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December 5, 2014

Books and All: Camille DeAngelis on Books, Food and Identity

Posted by emily

Ironically, Camille DeAngelis decided to go vegan right before she started writing her latest novel, BONES & ALL, about a young woman who doesn’t just break hearts…she devours them. There are more parallels between Camille and her protagonist, Maron, than you might think: In her Holiday Author Blog, Camille thinks about how our choices --- what we eat and otherwise --- affect our identities. She also considers what it means to hunger for books and how a book can satisfy its reader in ways that food cannot. So no matter what you’re eating this holiday, remember that nothing fills you up quite like a good book.

The novelist’s foremost occupational hazard is that no matter how weird or fanciful your plotline, readers will always speculate about the extent to which you’ve drawn from your own life experience. My forthcoming third novel, BONES & ALL, features a teenaged protagonist who devours (yes, literally gobbles up) pretty much any boy unfortunate enough to find her attractive, so I’m anticipating some rather lively Q&A sessions on the publicity tour.

That said, there’s no sense denying that I put little pieces of myself into every story I come up with. I was a bit of a loner growing up, so I had only to amplify my own remembered sense of isolation to come up with a character who seriously can’t connect with her peers. I’m a voracious knitter, and my narrator spends the entire novel struggling to teach herself how to cast on. Maren's mother gives her a Barnes & Noble gift card for her 16th birthday, which she uses on a Lord of the Rings three-in-one volume; and that delighted bookstore-as-candy-store mentality is a value I inherited from my mom’s side of the family.

The books-like-candy simile doesn’t ultimately work, though, does it? Books aren’t treats; they’re too necessary. The day after Maren’s mom takes her to Barnes & Noble, she wakes up to find herself alone in their sparsely furnished apartment. As she prepares to travel on her own for the first time, Maren packs more books than clothing in her rucksack, even though she’s already read most of them. She needs every fairy tale she can find about trolls and ghouls and giants; these stories let her feel a little less alone, sure, but they also allow her the space to imagine more livable ways of seeing herself and the world around her. Over the course of the novel, Maren’s literary horizons expand from Narnia and THE BFG to folklore and anthropology textbooks in a college library, and it’s those stories of night-monsters in the ruins of Babylon that enable her to craft a new narrative to live by. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we’re all doing this as we read good fiction.

Of course, we might be recrafting our identities to an even greater extent when we write. Early readers of BONES & ALL are fascinated by the fact that I started working on this book a few months after I went vegan, and you might say I’m drawing from my own experience in a more oblique sense: a growing concern with the problem of flesh eating in our culture. My parents aren’t vegetarian, but they still like to take credit for the diet my sister and I have adopted; they were the ones, after all, who signed us up for library cards, took us on regular Saturday afternoon outings to Borders and Barnes & Noble, and left even more books for us under the Christmas tree. Literacy leads to curiosity, which in turn provides tools for broadening and shaping identity. With each story you consume, with every question you don’t leave unanswered, you’re essentially asking yourself: Who do I want to be? That can be a scary question, sure, but it’s the very best reason to keep reading.