Junk Talk Interview with Allen Zadoff
Allen Zadoff is the author of several acclaimed novels including FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE, winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award and a YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults and the upcoming thriller series Boy Nobody. He is a graduate of Cornell University and the Harvard University Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. His training as a super spy, however, has yet to be verified. Visit him on the web at www.allenzadoff.com.
Holly Huckeba for Junk Talk: Overeating seems to have qualities that put it in a class all its own as an obsessive compulsion. Rarely do you hear of recovering alcoholics attempting to drink in moderation. How have addicts in recovery for other things influenced your own recovery from overeating? Does it work the other way, too, where your unique insights have been able to help those suffering from other obsessions?
Allen Zadoff: Great question, but I think there’s a parallel between recovery from alcohol and overeating. Many food addicts like me discover they have alcoholic foods, substances that for whatever reason trigger a mental and physical obsession. There’s a now-infamous story in HUNGRY where I attack a giant chocolate Easter bunny in a colleague’s office, then find myself returning to that office again and again over the course of an afternoon until the bunny is demolished. Chocolate addiction meets Mission Impossible. At the time, I had no idea I was suffering from an eating disorder. Let me correct that. I was over 360 pounds, so I was clearly suffering from something. But I wasn’t yet in recovery and I had no understanding of the addictive cycle. Looking back on my Easter debacle, I see that one bite of chocolate triggered a physical reaction that caused me to crave more along with a mental obsession that forced me back to eat it again until I was sick.
I found later that if I abstained from certain trigger foods, alcoholic foods and behaviors that triggered the cycle, I was free from them. My alcoholic friends tell me that if they don’t pick up the first drink, they don’t get drunk. And if I don’t pick up the first bite of my alcoholic food, I don’t get food drunk. For many of us, the journey towards eating moderately begins with getting sober from alcoholic foods and behaviors.
The big difference is that I still have to eat. I have to find a new healthy relationship with food—food as sustenance rather than as anesthetic. In this way, food recovery might be more akin to recovery from co-dependency issues or sex and love addiction. While a food addict can abstain from alcoholic foods and behaviors absolutely, they cannot abstain from eating. I’ve been very inspired by other addicts and the way they view recovery from their substances.
Junk Talk: The 90/10 model of recovery from overeating that you propose in HUNGRY is simple yet powerful (10% changing how we eat; 90% spiritual and emotional work). What does the 90% include for you, on a daily basis?
Allen Zadoff: Our dieting culture puts enormous emphasis on food and weight, doesn’t it? So 90/10 was a way for me to share that my focus had to be elsewhere. But I think it’s important to say that it starts with the food for me. It’s just that once I put down the substance, I realized the substance was never the problem. I think a lot of addicts can relate to this. Life is the problem. Or rather, my reaction to life is the problem. It’s the reaction that causes me to need something to soothe myself.
So the 90% is about working on myself so I can find a way to live more comfortably in the world. These days that looks like twenty minutes of meditation twice a day, prayer, therapy, working with fellow overeaters, reporting my food and behavior to someone who knows me and isn’t afraid to call me on it, reading spiritual literature, doing service in my community.
It’s always changing. And by the way, I do it all imperfectly. I watch a lot of bad TV, too.
Junk Talk: Food addiction can certainly benefit from some PR to override the public and media’s cynicism that it is somehow a moral failure. Do you see HUNGRY as part of that PR? Do you feel the need to educate the public or are you strictly speaking to overeaters in HUNGRY?
Allen Zadoff: I feel no need to educate. I’m just trying to share my experience in the hope it might be helpful to anyone who struggles with food, weight, and his/her body. As a side note, one of the greatest letters I received from a HUNGRY reader was someone who said, “I gave your book to my husband, and for the first time in our ten year marriage, he said he understands who I am and what I’ve gone through.” That was really gratifying to me, the idea that friends and family of people with food issues could gain some insight by reading the book.
Junk Talk: Your gratitude for overeating may come as a surprise to some readers. Tell JUNK readers more about how gratitude works for you.
Allen Zadoff: It’s a great irony that the thing that almost killed me ended up saving my life and opening my eyes. There’s a lot to hate about the years I spent overeating. As my body got bigger, my life got smaller until there was almost no life to speak of. On the other hand, food kept me sane and comforted me during a troubled adolescence and young adulthood. It worked until it stopped working, until the cure became the poison.
Eventually my total collapse around overeating opened the door to a new life for me—a life of community, spirituality, and emotional growth. I don’t think addiction is the only way to get a new life. But in my case, I ran out of options at 28 years old, and I had to change or die. Today I’m grateful for that.
Junk Talk: Where do you think HUNGRY fits in the literature: Self Help? Memoir? Diet book? Would a mere problem eater benefit at all from reading your book?
Allen Zadoff: I like to think of it as a funny memoir with a serious message. I hear from many problem eaters who write to say, “I don’t have it exactly like you had it, but a lot of what you said made me think, and some of the techniques you describe in the book are helping me.”
Junk Talk: You’ve written an award-winning young adult novel, FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE, about a fat kid in high school. How much, if any, of this story is based on your own experience in high school? Do readers often ask you this question? Do you think young adult readers expect more transparency and honesty from authors than adult readers?
Allen Zadoff: I’ve written three funny young adult novels now, but I’ve got a new dark thriller series starting next year called BOY NOBODY. An exciting departure for me.
About young adult readers, I think they have a great sniff test. If you lie, you lose them. Being authentic emotionally is very important in young adult literature, but that’s not the same thing as being factual. My book FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE is based on how it felt for me to be big as a teenager. For example, seeing the world based on the size of the chairs. I wouldn’t go to restaurants with booths because I might not fit. I avoided plastic and wicker because they were flimsy and I could break them. In my experience, there are not a lot of 15-year-olds obsessed with wicker. I don’t think you can fake a detail like that. It comes directly from experience. Those are the kinds of things you’ll find in my novels.
Junk Talk: You’ve got a splendid sense of humor, and laughter definitely helps to deliver the painful messages in both your fiction (FOOD, GIRLS) and non-fiction (HUNGRY). FOOD, GIRLS won the Sid Fleischman Award for humor, and HUNGRY is #3 on the Amazon non-fiction e-book list, so obviously plenty of readers enjoy your sense of humor. Do you ever get feedback that your self-deprecating humor hurts or offends some of your readers? If so, how do you respond?
Allen Zadoff: Most people find it refreshing. I try to approach very serious topics with humor and perspective, but it’s humor born out of a lot of pain. I was 325 pounds by the time I was a junior in high school. That didn’t exactly make me hot stuff on the dating circuit. But my humor isn’t for everyone. And if it offends, I’m probably not the writer for you. I encourage people to find a writer whose voice speaks to them.
Junk Talk: You quote from WINNIE-THE-POOH throughout HUNGRY, which, in addition to your humorous style, brings levity to a tough subject. But JUNK editors want to know: Is Pooh Bear really a food addict or is Milne’s lovable creation a caricature of an overeater? Or is more going on here?
Allen Zadoff: I quote only because representatives of the Milne estate were kind enough to allow me to do so! I don’t know about Pooh, but I fear his food issues are a bit more serious than he lets on. Here’s the difference between us. I got to the point where food and weight were making me miserable 100% of the time, and Pooh seems to delight in his eating adventures. Based on that standard, he’s just fine. Cartman, on the other hand—That dude has a problem. We should talk.
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