LB: In a letter to your readers at the beginning of The Stone Girl, you mention that this is a book you both have been waiting to write and never wanted to write. What persuaded you to finally write The Stone Girl, especially when you knew it would bring up questions about your own experiences with eating disorders and body image?
ABS: I never really made a decision to write this book. A few years ago, an image of Sethie popped into my head. At once, I knew everything about her. I knew her name was Sarah Beth, but she preferred to be called Sethie. I knew the boy she loved was only half of a boyfriend, and I knew he would hurt her. I knew exactly when and how she first learned to throw up. I know she wore her jeans a couple sizes too big so that the waistband wouldn’t touch her skin. I knew that sometimes she wanted to take a knife to her body and cut the fat pieces away.
I began scribbling my notebook. A few messy pages of notes later, I’d begun writing The Stone Girl. But I quickly put it aside. A few months later, I came back to it; and then again a few months after that and so on, until I was sitting on a rough draft. At first, I thought maybe this book was written just for me, this book that I just had to get out of my system, and I didn’t know if I would share it with anyone. I never wanted to write about eating disorders; frankly, after years spent both living one and reading about them myself, I was almost bored with them. And I didn’t believe that there was anything new to say, anything that hadn’t been said by people much smarter than I am. But Sethie’s story was different, at least it felt different to me, and soon, I found myself sharing the novel; first with a few friends, and finally with my agent and editor.
LB: You mention that you didn’t want to write about eating disorders unless you had something new to say. There were three things that I identified in this book that are very different from other books about eating disorders:
- Sethie is neither classically anorexic nor bulimic, yet she has symptoms of both and its clear she is ‘disordered’ in the way she feels about her body.
- One of the concerns about eating disorder literature is its potential to be used as an instructional manual by girls who are vulnerable. It would be very difficult to use The Stone Girl as an instructional manual.
- It’s written in third person, rather than as a first person confessional.
These seem like very deliberate choices on your part. Could you talk a little about how you came to make these choices?
ABS: Thank you so much for this question. Sethie’s story is important to me for many reasons, not least of which is that hers isn’t a clear-cut diagnosis. Can someone be considered anorexic who only skips some meals; who spends more energy thinking about skipping them than actually skipping them? Can someone be considered bulimic who goes weeks, even months at a time without making herself vomit? And, if not, how do you recognize whether this is a sick girl who needs help? How do you convince her that what she’s doing isn’t healthy, when you don’t have a label for her, a name for what’s wrong with her?
Sethie’s story is not unique; so many girls and women out there skate on the precipice of these disorders, not quite diving in, but not quite healthy either. (Men, too – I came across an updated statistic yesterday that 20% of anorexics are men.) Perhaps this story isn’t as riveting as the story of the girl who drops to eighty pounds, the girl who’s institutionalized and fed through an IV. But I think this story is just as important. Girls like Sethie are, I think, more common, and a lot harder to identify. They could so easily be overlooked by parents, teachers, friends.
Writing the book in the third person wasn’t exactly a deliberate choice; when the idea for The Stone Girl came to me, it was a third person voice I heard in my head. In fact, when the image of her first popped into my head, it looked to me as though I was floating above her, following her from a few steps behind. So, when I began writing it, the third-person came naturally. But the third-person was also something of a tool for me; there are things you can talk about in the third person that you can’t necessarily talk about in the first, especially where eating disorders are concerned, with their uncomfortable and occasionally graphic details.
LB: Towards the end of The Stone Girl there is a scene where Sethie is in the nurse's office parked next to a lot of literature about eating disorders. You write:
“Sethie read every single article over the years, an she can’t find one to diagnose herself. They don’t say whether you're anorexic if you only starve yourself some of the time. They don’t say whether you're bulimic if you’ve only thrown up a handful of times. And they certainly don’t allow for the fact that maybe, just maybe, a girl could be anorexic or bulimic simply because she hates being and feeling fat, rather than because of bad parents and trashy magazines. They only thing Sethie has ever gotten from these articles is tips on how to be better at dieting…” (p. 176)
For me this scene sums up a lot of the themes of The Stone Girl, and how little help this kind of pamphleteering gives girls looking for a place to recognize their experiences or solutions to their problems. What would you recommend in their place?
