Anissa Gray is the author of debut novel The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. Originally a print journalist at Reuters, Anissa moved to broadcast journalism and became a writer, editor, and producer at CNN for which she received Emmy and duPont awards. A graduate of Western Michigan University, she received her master’s in English from NYU.
Hi, Anissa. How are you?
Anissa Gray: I'm good. How are you, Zibby?
Zibby: I'm good. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Anissa: Thank you for having me.
Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners what The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is about?
Anissa: It’s about what happens to a family after its matriarch and her husband are sent to prison after defrauding their town. Her two sisters are forced to return home to deal with the fallout and care for the couple’s two troubled teenage daughters. What you see as the narrative unfolds is a family moving through the challenges of forgiveness in some imperfect but ultimately hopefully ways.
Zibby: Totally. It was so good.
Anissa: Thank you so much.
Zibby: You're welcome. This is your debut novel after a career that you've spent in print and broadcast journalism. What made you turn to fiction writing at this stage in your career? Why did you start with this particular story, this book?
Anissa: What made me change? I've wanted to be a novelist ever since I was a kid. Growing up, I was a big reader. I also enjoyed writing stories just for myself. When I went away to college and graduated with student loan debt and all other associated costs of life, I realized that I needed a paying job. I went in the direction of journalism, which I loved. I reached a point in my career a few years ago when I started to feel a little bit burned out. That's when I revisited that childhood and adolescent dream of being a writer.
Zibby: How did you end up picking this title?
Anissa: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls? This title was born with my initial idea for this book. When I sat down to write this book, what you have in your hands now or what you've read, that's not the book I intended to write. The book I intended to write was about the character Viola and her life dealing with an eating disorder and the aftermath of that. The title attached quite well to that. The story just wasn’t coming together. I was flat on the page. What I did was took a step back and started to view her through the lens of family. When I did that, it became a much broader and richer story. The title still stuck. One of the things you learn in treatment for an eating disorder is that it is not about the food. It’s about those hollow places. You see that in the other siblings as well.
Zibby: The way you wrote about Viola’s eating disorder was one of the best ways I've seen eating disorders written about in fiction, to be honest. I see why you were going to make it a whole book. You kept alternating characters. I kept waiting to get back to hers. It’s not that the others were not also just as strong, but there was something about Viola that I was really drawn to. One of the things in a binge eating episode that Viola goes through, which was followed by violent purging, you wrote about that fuzzy white noise, that state of calm that Viola achieves. You wrote, “That calm I felt, that fuzzy white noise?” This is afterwards. “It’s leaving, too. And here arrives what always comes next: this need, nothing short of crotch-grabbing desire, spreading up and seizing my brain until I can think of nothing else. The zombie stirs.” Later you write, “The zombie walks. There's no taking this dead-eyed monster down with a good head shot, a good blast of rational thought. I'm alive with it. Pulsing with adrenaline, desire, and dread. I reach for the Oreos.”
That was amazing. It’s so alive. You're right there with her the whole time. Tell me a little bit about how you were able to capture these feelings about her state of mind.
Anissa: To start with, I've experienced that. It’s a world that I'm unfortunately quite familiar with. For me as a writer, the question was how much do you put on the page? How much detail do you go into? I don't want to do a spoiler for readers. The whole scene that you're referring to is pretty detailed to say the least. For me, it was making a decision to take what I know and to show it in the fullest possible way that I was capable of.
Zibby: I'm really grateful that you shared it. I know so many people go through the same thing. Often, feeling alone is one of the consequences of that. Being able to read about someone else's struggle is so helpful. I'm really glad you put it down there, even as fiction.
Anissa: Thank you. Eating disorders are, like most things, very private disorders, but more common than most people know.
Zibby: I did my senior thesis in psychology about eating disorders, just FYI.
Anissa: So you know what I'm saying.
Zibby: I know what you're sayin’. Viola has this relapse, which you introduce very early so hopefully it’s not a spoiler. It was very early in the book. You also have her as a therapist to girls with eating disorders. I was wondering how you feel her own experience as she continues to go through it affects her role as a helper to others who are still struggling.
