Samuel Pollen is a writer from Manchester, UK, and currently lives and work in London. His first book, The Year I Didn’t Eat, is a harrowing, funny, moving, up-lifting story about Max: a 14-year-old boy who has anorexia. Here he talks about stereotypes surrounding eating disorders, his writing process and geocaching…
I wonder if you could start by introducing us to Max, the main character in The Year I Didn’t Eat, and tell us a bit more about him and his story?
Sure! Max Howarth is 14. He likes running, animals – he wants to be a zoologist when he grows up – and video games. He’s dealing with all of the stuff that 14-year-olds have to deal with – puberty, his embarrassing family, etc. But he’s also dealing with something else: anorexia.
At the start of the book, Max has been in treatment for a couple of months. And so far, it doesn’t feel like he’s made any progress at all. His eating disorder is pulling him further and further away from his family and friends, and he doesn’t know how to fix it.
Max gets an unusual Christmas present from his big brother, Robin: a geocache. Geocaching is sort of like orienteering – you use an app to find caches that are hidden in public space all over the world. When you find them, you can leave a message. And Max soon starts getting messages that totally change his perspective…
What age group would you say The Year I Didn’t Eat is aimed at?
Roughly 10–15 – but I think older readers can get something out of the book, too. Particularly if they know someone who’s going through an eating disorder, or just want to understand what that’s like a little better.
This story is obviously very personal and captures some of your own experiences with anorexia. Was it difficult or emotional to write? Or was it a cathartic experience, or maybe even a mixture of both?
I was surprised by how cathartic it was. I’m now 30, and I haven’t had any problems with my eating for over 15 years. But it was good to reflect on all the people who helped me when I was going through my eating disorder – something I couldn’t really do at the time.
What struck me throughout the story was that Max’s experience of anorexia isn’t just physical, but social and emotional too. In fact, Max says, ‘You keep taking stuff away: Food. Friends. Family.’ His illness certainly impacts his friendships and his family. Can you talk a little bit more about this?
This is one of the most difficult parts of having an eating disorder, definitely. So many of our social occasions revolve around food. Even at school, the main time you have to talk to your friends is lunchtime. But when you’re anorexic, you don’t want to eat around people, particularly people who don’t necessarily understand what you’re going through. So you cut yourself off more and more.
In the story, Max often talks about the misconceptions surrounding anorexia. what do you feel the main misconceptions are? What would you like people to know about this illness?
Overwhelmingly, we see eating disorders through the stereotype of a stressed-out, high-achieving teenage girl. But actually, eating disorders happen to all sorts of people – boys, yes, but also adults of all ages. I think dispelling the stereotype helps everyone, which was a key motivation for writing the book.
The other part is – articles and TV shows inevitably reduce the experience of an eating disorder to the most dramatic bits. We think of people throwing up, people in hospital. Actually, lots of eating disorders are much ‘quieter’. I wanted to show all the everyday things that happen around one.
Max describes his concerns about anorexia being ‘a disease for posh girls’ and the need to ‘man up’. Generally, do you think men and boys experience this illness differently? What might the specific issues and problems be for young men?
I think different is the word. It’s not easier or harder – just different.
The pressure on women’s bodies is relentlessly downward; just pick up any fashion magazine. For men, it’s more complex. Skinny men are idolised, but so are muscular men. And teenage boys’ bodies are probably less scrutinised than teenage girls’.
But that creates another problem – people aren’t on the lookout for eating disorders in men. That can mean they go longer without being noticed. It also can make things more isolating, because there are very few accounts of men’s eating disorders out there.
I love the bright, striking cover design by Sophie Beer. Can you remember how you felt when you saw it for the first time?
The cover had been something I’d worried a lot about. Lots of books on eating disorders have ‘provocative’ covers – with rib cages, empty plates, apples with one bite out of them, and so on. This kind of imagery didn’t feel right for The Year I Didn’t Eat – because it’s a positive, hopeful book, and because I wanted people going through eating disorders to be able to pick it up without feeling sad.
I was completely delighted when I saw Sophie’s illustration. It seemed to capture the mood of the book so perfectly. I couldn’t believe it. Also, yellow is my favourite colour…
You never mention Max’s weight or BMI, but rather represent it with a dash or blank space. Why did you decide to do this?
I wanted my book to show what an eating disorder felt like. Inevitably, when you’re writing that kind of book, there’s a risk that it could be difficult for some readers. That’s why there’s a content warning right at the front – so people only read if they feel comfortable doing so.
In terms of Max’s weight and BMI – these could potentially serve as ‘targets’ for someone who’s going through an eating disorder. They dominate Max’s thoughts, so I wanted to refer to them, but I didn’t want to put specific numbers in the book.
I really loved the way ‘Ana’ interrupted Max’s thoughts and narration throughout the story. Can you talk a little bit more about this and what you were trying to achieve?
Ana is a loose personification of Max’s eating disorder. Creating her, and giving her a voice, allowed me to put some of Max’s dangerous thoughts about food and eating on the page, while showing that they weren’t really who he was.
The reality is that it doesn’t feel like another person – it feels like you. But this dialogue enabled me to show the turmoil Max is going through, and how his eating disorder is constantly bringing him down.
One of the characters in the story talks about social media and phones being ‘the menace of distraction’. What aspects of modern life do you enjoy? What aspects of today’s society do you think are dangerous or damaging, particularly in regards to anorexia?
That’s a big question! The first thing I’d say is that I’m broadly a social media fan (for one thing, I met my wife on Twitter.) Social media has kept me in touch with lots of friends I would have lost in another era, and allowed me to be confident in ways I never would have been offline. On the flip side, a lot of us spend too much time worrying about what people think of us, and I think social media can exacerbate that.
Looking more generally – I like most of modern life! For example, like Max, I’m a big fan of Nintendo games.
Max finds a lot of pleasure in geocaching. For those that don’t know, can you tell us what geocaching is?
Geocaching is like a global, public version of orienteering. Using an app, you hunt for ‘caches’ – which can be the size of a matchbox, or even smaller – hidden in public spaces all over the world. When you find one, you can leave a message for the person who put it there, or for future visitors.
Early on in the book, Max is given a geocache by his brother. This gives him a way to connect with people without seeing them face to face, so it’s very liberating.
Evie is a very interesting, complex character. What do you feel she brings to the story and Max’s life?
Evie is a fellow ‘outsider’. Because she’s new to the school, she feels alone and vulnerable, and therefore lashes it out at the people around her – which Max is also doing, albeit for different reasons. Like Max, she’s dealing with family issues for which she blames herself. Then, of course, there’s the romantic angle. Max is a 14-year-old boy, which means girls (and what they think of him) are very important. I’m not sure you can write a book about teenagers without romance being part of it, even if it isn’t the main focus.
There’s some beautiful language throughout the story – you describe worries that ‘whirl around my head like the blades of a ceiling fan’ and Max journeying across ‘a shimmering carpet of meadow grass and rye’. Do these striking images come to you naturally or do you have to spend a lot of time working on your sentence construction?
It’s a mixture. Sometimes, I think of a nice way of describing something and scribble it down to later work into a story. More often, I write roughly what I need to say and then see how I can make the imagery come alive. It helps that my day job is as a copywriter, so making things sound as pretty as possible is what I do all day!
Do you think Max and his friends will return in another story or are you happy with where you’ve left them? I was thinking a story focusing on Evie and her life would be really interesting to explore and read!
Never say never, but for now, I’m happy. The next thing I’m writing isn’t personal to me, and it’s quite refreshing for that reason.
Finally, can you describe The Year I Didn’t Eat in three words?
Heartbreaking, hopeful and fun (I hope!).