Yes, I always write from character and the story begins to live as I get into it. The story can take many directions and sometimes I have to slow down and consciously think about where I want it to go. To get into that place where the writing or the magic or whatever you want to call it takes place takes a phenomenal amount of time for me. Ultimately, I don't spend much time picking apart what I do (just like I don't study the market) because I like the idea of it being an experience that is unique to me. When I work, I do get caught up in the characters and feel myself feeling, but it's not necessarily what they feel - it's just being outside myself and somewhere else. I can't explain it, but nothing in the world is quite like it. Nothing else exists and if I have to work fifteen hours for fifteen minutes of that time, I do it.
I feel fortunate to have discovered this new author and look forward to her next release. It is exciting to come into an author's career at the beginning and watch their progression. Jillian's voice touched me and I'd like to know if it does the same for you, and if you enjoyed this fork in the romance road.
Here's a link to Amazon if you are interested in Hunger Point. It was a pick by their Literary Fiction/Classics editor, and received fine reviews from Entertainment Weekly and Kirkus. My own rating for this book was a 4 or B.