Anissa: There's a point in the book where she talks about how important the job is to her. She's a therapist in an eating disorders clinic. She is in full relapse at that point. She knows that she cannot really be effective in her job because she's not being honest. That's problematic there. I'm trying to answer in a way that I don't give anything away. Towards the end of the book, we don't know if she's going to go back or not. I'm not entirely sure if she feels like she's able to be useful, at least at that point in her life and in her efforts to recover after relapse.
Zibby: I feel like having a therapist who knows what you're going through -- it’s like if you see someone about parenting and they have kids. It doesn't have to, but I think it can help.
Anissa: I think you're right. That's one of the reasons group therapy is so effective, at least it was for me in my treatment experience. You're sitting in a room. You're describing something that not a lot of people understand. You don't have to give any backstory. You don't have to explain yourself. You can just talk and people understand you.
Zibby: There are so many mixed things about treatment for all sorts of mental illnesses and disorders. The scene that you created at the Burger King when Viola’s flashing back to this meal she had with her dad and is trying to open up to him, he says to her, “Don't be acting no fool up there with your teachers. Ain’t no such thing as depressed. You just make it your business to get something in your head, you hear me?” I felt like that was so representative of the many people who feel like, “Okay. You're depressed? Just snap out of it.” Of course, that's not what depression is about at all. It can make the person feel worse. I liked how you did that.
What do you think people should do who are depressed but have to encounter loved ones who think that it’s all just a matter of making up your mind not to be that way?
Anissa: I think the best a person can do is to go and get good, trusted, competent help for themselves. It’s true that a lot of people don't understand that depression is a real disorder. It’s a real thing. It’s not putting on. It goes beyond being sad. A lot of people don't understand that.
Zibby: To talk a little about Althea and Proctor as the main couple who in the very beginning end up, you see them as transgressing and committing this crime, when Proctor sends lyrics to Althea through the mail, he says, “You and I are changed with this, to hold the essence of a kiss. To take these broken plans and make them rhyme.” I'm wondering, do you think Althea was able to do that successfully at all?
Anissa: One of the things I think about the book broadly speaking is that you don't really get a neat tie-up at the end for these characters. I think you get enough at the end to see that it is possible. Their trajectory has changed in a way that they may be moving in a different direction, a much more positive direction. I think that's true at the end with Althea. Now, can I say for sure? I'd love to hear what readers think. I'm my mind as the writer, I feel that at the end of the book Althea is set up to pursue a different course, a much more positive one.
Zibby: I agree. I agree with you.
Anissa: Thank you.
Zibby: No problem. You spent a bunch of time in the book with Althea in a prayer group in prison. You developed this character Mercedes along with her. I was wondering what you think the role of religion is in the book, what you were trying to say about it, if anything.
Anissa: A lot of that is just I am the daughter of a preacher. I don't follow the faith that I was raised with, but I still understand it. I see how transformative it has been for people I've known. Some of that is transferred here into the book, my understanding of religion and how I've seen it help people who are in difficult periods. In this book, there's a broad look at faith. Althea is not really a person of faith. She makes her way. She finds her comfort in her way. In the case of Mercedes, she is a person of faith. It means a lot for her. It’s helping her through a very difficult time. I see it as one of the many ways where the care part of care and feeding comes into play.
Zibby: Broadly, did you enjoy writing this novel? What was it like for you after wanting to do it for so long and then deciding to do it? Was it fun?
Anissa: [laughs] It had its moments. It took about three years. Over the course of that time, there were starts and stops, the big one being starting off with a completely different book and six months in, it’s not that book and throwing all of that away. That wasn’t fun.
Zibby: No. That doesn't sound like fun.
Anissa: It wasn’t. Finding your way and watching these characters come alive on the page, that part of writing is absolutely priceless.
