Sarai Walker, author of ‘Dietland,’ on her book and the new AMC series

The prescient novel of empowerment and feminism gets a TV show: We've got the inside scoop
By Esther D. Kustanowitz  Published on 06/04/2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
Joy Nash as Plum Kettle in 'Dietland'; author Sarai Walker. Patrick Harbron/AMC; Marion Ettlinger

Dietland is part feminist revenge fantasy, part anti-dieting screed, part empowerment narrative. There’s no love interest for the female lead, which practically seems to have become an obligation of most fiction centering on women. Instead, there’s a focus on women finding their own power, individually and as a group.

The book has now been turned into a TV series for AMC (helmed by Buffy‘s Marti Noxon); and in advance of the series premiere on June 4, Grok Nation had the chance to sit down with Dietland author Sarai Walker.

If you are first “visiting” the world of Dietland through the series (featuring Joy Nash as protagonist Plum Kettle and Julianna Margulies as glamorous senior media executive Kitty Montgomery) you may think that the idea grew out of the Women’s March, or that the revenge fantasy elements–punishing men who violate and destroy women–are a reaction to the explosion of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct allegations coming out against men in Hollywood and all industries. 

Dietland the book actually predated a lot of this energy, almost prophetically so; in both the novel and the series, the call to resistance, to smashing the patriarchy and starting a revolution is loud, and provides a fictional overlay on today’s very real political moment. Here’s what Sarai Walker had to say about how all of this came about… 

GROK NATION: How did the idea for Dietland come to you? And have you been surprised–as close readers of the book may also have been–about how prescient the book was in predicting various aspects of our world?
SARAI WALKER: When the book was published, I saw comments that Dietland was written in response to Gamergate [a campaign of harassment and sexism in video game culture], which made me laugh. People don’t really understand how long it takes to write a novel and how long the publishing process takes. Dietland was written before Gamergate, the Women’s March, #MeToo and all of that. It’s a cliché, but as a writer I wrote the kind of novel I wanted to read. As I’ve said in previous interviews, I was inspired by the film Fight Club, with its punk, defiant, angry spirit. I thought more stories like that needed to exist for women, so I wrote my own.

Fight Club is about a man who has a lot of suppressed anger, which he directs inward, but as the story moves along, he begins to turn his anger outward toward society. (A lot of what he does with his anger is misguided, but that’s a discussion for another time.) This made me think about the ways that women are angry, and how we turn that anger inward, oftentimes directed at our bodies, which is my main focus. Women’s anger often manifests as self-hatred. I wanted to write about what women’s anger would look like if it were unleashed and directed outward at society, toward the real causes of our rage.

Now, three years after the book was published, and even more years after it was actually written, we see this explosion of women’s anger in American culture, which was precipitated in many ways by Trump’s election. That event unleashed something powerful, but the anger has always been there, it just hasn’t been expressed in this way before, in part because there hasn’t always been an outlet for it.

When people ask if I consider myself to be a soothsayer, I respond that I don’t, I’ve just been paying attention for a long time. Being fat, and living in a body that is hated, gives me a certain lens on the world that reveals a lot.

Can you speak to the “revenge fantasy” elements of the book? Was there any concern about how “Jennifer,” as a growing vigilante force of righting wrongs against women, might be misunderstood?
I wanted to explore different modes of resistance in the novel. Plum engages in resistance on a personal level, as she negotiates her relationship with her fat body and her life in a culture of misogyny and fat-hatred. With the women of Calliope House, we see women engaging in more traditional forms of feminist activism — organizing, political protest and that sort of thing. And with the guerilla group “Jennifer,” we see violent resistance. There are many ways to fight back.

With “Jennifer,” I wanted to explore whether violence could ever be used to eradicate misogyny. We often hear the term “the war on women.” Well, what if women fought back with literal violence? I think that’s worth exploring in literature, and now on television, and audiences can decide for themselves whether they think this could ever work.

I’m sure some people will be outraged by the violence in the TV series, which is mostly aimed at men, but here is what I’ll say to that: Countless books, television shows, movies, songs and video games feature violence against women, which is often graphic, celebratory and titillating. That’s political violence, but we don’t often talk about it like that. Until we address that in a significant way in this society, I don’t feel I have to defend myself in regards to the violence in Dietland.  

Dietland author Sarai Walker with Joy Nash
Joy Nash, who plays Plum in ‘Dietland,’ and author Sarai Walker

Can you tell us a bit about the process of how Dietland became a TV show?
The thought of Dietland as a TV series had never occurred to me. I had always dreamed it would become a movie, but I doubted any studio would be brave enough to make a fat-positive movie with a 300-pound heroine. (And I think I’m still right about that.) Then around the time of the book’s publication, in May 2015, we started to receive interest from multiple TV producers. This kind of blew my mind, but once I started talking to these producers, who were all women, I saw that it made sense. TV is friendlier to women, and thanks in part to all the new streaming services, there is an increase in demand for content, and more of a willingness to produce diverse shows that are edgy and feminist. TV also gives us more time to explore the story in a deeper and richer way.

How will the reception for the series be different than the reception for the book was?
Television reaches many more people than books (sadly!), so this is definitely next level in terms of attention. I honestly don’t know what to expect. My guess is that the response to the TV series will be similar to the response to the book, but on a much bigger and more high-profile scale. At the heart of Dietland is a fat woman who learns to love her body, and nothing enrages the general public more than that. So there might be a lot of angry people out there, and I kind of love that. But on the flip side, I think there are a lot of people who are eager to see stories about diverse characters, and to see stories that engage with what is happening in our culture right now in a way that’s entertaining, daring and smart.

