Lara Williams on Supper Club,
feasting and taking up space
Roberta takes up cooking to avoid succumbing to loneliness at university; the start passion that later develops into her co-hosting secret dinner parties filled with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, and petty crimes with a group of defiant young women, known as the Supper Club. Hungry women gather to gorge themselves, to free themselves. And as their bodies expand, so do their desires.
Winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2019 and best books of the year in Vogue, Time, Vulture, and more, Lara William’s debut is subversive and radical, exploring themes of identity, sexuality, friendship, and a woman’s relationship with her body. Supper Club ricochets from past to present, pausing intermittently to offer an indulgent and detailed recipe to both celebrate and politicise food, reworking recipes as a tool to reflect on the protagonist’s life, and on life in general.
I spoke with Lara on the phone to find out more about what it means for women to ‘take up space’, her writing style, and her time spent in lockdown.
Supper Club manoeuvres between past and present, intermittently punctured by sensual accounts of food preparation – like an indulgent M&S commercial airing during an intense TV series. Where did the inspiration to incorporate recipes into the narrative come from?
It wasn’t something I initially planned when I set out to write Supper Club. The first passage I wrote was the one about caramelising onions because I felt at a point where I wanted to slow the narrative down a little bit, and I particularly wanted to write about the embodied experience of following a recipe; this slow, laborious, meticulous thing to do.
Then I had the idea to punctuate different moments with various representations of cooking that resonated with a particular moment in the book. For instance, later there is a description of Thai Red Curry which is quite a simple recipe, and quite an anglicised recipe, which comes at a point when Roberta is settling down with her boyfriend. It seemed a kind of self-satisfied weekday recipe that I hoped performed Roberta’s ordinariness.
Though I don’t know so much that the passages are recipes, rather a kind of methodical representation of following a recipe. One of the things I was thinking about is how we inhabit our bodies in a less cerebral way, particularly for Roberta who is a character who spends a lot of time in her head, and so I wanted to explore the different ways that she could be within her own body. Cooking, and following a recipe, is a way that I can feel embodied and slowed down.
Are any of the dishes personal to you?
Some of them. I had to give Roberta slightly more complicated things to cook, so I had one of my friends – who is an amazing cook – sort of vet the passages, sending them like ‘Does this make food?’
Feeding is one of our earliest experiences of physical nurturing, particularly between mother and child – and for many of us, food denotes feeling from a very young age. Your novel speaks directly to this complex relationship between food, mind and body. Why was this so important for you to address?
When writing Supper Club, I thought a lot about the messaging and the language that women in particular receive when it comes to eating and our sexual appetites. It feels more coded now, and less appropriate to talk about things like weight loss, calorie restriction and portion control; these words have sort of been disguised and covered up with words like wellness and more lifestyle adjacent words. I was thinking about the move toward mindful eating as well, which again feels like quite a tall order if you’ve spent decades imbibing textual messaging telling you appetites are abject and wrong. I wanted to explore the way that the language around eating and food has become quite coded and really complicated by this.
The characters in Supper Club tackle a range of contemporary issues: #MeToo experiences, rape, body dysmorphia, racism. As a writer, did you feel it was your duty to address the scope of these contemporary issues from the outset? Or did you discover the themes during the writing process?
A little bit of both. One of the key themes in the novel is women taking up space and self-nurturing, and I felt there was a duty to acknowledge the different experiences. I wanted the novel to feel intersectional, and not just present womanhood as this monolithic experience.
It was important to me that we hear everyone’s story through Roberta’s voice, and so the text is written in the first person as to centre on her experience and bring in her biases – she tells the stories as she hears them, we only receive her lens, and the story is hers. I didn’t want to feel like I was appropriating stories and having Roberta as the transcriber felt like a route around that.
When an older Roberta is justifying Supper Club to her boyfriend Adnan, she says ‘It’s about existing in spaces we’re told we shouldn’t exist in, or how we behave in certain spaces that expect us to behave a certain way, to be a certain thing – and what if we don’t want to be that thing? What if we don’t want to behave in that way?’
Is this what you mean when you write about women ‘taking up space’?
I think so. In my early reading life, a lot of the texts that I was quite excited by were about transgression – things like American Psycho and Clockwork Orange – and it was only retrospectively that I found these books are wildly problematic with the use of the female body as a tool for men to free their id. I was interested in what a transgressive novel might look like from a female perspective, and the ways that we might engage with breaking behavioural codes and social deviance.
I’ve always had this strange theory that joining an improv group would help me get over shyness, embarrassing myself over and over again in front of strangers to reach a neutral point. The other idea I had was about Primal Scream Therapy. So I think that’s sort of taking up space, and the point of Supper Club: the egregiousness of how we take up space, and the way we eat and feast – the idea being to eventually meet a neutral point with that.