ABS: This scene is very important to me too; as I wrote it, so many of the reasons I had for telling this story crystallized. When I was my most body-obsessed, I read every book and article about eating disorders I could get my hands on. None of those girls looked like me. So, I didn’t think I deserved to call myself anorexic or bulimic; I believed that I had tried and failed to have a real eating disorder. But wanting to have an eating disorder – wanting to skip meals, wanting to know how to make yourself vomit – is, I think, something of a disorder in and of itself.
I think the number one thing that girls and women – and boys – can do to help one another is talk about their experiences. When we tell our stories, we offer a helping hand, whether we realize it or not, whether it is accepted or not. I’ve never liked talking about my body-obsession. Writing the book forced me to revisit that period in my life privately, and now, as the book’s publication approaches, speaking about it has me visiting there again – publicly. The responses I’ve received have been at turns surprising, overwhelming, disheartening, reassuring, and gratifying.
And, I don’t mind talking about it anymore. I know that when I do discuss it, there is a chance that someone may recognize her friend, her classmate, her student, her daughter, or herself in my story, or in Sethie’s story. And if that sparks some conversation, if that gets just one girl talking, if that makes just one girl feel less isolated – then all this talking and writing about it will have been so much more than worthwhile.
LB: I also wanted to comment that though there are early indicators that Sethie may have an uncomfortable relationship with her mother --- with whom she shares clothes --- that Sethie’s mother plays a rather minor role in The Stone Girl. What made you decide to de-emphasize the mother/daughter relationship in this book?
ABS: In much of my eating-disorders research, girls with eating disorders have overbearing mothers and distant fathers. That wasn’t how I saw Sethie. Sethie’s story is different; she began backing away from the world when her body-obsession crept into her life, and the sicker she gets, the deeper she sinks into her own world, shutting out the people who might be able to help her, including her mother. When Sethie first began gaining weight (prior to her body-obsession), her mother noticed it; Sethie felt her mother’s critical eyes on her. She shrank away from her mother, embarrassed, to some extent, at being (what she saw as) fat in front of a thin woman.
Ultimately, of course, Sethie’s mother will be a part of her recovery. I don’t see this as a book in which the mother/daughter relationship is de-emphasized; instead, I see this as a story with a fractured mother/daughter relationship, one that needs to be repaired, one with fault on both sides.
LB: There are two key relationships in The Stone Girl. One is Sethie’s ambiguous relationship with Shaw, a boy she regards as her boyfriend, but who doesn’t seem to recognize her as his girlfriend. The other is with Janey, a cool girl Sethie wants to impress.
ABS: The way Sethie’s relationship with Shaw unfolds hit very close to home with me. I’ve been waiting for YA to portray more difficult relationships, as Sethie’s experiences seem very common with the young women I know and so little reflected in literature both by and for young people. How much to you think Sethie’s eating disorders and her relationship with Shaw go hand-in-hand?
I think they’re tied together intimately – though not in any way Shaw understands, not even in a way that’s his fault. Someone with an eating disorder, or someone who wants an eating disorder, is someone who doesn’t think that her body deserves the nutrients it needs to survive. In Sethie’s case, not only does she believe that her body is undeserving, but she also deprives herself of the love and respect that she deserves, and her relationship with Shaw is a manifestation of that.
One thing I’d like to mention – talking with teens about this book over the past few months, so many of them have voiced their displeasure that Sethie lets Shaw walk all over her. I’ve been asked why Sethie doesn’t stand up to Shaw sooner, and I have to say, it’s incredibly heartening to hear that so many girls can’t conceive of letting a boy treat them the way Shaw treats Sethie. In Sethie’s case, the passive stance she takes with Shaw is another symptom of her difficulties; as much as I would have loved for her to stand up to him, it simply wouldn’t have been in keeping with her character in its current state.
LB: I will admit that initially I didn’t like Janey. Early in the book she encourages some of Sethie’s disordered behaviors and I predicted that Sethie would unravel under her influence. Yet, Janey actually turns out to be one of Sethie’s best friends, one of the few people who actually cares about Sethie --- tells her the truth about what is going on with her life --- and is able to reach her when things get bad. Their friendship ended up being my favorite part of The Stone Girl. Could you tell us a little more about writing this relationship and how important it is for Sethie to have a friend like Janey?
ABS: I think a lot of us have friends like Janey; friends who hurt us without meaning to. It was a friend who taught me how to make myself throw up, just as Janey taught Sethie. My friend thought she was helping me, just as Janey thought she was helping Sethie – even though, in some respects, Janey is also showing off for her new friend. Friendships can be so complicated in that respect – we can hurt each other when we least intend it – and I wanted to show that dynamic between Sethie and Janey.
