Hybrid Interview: Melissa Broder
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Melissa Broder and J. A. Tyler, who also essays about Broder’s Milk Fed. —CRAFT
Essay by J. A Tyler •
Milk Fed made me want to ingest a mountain of delicious, sugary, fatty foods—donuts, chips, pizza, candy—then sprint into the arms of some lusty entanglement. Yet the novel also gave me bouts of body consciousness, acute awareness of caloric meaning, thoughts about the importance of the expectations we place on our physiques, and glimpses into the ways desire can masquerade as comfort while portending otherwise. This is the beauty of Melissa Broder’s latest novel, the way in which Milk Fed slips between extremes, mounting a fanatical, romantic ploy within and without the body.
Milk Fed follows Broder’s pungent and seaward first novel The Pisces, an erotic love story between a woman and a merman. This debut showcased some of the same scope that continues in her sophomore novel, including unabashed sexual scenes, graceful mixtures of bodily and emotional want, and a keen existential resonance. Milk Fed also continues to flex Broder’s poetic muscles, honed while writing her four previous poetry collections, as well as the unique conversational/analytical presence she brought to her personal essay collection So Sad Today.
And while all of these previous books form an aesthetic Broder grooms, a stylistic and thematic common tongue, Milk Fed is a unique beast inside of those connective tissues, prowling through religion unlike she’s ever done before, gutting and reconfiguring femininity from a fresh perspective, and pressing readers into an animalistic romance with food as emotional consumption, as sexual bravery, and as genuine love. Broder exposes us to a new truth about ourselves, what we demand, what we cannot contain, and what we must examine in order to live our best and most human lives.
A twentysomething assistant at a talent agency whose total cumulative goal in the beginning of the novel is to count calories between flourishes of repressed bisexual lust, Rachel embodies control and demand. Her mother is the seed of this self-loathing: “When I got back from New York, my mother would ask for a full report of all I had eaten. ‘Do you want to be a chubby or do you want boys to like you?’ she’d say.” This sets up inequitable dichotomies that torture Rachel, causing her to bully her body into an uneasy structure, both inside and out. The tension of this unease pins Rachel to adversarial habits: “But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.” Only Rachel isn’t. She’s clearly rife with trouble, with spiraling, self-destructive cycles, and there seems no end in sight.
Enter Miriam—the zaftig, Orthodox Jewish, Yo!Good frozen yogurt counter girl. She’s an easygoing, good natured person who hides her sexuality too and, when she tops Rachel’s carefully rationed sixteen-ounce cup past the brim, fractures Rachel’s habits and reconfigures her life: “Something had taken me over, possessed me, some phantom transmitted from Miriam to me, or a demon lurking latent all these years, now suddenly awakened.” Calorie by calorie, lick by lick, Rachel unfurls into a completely new and bold person for whom food is comfortable, sexual desires are rampantly embraced (albeit behind closed doors), and the idea of control relaxes into the unbridled.
We bear witness to Rachel’s changes as she dates Miriam and staves off contact with her mother, redefining herself and reconfiguring her attitudes about life, until the novel becomes a frenzy of appetite, sex, love, and tremendous candor. In the end, when Milk Fed wends toward its perhaps unexpected but nonetheless satisfying resolution, the novel ripples outward into larger contexts and conversations. Broder opens up vast and engaging dialogues about sexuality, religion, repression, and how we conduct ourselves and our bodies through this world, and she does so in such a funny, casual, heartfelt manner that we wholeheartedly gulp it. Rather than be intimidated or daunted by the sheer ask of the novel’s themes, we are cradled by them, held in their significance. Broder brings us to a new perspective on love of others and love of self, and, at its conclusion, leaves us completely satiated.
J. A. Tyler: What was the seed or germ of Milk Fed? Where did it begin for you?
Melissa Broder: The story of a love affair between a woman with a restrictive eating disorder and a voluptuous woman who is very comfortable with her own appetites is one I’ve always wanted to tell. When I was nineteen, I wrote a really shitty short story that was an iteration of that—like it was so bad, I think that’s why I only wrote poetry, no prose, for the next ten years. Later, I began to think of the interconnected nature of appetites—physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual yearning, and familial longing—and the way that we as humans are encouraged to compartmentalize these interdependent instincts. I also considered the ways that eating disorders can function as a monotheistic religion of sorts: a way of compartmentalizing existential anxiety, finding comfort in a system, and feeling like you have some control in an otherwise random world. I realized that if I was going to tell this story, I wanted to include a spiritual component. To me, food and the Judaism of my upbringing are inextricable. It’s a very tuna salad-y religion, so it was perfect.
JAT: The novel leads with this epigraph from Thomas Hobbes: “My mother gave birth to twins: Myself and fear.” Why does this quote resonant for you, and when in the process of drafting did it become the epigraph?
MB: Our parents are our first gods. They give us the doctrine on pleasure, consumption, deservedness, worldview, and existence, really. They teach us what to fear. Later, some of us come to see that the things we thought were truth, were actually just opinions. The Hobbes quote asks, who would I be without those teachings? Is there some naked soul apart from the opinions that were layered on me? There is no way of knowing, and I don’t know that I even believe in a core self, or a self that can be separated from nurture, though I do like the idea of a soul.
