A galley of Melissa Broder’s latest novel, Milk Fed (Scribner), arrived in my mailbox in the early days of the pandemic. These were days when my mind was thoughtless and blank. I picked up books only to watch all of the letters slide down the pages, my brain unable to hold on to any meaning. Futile attempts at concentration are not new to those of us who have suffered major grief or loss.
In the mailroom, I ripped open the brown envelope. A clementine glow emanated from within. The book’s cover—fluorescent orange and centered with a hot pink areola—cracked through the gray world around me. From the first page, I was ravenous. Words stopped dripping down the page as I turned one after the other, unable to stop reading. Suddenly, my brain worked again.
Here’s why: Milk Fed is one of those intelligent, witty, and doomed books you have to devour. Milk Fed’s narrator, Rachel, is a lapsed-Jewish woman obsessively counting calories as she navigates a low-ranking job at an agency in Los Angeles. Among her vices: cigarettes, portioned diet foods, nicotine gum, and frozen yogurt. At her favorite frozen yogurt shop, she meets Miriam, a zaftig woman who feeds her luscious concoctions that blow up Rachel’s diet and, later, her entire understanding of sexuality, spirituality, and life as a passion emerges between them.
Broder has already lured readers in with her debut novel The Pisces, an essay collection So Sad Today, and four books of poetry. And here, she evolves Milk Fed into an electric world that is the opposite of quarantine—bright, blazing, erotic. And it couldn’t come at a better moment, a time in which we are all starved for touch.
I spoke with Broder over the phone from her home in Los Angeles about Milk Fed, quarantine, writing, and limerence.
—Sarah Rose Etter
Sarah Rose Etter I know it’s been a hard time for everyone. I have to ask how you’ve been doing in quarantine. How are you coping?
Melissa Broder Well, honestly, I spend a lot of time in a white terrycloth robe. I have two of them, actually. A lot of time in the robe. I live in the canyon, and I have my dog, Pickle, who thinks he’s a hunter. This year was very eventful for us in terms of the hunt. He racked up eight rodent deaths, so that’s been very big. I chew nicotine gum, I write, I read.
SRE What are you reading?
MB Do you want a list?
SRE Of course. I love a list.
MB We love a fucking list!
SRE Everyone loves a fucking list!
MB Give them a list! I’ve read so much this year. I love Charco, which is a small press in the UK. They do translations. I’ve been reading two books by Ariana Harwicz, Die My Love and Feebleminded. I also loved Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo. I’m going very hard into Marguerite Duras and Colette, too. Like, Can’t stop, won’t stop.
SRE I’ve been going hard with Duras, too! I’ve been reading Me & Other Writings, and she wrote an essay on technology in the 1980s that could have been written today. I’ve been thinking about that essay and being on Zoom all the time. It’s like we alternate between feeling never seen and then being too seen.
MB God, Zoom! Every day, I’m looking at myself. It’s so bad for my body dysmorphia. It’s like talking to someone while talking to a mirror.
SRE I really hope someone is researching what this is doing to us. It is NOT normal for us to be staring at our own faces this much every day.
MB Not at all. I guess you can turn off your video, but then I don’t trust myself. I need to monitor what my face is doing at all times. I don’t know, I just kind of need to stay in a bit of duck lips.
SRE I understand that desire. So let’s talk about this book. How did Milk Fed begin as a project? Where did it come from?
MB Well, this is a book that I’ve always wanted to write. I wouldn’t say I was born to write it. But it’s definitely birthed out of my soul.
It actually started back when I was nineteen or twenty. I wrote a horrific short story that’s an iteration of this book, but without the Jewish stuff. It’s more just about the love affair. The character Miriam was named Gaia. She was like an earth woman. The story was so bad—I think that’s why I wrote poetry for the next ten years.
SRE Come on!
MB I’m exaggerating a little. But I always wanted to write the story. And living in Los Angeles, that organically brought me to the frozen yogurt. It’s all very LA. I was raised in a very sterile version of Judaism. It wasn’t super spiritual or even religious. I’ve always been of the “truth is one, paths are many” variety. I’ve never spiritually or religiously identified as a Jew, even though I’m Jewish. But culturally, I feel a very deep connection. Put on Fiddler on the Roof, and my nipples get hard. When I walk into a deli and am standing in front of the counter with the schnecken, it’s like, This is home!
There’s no shortage of Jews in LA. So I don’t know why I’m so absolutely and particularly nostalgic. I certainly think the death of a generation has something to do with it. My grandparents are all dead, and they were very much associated with Judaism and Jewish food for me. So I think it was that element.
Also, when I think of Judaism, I think of food, and when I think of food, and my body stuff, Judaism is just inherently tied in. There’s no way around it.
SRE It’s like a triangulation, right?
MB Yes! That’s the thing about this book. We’re always asked to compartmentalize various appetites. It’s like: this is sexual appetite; this is spiritual appetite; this is hunger. But really, they’re interdependent. Really, they’re all connected.
SRE I want to go back to something you just mentioned. When you say that you felt like you were born to write this book, does that mean it was easier to write? I know some writers talk about novels that just fall out of them, and I’m curious if this is one of those.
