Sarai Walker broke ground with her brilliantly timed, feminist vigilante novel Dietland. Described as the female Fight Club, the story follows Plum, an young woman who works for a teen magazine and struggles with body image, before becoming involved with a vigilante group responsible for a recent spate of disappearances and deaths of sexual harassers and abusers. Walker, whose focus has always been on women’s issues and body image, holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of London, her research for which focused on, according to her website, “normative femininity of the body; the fat female body; consciousness-raising and the ‘personal is political’ in feminist practice and as a literary aesthetic; American second-wave feminist history and fiction; ‘chick lit’; and critical theory.” In addition to this, she has written for the New York Times, the Guardian and the Washington Post, as well as Seventeen Magazine and Mademoiselle. Walker knows her stuff.
She has been heavily involved in AMC’s adaptation of the novel, starring Joy Nash and Julianna Margulies, alongside writing a TV pilot and a second novel. As Dietland prepares to premiere June 4th, along with companion talkshow, Unapologetic with Aisha Taylor, Sarai took time out of her busy schedule, and the writing of book number two, to chat with Bookstr.
Image Via saraiwalker.com
What inspired you to write Dietland?
I’m sure people are sick of me mentioning Fight Club, but after I saw that film for the first time, I knew I wanted to write something for women with that angry spirit. It took many years for that spark of an idea to develop into an actual project. I later wrote a short story about a fat young woman who works at a teen magazine, and I realized this story should become the foundation of the novel I’d been thinking about. I felt that there were few novels that explored what it’s like to be a fat woman in a serious way, written by a fat woman (not a thin woman or a man). I also wanted to tell this story in a new way, by exploring subjects we normally see in women’s fiction (such as body image) and mixing those with elements more common in men’s fiction (violence and terrorism).
AMC has adapted Dietland for TV, what was your favorite part of watching your story come to life?
A TV series goes through many stages, from writing to filming and beyond. Each stage has been interesting to watch. I was in the writers’ room as a consultant, and I loved seeing how they translated the book to a different format, and watching those scripts develop. Later on, visiting the set in New York was truly surreal, to see the settings from the book come to life, and to see the actors playing the characters I had created. Every step of the way has been special.
Plum’s story can be seen as groundbreaking, given that she is a fat woman who learns to love her body and herself. How important do you think is this sort of female-centric media, focusing on women who may be seen as ‘unlikely’ heroes?
I think it’s vital. Women’s stories have often been ignored by the entertainment industry, especially women’s stories that reflect diversity. With more women gaining power in the industry, we’re seeing all sorts of barriers being broken, and this is what’s allowing stories like Dietland to come to the screen. It’s hard to imagine this show existing even five years ago. Given the power that television and film have in our culture, and how they help shape our ideas about gender, it’s essential that we see these new kinds of heroines.
The adaptation of Dietland is extraordinarily well timed, given the recent #MeToo movement. Did you foresee a time when women finally said ‘enough’?
When I was writing the novel I could see that women in our culture were incredibly angry, but that this anger was often suppressed. Often times, women’s anger is directed inward as self-hatred, and hatred of the body. I wanted to write about this, and what it would look like if women suddenly turned their anger outward at society, which is what I did in Dietland. Now, three years after the novel was published, we are seeing a shift to more public expressions of anger by women, including mass demonstrations. I’m glad it’s happening, and I think it was inevitable.
Joy Nash and Julianna Margulies | Image Via AMC
What are some of the key points about acceptance you’d like readers and viewers to take away from Dietland?
People take away many different things from Dietland. I hope thin audiences get a better understanding of what fat people have to endure on a daily basis. Many thin people need to learn empathy for fat people, and maybe this will help with that. I hope fat audiences find it empowering to encounter a fat character who goes from self-hatred to liberation, without losing weight. Fictional narratives, whether in books or on TV, can help us imagine what’s possible, and that can be very powerful.
On your website, you say that you’re working on your second novel and it’s “even more bonkers” than your first one. Any hints as to what it’s about? How bonkers is it?
It’s pretty darn bonkers. I can’t say much at this point. On the surface it’s very different from Dietland, but at its core it deals with gender in a subversive way, focusing particularly on the female body. Most of the things I write have that in common.
What advice would you have for aspiring writers who want to tackle social issues in the way that you have done so successfully?
Fiction writers who want to write in an explicit way about social issues face a lot of discouragement. I definitely faced that when I was doing my MFA in creative writing, not from all my professors, but most of them. There’s this idea that politics taints fiction, which is ridiculous. The world we live in is political, and I love writers who aren’t afraid to engage with that. So my first piece of advice is not to be discouraged.
When it comes to writing political fiction, always remember what fiction can do that other mediums can’t. Non-fiction is ideal for analyzing issues, but fiction is all about lived experience and feeling. What does something feel like? That’s what fiction should focus on.
Finally, if you want to write this kind of fiction, it’s important to read it, and I think literature in translation is particularly strong in this regard. Two authors who immediately come to mind are Jose Saramago and Marie NDiaye.
Who were some authors you loved growing up?
The first author I remember loving was Beverly Cleary and her Ramona books. As a teenager I read a lot of mindless teen novels. As I got older, I discovered Anne Tyler, and I really loved her work at that time in my life, and it led to more serious reading. I loved Sylvia Plath. I read a lot of short stories – Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel and many others.
When it comes to strong female characters, what do you think Jennifer brings to the table that other female vigilantes have not yet accomplished?
We’ve seen other female vigilantes in books, movies and television, but it’s not a big genre, particularly not compared with stories about male vigilantes. I think one thing that sets Jennifer apart is that she’s not simply taking revenge against rapists and other abusers of women. She’s trying to overthrow patriarchy. One of things I wanted to explore in the novel is whether violence could be used to fight misogyny in our society. I wanted to force the reader (and now TV viewer) to think about that and draw their own conclusions. It can be an uncomfortable topic, which makes it all the more compelling.
Dietland begins this Monday, June 4th at 9/8c on AMC.
Featured Image Via Daily Billboard