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Interview: Chelsea G. Summers on the feminist cannibal 'nobody ever asked for'

Jan. 29, 2023

Chelsea G. Summers is cooler than most. She has worked in non-fiction as a columnist for major news and culture publications for much of her literary career before turning to fiction for her first novel, A Certain Hunger. With a razor-sharp wit and a narrative voice brimming with humor and authenticity, it is no wonder that her novel about a female writer turned cannibal went viral. 

Readers have created a cult following for A Certain Hunger, with many embracing the macabre narrator’s quest of turning ex-lovers into meals (a “snack”, if you will). 

To be clear, Summers is not a cannibal, nor does she seek to romanticize them in her novel. Rather, she utilizes the idea of consumption to meditate on the habitual horrors of idealized womanhood. With Dorothy, the novel’s protagonist, the reader can find glory in the grotesque and a perverse pride in every puncture wound. 

I spoke with Summers remotely from her home in Sweden, as we discussed the genesis of her first novel, moving between nonfiction and fiction, her response to the virality of her writing, trends in contemporary fiction and media, and, of course, hunger. 

Why a cannibal? What was the genesis for the concept of a woman cannibal as the novel’s protagonist?

Initially, I was going to Italy for work, and I was spending three months there. A friend on Facebook said, “Oh, you can write your own Eat, Pray, Love.” And I was like, “Yeah, all right, Love, Pray, Eat, the feminist zombie novel that nobody ever asked for.” Then after I came back, my heart had been broken, and I was really just shattered by being unbelievably lonely for three solid months in Italy. I started to kind of get this image of my Italian ex-lover being impaled on rebar. I went back to Italy that fall and I started writing that scene, because I’m an image based writer, going from visual to visual. I was good at writing in first person, and I’ve always been very interested in how we translate physical experiences into words, because there is a disconnect – there is an unconquerable ineffable between the body and the word. So I knew I wanted to kind of get into that. To make Dorothy a cannibal made emotional sense because I was middle aged, I was really angry, and I was specifically angry at men but at the same time, I’m a heterosexual woman and I like men. Everytime a previous relationship ended, I felt this sense of loss for this person who I’d been more intimate with than anybody else on Earth. How do you just go from this intense intimacy to being strangers? That shift was always so baffling and painful to me, and one of the ways that I explored it was through the metaphor of cannibalism. 

Prior to writing A Certain Hunger, you were a blogger and columnist – I’d be interested to hear how it was to transition from writing nonfiction to fiction for you.

Well, I really tried to play to my strengths, and also played to things that I felt frustrated about. I kept on writing nonfiction while I was writing this novel, before I really devoted myself to it which was in 2014/2015. I was pitching a lot of articles, and nobody was picking them up. I felt a tremendous level of ageism. I was writing this when I was in my early 50s, and at that point in your career, you’re not supposed to be an emerging writer.

“I was writing this when I was in my early 50s, and at that point in your career, you’re not supposed to be an emerging writer.”

Particularly in nonfiction, there is ageism but it is also creeping into fiction as well as through the development of “the literary It Girl” (thanks, Nylon Magazine). There is a sense that youth equals fresh writing. I don’t know if that’s always accurate. I found a tremendous amount of rejection as a nonfiction writer that I was able to channel into writing A Certain Hunger. 

I think that that also touches on a prevalent theme that comes through in the novel about women of a certain age. Everything about a woman is compartmentalized into classes of age, status, etc. 

Right, these are ways to degrade women for control. I had really fallen out of love with fiction reading, because I wasn’t finding books about female characters that touched me. If you had a woman in her 50s, it was like The Bridges of Madison County, or it was about somebody who was sad but strong and finding love or not finding love or surviving World War II or World War I. If the characters are not faintly murderous or if there isn’t a ghost or a vampire or a dragon, I don’t give a flying fuck.

“If the characters are not faintly murderous or if there isn’t a ghost or a vampire or a dragon, I don’t give a flying fuck.”

I take it that you don’t like The Notebook.

I mean, I know that it exists. I wrote the book that I wanted to read. I wanted to read something that was about a complicated, difficult, menopausal woman who was murderous, and who had a best friend and had complications in her love life and work life, and is just sort of figuring things out, because that’s where I was at. Women are fed these scripts: we have the Maiden, we have the Mother, and we have the Crone. That’s it, that’s what you are allowed to be. But what if you’re not any of them and what if you still want to find meaning and a place in this world? I suspect one of the reasons why this book has resonated with younger readers is because it rejects those roles. It rejects the idea that when you grow older, you’re no longer sexual, you’re no longer valued, you’re no longer attractive, you’re no longer angry. You are and it rejects the idea that you don’t live a complicated life as you age. 

Speaking of that, I love that when a reader first picks up your book, they see that it is dedicated to “all the bad girls” because it immediately speaks to people who just want something different and people who have these complicated feelings towards what femininity is meant to be.

