'How Much Suffering is Acceptable?': An Interview with Melissa Broder

The author of Milk Fed on eating disorders, stand up comedy, and masturbating while your block is on fire. 

February 19, 2021
Anna Dorn is the author of Vagablonde and Bad Lawyer. She lives in Los Angeles. 

Luke Fontana

A few years ago, I heard author and Twitter celebrity Melissa Broder talk about what would become her latest novel, Milk Fed (Scribner) on a podcast. She said she was writing a book about an LA anorexic who meets a zaftig woman at her local yogurt shop and develops a crush despite, or because of, the zaftig encouraging her to eat.

Melissa had spoken about this phenomenon before: her lust for the zaftig female figure despite her own need to be rail thin. It resonated, resonates. I’ve been diagnosed with anorexia and tend to be attracted to curvier women. I didn't really realize what was happening until Broder articulated it in her essay collection, So Sad Today. She wrote that given her own dysmorphic rigidity, there is something very sexy in a woman who lets herself eat. It's erotic.

In Milk Fed she wrote a whole novel about it, and I ate it up like Domino's cheesy bread.

Milk Fed’s protagonist, Rachel, is a comic who works at a talent management agency to pay the bills. She performs standup weekly, but most of her energy goes into calorie counting. It’s a life I understand well. When you're chronically underfed, food overtakes all of your mental energy. You don't have the bandwidth to think about other, heavier things, like what you want to do with your life, the fact that you're going to die, or whether or not you're a lesbian.

Before meeting Miriam, the yogurt-shop zaftig, Rachel fantasizes about an older woman in her office. In the fantasies, the woman alternates between being a mother figure and a romantic one. Ultimately, Rachel wants the love of a woman who lets her be fully herself instead of encouraging her to shrink. She wants to be nurtured and, well, milk fed.

Anna Dorn: You originally published poetry, then personal essays with So Sad Today and your Vice column, and now it seems you’re on a novel kick with The Pisces and Milk Fed. Can you talk a little bit about your recent trend towards novel-writing?

Melissa Broder: It happened super organically. Poetry I used to write on the subway. I enjoy writing in places where I’m not supposed to be writing. And when I moved to Los Angeles, I started dictating in my car. I couldn’t type and drive; like on the 405, I wasn’t writing poems. So my language became more conversational. And that’s how the essays for So Sad Today were born. It just morphed by itself. The landscape and the physical living informed the writing.

Do you have a good sense of when your writing is working?

Yes, over time. As loose as I like my first drafts of prose to be, I go back and hone every line the way I do with a poem. And multiple times. It’s such an endeavor. Most lines get rewritten. And I’ve never worked so hard on anything as I’ve worked on Milk Fed. I think it was Nabokov who was like, “torture your sentences or torture your reader.” I’ve found that for myself to be true. It’s gotta be polished like a diamond.

That makes sense because your work is very easy to read and I know that’s not easy to do.

Right, because you have to work on the delivery system. In my first draft I’m delivering it to myself and to God or whatever. I’m just trying to be a channel. Then it becomes more about rhythm. I listen for the music the way I do with a poem and I’ll know when it’s not on. I’ll know when something’s not there because every time I read it, it sticks out. Over time, when nothing sticks out to me anymore, that’s when I know it’s as done as it can be.

I read Milk Fed in two days and I never do that. Normally I just read because I feel like I should be reading and it’s a drag. But this was fun.

I’m so glad it was a pleasurable experience.

I feel like Milk Fed is the novelization of this passage from So Sad Today:

It’s funny, because I hold myself to a completely different standard than I do others. Like, I really love a zaftig female body. The women I am most sexually attracted to are considered obese by today’s (and yesterday’s) standards. I don’t watch a lot of porn, but a typical search term for me is “fat lesbians.” That is a beautiful fantasy. To be accepted and embraced and adored as your biggest self, the most you. That, to me, is freedom. The ultimate letting go. It’s sexy as fuck. It really turns me on. And it’s a freedom I cannot allow myself, for whatever reason. In terms of my own body, I feel safest at a place of very thin.

Yes. Rachel could say that.

What made you decide to novelize this phenomenon?

The story of Miriam and Rachel is a story I’ve always wanted to tell, through a Jewish lens. When I was 19 or 20, I wrote this horrifically bad short story about a woman who has an eating disorder who falls in love with a woman who is incredibly voluptuous. It’s probably the reason I wrote poetry for the next ten years. But that story, the interplay of hunger and sexual appetite, and how what we fear for ourselves is often what we’re attracted to in others, has been something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. And I guess it just bubbled up a couple of years ago.

I LOL’d when Rachel is reminiscing about an ex-boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it.” This resonated. When you’re anorexic, food takes up all of your mental energy. You become passive as hell. You also aren’t very in touch with your desire. What is it about Miriam that plucks Rachel from her anorexic haze?

Miriam stems from this horrible character I wrote when I was 20—Gaia. I named her Gaia, like Earth Mother. It was really bad. But Miriam is the embodiment of the fantasy of that freedom of food and also a feeling of warmth and acceptance and embrace. Miriam is free in a way that Rachel is not free. Rachel thinks Miriam is totally free. But, of course, no one is totally free. So Rachel comes to realize, she’s only free in the way that I’m not free. There are other ways she is limited too. She’s human!

I have to ask you about the sex scenes. They’re HOT. And abject enough to avoid being corny. How did you do that?

