Q&;A with Alice Randall

  • June 26, 2012

The Independent talks to Alice Randal, author of the new book Ada's Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel.

Ada Howard, wife of the preacher at Nashville’s Full Love Baptiste Tabernacle, has a whole lot of people to take care of. There’s her husband, of course, and the flock that comes with him, plus the kids at the day care where she works, two grown daughters, and two ailing parents. It’s no wonder she can’t find time to take care of herself. And her husband’s been so busy lately she’s suspicious some other woman may be taking care of him.

Then it comes: the announcement of her 25-year college reunion in 12 months’ time, signed with a wink by her old flame.

Ada’s Rules author Alice Randall was born in Detroit, grew up in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Harvard. She is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades and Rebel Yell. She is also an award-winning songwriter, and the first black woman in history to write a number-one country song. Randall lives with her husband in Nashville and is currently writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University. Like Ada, she’s done battle with her weight.

Ada is immediately compelling, like an old and wise friend. Do you have a recipe for creating such amazing characters? Was it difficult to give her up when the story ended? Have you ever created a character that you can’t get rid of, one that creeps into other books?

I miss Ada. She’s earthy and pragmatic and fun. I drew on a lot of people I adored to make her. I think there is something particularly monogamous about my imagination. In some profound sense, the husbands in the last three of my novels are deeply related.

Is “Ada” in any way reminiscent of Nabokov’s Ada? Is she a butterfly, too?

My Ada is a butterfly in the sense she is in transformation. But the Ada’s I named her for were Bricktop, whose real name was Ada, and Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada.

Your Ada hardly wavers, her willpower serves her so well. Was she born that way or is it because her goal is so clear?

Ada doesn’t waver because she understands herself to be working for her daughters’ survival. She doesn’t want her daughters to become ill and die as her sisters have.

A diet isn’t just about food?

Ada’s Rules is the anti-diet book — it’s not about what you give up it’s about all the things you are to add and most of them, from massaging your own feet, to walking 30 minutes each day, to getting better hair have nothing to do with food.

We all might not be “completely repulsed by the idea of being passively sculpted into someone more acceptable?” Would we all climb onto the surgeon’s table if it weren’t so expensive? Would the gift be as precious without the effort?

There are so many things to consider beyond money when thinking of climbing on a surgeon’s table — topping the list would be health risks and complications. But with new medical studies suggesting that surgery can cure diabetes in just over 48 hours, it is something many should consider. Consider, not choose. Personally, I choose to try to shift the shape of my body with my own actions, not with the scalpel — I prefer to be an active part of the transformation.

Ada waited until night time to spend a few moments butt naked in the mirror only to discover “she didn’t want the body she saw.” Is this feeling peculiar to a woman who isn’t sure she’s still loved and desired? If her mate wanted her body, would she want it too? No matter the size?

Ada’s relationship with her mirror has everything to do with Ada and her fear of death and illness and very little to do with Preach, her husband. Preach does think Ada beautiful. It is Ada who feels stranded between cultures, between loving traditional blackness and wanting a 21st-century body — I think her alienation from her own body has everything to do with feeling she isn’t a good role model for her daughters and very little to do with thinking about Preach’s desire. And of course she does learn that Matt Mason desires her.

Ada says that one of the things she likes about being big is it makes her feel like she’s not about to die. Do you think it is also a kind of company?

I am not sure it’s a kind of company. But I have had so many women tell me they associate losing weight with illness. That is also an association Ada makes — until she doesn’t anymore.

Fat is a barrier wrapped around a person. What if no one will ever love what is beneath the fat? Remaining large means one doesn’t have to know. Is the weight like a cloak that people use to make themselves inversely invisible? Do we blame too many things on being fat?

Interesting question. But I think it’s probably the other way — that we don’t blame enough on being fat. That we don’t acknowledge how much it changes things.

