A Certain Hunger, the debut novel from Chelsea G. Summers, tells the story of Dorothy, a food critic and food writer who also happens to be a psychopath. I mean that quite literally: Summers has crafted a wicked tale of a woman who murders her lovers — and then eats them.
As I wrote in my winter books preview, while the premise may sound shocking, it’s a compulsively readable novel from start to finish. A Certain Hunger joins a long line of stories narrated by criminals, but this is the first, that I can recall, of a fantastically nuanced female psychopath. Over e-mail, I chatted with Summers about female psychopaths, food writing, kosher butchers, and more.
I love how you describe the elevator pitch for A Certain Hunger as “Eat, Pray, Love meets American Psycho.” What brought you to this delicious (ha) combination?
In 2011, my job sent me to live in Italy, and a friend remarked that now I could write my own version of Eat, Pray, Love. “Yeah,” I said, “only I’ll write Love, Prey, Eat, the chick-lit zombie book that no one ever asked for.” The idea sat with me for about six months, and I realized that there was something there, though I didn’t know exactly what. When I finally started writing, I seized on the ironically distant violence from American Psycho, and here we are.
Can you talk about your decision to structure it as a memoir from prison? It immediately called to mind other famous unreliable prison narrators, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.
That’s quite the compliment! From 2005 until 2012, I’d written a deeply personal blog, so the memoir format felt natural to me. The problem was how to tell a first-person story with murder and cannibalism that would feel like a logical choice for a relatively sane protagonist. I solved this issue by putting Dorothy in prison, convicted of a crime, and centering the story on why she did it, rather than whether she’d get caught.
Why do you think we don’t get many stories about female psychopaths?
My book got more than 25 rejections before it was bought first by Audible as one of its original releases and then bought by Unnamed Press. Many of the rejections boiled down to one response: ew. Editors seemed deeply discomfited by the story, by the graphic sex and violence, by the very unapologetic nature of the main character. I suspect the reasons why we don’t get many stories about female psychopaths are twofold. Publishing companies think they won’t sell, so in part it’s simple capitalism. And, second, these stories make people feel uncomfortable because the mere existence of violent women who lack remorse flies in the face of what we think of as femininity.
Near the end, Dorothy tells us “brutal women catch us by surprise… Our unshakeable belief in women’s essential goodness is a wondrous, drooling thing.” I feel like refuting this is a core part of A Certain Hunger. Why was that important to you?
I believe that depicting bad women is feminist praxis. I rankle at squashing women’s rage and brutality because I think that denying us these behavioral modes does both women and men — as well as non-gender binary people — a terrific disservice. As Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “The pedestal you put women on is a cage.” Humans can only be equal when we see men, women, and non-binary people as capable of tenderness and violence, love and hate, rage and indifference, joy and pain, boredom and excitement, and on through the full pantheon of human emotions.
Dorothy begins her career in the lifestyle space, “dedicated to making its reading public feel pointlessly bad about themselves” (!!) but then pivots to food writing. Why was her career as a food writer important? What was your food writing research process like?
When I started writing the book, I was working as a wine writer, and I think it felt natural to me to slip into writing about the physical sensations of consumption. I knew I wanted my protagonist to be a cannibal, so I made Dorothy a food writer. One of my all-time favorite authors is M.F.K. Fisher, and I’d already read most of her work, which helped. I also read a bunch of food memoirs, like Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, Butter and Gael Greene’s Insatiable. I chatted with some food critics, and I read a lot of columns, pieces, and articles. I also searched Italian Google for recipes, and that in specific was a wild, wild ride.
The Italian Jewish character of Marco was the most compelling of Dorothy’s lovers for me. Why make him a kosher butcher?
I love Marco. Unlike some other characters who have physical or character traits based on people I know, Marco was wholly original — like, he just came from my brain. I remember writing the scene where Dorothy finds his business card in the trash, and it felt like divine inspiration; Marco appeared as a fully fleshed character like Athena from the brow of Zeus. I suddenly knew that Marco was a butcher, how he would serve the story, and what would eventually happen to him at the end.
What did you learn about kosher butchery that surprised you, if anything?
I was surprised to learn that the fail rate of kosher and mainstream slaughter is about the same, about 10 percent. While I didn’t anticipate this point when I began writing the book, as I got into it, I realized I was writing something that interrogates the ways we farm, kill, market, and consume meat. I didn’t expect that this book would go there, but it indisputably did.
What is your Jewish background like?
I have a blended family. My mom was raised Unitarian and my dad’s Jewish. My mother never converted, nor did I, but my sister did, and I grew up in a household that kept Shabbat and the High Holy Days, celebrating with my father’s extended family and with family friends.
How does your Jewishness inform you writing, if at all?
That’s a good question. I’m not Jewish, but my Jewish father has worked his life to instill a deep sense of ethics in me. In writing this book, it was important to me to imbue my deeply immoral protagonist with an ethical code, which while faulty do give shape to Dorothy’s choices. I think more germane to A Certain Hunger is the presence of Detective Wasserman, the Black Jewish cop who succeeds in convicting the main character. I love Wasserman, and I felt bad that I didn’t get to tell more of her story.
The cover art — did you have any input? How do you feel about it?
I had nothing to do with it, and I fiercely love it.
What do you hope readers take away from A Certain Hunger?
I hope that readers close the cover, put the book down, and run to hug their best friends. This novel is about aging, it’s about foodie culture, it’s about female rage, it’s about consumption, it’s about New York City, it’s about Italy, and it’s about gender expectations. But to me, it’s above all a book about two women friends who fumbled their ways to a life-long love. I hope that the gore, the murder, the sex, and the satire don’t get in the way of readers recognizing that Dorothy and Emma are committed to one another with the strangely tenacious bonds of lasting female friendship.