MB I feel more like The Pisces was birthed to me whole, on a beach. Yes, I did a lot of revising and editing. But that whole story, everything from the mystic to the real, was born to me.
But Milk Fed was different. I spent more hours on this book than anything else I’ve ever written. First came the sex and food. That was in the story draft, from when I was younger. Then came the spirituality. But the mysticism came last. The Rabbi didn’t come into the picture until the revisions. The Golem elements didn’t come into the picture, until I was meditating at a Best Western.
SRE I love the idea of you meditating at a Best Western.
MB I love a Best Western! I’d written two books, actually, Milk Fed and another book. We were thinking of going out to sell the other book.
Then all of a sudden, at the Best Western, I had these ideas about the Golem and the Rabbi. I started sending massive text messages to my agent, like, “Golem! Cynthia Ozick! The Puttermesser Papers! Born from clay! Certitude! The question of fantasy versus reality!”
So the last piece was born to me whole. But implementing it took so much editing. My editor, Tamar McCollom, who was at Scribner, just did an amazing job. She’s really young, but I just knew she got the book.
But the editing process was wild. I never want to see the word “clitoris” again.
SRE Well, it reads as effortlessly as The Pisces. But it is also so different—it’s an even more evocative and sensual book. Let’s talk about the sex—you write sex scenes better than anyone else out there. How do you approach writing those scenes?
MB We write our obsessions. Some people have trouble writing about sex. There are workshops on how to write sex. It’s an area that’s not everyone’s strength.
But for me, I have trouble not writing sex. When I write sex, I have to turn myself on, first and foremost. The first drafts are always for me. Then through editing, those scenes become for the audience.
Miriam is a character I’m deeply attracted to. She was born out of years of fantasy and my own childhood psychology and my own sexuality. Writing that was really a pleasure. I knew intuitively what to do.
SRE You’re doing something similar with food in the book—it’s also described with such lushness and precision.
MB Well, my oldest and longest relationship is my fucked-up relationship with food. I’ve been through almost every relationship with food, everything from total restriction and anorexia to an uncontrollable binge eating disorder. I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about it. I’ve spent a lot of time fantasizing about food.
So I wrote my fantasies. I want to live at the Golden Dragon in the book, you know? I want to live in this mystic Chinese-American restaurant with a Polynesian twist that’s dark and neon and unlimited and holy and sexy. And the pu pu platter is always burning. That’s where I want to be.
SRE The Golden Dragon plays a pretty crucial role in this book. It’s the restaurant where Rachel learns not only to eat but also to understand her feelings for Miram. And the descriptions are really rich. Is the Golden Dragon based on anywhere for you? How much is reality and how much is fantasy?
MB It’s two-thirds fantasy and one-third reality. It doesn’t exist anymore. But where I went to college in Somerville, Massachusetts, there was a Chinese restaurant and bar called Lee’s Cocktail Lounge. They had these menus that had a very Tiki-vibe. So you’d get moo shu and scallion pancakes, and then the menus had all the tropical drinks on them. So I would get the Scorpion Bowl, because it was a lot of bang for the buck, and there was something very romantic about it to me. This was back when I was still an active alcoholic, or working my way into the height of my powers.
SRE I love that image of the Scorpion Bowl being this erotic, romantic object.
MB It is romantic! Since food takes up a big part of my psyche and my subconscious, and sex begins in the psyche and subconscious, too, they’re very interwoven. Very. Even my first sexual fantasies.
SRE I wanted to talk a bit about desire. This is your first book about a same-sex relationship, yet Rachel and Miriam are each driven by such different desires.
MB I’m a sexually fluid person. Sometimes, I’m going to write about a man and a woman. Sometimes, I’m going to write about two women. Sometimes, I’m going to write about a merman and a woman.
The same-sex relationship wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Miriam is a character who happens to be a woman, and Rachel is a character who happens to be a woman. They both needed to be women for this particular type of desire, for the fantasies I’ve had. In my fantasies of Miriam-type characters, I’m never interacting with her as a man. I’m a woman and she’s a woman—not that Rachel is a stand-in for me, but the book is told from Rachel’s perspective and she desires Miriam, so I’m inhabiting her perspective and voice.
SRE I love how much of this begins with fantasy for you.
MB Oh, Miriam is an amalgam of my fantasies from a very young age. She is based on what I fear becoming and what I dream most of becoming. And Miriam is the embodiment of all that Rachel cannot give herself. To see someone stand in that is so hot.
There’s an essay in So Sad Today which could be seen as a kind of predecessor to this book, even though it’s non-fiction. It’s called “I Want to Be a Whole Person but Really Thin.” It’s about finding beauty in others based on what you cannot allow yourself to be.
We are attracted to that which terrifies us. Was it Freud who said, “What we fear we also desire”? I don’t know who said that. Probably thirty people have said that.
SRE That’s such an intense and beautiful concept. The act of making a character who was free enough to do everything you are afraid to do would look so different for every writer.
MB Definitely! And it’s funny, because Miriam does appear totally free to Rachel. And in some ways, she is totally free, at least in all the ways that Rachel isn’t free. Ultimately, though, what human among us is totally free?
