Dabney: AAR staffers love Kristan Higgins’ forays into women’s fiction. So I was excited to read her upcoming book Good Luck with That. I liked it. A lot. It made me think hard about how America, a nation where the vast majority of us are overweight, treats “fat” people. But it quickly became clear some advance readers, very vocally on Twitter, were furious about Kristan’s book. I decided to ask her about it. Kristan, who is as lovely a person as you’ll meet in Romlandia, was happy to answer.
Dabney: Kristan, I have to ask: What were you thinking? And by that I mean, when you started to write Good Luck with That, what did you want the book to be?
Kristan: In all the books I’ve read about plus-sized heroines, two things happen—either the women lose weight and are thrilled about it, or they’re confident women who recognize their beauty and love how they look. I’ve written versions of both of those scenarios, and I love reading the latter especially. Body positivity is something I’ve tried to teach both my kids, and something I’ve had to teach myself, year after year…and I don’t always succeed.
When I was writing Now That You Mention It, there was one passage that seemed to come out of my bone marrow—Nora, an overweight teen afflicted with acne, bad hair, a body that seems to be betraying her on every level, is obsessed with her sister’s effortless beauty. I was that girl. I grew up in a family where my mom’s been on a diet since 1972, and my father and siblings were naturally slim and athletic. I was the opposite. At every major event in my life, there’s been a small, ugly voice telling me, “You should’ve lost weight for this.” Admitting that isn’t easy, because it goes against everything I believe—you are what you do, not how you look. And yet, that voice has followed me my whole life, and I know I’m not alone.
Good Luck with That is about overcoming that voice; a lot of us still haven’t wrestled that demon to the floor. We want to believe our weight doesn’t affect our lives, and yet we’re barraged with statistics about the national epidemic of obesity. Every magazine in the checkout line has articles on how to flatten your belly, lose 30 pounds and get beach ready, and only a tiny handful of television shows and movies show women who aren’t slim and beautiful. If you’re someone whose weight doesn’t factor into your self-esteem or self-care, God bless. Everyone should be more like you, myself included, and two of my three main characters are following your lead.
Dabney: This book worked for me. For lots of reasons. One I’d like to share is a conversation it generated. One of my very closest friends has struggled with obesity for decades. I thought I had a sense of what that experience was like for her. Then I read Good Luck with That. It made me hurt for her and worry I didn’t get how much that one aspect of her influenced how others reacted to her. So I recounted some of the things Emerson, Georgia, and Marley experienced in the book. She said, “Oh yeah.” and shared a few of her own travails. (The worst—she hates to eat alone in restaurants because, as she said, “No one wants to see a fat person enjoy their food.”) Is this one of the outcomes you think will occur for readers? That they’ll better understand how hard society is on the very overweight?
Kristan: That’s absolutely my hope! Emerson especially suffers from discrimination, fascination and bullying because of her size. Not a lot of people in the book seem to care about the factors behind her eating issues, and she isolates herself from Marley and Georgia as she gets bigger, worrying about what they’ll think, despite their long friendship. So many people judge a person of that size and think all they need is a little self-control. The issue is so much more complicated than that.
Dabney: Weight is such a fraught conversation and I know you’ve heard from some early readers that didn’t like the book. It seems as though having heroines for whom weight is a defining issue upset them. And yet, for most women at least, their weight is always something they’re aware of and almost never happy with. Out of the three women, Marley seems to be the one who has the healthiest relationship with her physical self. Would you agree with that?
Kristan: Yeah, we’re wicked hard on ourselves. The fat acceptance movement is helping with that, and writers like Lindy West and Roxane Gay are bravely and openly tackling the issue. But in order to get past this national obsession, I do think it has to be addressed, not hidden or invalidated. There are too many of us who aren’t there yet, who still beat ourselves up about what we see in the mirror, instead of what we see in our souls.
