The best-selling novelist talks about her family, her difficult childhood and her recent Oprah's Book Club controversy
Why did you call your memoir Hungry Heart?
It was called The F Word for a while, for fat or feminism or f-ck. It was called Never Breast-Feed in a Sweaterdress and Other Lessons I Learned the Hard Way. But Hungry Heart is perfect because these are stories about yearning and appetite and love and family. And because being hungry means you don’t always get your appetite satisfied quite the way you’d hoped.
Bruce Springsteen doesn’t have the copyright on that?
Well, hilariously, he has his own memoir out, but he went with Born to Run. And I did not.
Do you think you got picked on a lot at school more because of your body, your brains or your brass?
Or my boobs! I’d say it was my brain. I just didn’t know how to talk to other people my age, and it took me a while to learn that. It basically took me ’til adulthood, when everybody else caught up.
Your father left the family in your last year of high school. How did that affect you?
It made me a writer. When something like that happens, or at least when it happened to me, I wanted to be the one who was telling the story instead of the one it was happening to.
Did you ever reconcile with him?
No. My dad died in 2008. And I didn’t know it, but he’d been addicted to heroin and crack. The last time I interacted with him, he was very hostile and scary and not the father I remembered at all.
Your mother doesn’t mind that you make fun of her coming out as gay?
My mom is an incredibly good sport. She recognized she was going to be material.
You’re a wildly successful novelist–we’re on the 50th-plus printing of Good in Bed, for example. And yet one of your constant refrains is that books like yours don’t get any respect. Why does it matter to you?
Because I want fairness. I always say, “Stephen King and Lee Child can enjoy their money and their success and also be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.” Their stories matter in a way that “commercial women’s fiction” doesn’t.
Recently you commented on Facebook about an Oprah’s Book Club pick and then retracted it. Why?
It is hard to be a woman writer in the world, and if I can’t say anything nice about someone else’s work, I’d rather not say anything at all.
How does your weight-loss surgery jibe with your championing of women loving who they are?
It was a very, very hard decision, and I was aware of the contradiction. I was so uncomfortable being that heavy, I wanted to be the size that I’d been most of my adult life before I went through postpartum depression and was basically eating everything that wasn’t nailed down. If I’d been stronger, in a better place in my marriage, I could have said, “I’m going to weigh 300 lb. for the rest of my life and learn to be O.K. with it.” But I wasn’t.
You advise women to give each other compliments. How do you do that without commenting on appearance?
My go-to compliment is “You look so happy today.” Works for everyone.
As an expert on The Bachelor, do you have any advice for contestants?
I do. When they ask you, “What are you afraid of?” don’t say heights, don’t say the dark. Because then the producers will say, “We’re rappelling up a building to eat dinner!” Say you’re afraid of long naps, chocolate croissants and massages, O.K.?
This appears in the October 03, 2016 issue of TIME.