Our Own Bodies: A Conversation with JoAnna Novak


Eating disorder narratives tend to orbit one of two types of protagonists: “poor little rich (very thin) girl terrified of her budding sexuality” or “hyper-disciplined alpha female with severe perfectionist tendencies.” Even when the two intersect—as they often do—the extent to which said woman can do anything but “suffer from” her disorder is limited by the assumption that the disorder can’t offer highs of its own, or that the woman so afflicted is consequently disempowered. Pathology prompts a crippling pathos denying any measure of agency. Far easier to patronize than recognize, after all.

This is something JoAnna Novak’s novel, I Must Have You, refuses to do. Spanning a raucous three-day weekend in 1999, the book jumps between the perspectives of eighth graders Elliot and Lisa, and the former’s professorial mother Anna—all living with or recovering from destructive eating patterns. With its adrenaline-fueled, often hyperkinetic prose, the book resembles Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas more than typical confessional ED fare. Novak isn’t interested in pat salvation and her Ophelias don’t care to be revived. Instead, they throw themselves headlong into a world of lust and obsession, Dreamsicles and Dave Grohl, Xeroxed zines and AOL, snowed-out streets and filched cocaine.

EDs are “not these monastic prisons of piety and perfectionism all the time,” said Novak in an interview for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “they’re not always about control; they’re not sexless; they’re not desireless…[f]ood is the knife you play with to see what kind of daredevil you are.” As such, I Must Have You approaches anorexia and bulimia as a kind of morbid, and highly aestheticized, take on extreme sports—helmetless BMX between the jagged poles of desire and denial, an assault to the senses no less trippy than a Hunter S. Thompson joyride.

“How more inches before the bottom drops out?” asks Anna pre-purge. “Before I start, when there’s no way in hell I’ll be backing down, like a plane taxiing down the runway, about to take off: I’m on-board, knee shaking in time with my pulse, wondering why beverage service isn’t a right away sort of thing so I can be at least holding a glass stem as I wonder if the engine will explode, when I fantasize about yelling, let me off, motherfuckers! Let me off!” Novak’s readers aren’t let off the hook, and as we catch our breaths in its final pages, some craving is surely (if strangely) sated.

Novak and I spoke in Brooklyn late summer.


The Rumpus: The tone of your novel is so resolutely unsentimental. The prose and plot both move at a pace that’s a thrill to follow—as though the experience of the characters’ disorders catapult you into a higher plane, from which you then come crashing down. How conscious were you of content and form intermingling? Did the style of writing develop gradually?

JoAnna Novak: When I was first drafting the book, I wasn’t consciously trying to stylize anything. I was consciously trying to shape the characters, and I was trying to not depict their eating disorders as bummers. Because each character represents a different moment in the lifespan of an eating disorder, it was important to me that we see the good shit and the bad shit.

Maybe some of the irreverence and the pace comes from acknowledging the highs of the disorders and the ways that these highs feed the characters. So often when people talk about eating disorders, we focus only on the behavioral symptoms, and miss the chance to talk about the eating disorder brain and what a weird organism that is. It’s a fucking smart organism. Everyone I know who has had an eating disorder is usually really, really smart—able to do a lot of things while coping with the disorder. But we don’t usually talk about the intelligence factor, and I think that’s fascinating.

Rumpus: To clarify, the “highs” of eating disorders are not necessarily just achieving a certain number or being thin. 

Novak: Exactly. There’s no “number quest” in this book. Even though Elliot is extremely anorexic, she doesn’t think, “Well, if I just weighed ten fewer pounds, then everything would be okay.” Eating disorders in I Must Have You don’t follow that assumption. Instead, the highs come from the moments of power that can emerge from the process itself.

Rumpus: It seems like a kind of power through acts of discipline—but also in rejecting what one “ought to” do, is expected to do, especially given that two of the characters are in middle school. It’s a matter of choice and volition. Lisa’s sleeping with a much older guy, and Elliot’s trying to have an orgasm. Neither of them follow the trope of anorexic girl rejecting womanhood. If anything they’re both aiming for a sexual maturity that isn’t even available yet. How did you think about sex in this book?

Novak: For one, there’s a thing that pretty much anyone who’s missed a meal experiences: you become acutely aware of your hunger and the world kind of sparks a little bit. I wanted to capture that feeling in a sexualized way—that part of an eating disorder which is kind of incandescent, but also scary and real. I don’t think the sexuality in this book is scary, but it’s pulsing around these characters. It’s what they’re seeing because they want so badly. They don’t necessarily know what they want, because they’re fourteen years old. But they’re taking that bold move of saying “I want this. This is what I think I want.” Elliot wants Lisa to be her best friend again, and Lisa wants to “do what I want,” which becomes her battle cry.

