It’s almost eerie to read Dietland, Sarai Walker’s 2015 debut novel, in 2018. One part fat-positive manifesto, one part rape-revenge fantasy, 100 percent feminist polemic, Dietland is the sort of politically charged novel that would be deemed “so timely” if it were published today.
But it wasn’t ― it was published a year before Donald Trump’s election as president infuriated liberal women, sparking a countrywide wave of women’s protest marches, and over two years before the fall of studio mogul Harvey Weinstein kicked off the Me Too movement in earnest. Walker’s fictional world, in which female vigilantes target male sexual predators, now looks uncannily prescient. All the more so given that the roots of the book stretch back decades; Walker was first inspired to write something like Dietland in 1999 and finally dove into writing it in 2008.
“When I was writing it, it felt very timely and urgent to me every day,” she told HuffPost.
But the overt, almost gleeful female anger that shimmers off each page, and the perverse pleasure readers get in seeing men suffer for the harm they’ve inflicted on women, rarely found a mainstream outlet until recent months. With the Marti Noxon-helmed TV adaptation premiering Monday night on AMC, the book, and show, appear to be right on time.
In the novel, Walker interweaves the story of Plum, a fat woman whose job at a teen magazine feeds her hatred of her own body, with the story of Jennifer, a mysterious terrorist group that kidnaps and murders men who have gotten away with abusing women and girls. (Readers will likely recognize several ripped-from-the-headlines perps: A group of young men who rape an adolescent girl, the founder of a revenge porn site, a revered film director who sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl.)
That such a timely project has been years in the making serves as a reminder that what we’re seeing now ― the pain and anger of women, and their rebellion against rape culture and female objectification ― has been long simmering. Walker spoke to HuffPost by phone about the source of all that female anger, the tyranny of beauty standards and the subversive thrill of a no-holds-barred revenge fantasy:
This show feels timely, obviously, but the process began a long time ago for you. When did you start working on the book?
I fell in love with Fight Club in 1999, almost 20 years ago. I remember when I saw that film, I just had this impulse to write a novel. I had no idea what it would be about, but something with that angry, punk, defiant spirit ― something for women that was like that.
At that time, I never could have imagined what it would be. I didn’t know anything about fat positivity ― I mean, I was a dieter, one of those people [who] was like, “My real life will begin when I’m thin.”
Then, when I was doing my MFA at Bennington, 2002-ish, I wrote this short story about a fat young woman who was working at a teen magazine. I’d never written about the experience of being fat before. I had never written about my experience of working in magazines as a fat woman, all of that. So it was very liberating to write this story, to have this kind of energy that nothing else I’d written had had.
So I thought, I think this is the heart of this novel, that I’ve been kind of just thinking about in this very abstract way.
I started working on it a bit for my MFA, and then in the end I just couldn’t write it. I knew I didn’t have the life experience and skills to kind of pull off this vision. I would say in 2008 I really started working on it more seriously.
When did the vigilantes redressing rape and sexual assault ― when did that thread come into the story?
I always knew there would be some kind of group doing terrorism or something like that, but it was just this vague thought.
It may have been around 2009. I went to France for the summer. I lived in London while I wrote most of [Dietland]. I was writing all this horrible stuff about this abuse of women, and all the mistreatment that Plum had suffered, a lot of which I can relate to myself. Then, all of a sudden, I started writing the Jennifer chapters.
It was like a release, because I started to get really depressed thinking about all these horrible things that happen to women, and so it was this great experience to just write about this revenge.
It was kind of scary at first, because I had never written anything like that. Some of the earlier drafts, Jennifer tortured people, stuff like that. That’s not the way it ended up. But it was kind of startling ― [that] this came from my brain ― but then I got into it. It was something that I needed after just focusing on all of this misogyny.
Plum’s story focuses on the question of body positivity, and the Jennifer story focuses more on rape and violence against women. Why do you think those two themes ended up speaking back to each other?
It was hard to make those two narratives work. I think they are deeply connected. I think it’s not, perhaps, easy to see how they’re connected. They do seem like very different stories.
But as I was writing the novel, I got started with the question, “Why are fat women so hated?” I had that in my head. Because I didn’t know the answer when I started writing. Not that there’s a simple answer, but a lot of it is about the objectification and dehumanization of women, and that women are held to certain standards of how we’re supposed to look and behave. I just see that as very deeply connected to rape culture, because I think that when you have a group that’s dehumanized and objectified, it’s easier to commit violence against them.
And so I see Plum’s story and Jennifer’s as very linked in that way, that they all have the same root and that we’re just seeing it play out in different ways.
Fat acceptance and rape culture have, to varying degrees, been coming to the forefront in women’s media and cultural conversations recently. Was that something that you saw emerging as you wrote it? Did you feel like a lot of people were talking about those topics when you first started this process?
People say, a lot, “This seems very timely,” and it’s been part of my life for a really, really long time before all of this. So when I was writing it, it felt very timely and urgent to me every day.