JAT: Religion plays a pivotal role throughout the book. Rachel feeling simultaneously without religion yet berated with reminders of it and even pulled toward it at some points. Is the religious detail of the book composed of research, personal experience, or a mixture of the two?
MB: Largely personal experience. Growing up, I went to a Reform synagogue. Like Rachel, I was way more mall Jew than Talmud Jew. When I was around eleven, we did an exchange program with Orthodox Jewish families in Brooklyn. We went to them, they didn’t come to us, because we were heathen. I was very nervous about going, but I went and stayed with a family, and I fucking loved it. Rachel’s first impressions of Miriam’s family mirror my own experience: this instant feeling of warmth, welcome, camaraderie. Of course, in Milk Fed, Rachel then begins to question, “What if I weren’t Jewish? Would they still be so welcoming?” She has moral and ethical questions, particularly regarding Israel, that she finds more difficult to cast aside. When I was with my host family in Brooklyn, I didn’t take into consideration these things because I was young. And I wasn’t talking to them about my sexuality or trying to schtup their daughter, so that didn’t matter. It was very Edenic for me. It’s only in retrospect that I began to think more deeply about these things.
JAT: In the later portions of the novel, religion becomes intertwined with sexual encounters, like when Rachel is fantasizing at the gym while “intoning the letters on the dreidel to the rhythm of my pedaling.” How carefully plotted was this blending of the two? Was it an organic happening, or a tandem you knew you wanted to broach at a certain point?
MB: Well, I will say that the “Tree of Life” song that appears a lot in the book—and which Rachel uses to conjure her magic cock—has always been one of my favorite songs. Something very special. So I knew it was going in. I don’t know how I got to the damn dreidel, other than that it’s very Hebrew School 101. If a person were trying to do magic using Hebrew letters and couldn’t remember a lot of shit from their Hebrew School days, I think the dreidel letters would come to mind. As is the case for Rachel.
JAT: Milk Fed includes many scenes of graphically descriptive sex. How is it to write (and share) this type of material with audiences?
MB: The writing of it is great fun. I write sex that turns me on. The editing is like all editing: anything from arduous to hypnotic to frustrating to satisfying depending on where I am with the manuscript. The sharing is another story. I try not to think about the sharing in the first iteration. I think about it more in the editing, in terms of legibility and rhythm. The experience. It’s only when someone who doesn’t know certain sides of me—like a former boss or my aunt tells me they’ve read it—that I feel the shame. The shame is real. But mostly, I try to pretend to myself that no one like that is going to see it.
JAT: Moles, freckles, and birthmarks dot the book’s landscape. Why did you choose this particular bodily trait as a focal point?
MB: Moles can be sexy or beautiful or ugly or shameful depending on who is perceiving them. On my body, I found them shameful in my adolescence. On others, depending on their positioning, I have found them to be a locus of longing; a focal point for desire, like a nipple or a clit. So there’s this dichotomy of finding something desirable on another person that you don’t permit yourself. Rachel is very that. So it made sense that they would be part of her constellation of desire for Miriam.
JAT: You narrated the audio version of Milk Fed. What was that experience like, fully embodying (out loud) the characters and plot you created?
MB: My work is filthy and I always feel like I’m going to get in trouble for reading it out loud to the unsuspecting audio engineer. This was my fourth time recording my books, but there’s always a few uncomfortable moments where I feel like, damn this is really intimate. Or like I apologize for saying “clit” for the ninth time on a Monday morning. Mostly, I’m focused on not letting my nicotine gum, which I have parked between my gums and my cheek, crackle in my mouth, so that I get to keep it in. All four of my audiobooks are sponsored by consistent chain-consumption of nicotine gum, as is the rest of my life.
JAT: While reading, I kept thinking of ways in which Milk Fed would interact with other works about body image. Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star and Roxane Gay’s Hunger immediately come to mind, as well as the plays The Shape of Things and Fat Pig by Neil LaBute. What were some of your inspirational or conspiratorial works as you wrote this novel?
MB: All my old Jewish faves primed me to tell the tale. The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick, in which there is also a contemporary golem. Goodbye, Columbus, Sabbath’s Theater, and Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth, where the line between sex and a tuna salad sandwich dissipates. Pretty much everything by Isaac Bashevis Singer, but especially Enemies: a Love Story, Shosha, and The Magician of Lublin.
MELISSA BRODER is the author of the novel The Pisces, the essay collection So Sad Today, and four poetry collections, including Last Sext. She has written for The New York Times, Elle.com, Vice, Vogue Italia, and New York magazine’s The Cut. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, the Iowa Review, Tin House, and Guernica, and she is the winner of a Pushcart Prize for poetry. She lives in Los Angeles.
J. A. TYLER is the author of The Zoo, a Going (Dzanc Books) and his fiction has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Denver Quarterly, and others. Follow him at jasonalantyler.com or on Twitter @J_A_Tyler.