LB: Body temperature seems to play an important role in this book. Shaw is cold. Being with him makes Sethie feel cold. Whereas Ben, a college boy Sethie meets later in the book, is hot, being around him makes Sethie feel almost feverish. To what extent are we supposed to read this as actual physical symptoms, or emotional ones?
ABS: I knew, when I began writing this story, that I wanted to infuse a bit of magic into it. All of my stories (so far!) seem to have at least a bit of magic in them. In this case, I think these magical moments – the increase or drop in the temperature, the way Sethie perceives Janey’s collarbones as glowing when she’s excited – are indications of how Sethie views the world. I think of them as hints hidden in physical details: Sethie envies Janey her collarbones, she longs to be closer to Shaw, she feels safe with Ben.
LB: I love that Ben helps Sethie recognize she’s gotten off-track with regard to the things she really values in her life. I also love that he is unwilling to get involved romantically until she is healthier, but is absolutely rock solid in his promise of friendship. He reinforces everything that is positive about her without exploiting her vulnerabilities. Ben seems to offer two things in The Stone Girl: the possibility that there are nicer boys out there than Shaw, and the promise that things can and will get better, that Sethie has lots of things to look forward to after her crisis has passed. What advice can you give for anyone who is currently in Sethie’s situation, or anyone who knows someone like Sethie?
ABS: I’m definitely not an expert on eating disorders or body-obsession, so I know there are people much more qualified than I am to give that kind of advice. The truth is, I’m just someone who’s been there, so I can only really offer what helped me, or what I think might have helped me. When I was at my most body-obsessed, I did not want to talk about it, and I certainly didn’t want to hear anyone talk to me about it.
In retrospect – hindsight being twenty-twenty – I think that talking about it, and being spoken to about it, might have helped. Instead, conversation became another thing that I denied myself. Perhaps I would have come through to the other side sooner if some friend had shared her experiences. Maybe I would have recovered more quickly if some friend had picked up on the hints I dropped from time to time. Or, perhaps it would have taken just as long for me to find my way – maybe I just needed to work this out on my own time – but perhaps, if someone had talked to me about it, if I had had someone to listen to me without judgment – perhaps then, I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
LB: One of the things that is really clear in The Stone Girl is that before we meet her, Sethie has an interesting and vibrant life. She works on year book and she loves to read. Yet somehow the conversation about her future gets hijacked into her obsession with her weight. There is a scene where she contemplates writing about weight loss for her college essay, but knows this will alarm the adults in her life, “So Sethie wrote about last year’s yearbook production, back when she used to go to meetings, back when she actually thought that mattered more than how much she weighed.” (p. 73) I think we’ve all seen this happen with people we know. How does this happen? How do we get our passions back from whatever obsession has eaten our lives?
ABS: My body-obsession dominated my life for years; sure, there were days when I ignored it, whole weeks and months at a time when it lay dormant. But it was always there, flowering up whether I wanted it to or not, bleeding into my decisions: Did I want to meet this friend for dinner when I’d already had lunch that day and was not allowed two “real” meals? Did I want to go to this party where there might be cake when, if I just stayed at home, I could make it through the evening without eating any more? I couldn’t tell you the last meal I skipped, the last time I made myself vomit – the end of my body-obsession was gradual; just as, come to think of it, its arrival had been.
I can tell you this: when I was twenty-four, I began a new job, a job where people counted on me, a job so challenging that I actually needed food to fuel me through the day. Around the same time, I began dating a wonderful man who treated me well, who’d had a crush on me when I was at my heaviest and who didn’t care whether I lost or gained an ounce. I made some wonderful new friends who made me feel better about myself, who laughed at my jokes, who thought I was smart, who shared my interests and who didn’t judge me. And, gradually, slowly, what I wanted most began to shift. I still wanted to be thin, of course, but I began to want something else – many other things – so much more. My body-obsession faded into a low priority, before fading away entirely. Perhaps, with anything that threatens to be an obsession – food, relationships, work – the key to keeping it at bay is holding on to the other things we want just as tightly.
LB: Towards the end of The Stone Girl literature starts to enter into the book as a significant influence. You mention works by Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. Could you talk a little about literature and the way it has influenced your life? What are you reading right now? What books would you recommend for someone who enjoys The Stone Girl?