I think that’s really important, for us to explore a woman’s sexual identity and boundaries as you do in Supper Club. What were you hoping readers would take away from your debut?
I think to consider the different ways women can take up space. In some longer ‘recipe’ chapters, I was interested in how I, as an author, take up space on the page, with this kind of stylistic contrivance. Understanding that female appetite and female desire feed into each other and offer the same type of expression but are more repressed.
I always find it surprising to hear how many people were annoyed by Roberta. Quite a few people have said that they found her really frustrating and really irritating, which now that I think about it, I see why people find her so infuriating. The de facto response has been ‘Obviously she’s extremely irritating!’
Perhaps this ties into what your book is trying to achieve. Roberta acts like a mirror, magnifying the aspects of ourselves that we don’t like, which can make us feel quite antagonised by her.
That’s really interesting. A few people have this sense of ‘Why can’t she just try harder?’
And how much of that is the kind of language we use with ourselves. How many times have we said to ourselves ‘God! I wish you had just acted on that’ – for us to be more, or do more?
Globally, we face extremely challenging circumstances with the current pandemic, forcing us inside our homes with diminished interaction with the outside world. While Supper Club predates this, it calls upon those moments of loneliness and isolation that Roberta experiences in her shared university accommodation. What do you think Roberta would be doing if she too were in lockdown?
It does seem quite an interesting moment in terms of thinking about our relationship and attitude towards food. There’s a lot of LARPing of ‘It’s the end of the world’ when it comes to cooking from scratch. As well, thinking particularly about the fetishization of the domestic whilst we are all stuck indoors, I feel like Roberta would be throwing herself into that quite heavily. There would be lots of performative Instagram posts.
And how about you, how have you been spending your time during lockdown?
To begin with I felt like I was having a really rich lockdown experience, which I guess is quite a common experience. I was reading loads and watching good films, walking and running. I was even having Skype German lessons and going through the house reading the classics I hadn’t yet read. But in the last few weeks that has definitely fallen apart. It feels like there are no borders in my day, it’s like ‘I might get dressed today.’ I think I was quite smug in my introversion earlier on in lockdown thinking I’m made for this, I could do this forever. Recently I was thinking I’ve really hit a wall with it.
I’m editing a new novel at the moment, but it’s been quite strange writing in lockdown. Normally I would go to the library, or the café – that act of getting out of the house and treating it more as a 9-to-5 job is a very healthy practice for me. With lockdown, it’s been quite tricky writing from the dining room table every day, or from the sofa, or from bed.
What’s your new novel about?
It’s a slightly more surreal novel than Supper Club. It’s about work and family, it feels quite different to Supper Club. I’ve set myself some new rules on language and sentence structures which has made it a different writing experience.
Having previously written the short story collection Treats, how did your writing style progress from short stories to a novel? Were there any challenges?
Moving from a short story to a novel is difficult. You have so much control over a piece of short fiction and its craft elements, you can sort of get that wide-angled perspective and can read it in a single sitting. I understood the rhythms and the pace of a short story. A novel necessitates expositions and explanations, and I think that can be quite frustrating whereas it can run more smoothly with a short story. There is definitely a sense of letting go of control when it comes to writing a novel, and a hope that the longer form can tolerate more weaknesses. Maybe I just feel a need to overexplain things, but I did feel a shift going from short stories to a novel.
You are published by both independent and bigger publishers. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Moving from the small independent Freight Books to Penguin shifted my exposure. Not many people read my short story collection, so you feel like you could quietly raise your head above the parapet and then put it back down if you need to. The change in exposure was a big one, and perhaps not one I was entirely prepared for. It can make you feel more vulnerable in terms of people, and their responses to your work.
Some advice may be to not get too attached to your openings, it’s not really until you get to the end of your first draft that you really understand what you are trying to do and the characters you are trying to develop. Once you have a clearer grasp, you can retrospectively fit a lot of the beginning.
I have to finish our conversation by asking the question that is repeated throughout your novel. When it came to writing Supper Club, ‘what were you afraid of?’
I think, when it comes to writing the first draft of your novel, and especially when you shift from writing a short story to a novel, you spend so much time working on it and you don’t know if it will ever be finished. I guess that my biggest worry was that I’d get to 40,000 words or 60,000 words and wouldn’t really know where I was going with it, or how it would end…
Interview by Briony Willis.
Supper Club, Lara Williams, Penguin, 2019, 272pp, £8.99 (Paperback)
For more information and to purchase Supper Club, visit Penguin
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