Have you ever been so intrigued by a book title, or so attracted to a book cover, that you bought it without even reading the synopsis? I’ll admit that I judged The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by its gorgeous over. But I was pleased to find out the story is even more beautiful.
Anissa Gray’s stunning debut novel follows three sisters: Althea, who is in jail after committing a series of crimes with her husband, Proctor; Viola, who is struggling with her marriage and an eating disorder; and Lillian, who is looking after Althea’s twin daughters, Kim and Baby Vi, and trying to give them as normal a life as possible. Each sister is complex in her own way, existing in gray areas and exhibiting blind spots that will challenge your sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.
Early reviews of The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls described the novel as “The Mothers meets An American Marriage.” And these analogies are right: Gray paints a heartbreaking but hopeful portrait of complicated family dynamics, the temptations of the road not taken, and coming to terms with your circumstances. Through it all runs the theme of hunger and the many ways it manifests in us: literal hunger for nourishment, metaphorical hunger for more from life, and the emptiness that one or both can bring.
We spoke with Gray about her personal connections to her novel, finding hope in struggle, and how people can perceive the same events differently.
HelloGiggles: You wrote a very rich, layered story. How did the idea come to you?
Anissa Gray: This is actually not the book I sat down to write. It had the same title, but it was a completely different book. I was going to write a book about a woman who worked in an eating disorders clinic based on some of my experiences in treatment. Viola was that character. But in writing, it felt very insular and very dark in a not-good way. I flailed around for about six months or so, but the character never left me. Part of that is because of the connection to me myself, I’m sure.
I took a step back and I took a look at her backstory. When you’re writing, you create a whole life for your characters that may or may not make it onto the page. I looked at what I’d created for [Viola], and she had her sisters. The more I delved into that, the more I could see that her sisters had their own stories and unique struggles. The story just popped at that point. It may sound a little woo-woo, but I was able to literally follow the lead of all three of those characters, and, of course, Proctor, Althea’s husband.
HG: Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, but I’m very fascinated by how complicated sibling relationships can be. Do you have siblings?
AG: I do. I’m one of five, so I wrote with a fair amount of experience. I’ll speak for my family: There was the gang of five, all of us together. But within that, given a particular situation or a particular issue, factions would form. It might be me and my sister against another two sisters, or my brother and a sister against someone. But when it came down to it, there was that cohesion.
HG: Althea, Viola, and Lillian are complex, complicated characters. How did you get inside their minds?
AG: Viola was a little bit easier, because some of her story tracks with mine. The eating disorder was easy, in as much as that can be, to write about, because I had a personal experience with that. She’s a lesbian, I’m a lesbian. We’re both in long-term relationships; my wife and I will celebrate 25 years in April. So, she was much easier for me to follow.
Althea, on the other hand, was quite a difficult nut to crack. She did not come fully formed. And I think you see a little bit of that on the page. Out of all the characters, she is the slowest to reveal herself in the novel. There’s sort of a peeling back of layers to get to her, and that’s how it was in the writing.
HG: Speaking of Althea, the women in her Bible study group have an ongoing conversation about whether confession is a good thing or not. Her initial stance is “Sometimes it’s best to keep things to yourself.”
AG: For her, it was a matter of being open with herself. There’s a point near the end where she has an epiphany where she sees how much her daughter [Kim] is like her. That revelation opens up a way for her to engage more with the people she loves. You’re an only child. My wife is an only child, so I understand that psychology, too.
HG: Oh, I’m sorry. We are so, so weird.
AG: [Laughs.] In a family with a large number of siblings, there’s, “I’m not like this person, but I’m more like that person.” There’s always a point of comparison.
HG: A main theme of the story is hunger and the many ways it manifests in our lives. What made you want to explore that?
AG: I started off with the Viola character, where it manifests in a literal eating disorder; there’s a very literal manifestation of hunger. But as I broadened out and the other two sisters came in, then you start looking at hunger in a more metaphorical sense. Althea, for one, has a sort of boundless emptiness. I think it fuels her motivation for the crimes she commits and how she treats those she loves. Taken together, you have all of these women who’ve had these hollow spaces, these empty places, that they’re trying to fill, oftentimes in some fairly unhealthy ways.
HG: Something else that struck me about the three sisters is that they all experienced the same life events so differently.
AG: That’s a real sort of sibling thing. I’ll be talking to my sisters about something that happened, and I will remember it my own way. And they’re like, Well, I don’t quite remember it that way. It’s a question of perception, and it goes beyond siblings. When you have people who witness a crime, they will often report different things. It’s how we perceive the world and how we perceive experiences, particularly those that are directly related to us.
HG: Who do you think changed the most over the course of the book?
AG: This is difficult for me. [Laughs.] I think Lillian changed the most. She got brave there at the end. She carried a lot of fear with her and the desire to please others. But there at the end, she let go of a lot of the things she felt she was supposed to be holding onto.
HG: What do you hope readers take away from this story?
AG: Oh, geez. Well, I hope what readers come away with is feeling like they’ve read an honest account of these lives. That they feel like they’ve met some folks with real issues who struggle through those things. And though they end up in, I would say, an imperfect place, I do think they end up in a hopeful place. I hope readers come away with a sense of hope.
HG: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read recently?
AG: I just finished Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. I loved it. It was a great book and I would highly recommend it.
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is available wherever books are sold.