One of the things I wanted to look at was women’s anger, because I felt that there was a tremendous amount of anger that women have, and a lot of it is directed inward at the self, or particularly at the body. I just thought there was a tremendous amount of anger that women were afraid to express [outward]. I think part of it is because we’re told that being angry makes us unattractive. I felt that there was all this simmering anger and rage that just wasn’t being expressed in a mass way.
Even when the book was published, three years ago, people would say, “Oh, why is this book so angry?” ― not everybody, of course, but a lot of people. I don’t think they would ask that if it were published right now.
So, I do think there’s been a shift that’s happened. It’s this outpouring of anger, perhaps triggered by Trump’s election. But that anger that I’ve always seen there has exploded, in a lot of ways, and I thought it would happen eventually.
Perhaps part of it, again ― Trump’s been part of it, all these mass demonstrations and the Me Too movement. Part of it might be there’s more platforms for just everyday women to express themselves because of social media and that sort of thing as well.
One thing that has also been coming up in conversations today that shows up a lot in your book is second-wave feminism. What do you think is really valuable about second-wave feminism that people should know and understand and pay attention to, that maybe doesn’t always get accurately captured when we talk about it?
A lot of second-wave feminists, whether you’re talking about Andrea Dworkin or Bell Hooks, wrote in a really fierce way about the objectification of women. A lot of things that writers are writing today, they already wrote about decades ago. We’re not reinventing the wheel; feminists have done that already.
Those core ideas that I wrote about in the book were already there in feminism from decades ago, and that really influenced me to think about how that would play out nowadays, talking more about fat positivity. Even though the Fat Underground emerged at the same time as second-wave feminism, in general feminism hadn’t really done a lot about fat, really. That’s one of the really important things that’s evolving now, is more work about that in particular, even though, of course, there are women who have been doing that for decades.
Fiction was a big part of second-wave feminism ― like The Women’s Room, Fear of Flying and, even, later into the early ’80s, The Color Purple ― as the way that feminist ideas could spread. I studied that in my Ph.D. I like the idea of using fiction to explore feminist ideas. So I feel like Dietland was a little retro in that way, because it’s not really popular anymore to do explicitly feminist novels.
Are there any other writers working today that you think are doing this, even though it’s maybe not as popular as it was back in the second wave?
I mean, when I was writing Dietland, I couldn’t find a model for what I was trying to do. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But I could only find those older novels, what feminist critics would call consciousness-raising novels. The protagonist goes through a consciousness-raising in the novel, and then often the reader does as well when she reads the novel.
I did look at film a bit more. I looked at “Thelma and Louise,” or even a movie like “Inglourious Basterds,” because it has that revenge fantasy. And then, of course, “Fight Club.” It makes sense that [Dietland] is being adapted for the screen, because it was very influenced by that.
You mention “Inglourious Basterds” and “Fight Club.” It seems like the revenge fantasy is such a male-dominated genre.
I think men just have that entitlement to anger that women don’t have. “Thelma and Louise” came out in 1991, and that was a huge controversy when that movie came out, that women were acting that way.
People find it very threatening. I’ve been getting a little bit of hate mail just from the [“Dietland”] trailers. It’s all about women targeting men, and it makes people very angry. It’s a big taboo, the idea of women engaging in that kind of revenge.
Even people who, with a movie like “Fight Club,” would say, “Oh, it’s just fiction, it doesn’t mean anything,” as soon as it’s women doing it, it suddenly seems hard to treat it as just fiction.
Yes, it’s very telling, the way people react. Because I think they don’t notice the violence against women, or they don’t care. It’s part of the wallpaper. It’s just the way things are. But then when it’s reversed, it’s like, “Oh, a whole gender being targeted just for their gender? Wait a minute, that’s not fair.”
Let’s talk about the TV adaptation. Why did you want to be involved instead of just putting it in the hands of the show runner?
So, Marti [Noxon] invited me. I never really anticipated it. She doesn’t have any obligation to involve me, but she’s always wanted to.
I think that she values my input, as the person who created this world that now she’s totally immersed in, but also somebody who is fat and has that experience that Plum has. There probably aren’t a lot of people in Hollywood that have that experience. I think I’ve been able to, here and there, interject more of a fat point of view. Everybody was really grateful for that input and really open to it.
For readers of Dietland, do you think that they’re going to be surprised by anything in the TV series?
The first season is pretty close to the book but that it goes beyond the book a bit more.
I hope that what they respond to is just seeing a fat woman on TV, seeing her in the lead role, and that it’s a narrative where she doesn’t lose weight. I think that that’s really radical. I went to a screening last week with all these fat activists. It was really meaningful, because they were really emotional seeing that. So I hope that [for] the fans of the book, that’s like a gift to them, to see it in this other medium.
And I would have loved a [TV show] like that when I was like younger, in my teens or 20s. I can’t imagine what that would have been like.