Encouraging Messiness: A Conversation with Melissa Broder

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Reading in quarantine for me goes only one of two ways: I either crack open a book and reread the same sentence approximately fifty-four times before picking up the remote to watch Lost from the beginning, again, or I go through book after book, never satisfied. Melissa Broder‘s latest novel, Milk Fed, transcends this binary.

You don’t need an attention span to read this book; you just need an appetite, which is immediately stimulated upon reading the first page. It’s like not realizing you’re hungry until a plate of something warm and delicious is placed right in front of you, and next thing you know, you’ve devoured most—if not all—of it. Milk Fed is that satisfying meal, a delightfully feverish treat that leaves you sated, and wanting more.

Rachel, a twenty-four-year-old calorie-counting lapsed Jew, punctuates her day with obsessive food rituals. By day she works as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals on an elliptical machine. Throughout, she subsists on meticulously planned food choices. After her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised Rachel to abstain from most food intake, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at the frozen yogurt shop Rachel frequents on her work breaks. The two grow close. Miriam delights in feeding Rachel sundaes with elaborate toppings, inviting Rachel to slowly start shedding her inhibitions and bask in a sweet and gooey ecstasy. As Rachel allows herself more pleasure from an appetite unburdened by obsessive control, her captivation with Miriam—with her body, faith, and family—intensifies, resulting in an unexpected but irresistibly sexy love story set in the midst of a powerfully acute examination of physical hunger, sexual desire, and spiritual longing.

Garnished with Broder’s signature brand of incomparable humor, Milk Fed lies at the intersection of food, sex, and god. It is a dispatch from Broder’s ongoing investigation of her own obsessions, which we talk about, in addition to discussing the challenges of containing multitudes in 2021, and the fear of being too much.

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The Rumpus: In our last interview, you told me that you never thought you would write a novel. Now you have two under your belt! How has your approach to writing changed?

Melissa Broder: I’m still doing it the same way I’ve been doing it: dictating the first draft into my phone, three paragraphs per day, using Siri and Simplenote (free notes app). Don’t stop or proofread or think about it or change anything until the whole mass of clay has been thrown down—even if I see things are spelled wrong, or Siri is missing stuff (always). Just keep going. Encourage your own messiness. This part takes about nine months.

Then begins the editorial process, the first round of which is just me trying to figure out what I was even saying half the time. Edit the whole thing over and over and over and over again. Treat it like a poem: every word intentional. Listen for rhythm. Nothing should stick out as shitty or like I’m trying to pass something off or arhythmic or like I’m lying to myself or the audience. When everything gets quiet, then I’m maybe done.

Rumpus: What was this process like with Milk Fed?

Broder: I’ve never worked so hard on anything as I have on Milk Fed. So many rounds of edits. Like, seemingly infinite. I would think I was done and then my agent or editor or self would send me back into the weeds with it. I would have a little breakdown for an hour. Then I’d go back to weeds. I like the weeds. I just forget I like them.

Rumpus: I think you and I are similar in terms of being rhythmic writers. I’m obsessed with my sentences at a sonic level, and I can keep tweaking them until forever. I have a hard time letting go of work because I keep thinking about how I can change the melody of a joke, or swap out a word for a synonym that’s monosyllabic. I don’t think this feeling will ever go away, at least for me. What is your advice for coexisting with the feeling of always wanting to change something, even after it’s published?

Broder: I think there can be an eventual place of peace with the work—at least for me. I know it when the work gets quiet, and I guess when I say quiet, I mean that I can read it without having active-response thoughts to it. I don’t publish until it’s quiet. Resisting the urge to put half-baked shit out there is difficult, because the internet is all half-baked. It’s a delicious and sometimes awful instant response. The internet is dopamine and I crave dopamine. But there is another, subtler dopamine in not showing anyone anything for a long time—and in the weeds.

Rumpus: We don’t meet Rachel’s mother directly, yet she—or her absence, rather—has a looming presence. What was your intention with exploring the mother-daughter dynamic in this book?

Broder: Mommy as our first god. Mommy as a haunting. Mommy an installer of buttons in self that then have to be uninstalled (though first you have to identify the buttons, I guess). Mommy issues. Mommy as myth. Mommy as denier of unconditional love. Mommy as core issue. Mommy as dispenser of approval. Hot Mommy. Innocence. Feeding. Milf.