SRE It’s interesting because Miriam’s freedom is really limited by her mother, and so is Rachel’s. There’s a lot of the Mother happening in this book—capital M, the archetype.
MB Look, I have no Daddy issues to speak of. I’m a Mommy issues girl. That’s another thing that definitely haunts my psyche. So we’re all dealing with our Mommy issues, and right now, there’s this Self-Love industrial complex. It’s like, “Love yourself! Repair yourself! Self-love! Self-care!” And I’m like, What the fuck does that mean?
SRE I know! And all of these self-care suggestions are like “Find your inner child and talk to it and comfort it!” But I’m from Philadelphia! We don’t do that shit there!
MBI’m also from Philadelphia and I don’t like my inner child! No offense. I find self-love elusive and baffling and confusing. But there is one aspect that interests me. Thinking about actual love, it’s not just a feeling, it’s also a verb. So I guess it would follow that self-love is also a verb.
But the real, deep challenge of loving yourself—for me, that’s the Mother stuff. There’s a voice inside of me, this cosmic arbiter, saying Youarewrongyouarebad! But who is our first god, you know?
SRE For you, the first god is the Mother?
MB Absolutely the Mother. Sexuality and the ability to believe that one deserves pleasure all stem from that. Some people don’t even have to think about whether they deserve pleasure. Some people aren’t afraid to take pleasure. Our feelings of worthiness, sensuality, pleasure—they are all very connected to the first messages we get about how to be in the world from a very young age.
There’s a moment where Rachel has to ask herself a question that I think is important: “Is there a deadline for when we should stop blaming our mother, or blaming our parents for our own thoughts?” Because at some point, these thoughts become ours.
SRE That’s such a struggle for Rachel throughout the book—letting herself care about Miriam is such an example of that. Halfway through the book, I let myself think: “Oh, maybe they will end up together! Maybe love will win!” And this turned into a totally beautiful, doomed relationship. So what pulled you to that ending? The final scene is a heartbreaker.
MB Here’s the way I see it: A healthy, available, long-term love… there aren’t that many songs about that. There’s “Let’s Stay Together,” but we don’t know how long they’ve been together.
The majority of art that I enjoy is short, fraught, and filled with spaces—either before, after, or in the middle of love. It’s made up of that space where desire can slow. When you’re living with someone and you’re already buying toilet paper, that’s a different kind of love.
SRE It’s not the kind of love many great books are written about. But it’s also just reality, right?
MB I was really struggling with this concept while I was writing The Pisces. I’m sure some people figured this out at age thirteen, but I was asking: Why can’t a long-term, committed love-as-verb relationship feel like or have the same limerence? Why doesn’t it have that same feeling of a love that ultimately cannot be, or a love that will kill you? Why? I was really mourning the idea that these two types of love just have different qualities.
SRE That’s something that’s always made me really relate to you. You have these grand fantasies and daydreams about love. We both get obsessive in the same way. But you also have grand visions for your work. And maybe that comes from the same place for writers.
MB Definitely. And the less I try to make those romantic fantasies bloom in reality—which, it’s never going to live up to the fantasy, anyway—the more creative energy I have. I think that, for me, is the right use of fantasy. Buddhism espouses right action, right thought. For me, it’s right fantasy.
SRE Limerence is a hell of a drug though!
MB I’m a limerence addict! I love it. I love drugs! I mean, I’ll be sixteen years sober in February. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a myriad of drugs to get addicted to on earth, right? There are so many things that are addictive besides drugs and alcohol.
Limerence is definitely one that I used to try to fill a spiritual hole. I think most of us have it. And there’s a million things you can use to fill it. Validation. Success. Achievement. Approval. Limerence. Romance. Buying candy at 7-Eleven. It’s infinite.
And Milk Fed is really a novel about how we all have a god or gods. Our god just changes every day. My god is just whatever I’m putting in the spiritual hole inside of me that day. That’s what I’m making my higher power.
Every character in the book, even if they don’t have a theological god, is creating a god out of familial approval, making a god of fame or success, or making a god of beauty.
SRE I’d say that all comes through in this novel. And there’s even a way in which you induce a state of limerence in the reader—the way you combine plot and show us this love affair. It’s impossible to put it down! How did you navigate plotting this one out?
MB You need the reader to feel like they’re waiting for a text. Limerence is the creation of a little system of seduction.
But with the plot, moving from poetry to prose, I cannot believe how much shit has to happen! There are so many events! It’s one reason I love Patricia Highsmith. ‘Trisha is giving you plot!
You really have to have patience with the plot. And it’s worth it—the suspense of the plot releases chemicals in the brain that are delicious and addictive. It doesn’t have to be Hitchcock-suspense, but just the desire to find out what happens next, the desire to keep going. You’re just not going to get that suspense with an experimental plot. It’s not to say that experimental plot doesn’t have its own joys and delights, but you’re not going to get that particular chemical.
SRE This book is absolutely like waiting for that text—such a return to the sensual, to food, and the body. I feel we’re going to have a return to sensuality and this is going to be a harbinger of it.
MB Well, I fucking hope we’re going to have a return to sensuality.