by Tizzy Brown
We recently sat down with Anissa Gray, the woman behind The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, this month’s GNI Reads book club pick, to learn more about her writing process, what it feels like to have your first novel compared to The Mothers and An American Marriage, and her approach to creative self-care.
As a journalist, you are committed to telling stories, but The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is your first novel. How was this writing process different for you? In both journalism and fiction writing, you’re certainly using some of the same muscles –creativity and an understanding of story structure and pacing. But novel writing is its own unique animal, and it is unlike anything I’ve ever done in my journalistic career. With a novel, you have any number of narrative plates spinning all at the same time, and sustaining this over hundreds of pages takes a lot of storytelling stamina. There’s also a big difference from a personal perspective. With journalism, I work with a set of facts from another person or an event, but with Care and Feeding, I drew a fair amount of material from my own life experiences — recovery from an eating disorder and what I know from growing up with four siblings, so there was a degree of catharsis in that.
We’ve read reviews comparing this story to The Mothers by Brit Bennett and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, both of which are previous Girls’ Night In Book Club selections. What do you think about these comparisons? Both of these women are incredible writers, and I count myself lucky to be included in their company. These are fair comparisons, given the themes that run through these books, including familial relationships and incarceration. Personally, I wish I could be a fly on the wall at Girls’ Night In book clubs to hear how and whether you all think these books compare.
I’ve read that you initially saw this book as the story of Viola, and these your realized that Althea and Lillian had their own stories to tell. Can you talk about a bit about that evolution? I originally set out to write a story about a therapist working in an eating disorders clinic, and Viola was the main character. But that story just wasn’t coming together. It felt too insular. So I took a closer look at the other people in Viola’s life. It was when I started seeing her through the lens of family that the voices of her sisters became much more resonant. By tuning my ear to what Lillian and Althea had to say, I could see there was a richer, much broader story to be told.
This book is about the Butler family, but the story is told from the perspectives of the Butler sisters. Why was it important to you that these were the voices heard, while Joe, Proctor, the twins, and others’ perspectives were not? While you do get Proctor’s perspective through his letters, it’s true that the sisters’ voices are the strongest. That’s largely because, during the writing, everything centered around Viola, Lillian, and Althea’s stories, so leading with their perspectives came quite naturally. That said, the overall goal was to tell the story in such a way that each character was fully drawn. So, if I’ve done my job, readers will come away knowing the foibles and motivations of all the characters.
Two of the significant but not central characters that intrigued us were Joe – the sole brother in the Butler clan – and Mercedes, Althea’s friend and fellow detainee. What were you hoping each of these characters would represent in the story? I can’t say that I was focused on representing a particular issue or thing with these characters. But I can say that both Joe and Mercedes transgress in some serious ways against people they are supposed to care about. For both of these characters, there are real questions to be asked about redemption and forgiveness. The answers may not come easily, particularly in Joe’s case.
Shifting gears a bit, what’s the significance behind the book’s title? At the heart of the novel, there’s an examination of the many hungers that drive us, whether for good or ill. With Viola, it manifests through a literal eating disorder. Althea experiences a sense of emptiness that becomes apparent through the crimes she commits. So, taken together, you have these women who’ve endured losses and betrayals, and each one is trying to fill those hollow places. That sense of emptiness and the search for fulfillment are central in the life of all of the characters.
What self-care routines do you practice while writing and working? Bubble baths and really good bath products – I can’t get by without them.
What is the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night? The first thing I do is check my email. I know – this is probably sad. But it helps me feel like I’ve gotten a jump on the day, which is calming for me. The last thing I do is read, and it’s always a novel.
As a writer, you, at some times, are able to set your own goals and deadlines. How do you stay on track and what routines do you have in place to ensure that you do? I’ve been a journalist for my entire professional life, so that greatly influences how I work as a novelist. I’m conditioned to be quite regimented when it comes to establishing a work schedule and keeping it. I’m always mindful of deadlines. That is not to say that I am never tempted by all that the internet has to offer when I’m at my computer.
In those moments, I’ll allow myself a specific amount of time to look up whatever it is I feel I absolutely must know in that instant — Who was behind that Fyre Festival? What is an Okapi? – then I shut it down and get back to work.
What advice would you give someone who is trying to find areas for creativity in their life? Slow down and pay attention. Creative triggers are all around us, whether in an overheard snatch of conversation or a picture you never noticed before. Look, listen. Inspiration will come.
Want to keep up with Anissa? Follow her on Instagram. Photo by Bonnie J. Heath.