Marley definitely has the healthiest relationship with herself on every level. She loves exercise, healthy food and doesn’t obsess over every calorie. Food has been a part of her life in mostly positive ways, and a huge part of her family life. She embodies health at any size…an idea that the traditional medical community is still struggling to accept. Georgia might be losing weight, but it’s not doing her any favors. She can’t seem to view food as something to enjoy, and she judges herself so harshly (the same way her mother and brother judge her).
Emerson is a true food addict. Like any other form of addiction, it’s not pretty, and I don’t romanticize (or insult) her by depicting her as anything but helpless in the face of her addiction. As with other addictions, it is a symptom of the emotional issues in her life that haven’t been addressed. I think people would find Emerson’s character less troubling if she was an opioid addict, or an alcoholic. Our culture has a clearer understanding of substance abuse as an addiction…but eating is fraught with judgment, from the person eating and everyone around her.
Dabney: Why do you think Marley is so much better at self-love than Georgia?
Kristan: The quick answer is that she’s deeply loved by her family, and Georgia is not. Marley was brought up believing she was a miracle, a ball of energy, delightful, adored. Georgia didn’t get that. She had a critical parent, a brother with anger issues, and her father’s somewhat distant love isn’t enough to overcome their messages of “not good enough.”
Dabney: I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Emerson’s obesity kills her. (Obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30.0 or higher. Emerson would, I think, be classified as severely obese, which means having a BMI of 40.0 or higher.) Obesity is rising all over the world—a large scale 2017 New England Journal of Medicine study found that 10% of the world is obese and that number is rising. 7% of all deaths in 2015 are attributable to obesity. It’s a health crisis we don’t seem to be able to solve. Do you think Emerson could have done anything differently? Do you think Emerson should have done anything differently?
Kristan: I’ve done more research on this book than any previous book I’ve written, and one of the things I learned was that the National Institute of Health changed the definition of obesity in 1998, using body mass index, which is a very imperfect measure of health. The number of obese people rose abruptly just from that redefinition. No one dies from obesity; it’s the complications that can be fatal—high blood pressure and high cholesterol, asthma, diabetes, congestive heart failure, and higher risk for some cancers. Not everyone has those complications; and many do. In the case of my character Emerson, the research I did informed some of the challenges she experienced.
Emerson has gained and lost hundreds of pounds in her life, and what she really needed to do was focus on her emotional health and wellbeing. For a variety of reasons, she keeps herself isolated, and that’s her undoing. It’s not that she doesn’t know what a healthy diet is; of course she does. In the end, she didn’t get enough support from the right people. She lost the battle to love and accept herself, and I think she was exhausted from the struggle, as happens with addicts of all kinds. That, more than anything, broke my heart.
I do want to be clear—Emerson is a fictional character and an extreme case of the complications of obesity. She’s not meant to be the sole representation of an entire group of people. I didn’t want to gloss over or ignore the experiences of a person in this position. There are other characters of size in the book who do just fine, live happy and successful lives, and don’t struggle the way Emerson did. But to ignore her emotional and physical issues is to invalidate them, and that’s not okay. Her thoughts, feelings and struggles matter and deserve to be represented.
Dabney: I identified the most with Georgia. I struggled with weight in high school and in college and, despite having ended up at a healthy weight for many years now, I still see myself as too heavy. Reading Georgia’s story made me even more determined to ignore the stupid self-doubting voices in my head. Do you identify with any of these characters? What were the inspirations for these three different women?
Kristan: God, yes, I identify with them all. I am all three. I’ve done all the horrible eating binges and diets they all did. I’ve been bulimic. I’ve starved myself for weeks at a time—those days when five cherry tomatoes were all I ate in a day—and I’d be complimented on how thin I was. I’ve definitely binged. The scene with the pizzas? I’ve done that. I’ve been a lot thinner and a lot heavier than I am now, and I doubt there’s been a day when I haven’t regretted something I ate or found fault with how I look. I try to fight the good fight of self acceptance, and I’m getting there, but it’s a daily battle.
