Seasoned young-adult novelist Claire Hennessy sits down with Ezra Maloney to chat about her latest novel, Nothing Tastes as Good, which discusses the often taboo subject of eating disorders.
CLAIRE Hennessy is a woman of many talents. With eleven novels written by the age of thirty, she is a veteran in the art of writing young-adult fiction. Not only that but in 2009 the Dublin born author co-founded the Big Smoke Writing Factory with fellow writer Nicole Rourke, which offers creative writing workshops to aspiring writers. Hennessy also teaches in UCD, disproving the popular saying that those who cannot do, teach. Once described by The Irish Times as “Hermione Granger with a playful streak”, she certainly exceeds even this description. This is particularly true in her latest work Nothing Tastes as Good, which deals with the subject of eating disorders, while managing to remain compelling and humorous.
Nothing Tastes as Good is not Hennessy’s first foray into discussing controversial topics. Her previous novels have dealt with such issues as sexual fluidity, volatile sibling relationships and self-harm in a manner which is refreshing to see in young-adult fiction, a genre which often glosses over such matters. According to Hennessy “getting the perspective right”, is the most important aspect in writing for young people: “Teenagers can be really smart and brilliant but haven’t built up a huge amount of life experience yet. They’re often dealing with things for the first time so they’re in quite intense situations. And you have to have respect for that”.
“There is no group of humans we take less seriously, as a society, than teenage girls”
Hennessy’s respect for young readers is something which comes across strongly as she discusses her writing process. “You have to approach things from the point of view of someone who hasn’t been through it before,” she explains, “someone who hasn’t built up coping strategies for it, who hasn’t survived something like this previously. You can’t be dismissive of, or patronising towards your characters or readers”.
In describing what led her to choose eating disorders as the subject matter for her latest novel, Hennessy describes an interest in the way in which modern society and literature treats women, especially young women. She reveals that: “growing up in a culture that pressures women into being thin and always seeming perfect meant that I was drawn to stories about girls who weren’t like that. Girls who had problems, girls who were sad — basically girls who seemed to feel like I did. I’m interested in how we tell stories about certain issues such as the mentally ill girl who’s ‘cured’ when the right guy comes along!” Clearly, growing up in a world where such emphasis is placed on the appearance and size of young women had great impact on Hennessy’s writing. Nothing Tastes as Good is different from the novels Hennessy grew up with as she says, “I had read a lot of eating disorder novels where the protagonist had a turning-point in their recovery after a friend-in-hospital died, and I thought, well, great for them, pity about your friend who had to die to be a catalyst for your recovery”.
“You can’t be dismissive of, or patronising towards your characters or readers”
The characters in Hennessy’s works have been consistently better developed than the characters written about in earlier novels discussing eating disorders. Hennessy has also said that she wants her novel to be “more nuanced than the typical ‘girl has problem, problem gets fixed, the end’ – the ‘problem novel’ model of teen fiction that was so prevalent in the 1970s.” Due to the stigma of eating disorders, many fiction and non-fiction novels such as Nell’s Quilt by Susan Terris have often shown a lack of understanding for eating disorders and those who suffered from them. However in more recent years, novels such as Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls Under Pressure and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls show a much deeper understanding for the condition and the causes behind it. Hennessy seems sure to join in these ranks with her latest novel. Even the way in which she discusses eating disorders shows a level of awareness that will be fundamental in shattering the stigma that still surrounds eating disorders in our society.
Hennessy is a true figure for the cause, explaining that: “even though 10-15% of sufferers of eating disorders are male, and many older women suffer from them, we still associate eating disorders with teenage girls — and there is no group of humans we take less seriously, as a society, than teenage girls”. These powerful words, coupled with her latest novel, which may be her most compelling yet, cement Hennessy’s status as an incredibly important writer for young people of our time.