Rumpus: If I had to think about this book visually—or symbolically, something you often touch upon in this book—I would imagine it as yin and yang: a duality between control and chaos. Is this what you were going for, to strike a balance between resisting our tendency toward self-imposed categorization but at the same time not chasing desire into unhealthy territory?

Broder: Containing multitudes has never been easy. In 2021, it’s tempting to say “canceled” to our inherent human contradictions. We construct personal brands, Memoji ourselves, proclaim political and tribal allegiances, and declare moral certitude. I’m not a big certitude person. Maybe it comes from having a poetry background and “learning to love the questions themselves” or whatever. But the most spiritual stance to me is “I don’t know.” Beginner’s mind. Knowing you know nothing. The inability to see the whole whale at once.

Milk Fed is a book that challenges certitude. How do we know what we know to be true? Can belief—of the intellectual or emotional variety—make something true? Can conflicting beliefs, held deeply by warring individuals or groups, both be true? And how do we live when that conflict exists within us?

Rumpus: Let’s talk about spirituality, since it plays an integral part in the book. What role does spirituality play in your real life?

Broder: In Milk Fed, every character has more than one religion, though their denominations stray from the theological. Gods are made of vanity, success, familial approval, love, lust, the illusion of control. It’s just like here on Earth.

I have a god-shaped hole inside me that I’m always trying to fill with shiny shit. I forget. So, my practices are practices of remembering.

Rumpus: Rachel views vulnerability as a weakness, something to avoid: “I fear that light and warmth were a trick, a tease, false offerings that lured you into relaxing, and just when you made yourself vulnerable, they would be seized. Better to adapt to the cold.” She seems to warm up to vulnerability, though, as she continues seeing Miriam and allowing herself to indulge, specifically with food. What is the significance of the relationship between vulnerability and appetite?

Broder: The fear of too-muchery—of being too much (which is one manifestation of the fear of not being enough)—can infiltrate every appetite: hunger, sexual desire, spiritual yearning, familial longing. If a person says in one area, “Better to repress my needs so they don’t get rejected—because rejection is painful,” they’ll likely do that in lots of areas. There is no way to separate the appetites. They are interconnected. Geneen Roth said something like this in her book Women, Food, and God. That our relationship with food and our bodies is our relationship with God.

Rumpus: Rachel and Miriam both have their respective relationships with food. It’s clear why Rachel gravitates towards Miriam: she’s able to indulge more, shed some of her inhibitions when it comes to eating. Since this book is told from the perspective of Rachel, what is it about her that pulls Miriam in?

Broder: Attraction is as mysterious as god. It’s mystic and chemical. Sometimes you just want someone—and Miriam wants Rachel. I’d also say that Rachel possesses certain freedoms that Miriam lacks (in the same way that Miriam possesses freedom around food and appetite that Rachel lacks). And Rachel is funny. Funny can be sexy. Especially for a Jew.

Rumpus: Humor continues to play a crucial role in your work. The jokes. The jokes! They are neatly tucked in, structurally, but then blindside the reader with their hilarity. It is masterful. This time you hone in on Los Angeles-based humor, which is plentiful. As a comedy writer, I will structure an entire piece around one joke; I’ll think of a hilarious title and will find a way to write an entire corresponding essay. Do you ever operate in this way?

Broder: The “official jokes” were some of the hardest parts of this book to write. They kept being shit. Like, not funny. Like, the least funny parts. Whereas when Rachel isn’t “trying,” when she’s just herself, she’s naturally funny. So, I had to have her not try so hard. I’m not sure if I’ll write a whole piece around one joke, but I do personally live and die by the joke. Like, in my household, the joke is number one. Bad pun a brewin’? I get really excited. It will not be contained.

Rumpus: For me, this book is both an embrace of and a departure from the themes we’ve come across in your previous work. You write at the intersection of sex, food, and god, all while transcending them to arrive at the human desire for sanctity. Is it important for you to continue exploring the things you’re obsessed with but arriving at new conclusions?

Broder: I’m kind of over conclusions. But I am very into the questions and, definitely, my obsessions.

Rumpus: Where will your obsessions take you next?

Broder: Panda Express.

Rumpus: I know you’re an avid reader. Have you been able to get much reading done in quarantine? What are some good books you’ve read lately?