You mentioned volition, and this book actually began as a book about girl crushes and pleasure. The first embryonic draft was really just asking the question, “Will Elliot have an orgasm?” It was a quest for her to have pleasure—specifically to feel like she could control her own pleasure. She wasn’t trying to find a guy to give her an orgasm, or expecting her girl crush Lisa to give her one. A lot of times, there’s this conflation of anhedonia with eating disorders, where we think “deprivation” equals “sexless.” But I think people with eating disorders want pleasure too. It’s not always sexual pleasure, but sometimes it is.

Rumpus: There are so many words in English—and other languages—that suggest that carnal desire and physical hunger are almost interchangeable. Being “ravenous,” for instance. Relatedly, Elliot’s desire to control her sexual pleasure seems intertwined with her desire to control everything related to food.

Novak: Yes, there’s no hierarchy between these types of hunger in the book. An interesting part of eating disorders in young women—at least in my experience—the disorder is often a response to a lack of sexual attention. In my own case, it emerged in part because I wasn’t a skinny, popular girl in high school. In the beginning of my own disorder, it was partly due to wanting to be a contender at that lunch table—in my mind, that meant “prettier,” which then meant “skinnier,” which would then grant access to this whole world of things, not least of which was the guy I had a crush on for six years. There’s an extent to which wanting to modify the body can also be part of wanting one’s body to be looked at. Some people assume that eating disorders are about trying to hide the body, but that isn’t always the case.

Rumpus: Another thing this book does well is expose the polarity of consumption in the United States. There’s so much just food in the book. We live in a culture that doesn’t value the process of eating or, really, any type of consumption.

Novak: There’s a tendency to devalue the ritual of dining, which in my own life I value a ton. And that ritual of dining is something that the characters in I Must Have You create for themselves. There’s a scene early in the book where Elliot makes dinner for her mom, Anna, and it’s just microwaving Lean Cuisines. But it’s a ritual every time they eat; it’s a process. Elliot appreciates the steps of pricking the cellophane with a fork and putting it on a turntable, then watching the manicotti evolve as it spins through the door. In the 1990s, reduced-fat foods were really popular, and a lot of people didn’t question it.

Rumpus: This book is so submerged in the 90s. How did you put yourself back in that time period during the writing process?

Novak: I did a lot of listening to YouTube by-the-list playlists—the people who compile them were my heroes. [Laughs] I listened a lot to music from 1998 and 1999—I placed myself in that time. I did cheat sometimes because I wanted to listen to music that I had some kind of emotional access to. It was almost like opening a vein—this rush that I could imagine would be how my characters would have felt hearing the same song. I also read lists of nineties slang to see what I would remember. When you’re a kid, you’re such a magpie for that stuff. Before I started the revision of the book, I watched Clueless alone, and I didn’t think about it as I was rewriting the book, but in a way I think it set me off.

Rumpus: Whose perspective in the novel was the biggest challenge? In 1999, you yourself were around the age of Lisa and Elliot, but much younger than Anna, who’s voice seemed the most lyrical and vaguely feminist in the book.

Novak: Elliot’s my favorite character—I have a lot of tenderness for her—but Anna’s sections include the writing I like the best. Her perspective was also the most challenging, and speaks most to me as a poet. To develop Anna, I was thinking about what it means to be in a role you don’t want to be in. She doesn’t want to be in any of the roles she’s in. She doesn’t want to be a teacher, but she’s a teacher. And, while she doesn’t necessarily not want to be a mom, she’s definitely ambivalent about it. Anna and Elliot have a weird kind of copacetic relationship, but Anna isn’t nurturing at all.

I was also interested in showing someone trapped in those roles who really feels a death drive. Anna’s always actively thinking about how fucked up things could get, and how much more fucked up they could get. There’s this saying that, “Getting older doesn’t get easier, it just gets harder.” Anna is feeling the walls caving in on her, and is raging.

Rumpus: And she’s so unapologetic about that rage. There’s no delusion. She reminded me of Anne Sexton, in a lot of ways. There are people who don’t want to get better, and there are people who do. One thing I like about this book is that it doesn’t make moral judgments of characters based on that.

Novak: When I was writing Anna’s character, I was thinking a lot about Sylvia Plath and rereading Plath to hear her elocution. Anna is unapologetic about her eating disorder, but also all kinds of bad behavior—pretty much everything. But for all three characters, I don’t know how much “good” or “bad” behavior factors into their decision-making. One of the questions the book asks is, “How do we put a moral judgment on behavior that impacts our own bodies?

In terms of aesthetics and the sensory, the judgments of others that Elliot makes are not meant to be injurious, even if they are.

