In her newest novel, Better Food for a Better World (Wipf and Stock/Slant), Erin McGraw says she continues to delve into the theme of what it takes to be a good person. But this time she uses a new approach: satire.
“Usually, my books are serious, with an inflection of comedy, but this was the first one that was outright comedy,” McGraw says. “It was totally fun. You can take the gloves off.”
Better Food—McGraw’s sixth book—represents the first release for Slant, Wipf and Stock’s new literary fiction imprint. Gregory Wolfe, founder and editor of the quarterly journal Image, is Slant’s editorial director.
McGraw says that the part of her that loves Charles Dickens took pleasure in inventing outsized characters behaving in outrageous ways. “Once you’ve created an over-the-top world, you’ve got a fat contortionist and anything else you want.”
Set in a present-day fictional town in northern California, Better Food for a Better World centers on three sets of middle-aged married couples, all friends from college, who together open an ice cream store with an idealistic name—Natural High Ice Cream: Better Food for a Better World. The problems that ensue include the decision by a member of the group to renew her former business of booking sideshow acts, including jugglers and contortionists, without telling her partners.
McGraw based the book and its characters on her experiences in real-life Davis, Calif., where she attended the University of California and saw a late 1970s hippie scene that lingered years after the rest of the United States had moved on.
“I will say a little bit of hippie-dippyness clings to these people,” McGraw says of her Better World characters, noting that people like that can still be found today. “It’s not a stretch.”
As the couples contend with issues related to business, friendship, and fidelity, McGraw gets to delve into questions of morality and ethical behavior. The characters become involved with a marriage support group called Life Ties that has its own conventions and rituals, which McGraw describes as “a little bit like a 12-step program gone berserk.” With Life Ties, McGraw satirizes some of the more questionable aspects of organized religion, or, as she explains it, groups and individuals who tell other people what to do.
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have opinions, but I am saying that we should back off a little bit in our expressions of ourselves and our expectations of other people,” she says.
McGraw and her husband, poet Andrew Hudgins, teach at Ohio State University in Columbus, but also have a home in Sewanee, Tenn.
“We stay out of each other’s work severely as far as early drafts,” McGraw says, but notes: “It’s pretty much a household rule that nothing goes out without the other looking, because we save each other embarrassment that way.”