Broder: I love a list and I love sharing books that light me up. Here are some of my favorite things that I’ve read in the past year since we went into quarantine:

Die, My Love and Feebleminded, both by Ariana Harwicz. Ariana is published by this great translation press in the UK called Charco. They also publish Margarita García Robayo, whose book Fish Soup I also loved. I went through a big Houellebecq phase, which I feel like I’m not supposed to talk about or I’ll get in trouble. I also went hard in the Colette and loved The Pure and the Impure and Cheri. I continued a devotional journey through all of Marguerite Duras’s books. Favorites in quarantine were Summer Rain and 10:30 On a Summer Night. All-time Duras faves are probably still Blue Eyes, Black Hair, The Ravishing of Lol Stein, and Moderato Cantabile. The most beautiful book I read in the past year was The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, which is just a crystalline adolescent longing dream (my wheelhouse). I listened to Eileen Myles read all of their novels on audiobook, and Inferno still slays. A book I loved that comes out in March is The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood (the whole first chapter takes place on the toilet, which is my kind of book). Like, if you are a taster of your own menstrual blood, this book is not to be missed. Another book I loved that’s coming out in March is Justine by Forsyth Harmon, which I can’t stop thinking about. 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell is sheer joy. When I was doing my Milk Fed final edits, I went hard in the Isaac Bashevis Singer deeper cuts, because Singer is like an onion bagel with a magic pen. The Magician of Lublin was beautiful. Though my favorite of his will probably always be Enemies, a Love Story.

I could go on…

Rumpus: Your work is a cinematic magnet. It was just announced that Claire Foy will be starring in the film adaption of your last novel, The Pisces, and Liz Tigelaar recently acquired the television rights to Milk Fed. Do you approach your work with a cinematic eye? Does that ever influence any stage of your process?

Broder: No. Like, not at all. When people asked who I imagined playing Lucy I said, “My middle school librarian.” Also, the only thing I watch really is Adult Swim. I’m an avid reader of fiction—books and audiobooks—and an internet addict, but it’s rare that I sit down and watch a movie or television. I want to watch more television besides just Adult Swim. I feel like it would be healthy for me—way healthier than the internet. I’m supposed to watch shit, because I am doing the screenwriting now, so when I go to Hollywood meetings, I’m supposed to talk about what I like. But you can always just lie. Or I just bring everything back around to the movie Harold and Maude.

Rumpus: Was your own upbringing in Judaism similar to Rachel’s? What’s your relationship to religion like now?

Broder: It was similar. Like, my synagogue was basically mall Jews rather than Talmud Jews. I believe that truth is one and paths are many (I think Swami Satchidananda said that). My spiritual life and rituals are cobbled together from a variety of traditions—very American—like a smorgasbord. There’s a quote that basically says that all the teachers and rabbis and mystics are pointing at the same moon but we want to cling to the finger. In my twenties, I was a finger-clinger—frantically searching outside for myself for some kind of wholeness. I thought spirituality was like: I am on a lotus, apart from humanity, and on some good heroin-y ecstasy, and cannot be hurt. I’m still a seeker, but it’s not a frantic quest to “fix” a broken thing. It’s more of an exploratory gathering and trying of fingers that point me to the moon. Also, I don’t expect to live on the moon, or reach some eternal place of okay-ness while still in a body, or arrive at a manufactured image of “wholeness.” I just need to be reminded to look at it, so to speak. Daily.

And, when it comes to fingers, the Jewish laws and archetype of god feel less resonant with me. But when I walk into Canters Deli or reread Sabbath’s Theater or leave weird voice recordings of Aleinu and G’vurot on my friend Karah’s voice notes, and send her pictures of the weird cookies they used to serve at Oneg Shabbat (if you know, you know) at my temple in Philadelphia, which are the same as the ones they served at hers in New York, and probably everywhere, or watch a nerdy 1979 rendition on YouTube of the song “Tree of Life,” which is a song that featured prominently in Milk Fed, or imagine lighting a Yahrzeit candle for someone dearest to me who has been in the ICU for two months (which, I’m assured by my friend Sarah, also Jewish, is natural and called “anticipatory grieving” and totally okay to do even though we are all hopeful he won’t die), I just feel like… bitch, I’m home.

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Photograph of Melissa Broder by Luke Fontana.


Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →