Amy Spalding on Writing a Fat Character Who’s Not the “Before”

Amy Spalding on Writing a Fat Character Who’s Not the “Before”

Readers looking for a fun and summery YA rom-com won’t want to miss The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles). The novel follows Abby Ives, a gay girl and plus-sized fashion blogger on a mission to find the best burger in LA and to score a paid position at the boutique where she interns. Along the way, she falls in love with another girl interning at the shop, photographer Jordi Perez. Here author Amy Spalding discusses her connection to Abby and the importance of fat narratives that don’t treat characters like before and after photos.

Like most writers, I have a constant list of book ideas taking up space in my brain. Some ideas are very specific, but most are along the lines of “a romantic comedy where it’s not the person you expect!” or “something with a restaurant??” One of those partial ideas was “a book about a fat girl.”

When I actually started to write the book that would become The Summer of Jordi Perez, I got nervous. It’s one thing to figuratively jot an idea down in your figurative notepad; it’s another entirely to actually, you know, write that thing. I always worry the beautiful thing in my head will never come out right on paper (well, in Microsoft Word, but the sentiment remains).

But this time, there was something else too. I was actually going to write about being fat. Even though Abby’s story was not mine, and Abby is not me, I knew that it still meant putting some real parts of me into the story. And that scared me.

I admire writers who get down into the ugly stuff, who pull out deep truths and make themselves vulnerable on the page. When I read essays that seem almost dripping and raw, I marvel at the seeming ease others have for dumping out their darkest, hardest, softest thoughts for anyone to peruse. That isn’t me. I write rom-coms! I thought I was safe from hard, ugly truths!

But I wanted to do this character justice, so I knew I had to dig into what I felt, and how that might translate to this bold, fun, daydreaming girl whose story I was telling. And when it came to our bodies and how we felt, Abby and I had lots in common.

I was watching TV a few years back and smiled in recognition when a girl who looked a lot like me was on my screen. She looked happy and carefree, not like the fools who were the brunt of jokes in lazy comedies. Representation can feel so vital. But then the voiceover started and I realized that the girl who looked like me was there only as the “before.” This was not an ad about a girl who looked like me. That girl was the worst case scenario of this commercial. That girl was only there to tell viewers they could lose weight and be better.

It’s hard not to take it to heart. I’m often either not represented at all, a fool, or the before. Fat people don’t get to be happy and carefree, as far as a lot of pop culture is concerned. Fat is your prologue. Once you lose weight, you can earn your story and therefore your happy ending. Finally you can be the after.

But lots of people don’t lose weight! Or never enough to be thin. What does that mean? That they’re living in perpetual prologue? I just knew that wasn’t true, no matter what pop culture continued to tell me. I had a job I loved, and a life crowded with friends cooler than I ever thought I could make. I’m literally living out my childhood dream of writing books. This is no lingering prologue! I have amazing fat friends married to amazing people, writing bestsellers, parenting really cool kids. All of them seem like afters, and I was not going to write about a fat girl who was anything but.

Abby doesn’t live in an altered reality where everyone’s super cool about fat people. But Abby’s personal world is full of people who love her and truly think she looks great as she is. That doesn’t mean that she’s comfortable with how the world might view her. It doesn’t mean she’s not nervous about having her body touched by the (thin) girl she’s head-over-heels for. But Abby also likes what she sees in her mirror, and when she joins a project with her new friend Jax to eat burgers across Los Angeles, she doesn’t berate herself for consuming cheeseburgers and fries. She enjoys them.

When the book ends, she’s the same size as when it started. And Abby still found her after. Just like lots of us.

Amy Spalding has a BA in advertising and marketing communications from Webster University, and an MA in media studies from the New School. Amy studied longform improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. By day, she manages the digital media team for an indie film advertising agency. By later day and night, Amy writes, performs, and pets as many cats as she can. She grew up in St. Louis, but now lives in the better weather of Los Angeles.

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