Converting Plum’s story to a visual and episodic medium must have presented some challenges. How will the show be different from the book? And how involved have you been on this journey?
Well, it’s my novel, but it’s Marti Noxon’s TV show. So the challenge of converting it to a visual medium was hers. Much of the novel is internal, meaning that Plum’s most important changes happen internally. She experiences a different mindset and begins to see the world differently. Novels, of course, have the power to get into a character’s mind in a way that no other medium can, and Dietland is very much driven by Plum’s interior struggles, despite all the action that occurs. I wondered how Marti could convert that type of story into a visual medium, which to me seemed impossible, but when I read the pilot she wrote, it blew me away. I don’t know how she did it, but she completely made Plum’s interiority come to life onscreen. Once I read the pilot, I knew that Dietland would make a great TV series.

The series is quite faithful to the book, but there are of course differences. The novel has very few male characters, but there are some significant male characters in the series, including a police detective played by Adam Rothenberg. In the book, the magazine editor that Julianna Margulies plays has a small but key role, whereas in the series she is a major character.

One interesting difference is that most of the women cast in the show are older than their counterparts in the novel, in some cases significantly so, which is not something you’d normally expect to see happen.

What was it like for you to hand over control of your creation to someone else?
When Dietland was published, I was adamant that I would never sign over the rights to the book, not for any amount of money, unless I felt the book and its message would be honored. But in reality, once you sign over the rights, you really have no control over what happens. So it’s a leap of faith, and there’s a lot of trust involved. I felt confident Marti would do right by the book, and she has, and I feel relieved and grateful for that. Anyone who has read Dietland can see that it requires just the right type of person to translate it to the screen, particularly in an industry that doesn’t embrace body diversity or feminism. It could have all gone disastrously wrong!

Julianna Margulies as Kitty Montgomery and Joy Nash as Plum Kettle in 'Dietland'
Julianna Margulies as Kitty Montgomery and Joy Nash as Plum Kettle in ‘Dietland’ Patrick Harbron/AMC

You’re also a member of the writing staff–what was that like, and how was it different from writing a novel?
Being in a writers’ room and writing a novel could not be more different, even though at the end of the day they’re both about storytelling. Not only is writing a novel a solitary endeavor, but you have complete control over what you write. It’s your vision, your voice. In a writers’ room, it’s a collaborative process, with many different people involved. I’d argue that novel writing is more egocentric. Readers connect with the author of a novel in an intimate way, and novelists can receive a lot of attention. Whereas with TV, most viewers don’t know who the writers are, and they connect more with the actors. TV is definitely a medium that is friendly to writers, but writers are mostly behind-the-scenes.

Marti asked me if I would be interested in joining her and the writing staff in the writers’ room. I wasn’t expecting this offer, but I jumped at the chance to see how a TV show gets made. I got to contribute and help shape the series, but ultimately it’s not my show, and Marti is the one who makes the decisions.

Which role were you most excited or nervous about casting?
I was definitely most nervous about who would play Plum. Before the book was optioned, I had nightmares about this, and imagined Plum being played by a thin actress in a fat suit, like in the horrific movie Shallow Hal or the equally awful “Fat Monica” from Friends. Once I started talking to producers who were interested in adapting the book, I was assured this wouldn’t happen, but then I worried Plum might be played by a woman who is merely “Hollywood fat,” someone the size of Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer. There were so many ways this could have gone wrong, so I’m glad that Joy Nash, an actual fat woman, ended up being cast in the role. Not only is Joy fat, but she is fat and proud, and she is well-known among fat activists for her “Fat Rant” videos that went viral many years ago.  

One of the things I loved about this book is that it didn’t rely on the common trope of “woman loses weight and finds a man and lives happily ever after.” Was that choice met with any resistance during the editorial process? And in the television series, because action has to carry out over much longer timeframe and because a network is involved, are relationships part of the territory that Plum will explore?
I never had any resistance from my publisher about anything in Dietland. People are always surprised by this, but it’s true. I was very lucky.

Relationships will become part of Plum’s life in the TV series, though not really in the first season. It’s one of the downsides for me in terms of Dietland becoming a TV series. I liked that in the novel, she didn’t have a relationship, and that the relationship she needed to work on was her relationship with herself. Readers were also left wondering about her sexual orientation. I think this was powerful and subversive in a so-called “woman’s novel.” But in an ongoing TV series, I think it would be impossible to sustain that, given the longer time period and given the nature of television. I’m not saying that Plum exploring relationships in the series is a bad thing, since relationships are part of life, but it’s not something I was interested in doing.

What do you hope the average man or woman learns from Dietland the book or from Dietland the series?
Despite how common fatness is in America today, fat people are constantly dehumanized in our popular culture, when we appear at all. When I wrote the book, I wanted to write in an honest way about what it’s like to be a fat woman, but I also wanted to write a narrative of fat positivity and liberation, since we rarely see that. The TV series will bring that story to many more people, and I think that’s really radical. I hope that as a culture, we grow more comfortable seeing larger and more diverse bodies on our screens. We desperately need that shift to happen in order to change our cultural ideas about the body, and I hope Dietland can be part of that change.

Dietland premieres on Monday, June 4 on AMC.

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