I write to turn myself on first and foremost. And then I do a lot of editing.

Can you talk a little bit about how Rachel’s mommy issues play into her relationship with Miriam?

It’s hard for Rachel to give herself permission to feel pleasure. It’s through our early relationships that we figure out: am I worthy of pleasure? I think Rachel is looking to be mommied and she’s looking for mommies in the world. And she has sexualized that. Rachel’s fantasy is to be loved unconditionally and for someone to say: you must have pleasure! So she can be like: I am the innocent one! She wants a woman to delight in her having pleasure the way a mother would on a maternal level. But for Rachel, it’s sexual because all these things are sort of mixed up. Sexual pleasure is another thing she can’t let go and experience. At first, Miriam has somewhat of a mommy role because she’s feeding Rachel and encouraging her to have pleasure. And that’s very scary and hot for Rachel.

While Rachel’s fantasy mom is very nurturing, like, “you’re doing amazing sweetie,” her actual mother is sort of the opposite in terms of enforcing Rachel’s internal negative self-talk.

I would say her mom installed the buttons. It was also Rachel’s interpretation of her mother’s message. But now Rachel’s like, at what age do I stop blaming my mother and see this is actually mine now?

At one point in Milk Fed Rachel reflects on an earlier, more serious version of her anorexia: “But I was freezing all the time. I lived in the bathtub. A downy fur grew on my body. My period stopped. At night I dreamt of wild buffets. My hip bones chafed against my bed. At school there were whispers.”

In the period the book takes place, Rachel is healthier. She’s functioning enough to have a job and she bleeds every month, but most of her thoughts are dedicated to calorie-counting. I feel like a lot of anorexics take this path from dangerously thin to physically healthy but still obsessive. Can you talk a little bit about Rachel’s version of high-functioning anorexia?

Rachel, I would say, has gone from having an eating disorder to being a disordered eater. She’s like, I know I’m not normal, I’ve got these rituals, but how well do I need to be? It’s the big question of recovery. With the self-care industrial complex—and the Gooping and the healing—there’s this idea that there’s this place we arrive at, like we reach some state of enlightenment or wholeness. But even when we reach the best place we’ve been with food, that can always backslide. It’s like a working relationship because we have to eat to stay alive. And like all relationships, it changes. The question with Rachel is, what does it mean to be well? Her nutritionist is happy, she gets her period, people are off her back, but she still has this whole secret life defined by food. And maybe it is up to every person to decide for themselves; what is our breaking point? How much suffering is too much suffering and how much suffering is acceptable? Recovery isn’t about becoming a saint. And it’s not a straight line, nor is it a destination.

Rachel is a standup comedian. Your Twitter is very funny. I was wondering if you’ve ever thought about doing comedy, and what it was like to inhabit this comedian protagonist?

I had to rewrite the comedy parts so many times because they kept being the least funny parts of the book. They were just shit. And I was like, why did I even do this? Occasionally I’ll have a dream where I’m doing comedy or a poetry reading and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to say—like there’s a paper but I can’t see it or I’ve lost my ability to read—and I just start making shit up. And it typically goes better with comedy.

What about in your waking life?

I have no desire to stand on a stage. I mean, I’m a ham; I like making people laugh. But I don’t know if I need to be physically embodied. I can be funny. But do I need to stand on a stage to do it? Absolutely not. Better to be heard but not seen. I’m a writer. I wanna be alone!

There’s a joke about how people on the East Coast always know about California weather before we do. That resonated. My mom is always like, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “Why?” And she’s like, “The earthquake!” And I’m like, “I had no idea.”

A hundred percent. There was a huge fire right by my street a few years ago. My husband was out and I heard these sirens and I just figured they were going to something else. So I’m like watching porn and masturbating, like I finally have the house to myself. And I finish, which is no short undertaking, and I have these texts from my husband like, “YO what’s going on up there.” I go outside and all of my neighbors have evacuated. I feel like I’m always the last to know. Maybe I err a little too much on the side of not paying attention. Like, if fire trucks and sirens are going by your house for a while, maybe put down the Hitachi.

Do you tend not to pick up on what’s happening in front of your face?

I’m very internally focused. I think as writers this can happen. Some writers are very good observers of the world. But I’ve always sort of been out to lunch. Like there’s this whole other world going on and it’s inside. So it’s hard to stay focused on the outside. It’s like living in two worlds. And that’s always been the case. Like when I was in elementary school, all my report cards were like, “Where are you? Earth to Melissa!” It’s not something I chose. I didn’t choose the two-world life.

I read that you already sold the TV rights to this book. Do you imagine your work on the screen when you’re writing a novel?

Never. Nev-er. I more see it as a way to get health insurance. When we were talking about casting for The Pisces they asked, “Who do you see as Lucy?” and I was like, “My middle school librarian.”

My assumption is that you’re happy about having to do a Zoom book tour versus an actual book tour?  

Totally chill with that. I don’t love travelling. I don’t really have the “wanderlust.” 

I much prefer the Zoom events to being in a bookstore. More people show up to online stuff and people can just turn off their camera.

It’s a win-win for everyone. They don’t have to listen to anyone read literature, and I don’t have to be alone. Perfect!

Do you like going to readings?

I thought I did but then when my marriage became monogamous again I sort of lost interest. There’s no potential for sex and I’m sober, so I gotta really like the art.  

Anna Dorn is the author of Vagablonde and Bad Lawyer. She lives in Los Angeles.