Rumpus: Yes, what Elliot says out loud tends to a lot kinder than what she’s thinking. But readers have access to both. The most uncomfortable moments in the book, for me, were some of the caustic judgments she has toward other girls.

Novak: I like Elliot because she’s industrious. And for all the things she does want, the thing she wants most is her best friend back. She’s doing all the other things to prove to herself that deserves Lisa as a best friend. The whole drug subplot is predicated on Elliot’s idea that she can somehow get Lisa back by impressing her. Or, if Elliot has an orgasm, then she can talk to Lisa about sex.

Rumpus: Elliot also escapes a really uncomfortable sexual encounter with a boy in a way that seemed really independent and brave.

Novak: Yes, she respects the boy and trusts the boy, and her fear is not so much of him as a sexual predator but this health-class construct suddenly not abstract any more. And once it’s not abstract, she no longer wants it.

I like that, when exposed to people, Elliot isn’t a jerk. She puts herself out there and takes a lot of risks, and I appreciate her pluck in that way. She likes to use big vocabulary words, and she can be very judgmental, but when you get past that, she’s plucky. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be functional as an anorexic.

Elliot also changes the most of all the characters. Even at the end of the book—and I won’t spoil it—Anna hasn’t really changed in terms of her main goals. Lisa has started to change, but her evolution is more “long game.” Elliot’s the only one who really transforms.

Rumpus: For Anna and Elliot, death is totally abstracted, but for Lisa it’s real, and that seems related to her decision to “get better,” or at least resist the death drive.

Novak: If there’s any kind of subtle didactic aspect in the book, I think it’s that Lisa’s ability to make that choice is related to her being the only one who’s been through treatment. Anna never seeks it and Elliot never seeks it, but I think the book tacitly suggests that treatment can really help.

Rumpus: At the end, this novel emotionally pivots most off the relationship between Elliot and her mom Anna. Why did you conclude this way?

Novak: It was intuitive, I think. One thing important to me was to recombine their family unit since it splinters so much throughout the whole book. There’s something tragic about the two of them—they’re each other’s housemates, and I wanted them to ultimately have each other even though they’re going after what they want in this dogged, solo fashion. Even when Elliot is angry at her mom, like when Anna hasn’t picked her up from school, she never hates her. She worries about her mom; she senses that her mother is a complicated lady. I wanted Elliot to get her mom back for Elliot’s sake. It’s harder to know how much Anna even worries about her daughter. Anna’s harder to read in that way.

This is an aspect of the novel’s feminism that might be more covert. One part of Anna’s character that I like a lot is that she respects Elliot—she sees her daughter as an intellectual, as a creative, precocious person who has her own autonomy. And I like the fact that Anna sees that. Her behavior as a mother could be construed as neglect, but I don’t think it has to be seen that way. In a way, it’s more like Anna is saying to her daughter, “You do you.”

Another thing to consider is that I didn’t write Anna or Elliot as neurotypical humans, and I don’t find it useful to diagnose them. A lot of the distortions of affect between them are part of that—part of showing characters whose brains are wired differently.

Rumpus: This actually brings me back to my earlier points about the hyperkinetic, full-throttle style in which the novel is written. Two out of three characters have this strong death drive, and I haven’t seen that often in novels about women. The death drive is usually from men, and it becomes sexy because it’s aggressive.

Novak: I wonder if we maybe we were better at romanticizing that kind of full-throttle existence for women in other times in history. This isn’t as high-octane, but there’s a nineties image of Kate Moss for Calvin Klein that comes to mind. She was at the height of “heroin chic,” and she’s just staring at the camera like, “What the fuck do you want?” In the backdrop of the novel, there’s that kind of bold, confrontational, “fuck-off” look for me. These women are going to do what they want.

Rumpus: A lot of female-authored texts are taken to task for glamorizing eating disorders, but I don’t see the same thing happening when men write novels that explore the thrills of alcoholism or some destructive male-associated behavior. But as a woman, it’s as though it’s your responsibility to perpetuate virtuous behavior as an author.

Novak: It’s that whole “woman-as-mother” thing—it’s very troubling. If I’m thinking about the moral lesson in my art, that’s not true to me as an artist. That isn’t to say it isn’t true of other artists, but it isn’t to me. If there’s any lesson or moral to my book it’s, “Hey, let’s shake up how we think about how women are supposed to be or how they’re supposed to behave.”

A Features Editor at The Rumpus, Eileen G’Sell has contributed cultural criticism and poetry to Salon, VICE, Boston Review, "DIAGRAM, and the Denver Quarterly, among others. Her chapbooks are available from Dancing Girl and BOAAT Press, and her first full-length book of poems, Life After Rugby, will be published with Gold Wake Press in early 2018. You can find her on Twitter @Reckless_Edit. More from this author →