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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Characters Inspired by Real People in The Divorce Diet by Ellen Hawley + Giveaway! (US/Can only)

The Divorce Diet
Ellen Hawley

The Divorce Diet is dedicated to every woman who ever walked away from a relationship—or a diet.

Abigail, an inspired cook and stay-at-home mother, decides to repair the problems in her marriage with a diet book for herself and an elaborate birthday dinner for her husband. But over dinner her husband announces that the whole marriage thing just doesn’t work for him. Reeling, she packs up her baby, her cookbooks, and her single estate extra virgin olive oil and moves in with her parents while she looks for work and child care.

Floundering and broke in this life she didn’t choose, she turns for guidance and emotional support to the internalized voice of her diet book, and it becomes her invisible guru. While she struggles to reconcile the joy she takes in cooking with the book’s joyless and increasingly bizarre recipes and her native good sense with its advice, she works her way from one underpaid job to the next, eats everything but what her diet book recommends, and swears to get her life in order before her daughter’s old enough to create long-term memories.

Her diet book has promised to help her become the person she wants to be, but it’s only when she strikes out on her own that she figures out who that is.

Are the Characters from The Divorce Diet Based On Real People?

The Divorce Diet started life as a conversation. My friend Janneen’s marriage had just fallen apart and she’d lost weight, so we were talking about divorce as a diet strategy. One of us—I think it was me, but it could well have been her—said, “The divorce diet.”

“That’s a great title,” I said. Unless that was her.

Whoever it was, the title brought the story in its wake. I started writing it to make Janneen laugh—she needed a laugh back then—and I based the central character’s situation on hers: a woman struggling to reconstruct her life and make enough money to support her daughter after a breakup ends up losing weight. It was the mix of the deeply serious and the completely trivial that made it work. When I showed her the early pages she did laugh, so I kept on. That first draft seemed to almost write itself. I rewrote it endlessly afterwards, and that part was more like work.

Given that history, where’s the line is between fiction and reality?

Writing fiction about real people is dangerous, both morally and legally. You risk hurting the feelings of people you love, or at least like, or, well, maybe don’t like but still wouldn’t go out of your way to hurt. You risk invading their privacy. You risk inspiring them to sue you. If you’re accurate, they may not feel flattered, or they may feel you’ve stolen their story, or they may not think your version of the story is accurate—it’s your version, after all, not theirs. And if you embroider reality but leave a recognizable core of the original person, they may feel you’ve told lies about them. And in a way, they’ll be right. Fiction tells lies in the service of truth (or so fiction writers tell each other), but that may not console the person who’s been written about.

Women fiction writers I’ve known have a joke about autobiographical fiction: If you’re writing about a man you broke up with (or who broke up with you), just write that he has a small penis, because no ex is going to go to sue you if it involves going into court and swearing he’s the guy with the small penis. I don’t know anyone who’s tried the strategy, and I don’t recommend it, but I do know a lot of women who’ve laughed about it.

Janneen inspired everything that’s best in my central character, Abigail, so from its earliest beginnings the story had an overlap with reality, and I picked my way carefully through the dangers of fiction vs. reality. The book came together with Janneen’s knowledge, help, and permission, and when it found a publisher she contributed a drawing and worked with me on the recipes. She’s been a partner in its creation. But Abigail is not Janneen—she took on a life of her own very quickly. She had to if she was going to come alive. If I’d been constantly checking back to see if I’d been fair or accurate, or that I hadn’t crossed some emotional line, the book would have wilted. Once the ties that connected the character to the person who inspired her were cut, Abigail was free to chart her own course, and she led me a merry chase. I’ve never had so much fun writing a book.

I know that sounds delusional. Abigail’s not real. She couldn’t chart a course—I had to do that for her. But writing fiction means allowing myself a delusion or three. I can usually nudge my characters in one direction or another, but I can’t control them. If I try to push them where they don’t want go, the whole process stalls and the novel dies.

In cutting Abigail loose from Janneen, it helped that Abigail’s story is her own and not Janneen’s. They dealt with a few of the same problems, but in different ways and in different circumstances. And long before we knew where Janneen’s life was headed (she’s done magnificently, thanks), we both knew Abigail was headed for a happy ending. We wanted that for her, and for Janneen, and for every other woman in that situation.

With one small exception, the characters surrounding Abigail are purely fictional—they have no overlap with real people. To write them any other way would have been crossing a large, dark line. The only minor character with connections to anyone real is a brittle, angry waitress Abigail works with, who’s a younger, exaggerated version of someone I worked with once. I felt comfortable doing this because not only would the original not recognize herself in the waitress, neither would anyone who knew her. The resemblance isn’t external, it lies in the response Abigail has to the portrait and I had to the original. The waitress herself is fictional.

I said it was the trivial triumph of losing weight in the middle of being broke and unemployed and a reluctantly single mother that made me think the book would be possible, but a second element, a kind of magic ingredient, entered it almost as soon as I started to write. The bit of craziness that lifted the book above Abigail’s daily plod was her invisible diet guru, the internalized voice of her diet book, who brought something unpredictable to the mix. Oddly enough, she had a basis in reality in the same indirect way as the brittle waitress does. Or as close to reality as you can come when you’re writing about an invisible guru. I’ve been a freelance editor, and I worked on enough self-help books that the form seeped into my bloodstream. When too many self-help books accumulate in your system, they can make you a little punchy. Abigail’s invisible guru comes from an overdose of self-help.

Maybe all characters are based on someone or something real. Everything we experience, everything we know of life, pours itself into our fiction, some of it in ways we’re aware of and can control, or at least steer a bit, and some of it in ways that are harder to spot—and forget steering them. What matters is that we transform it all in some way. Not just mechanically—say by adding small penises—but deeply, so that the odd bit of magic can touch them and they take on that lovely, delusional ability to chart their own courses.

About the Author

It’s always a bit strange, writing a bio, picking through the bits of a life and arranging them into a slightly different picture each time. Especially when you write it in the third person. Let’s tell it this way and in the first person:

The Divorce Diet (Kensington Books) is my third novel. The previous ones were Open Line (Coffee House Press) and Trip Sheets (Milkweed Editions).

I’ve worked as an editor, a cab driver, a talk show host, a janitor, an assembler, a file clerk, and a receptionist. And I’ve taught writing—mostly fiction writing.

I grew up in New York City and moved to Minnesota, where I learned the meaning of cold, over and over again. I now live in Cornwall—the southwestern tip of the U.K.—and I blog about that at Notes from the U.K., which explores the spidery corners of a culture and the things tourist brochures ignore.


Books à la Mode is giving away one print copy of The Divorce Diet—yay!!

To enter, all you have to do is answer Ellen's question in a comment below:
What, if anything, made you laugh when your life was falling apart?
Please make your comment MEANINGFUL. Comments solely consisting of stock responses or irrelevant fluff like "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry. Ellen and I really want to hear from you guys! :)

Don't forget the entry eligibility terms and conditions!
Sponsored wholly by the tour publicist and publisher—a huge thank you to TLC Book Tours and Kensington!
Giveaway ends January 21st at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US/Canada readers only—sorry, everyone else! Please check my sidebar for the list of currently running giveaways that are open worldwide. There are plenty to choose from!
Void where prohibited.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their winnings will be forfeited.
Although I do randomly select winners, I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤
Good luck!