My inspiration for Marley was Lindy West. Like Lindy, Marley just decides to be fine with her weight. She knows she’s healthy enough, active enough, eats well enough and would have to stop enjoying a lot of life in order to weigh what some chart tells her is the right number. And she calls people out on fat discrimination—sometimes the wrong people, but she’s not afraid to speak up. So yeah. Lindy. I love her. I even tried to give Marley a name that sounded like hers, because it’s sassy and adorable.
Georgia was inspired by a friend of mine, who’s brilliant and funny and amazing and doesn’t see it as much as the rest of us do, in large part because she too grew up in a home where her size was relentlessly criticized.
Emerson is from my imagination. Some of her experiences were based on mine, some on the experiences of people I know, some on the experiences I read while researching the book.
Dabney: The acceptance the three women have of each other is a lovely thing. Marley and Georgia’s love for each other is so palpable and it’s clear that support is crucial to their survival. (The dogs help too.) I’m wondering if, as you write women’s fiction, you feel more freedom, for lack of a better word, to focus on more than just a primary romantic relationship for your characters.
Kristan: It’s funny; this book has two huge romantic story lines in it, but it’s the female friendships that ring loudest. In a sense, writing women’s fiction is a bit freer in terms of writing the romantic storyline, since it’s not the main focus of the book and can take any shape. The men in this book are pretty great (one a bit more than the other), and I really loved writing them. But the romantic relationship is definitely a fringe benefit of the work each woman does on herself, and that work isn’t about losing weight. It’s about recognizing you’re worthy and enough exactly as you are. You have to love yourself first before you can ask someone else to, methinks.
Dabney: I know you’ve heard the criticism about this book but I’m betting you’ve also heard from readers who love it. What do both camps say the most often?
Kristan: I knew this was a controversial, emotionally charged topic, and I’m glad it’s sparking conversation. The critics, by and large, haven’t read the book, which is both reassuring and disturbing… it’s hard to be criticized by people who are making assumptions about the book’s message without real knowledge, or who are repeating negative comments they’ve heard without reading the book themselves. Most found fault with the premise—an obese woman dies, and her two friends fulfill the list of “accomplishments” they made as teenagers (which are acknowledged as the shallow benchmarks they are). A lot of the negative reviews were posted before the book was even available to read, so…
There was also criticism of how I wrote Emerson—her physical challenges, her size, how she struggled with overeating, even the fact that she wrote in her journal to an idealized version of herself. But compassion isn’t dismissing someone because you don’t have the same experiences; it’s seeing them, and feeling their pain. I didn’t want to ignore the very real challenges Emerson dealt with. Fiction allows us the opportunity to explore our shared humanity, even when our circumstances are very different. I hope Emerson’s story gives readers the chance to see her perspective with compassion.
The positive reviews from people who’ve read the whole book are beautiful, uplifting and affirming. A lot of women have said how much they related to all three characters, how they’ve made those lists, had those moments where eating was out of control, or when they finally said, “enough.” One reviewer said how glad she was to see weight being addressed so realistically and hopes more writers will take on the subject. I’ve heard from more than one early reader that this book is letting them talk about weight in a way they never have before, and it’s incredibly gratifying.
Dabney: Do you feel differently about weight and how we deal with it now that you’ve written the book?
Kristan: I do. After researching the topic for four months, talking to doctors, nurses, nutritionists, fat people, skinny people, compulsive eaters, compulsive dieters, after reading books about the science of metabolism and talking to people who’ve had gastric bypass and people who would never have it…yes. I feel that people should eat what they want, when they want, and they should love and appreciate themselves exactly as they are. Screw those scales, yo.
Dabney: Thanks for talking to me, Kristan. In an odd way, I think this is a really brave book. Talking about weight is so hard. I’m appreciative you are willing to share your thoughts with AAR!
Kristan: Thank you, Dabney. It’s my pleasure.