Author Q&A:
Chelsea G Summers

A Certain Hunger

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Food critic Dorothy Daniels has never been shy of indulging her exquisite tastes. Her idyllic farm-to-table childhood and mastery of language led her to a glittering career as one of Manhattan’s most respected and highly-paid food critics. But as the bell tolled on print media and her youth Dorothy found herself fading into obscurity and willing to indulge her suppressed rage. A self-confessed psychopath, Dorothy pens her tell-all memoir between the bland prison meals that are her ultimate punishment for killing, and eating, a string of lovers. This pulpy, satirical novel is a debut for Summers who, through her razor sharp protagonist, takes aim at ageism, sexism, the meat industry and foodyism.  

You describe A Certain Hunger as the result of eating and vomiting up works by Brett Easton Ellis and Elizabeth Gilbert. How did these two wildly different writers influence you and do you fear your book might be misread or misunderstood because of its subject matter, like some critics say Easton Ellis’s book was?
Did I really use the phrase “vomiting up”? I remember talking about reading Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, then pushing the two books onto the back burner of my brain and letting them burble. I definitely used a stew metaphor. I don’t remember saying anything like eat and vomit, though I guess that’s apt.

I think I was influenced by these two books for a few reasons: each one feels stereotypical of its specific writer’s gender as well as the gender of its most impassioned readers. Both are first-person narratives (and one is an actual memoir); and in some strange way the books are similar because each one centres on an unhappy human trying to make sense of modern life in unorthodox ways. Finally, both books are wildly, unflaggingly popular, and I’m drawn to taking apart books that the public loves.

The thing about writing is that writing always fails. No matter what you do, people are going to read your work in ways that you did not intend. Sometimes they find things that will delight you, and sometimes they will have reactions that will disappoint you. I never thought about people misreading or misunderstanding my book because, until it was in print, I couldn’t fully imagine other people reading it.

“Feminism comes to all things, it seems, but it comes to recognising homicidal rage the slowest.” Why are people disinclined to believe in female psychopaths and who are some of your favourites in fiction?
The implied first question in the quote seems to be why don’t we readily acknowledge women’s homicidal rage, and I think the answer is that it makes us deeply uncomfortable. Murdery females freak us out as a culture because violence is something that we don’t associate with femininity. This blind spot does everyone a disservice – it teaches female humans that to feel these deeply human impulses is bad and wrong; it flattens the range of emotions for male humans; and it keeps people from recognising when women are a little too close to the edge (or, indeed, have slipped over it).

That said, I’m not entirely sold on the idea of psychopaths or sociopaths. I’m not convinced that there are people whose brains are wired so differently that they don’t feel emotions in expected, recognisable human ways. If these people exist, however, I suspect that female psychopaths would be harder to spot because women are socialised to be nurturing and attuned to other people. Finally, I also suspect that because we like to believe that women are nurturing caregivers, we are reluctant to acknowledge that there are female humans capable of severe evil.

In terms of beloved fictional psychopaths, there’s Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (so clever!), Irina in Boy Parts* (so dissipated!), Korede and Ayoola in My Sister, the Serial Killer (so co-dependent!), Mackenzie Woods in Bad Habits (so ambitious!), and Dr Scarlett Clark in They Never Learn (so driven!).

Does Dorothy’s friendship with Emma disprove her own belief that she is a psychopath? And what does Emma, and her voluntary incarceration represent?
Dorothy’s friendship with Emma is the heart and soul of the novel. I didn’t write the book knowing what Emma’s role would be – rather, Emma came to me and then she became increasingly important to the book, to Dorothy, and to me. I don’t think the fact that Dorothy has a best friend means that she’s not potentially psychopathic (remember that Dorothy is not the most reliable narrator in fiction). However, it does mean that Dorothy is capable of having one intense, extended relationship with another human. Dorothy’s love for Emma is a fluid, changeable, and ever-changing thing, like a river. It ties Dorothy to her own humanity.

I never have thought of Emma’s agoraphobia as voluntary incarceration, so that’s interesting. I also wouldn’t presume to tell anyone what Emma’s paralysing agoraphobia means. You have to read the book and tell me your thoughts.

Does allowing herself to indulge in food, and being so connected to that pleasure, open the door for Dorothy to release her rage?
My, what a connection. Dorothy’s hungry for all kinds of things:  food, obviously, but also sex, connection, passion, pleasure, play, renown, success, and the new. But it’s not pleasure that opens the door to Dorothy’s rage. It’s ageing and ageism. Appetite is merely the canvas for her angsty art. You try ageing as a woman and tell me you don’t feel angry as hell.

What point does A Certain Hunger make about vegetarianism?
Vegetarianism offers the only pathway to ethical food consumption that’s available to most of us. If you’re able to raise your own livestock on your own lands or to legally hunt animals and you use every bit of those animals down to their last shred of skin or tuft of hair, then you can say that you’re an ethical meat eater. Otherwise, you are making food choices that, while they may be tastier or they may be healthier, are not more ethical.

I have tremendous issues with industrial meat farming. I have issues with the ways we raise animals, kill them, butcher them, wrap them in little bloodless cellophane cubes, and sell them. I don’t think it’s moral to clean up all the funk from the raising and slaughter of animals for food. I wrote this book in no small part because I wanted a place to explore my discomfort with the modern agribusiness model of animal husbandry.

Sadly, I can’t be a vegetarian. I have an adorable cluster of autoimmune diseases and food allergies that preclude vegetarianism. Like Dorothy, my book’s protagonist, I am resigned to a life of immorality.

Tell us about the difference in motivation for Dorothy’s killing of the men she loved, and Casimir, a man she had a casual affair with?
Dorothy’s killing of Casimir opens the book, and it’s this murder that sends her to prison. Dorothy didn’t need to kill Casimir. She had no real reason for it. He was nothing to her, while she felt a deep, abiding attachment to the other men she killed. I think Dorothy was bored and lost when she killed Casimir. She’d run through all her passions, and what is a woman to do when she has no great lost loves left alive?

Dorothy reasons that at some point everyone fantasises about a horrible death for their lovers and justifies cannibalism by its prevalence in the animal kingdom. Does she have a point?
Yes, Dorothy absolutely has a point. It’s a knife.

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