Interview with Lara Williams
Twenty-nine year old Roberta has spent her whole life hungry – until the day she invents Supper Club.
Supper Club is a secret society for hungry women. Women who are sick of bad men and bad sex, of hinted expectations to be thinner, smile more, talk less. So they gather at night to feast and drink and dance, seeking the answer to a simple question- if you feed a starving woman, what will she grow into?
The Supper Club itself is an anarchic, destructive celebration of womanhood and of doing the things we really ought not to. How did you come to the idea of reclaiming food in such a unique way?
Before I came up with the idea of a Supper Club, I was thinking I wanted to write something quite focussed, on women and our relationship with claiming space. I had a loose idea of egregiously leaning into something in order to sort of readdress a balance: screaming so you can be comfortable just using your voice. And food, appetite and desire felt inherently connected to this idea of claiming space. A lot of my early reading was “transgressive” fiction, books such as American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange. And I remember watching Salo at university and finding it totally horrible and repulsive, but also undeniably compelling. I wanted to explore what a transgressive act or ritual might look like from a female perspective, where women’s bodies are not tools through which men can “free their id” or whatever, but explore what it might mean to reclaim our bodies, to use our own bodies as transgressive instruments.
Roberta’s narrative flits back and forth between the end of her twenties and her life at university. Why did you decide to focus on her at these two different points in her life?
I wrote the university timeline first, as I wanted to spend some time exploring what might make a person crave this collective experience. I was also interested in university as being a time when you’re kind of thrust into the world in a way that can be isolating, which I think puts you in a quite vulnerable position.
I then wanted to write about Roberta after a relatively significant amount of time had passed, to find she was still wrangling with the same issues, to represent the sometimes cyclical and inconclusive nature of trauma. The end of her twenties felt the right time to revisit her, as it felt there was duality there: again, it’s a kind of rite of passage (which fits with Roberta’s preoccupation with rituals), and there can be a similar disconnect in terms of what you imagine that moment in your life to look and feel like, and how it actually looks and feels.
There are definitely moments where I found Roberta uncomfortably relatable, down to her intense mental rehearsals of ordering coffee. Did you draw on elements of your own life and experiences when developing her character?
I did, and I also find myself mentally rehearsing coffee orders, because I’m conscious of not wasting anyone’s time. But I don’t think I developed Roberta as a kind of conduit or mouthpiece for myself however, I think we are quite different.
Every time I dipped into Supper Club I usually ended a chapter feeling hungry. Could you tell us a bit about why you used recipes directly in the novel? How did you decide what foods you wanted to highlight?
I’m not sure I really think of them as recipes exactly, more embodied experiences of following a recipe, or ruminations on a recipe, or just protracted descriptions of food. Something I was interested in when writing the recipe sections was characterising the bodily and methodical experience of cooking or following a recipe. I was also thinking about how I as a writer I take up space on the page, and what it means to commit to this slightly indulgent flourish. I was conscious of each food section reflecting Roberta’s state of mind at a given point. So the onion section, which is quite a fussy and almost compulsively lateral consideration of the virtues of different methods for caramelising onions, comes at a point where she is using cooking and food as an escape from her reality and thoughts. I was thinking a bit about that Hemingway short story, Big Two-Hearted River, the dry recounting of a character’s surroundings and actions as mental diversion.
Your debut short story collection Treats came out in 2016. Did you find that your writing techniques changed when creating Supper Club as a novel or was it a natural next step?
When I was writing Treats I was quite exclusively reading short fiction, almost obsessively reading short fiction. When I finished writing and editing the collection I felt I’d really exorcised whatever it was I was trying to exorcise, and I felt a bit like I was done with the form. I found writing a novel a little less claustrophobically focussed. I feel there’s something strangely liberating about resigning to a writing project that will likely take at least a couple of years.
Supper Club will be published with Hamish Hamilton on 4 July 2019.