Black Americans have so many leftovers from being made to feel inferior, like proving to folks that aren’t even paying attention that they are worthy — as your characters attempt to do in a restaurant by ordering at least three courses. The scene is comical and revealing. But the women’s true lesson is waiting on their own tongues, unsaid. How come they go along with such silliness for so long?

The habit of silence once learned is hard to put aside. And the history of Africans in this country is a history of being endangered and misunderstood. This makes people overly cautions.

Is the black beauty aesthetic a myth? Granted, it is different than that of whites but maybe, just maybe the so-called love of the “large” is really an attempt to love what we’ve become, not become what we love?

I don’t believe there is a single black beauty aesthetic. I know in my age range and era — I dreamed and wished for fat thighs before I had them. And I believed my grandmother to be spectacularly beautiful and she was what we called with pride, “big as three houses.” I grew up loving touching the soft fat of her arm … so that is a part of who I am … not who I talked myself into being.

You say that there is “radical union in hunger.” What do you mean? Can you give us an example?

True hunger makes us all alike. If we are truly hungry we will eat what is available not what we prefer. And true hunger is something other human beings understand clearly — across time and space.

Ada wants to be “free in the place she was sexual” which is precisely the place where one might think a good southern Baptist/Episcopal woman would be the least free. How does she manage?

Ada’s read her Song of Songs — and her Genesis. She understands that sex is in the Bible and in life and in her; she understands that the erotic, the place where love and the physical twine is a place of great self-knowing and life knowing and good knowing. That’s Ada’s version of being a good church woman.

Ada’s 44th rule is to “Draw a Map of Your Body” which seems so cathartic. Do we need to draw a map so we can read ourselves on paper? Would a proper map lead us to somewhere we ought to go?

I think a proper map drawn of our body leads us to a next step — for the drawing of the map tells you where you are now and provokes us to know where we want to go next.

Ada creates several wonderful baths. Did you try them, do you have a favorite? Sage, Jimi Hendrix on the boom box, tea, cinnamon sticks, very hot water and a candle!!!

I tried some of them. The baths are imagined. And they are translations. I have my own special recipes that I don’t share. Ada’s more generous than I am.

The smaller Ada gets the more confident she becomes. Why?

She doesn’t get more confident because she’s smaller, she gets more confident because she’s doing what she set out to do. Achieving her established goals is what makes her more confident.

Why couldn’t Preach, Ada’s husband, be too good to be true? Without flaws, is he a less believable character?

I think Preach is a real husband — with strengths and weaknesses. He is mainly very true to Ada. And he’s in love with the idea of being in love with Ada — that’s a good gift for a husband to give a wife. When he steps to her at the end he’s in love with Ada again. That’s a great gift.

Have we given up on perfection, even in books?

Each age gives up on perfection as it matures. There are not perfect people.

Ada has tastes that span from Rothko to Bach. All black women have a little secret and wonder in them. They’re always wider and bigger than anyone would think. Maybe it’s true of all women but seems especially true of African American ones. The reason may be because in American society African American women are so stereotyped, they even surprise themselves. Would you agree?

Absolutely. Ada, like more black women than acknowledged, is attuned to high and low culture.

How did you craft a message into a story that doesn’t seem like a message but is?

Very carefully and passionately.  I let Ada tell the tale of her shifting shape — then I wove the rules through the story she told. At heart, this is a romance novel with mystery and intrigue — and it is a novel of filial piety, but mainly it’s a novel about a woman in a midlife moment of reinvention — who gets very lucky.

Ada’s Rules would make a lovely gift. But how does one make it a gift without insult? Wouldn’t everyone think they were being told they needed to lose weight?

Absolutely not! I think anyone getting it should think that whoever gave it thinks they need some deep-belly laughter and perhaps, to take a little more time and care for themselves. And if that is a reality it’s a good friend that tells you.

After reading Ada’s Rules, they’d surely forgive the giver.

That’s sweet of you to say! Thank you. I agree with that.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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