Zibby: Your characters were particularly alive to me. I know I read tons and tons of books. For some reason when I would put the book down and go about my life and do something else, I kept being like, “I wonder what Proctor’s up to today in jail.” They felt so real to me. It’s almost a little creepy. I need a continuing story of them.
Anissa: That's good to hear. Then they're doing exactly what they're supposed to do.
Zibby: I'm like, “What's up with Kim? What's going on?” When and where did you write this book? Are you a go-to-the-library type of person? I saw a video where you were extolling the values of libraries. Is that where you like to write? Do you write at home?
Anissa: I write mostly at home. Writing this book, it was sort of a journeywoman’s adventure. I started out writing in a spare room we have on those TV tables, scrunched up there. I started there. Then we decided to renovate that room, so I was cast out to the library where I worked a good deal of the time. Then I would sometimes work at the kitchen table. Eventually, I went and worked in the renovated spare room. For me, I'm able to work generally anywhere. A lot of that comes from the discipline of having been a journalist for much of my professional career. You have a deadline, so do it, and do it where you can.
Zibby: As you went along, would you show people? Who told you you had to switch gears?
Anissa: I came to see that. I went to one workshop. I got tepid reaction. It reinforced what I already knew.
Zibby: Would you do it again, this whole novel-writing business?
Anissa: Yes. In fact, I am doing it again.
Zibby: Oh, well there you go.
Anissa: I'm in the process of doing it again.
Zibby: What is your next book about? Can you say?
Anissa: Just generally, so not to jinx myself. It is also a family story, a much smaller family. It’s what happens in the aftermath of the disappearance of the father.
Zibby: It’s so funny. A lot of authors, they don't want to talk about the next book because of jinxing themselves, like you just said, like the whole thing is almost luck. It’s coming out of you.
Anissa: It’s completely irrational.
Zibby: You're not alone in that. Everybody feels that way. Everybody's like, “I can't tell you what this is about. If I say too much, it won't come true.”
Anissa: We writers pin a lot of our hopes on wings, prayers, and the ability to get down some stray thought we had six months ago.
Zibby: So funny. I saw a video on the Penguin website. They'd asked you for advice to young writers. You said that you should write a lot but expect it to be terrible, basically. I laughed out loud at that. Tell it like it is. You said, “Expect subpar writing.” All right. Well, here I go writing this terrible [indiscernible-laughter].
Anissa: Sadly, it’s true. Even now as I said, I write to a schedule. I don't wait for inspiration. I find it on the page. Sometimes it’s a journey to finding it on the page. You're writing a lot of bad stuff to get to the good stuff.
Zibby: I guess that’s part of the process. Does anybody just sit down and write in a genius way, everything is a final draft? I think part of the process is writing and rewriting.
Anissa: Writing is rewriting. They say for a reason. It’s not just a cliché.
Zibby: You are a huge fan of reading and the importance of reading. I am as well. It’s great. It’s why I do this. Have you read anything good lately? Do you have any books you would recommend or that influenced you a lot?
Anissa: One of the books I just finished reading was Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. I would recommend that book wholeheartedly. As a companion to that, I would recommend her book before that, Visit From the Goon Squad. They are two completely different books that show the incredible range of one writer. If you're interested in, A, a good story, you'll find that in both of those books, and B, watching a master at work, read those two books.
Zibby: I readManhattan Beach, but I did not read Visit From the Goon Squad. It’s here. I have it.
Anissa: It’s a completely different book. It’s somethin’.
Zibby: Why do you think reading is so important? Sell busy moms on why it’s worth it to spend the time reading.
Anissa: One of the things I say about reading is that it allows you to inhabit a different world, which is fun for you as the reader. One of the benefits of that is that it helps you connect with people and experiences that aren’t your own. Through that, we build empathy. We are more inclined to listen to and care for one another more when we’re respecting the fact that not everyone is like us. They may be different for some specific reasons. It makes society better to have it peopled with people who read a lot.
Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate your candid answers and all the time you spent.
Anissa: Thank you very much.
Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.