Pasadena Weekly – 02.09.06 – interviewed by Julie Riggot
In Liza Palmer's debut novel, "Conversations with the Fat Girl," the 27-year-old narrator, Maggie, describes a photograph of her as a 4-year-old girl standing at the top of a jungle gym smiling. She says, "The older I get, the more I realize that this little girl knew more about me than I do now."
That photo actually exists. It is of the author.
Over coffee at Europane, a location that appears in her Pasadena novel, Palmer said that she remembers wanting to see how high she could get on the jungle gym - and her mother told her to go for it.
"I wish I had that same freedom of flight that she gave me as a child," Palmer said. "I think I'm getting back there."
Her words were reminiscent of a famous quote from Pablo Picasso: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."
The Pasadena native wrote stories in kindergarten and elementary school, but as a teen she "shut down" and didn't even keep a journal. Years after graduating from John Muir High School, she discovered the joys of literature on her own.
The first book she read cover to cover was Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." She discovered classics by Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky and contemporary works by Joan Didion, mystery writer Michael Connelly, comic writer David Sedaris and science fiction writer Octavia Butler. She went to readings. And she fell in love with the written word.
Her decision to take some free writing workshops at Vroman's Bookstore a few years ago motivated her to write a novel and taught her everything she'd need to know to get it published.
The book actually began as a story, called "One Small Dog," about a woman being evicted from her apartment. Though the finished novel opens with this event, it ends up in deeper territory.
"I realized I was dancing around this giant can of worms of self image," said Palmer. "So, the title came to me, and I knew that if I titled the book 'Conversations with the Fat Girl' that I would be forced to open the can of worms."
In the novel, Maggie's best friend Olivia gets gastric bypass surgery to become a size 2. Since their weight had brought them together as friends, the post-op Olivia becomes Maggie's antagonist, inventing a new "skinny" history for herself and growing more and more vain and selfish until Maggie finally realizes during the planning of Olivia's wedding to a handsome surgeon that their relationship is toxic.
Along the way, Maggie gets a trainer and goes to the gym, but her problems aren't going to be solved by losing weight. Quitting her coffeehouse job for a position where she can use her master's degree in museum studies, finally recognizing that the guy she adores really does like her too - these steps in growing up and finding happiness take a change of perspective, rather than a change of body size.
It's all psychological. As Palmer pointed out, you never know what size Maggie is. That's what sets Palmer's novel apart from previous books that deal with weight issues, such as Jennifer Weiner's "Good in Bed."
"It's not about the weight; it's never about the weight. It's all about what comes with it," said Palmer. "In my eyes, she's not fat. In my eyes, she's like every woman I know, including myself. We all view ourselves 100 pounds heavier than we are, no matter what we look like.
"I was in J. Crew once, and I was trying on clothes," continued Palmer, "and there were these three women in a stall next to me, and they were just going at it. I thought, 'Oh, these are my people; these are larger girls.' I walk out and they are like three supermodels. And the stuff they were telling themselves? Oh, my God. On a bad day I don't tell that to myself. That's when it became real. I know especially in LA you get girls talking about their bodies, and, you're like, it's just simply not real, what you're saying and what you're seeing is just simply a hoax. It's like a funhouse; some mirror is showing you something that you want to see that's simply not there."
For Palmer, writing the book became an exorcism of her own hang-ups with weight.
"The last few weeks, I was talking to somebody, saying that I kind of felt lost because of the exorcism," explained Palmer. "Without being the fat girl, I don't know who I am. It's like telling Kobe Bryant he can't be a basketball player any more. This has been my identity forever. ... It's like a hobby; my hobby was hating myself. And so without it, I don't know who the hell I am anymore, so somebody told me to act on every impulse I ever had. It's been amazing ...."
Palmer's novel reads like a conversation with a friend; it runs the gamut from funny to touching. Despite its psychological insights and social commentary, it has been labeled "chick lit."
"If it's a young woman writing about young women, you're gonna get a pat on the head and a pink cover," said Palmer. "And you're going to get dissed mostly by other women. I've never been dissed so much by other women: 'When are you gonna write real books?' ... It's mean girls, the same playground antics."
Regardless of that nitpicking, Palmer is riding the success of the book and living the literary life. She doesn't have a "day job" as an administrative assistant or teacher's assistant anymore, there's talk of a movie or TV series and she's at work on her second novel, exploring the question: When is it time to grow up?
Palmer's story seems to illustrate quite nicely the notion that childlike freedom and creativity can be regained. With her first novel, Palmer knew she had found - or come back to - her calling.
"I think you always know," she said. "When I write, I'm the perfect me. It's weird. It's the most perfect I've ever felt in my entire life when I'm in it. I've never felt so weightless or cloudlike. It's amazing."