For me, I always considered myself very bad at being a girl. I think that unlikable female protagonists are having their own moment but when I was writing the book, there really weren’t that many. There was Amy Dunne, and that was kind of it. It was before Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts and it was before the unnamed narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, it was before Eileen, and Mona Awad’s Bunny. I never thought of Dorothy, my protagonist, as unlikable. I think of her as evil. She’s not a role model. She’s not a girl boss. She is a cannibal; she is not supposed to wave a big foam finger for all manners of feminism, but I do think that there is a kind of emotional catharsis. There’s an emotional freeing, there’s a permission that men have always had access to in antiheroes that we have now in these new female protagonists who are difficult and problematic. It’s about time.

“Women are fed these scripts: we have the Maiden, we have the Mother, and we have the Crone. That’s it, that’s what you are allowed to be. But what if you’re not any of them and what if you still want to find meaning and a place in this world?”

You referenced American Psycho as one of the things that kind of influenced you and I’m curious, how does one get into the mind of a sociopathic cannibal? 

Yeah, I read American Psycho. I was really searching for Dorothy’s voice and I read a bunch of chef memoirs. Then I started reading a lot about psychopaths and sociopaths…I came up with this suspicion that people really don’t investigate or study female sociopaths in part because we’re so discomforted by the idea and in part, as I say in the book, they just hide it better than men do, because women are socialized to care about other people’s feelings. It was allowing myself to tap into my own worst, most immoral, most scandalous, most disturbing thoughts and feelings, and just letting them rip. Since I finished the book, I was able to pretty much release my anger towards men and to fall in love with somebody and marry them and feel good about the commitment and to make peace with aging in ways that I wasn’t really expecting. So allowing myself to touch on those more unsavory portions of my subconscious, did help. This book was very healing.

Horror is my favorite genre in all media. It’s one of the most political genres because it knows how to represent people in the margins.

Yeah, absolutely. I think of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Although A Certain Hunger is nothing like that, the ability to create this speculative fiction world was really fascinating to me. Ironically, I didn’t realize I was writing a horror book. It wasn’t until the horror community came across it and embraced it that I was like, “Oh, right. I guess American Psycho is a horror.” 

Do you have any favorite horror movies or media?

I really, really liked Raw. I liked The Menu, and Fresh – I thought those were pretty fun. I like Amber Tamblyn’s Any Man, … Samantha Leigh Allen’s Patricia Wants To Cuddle… and Maria Adelmann’s How To Be Eaten. It’s great, it’s weird, and it’s queer, and the twist is really lovely. It reminded me a lot of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, which is a retelling of a bunch of fairy tales and is one of the seminal works of my development as a writer. Then if you really want to go back in time, there’s Matthew Lewis’s The Monk which is an 18th century early Gothic horror novel.

I’m gonna research all of these after this interview because they all sound absolutely amazing. I’m curious, what is next on your plate?

Yeah, the American Booksellers Association, does special edition short books for Indie Bookstore Day, and they chose a story from me. It’s called An Excellent Host. That’ll be out in the U.S. on April 27 and every copy will be signed. Then I am working on a novel. It’s been going pretty slowly, because I was like, “I’m gonna write a road trip novel set in 1976 to places I’ve never been.” I just finished the first chunk of the road trip this past October. I will be devoting myself to writing that next portion of the book. There is a Chevkov’s Gun, which will go off at some point.

Just to go back briefly to A Certain Hunger, was it as difficult as your current novel to write?

No, it was and it wasn’t. I’m a very insecure writer and one of the things that was really helpful about writing a sociopath who had unshakable faith in herself, was I got to be powered by her confidence. Dorothy’s belief in herself was the wind beneath my wings. That was the thing that powered me finishing the first draft. Once I got into it and really forced myself to do it, it was not so hard. It was really just forcing myself to actually do the work. I am lazy and I would like to just watch endless streams of episodes of various televised media and that’s not really very conducive to getting a novel finished but it’s fun.

I think the tagline of my write up will be “Chelsea G Summers says that writing a book about a sociopath is easier than writing a book about a road trip.”

Yeah, I mean, so far, yes. Check in with me in another year. I respect fast writers, knock yourselves out. But I am really more in the Donna Tartt school. I’m not saying you’re gonna have to wait eight years, but you know, I am somebody who’s like, “Yeah, this is gonna take however long it takes.” And also the last few years we had the pandemic, I migrated, I lost my job, my mom died. There has also been real life stuff that came in the way of actually being productive, and that’s okay. 

Yeah, capitalism tells us to be on the move and always be producing.

Well, money is nice. Money is helpful. But you don’t have to make yourself do the work on another schedule that isn’t working for you. You find the schedule that works for you and you find the inspiration and you find the thing that allows you the room to do the writing, and then you do the writing.

Myka Greene is Development coordinator at PEN America.