By David Canfield
February 19, 2019 at 09:30 AM EST
Bonnie J. Heath; Penguin Random House

Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is a family drama that melds the propulsion of Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) with the political power of Tayari Jones (An American Marriage). The novel follows three sisters — Viola, Lillian, Althea — still reeling from a difficult childhood and the scars that resurface when their parents are suddenly incarcerated. Deftly exploring black identity, sibling roles, and emotional trauma, Gray paints a nuanced family portrait you can’t turn away from.

We caught up with Gray for an exclusive first interview about the many personal experiences which went into her buzzy debut novel. Below, she tells us what readers need to know.

The novel gradually evolved into a very different story
Explains Gray: “This isn’t the novel that I set down to write. [Laughs] The novel I sat down to write was about a woman who worked in an eating disorders clinic; Viola was the main character in that novel. It was based on some of my own experiences in treatment. As I was writing it, it felt too insular. The story just wasn’t coming together. I took a step back. I thought more about the character and started to view her through the lens of family — because every character you create has a backstory. In her backstory, there were sisters. The more I tuned my ear to their story, I could see there was a much broader narrative here. They had their own voices and parts of the story to tell. That’s when things really started to come together. It was less of a moment of inspiration than an evolutionary process.”

The title reflects the family’s desire to fill what’s missing in their lives
“Starting with a character working in an eating disorders clinic, with an eating disorder, you see this woman who copes in some highly unhealthy ways. That’s manifested in a literal eating disorder. As I was looking at the other characters as well, I could see there was the same sort of boundless emptiness that Viola had, but expressed in a different way. In Althea, for instance, you see this in her grasping, and the crimes she commits, and the ways she treats her family. Taken together, you have all of these characters acting in some unhealthy ways, but ultimately to fill these hollow spaces.”

Gray’s philosophy to storytelling: “Start at that very small point in the pond, and see how it ripples.”
“I look at storytelling in a very basic way: We all have our own stories to tell. Your neighbor has his or her own personal story to tell. Within that one individual story, there’s probably something I can relate to. There’s something you can relate to. It can often be much bigger than we are. I start out from that basic human place. Viola’s basic human place, going back to my original thought for the book, was: She had an eating disorder. Then you look at all of the things that feed into that, and you widen the circle out that much more, and you look at family. You widen the circle out that much more, and you look at community — how we all touch each other’s lives.”

The characters’ flaws stem from Gray’s desire to be honest — including about the reality of eating disorders
“Generally speaking, I try to be as honest as I can be. One of the things with honesty is we all have our issues. [Laughs] We’re great in some ways but, in a lot of ways, we are not. I was really interested in trying to bring that nuanced person to the page in each of these characters.… In the beginning, I did [find it difficult]. I tend not to be the most open, the most vocal person. But when I made the decision to write about an eating disorder — that’s the thing in the book closest to my own experience — I made the decision to write about it honestly. I made the decision to write it in more detail than maybe someone else would. There’s one scene where Viola’s in the bathroom and I had one reader say, ‘Does it have to be this gross?’ Yes, it’s kind of gross. That’s how it is.”

Gray’s inspirations range from romance novels to Toni Morrison
“I pay attention to pacing. When I was in middle school, I had an addiction to romance novels; romance novels are paced in a very specific way, so my ear is tuned to pacing because of that. And Toni Morrison was the first serious writer I read — The Bluest Eye — and what she does with language, I think, is incredible. The Bluest Eye is a book I can go back to and read again and again because of the timelessness of it. That’s what great fiction does.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is available for purchase now.

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