Taking Up Space Has Never Tasted So Good
"Supper Club" is brash and delicious debut novel by Lara Williams, and an appropriate follow-up to her acclaimed short stories collection, "A Selfie as Big as the Ritz." At the center of this dark comedy is Roberta, who is somewhat awkward and shy. Like most women, she has always felt the need to not be seen or take up much space while navigating life and love, or the lack there of. She is on the threshold of thirty, friendless, and caught in between a lackluster job writing product descriptions for a fashion website and pursuing any semblance of personal and professional ambitions. The only thing more painfully boring than her current state of affairs, was her time in college ten years earlier. Enter new friend Stevie, an outgoing artist who quickly consumes Roberta’s world, igniting her to reach for more in life and to pursue her passion for food. Early on in their friendship that led to sharing a flat, Stevie spied out Roberta’s culinary skills coupled with her enjoyment in cooking. As such, Stevie encouraged Roberta to consider cooking professionally, and when one night artist friends of Stevie’s stopped by and were treated to a Roberta special dinner, they too endorsed the idea. Initially, Roberta balked at such a prospect, but soon enough, she comes around.
In bed I blinked at the dark while Stevie shuddered to sleep. I thought back on the evening. How perfect and imperfect it had been, both in equal measure. How nourishing it was to cook for people I actually liked. I thought of the mountain of washing-u[ I had to do. The removal of a Matchstick that hd been trodden into the carpet. I wanted more evenings like that. In the morning I woke up, and idea was already in my head.
“That’s what I want to do,” I told Stevie, shaking her shoulder. “What?” She asked hazily.
“I think I want to start, like, a supper club?” I said … “But kind of a wild one.”
And though I enjoyed cooking for Stevie, there was always a sense of deeply private communion to it. I liked the option to eat feverishly alone. But the thought of gathering people together and cooking for them felt plump with potential. A clan of my own that I could feed and nurture. An image of us, wild and hungry- and still expanding. The weight gain was Stevie’s idea. She wanted us to be living art projects.
Thus begins a unique collaboration of feasts and friends, a food club taking place in random and sometimes ill-gotten-access locales. Such a story deserves more than a traditional review. After getting an opportunity to meet the Manchester, England-based author while she was on a U.S. book tour, I followed up with a few questions about her quirky, funny, yet touching novel that is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a testament to female empowerment.
PF: Can you summarize the novel’s main character and what motivates her to co-create this unusual group? Please also expound on the group’s behavior during the meetings.
LW: Supper Club is split into two timelines, and we first meet Roberta at university, and then again, ten years later, when she comes up with the idea for Supper Club. I wanted to spend the first timeline exploring the different ways women are tacitly encouraged and rewarded for taking up little space, and through that, explore ideas about the female body and appetite. The idea driving the Supper Club is, what if you lean into what you want and more, what if you actively take up more space than that to which you feel entitled. I was also interested in the novel as a transgressive text, and what a transgressive novel might look like from a female perspective. Women’s bodies are so often used as the tools through which men transgress, in books such as American Psycho or A Clockwork Orange, and so part of the Supper Club is a reclamation. I would say there is a low-level dark comic voice which runs throughout the novel, and I was definitely interested in humor as a distancing strategy in parsing trauma.
PF: What drew you to create such a unique character? Or maybe she’s not so unusual. Do you see her as representing the angst of many young women of her generation?
LW: I don’t know if she necessarily represents any kind of generational angst, and that wasn’t really what I was trying to represent, so much as I was interested in the various ways women are socialised not to take up space, which I don’t think is a particularly generational thing, though is certainly still experienced.
PF: Besides being a character-driven novel, it’s also a fun food-themed story. How did you approach combining the characters, issues and food aspects?
LW: I wanted to include not exactly recipes, but sort of embodied or methodical experiences of following a recipe throughout the novel, or slightly protracted meditations on different types of food and what they might represent. Part of that was my interest in what it meant for me as an author to take up space on the page, and part of that is very much representative of Roberta and her state of mind at a given point.
PF: I hear you’re vegetarian. Was that a particular challenge for you to incorporate meat, etc. into the dinners?
LW: Yes, I have been vegetarian for over ten years, and it is something I feel strongly about, however, I also felt strongly the women of Supper Club needed to be eating meat. I am a big fan of the writer Carol J Adams and her work on gender and meat eating, it is quite a masculinity reinforcing practice. And thinking about the Supper Club as a transgressive text, meat eating felt important in that.
PF: From inception to completion, how long did this project take you? What was your writing routine?
LW: It probably took a few years, all in all, and had a few different iterations. I didn’t have a hugely strict writing routine, and I went from working full-time in marketing to being a freelance writer while writing it. And so to begin with I was writing on weekends and after work. But after going freelance I wrote a lot of it in Manchester Central Library’s reading room, which I actually sort of hated writing in as it’s deathly silent and any tiny movement reverberates around the room. It was really a space in which your movements are very contained, and you can take up very little space.
PF: D id you have any eating habits or favorite snacks and meals while working on Supper Club?
LW: I don’t really eat or snack when I’m writing. Maybe the occasional doughnut.
PF: Who are some writers that inspire you?
LW: A lot of writers I consider “influences” are probably writers who mainly write short fiction, writers such as Mary Gaitskill, ZZ Packer, Bobbie Anne Mason, Lorrie Moore.
PF: What are some of your favorite books?
LW: Some books that I have been thinking about and returning to a lot recently are The Answers by Catherine Lacey, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, and Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto.
PF: What’s on your nightstand?
LW: I’m currently reading The End Of The Story by Lydia Davis.
PF: What’s next for you- another novel, short story collection?
LW: I’m currently working on a new novel, and it’s a work of speculative fiction, which is not something I have written before.
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