Jami Attenberg on How The Price is Right Inspired Her Latest Novel
The All This Could Be Yours Author
on the Reading Women Podcast
In this episode of Reading Women, Kendra talk with Jami Attenberg about her new novel All This Could Be Yours, out now from HMH.
From the episode:
Kendra: So a few years ago, when Jami Attenberg’s novel All Grown Up came out, she did a tour of the South, and she stopped here in Greenville at Fiction Addiction and I was able to meet her. She did a reading and answered questions about her book, and Sid, her magnificent dog, was there as well, which was fabulous. So I really wanted to talk to her on the podcast ever since, and I’m so happy that this has finally happened.
A little bit about Jamie before we jump into the conversation: she has written about food, travel books, relationships, and urban life for all different types of publications. Her books have been published all over the world, including Italy, Portugal, Hungary, Holland, Russia, and China, and many, many other places. She has published many novels, including The Middlesteins, Saint Mazie, All Grown Up, which I previously mentioned, and now All This Could Be Yours, which is her first book set in New Orleans where she now lives. So I hope you all enjoy this conversation with Jami Attenberg.
Well, Jami, I am so excited to have you on the podcast. Welcome.
Jami: Thanks. I’m happy to be here.
Kendra: I feel like we need to start out with what might possibly be the most important question of our conversation is, “How is Sid doing? Your puggle.”
Jami: He’s snoozing in the other room on my bed in a big pile of blankets. It’s a little chilly here today. So he’s kind of, you know, clinging for warmth. I live in an old house that doesn’t have a lot of warmth, so he’s all cuddled up.
Kendra: Dylan always hibernates from the time it gets below 60. And then he has three weeks in spring and three weeks in fall where he’s happy. But otherwise he’s like burrowing or, you know, trying to find a cool place. Woes of dogs living in the South.
Kendra: But I had the great fortune of meeting Sid when you were doing your book tour for ALL GROWN UP, and you drove through Greenville, and you stopped at Fiction Addiction, and you brought Sid. And I was overjoyed.
Jami: Aw, little Sid. He was like, really . . . I got as much out of him on that tour as I could. I mean, it was a rough one for the kid. But he survived.
Kendra: So now your next novel is All This Could Be Yours. And I think you’ve just finished your book tour for this one.
Jami: I did. I have a reading tonight here in New Orleans and then another one on Monday in New Orleans. But all the out-of-town stuff is done for the year. So it’s great. Happy to be home.
Kendra: Well, one of the things that I found absolutely fascinating about this book is that it’s set in New Orleans. And you recently, in the last few years, moved to New Orleans. So I wanted to start out a little bit of why New Orleans? And was it a little intimidating to write a novel set in your new home?
Jami: Yeah. I mean, it took me a couple years to really get revved up to write about it. And I cast about a lot of different ideas. But I was feeling kind of insecure about writing about New Orleans because it is a very particular place, and people feel really protective of it. But then I don’t know, I just sort of realized one day that nobody else was going to give me permission but myself. And I just kind of went for it.
Kendra: So, living in New Orleans, how does that change your perspective on writing or literature? How is the process of writing about New Orleans a little different than, say, maybe writing about New York City?
Jami: Well, obviously, there’s just the familiarity. I mean, I lived in New York City for 16 years, so I didn’t really think twice about writing about the city because I just had so many. . . . I knew what the city looked like, and I had had a history with the city. So even though I wasn’t writing autobiographical work while I was there, I just felt . . . there was just an ease with it. So here I would say I was much more comfortable with writing about it initially, but I actually think that the fresh perspective gives me a different kind of writing relationship with the city than somebody who had lived here for . . . who’s lived here their entire life. Like, you just see things differently because you’re seeing things with a fresh eye, whereas. . . . And so the same could be said in New York City, where I could have written about it forever and ever and ever, but I don’t know if I was seeing anything new in the city even though that city is constantly changing.
Kendra: And this story, All This Could Be Yours, is about a family. And I believe part of the family, if not most of them, are new to New Orleans at least in the last several years. So they’re also bringing that fresh eye to the location.
Jami: Yeah, that’s correct. And in fact, I think it was helpful to me. . . . In particular, there’s one character, Barbra, who has moved down there in the last couple of years, who’s married to Victor as well, the patriarch of the family who has a heart attack at the beginning of the book. And Barbra moves down there with him. Not unwillingly, but it’s not really where she wants to be. And she doesn’t really feel New Orleans. Like, a lot of people come down here and really fall in love with the city. And so I think because I was writing about it from her, kind of, gimlet eye about the place that I was able to . . . even if I was kind of discussing, you know, traditional tropes about New Orleans or cliches about New Orleans . . . to have it through the, you know, through the eye of somebody who isn’t in love with it and can be critical of it, I think it helped me to write about the city in a non-cliched way.
Kendra: And you just mentioned Barbra, who is the matriarch of this family. I love how intricately drawn the entire family is. But when you went into this idea for this novel, what did you know about this book going into it?
Jami: Well, I had a good idea . . . You know, my work is really character driven, so I had an idea of who the family was. I knew that there was . . . I knew that Victor existed. I knew that Barbra existed. I knew that Alex, their daughter, existed. She was the first character that showed up in the book for me. So she showed me that those two characters existed. I knew that there was a sister-in-law, Twyla, that existed and a brother, Gary. So I knew the core family that was there, and that was my starting place. And even though I didn’t know everything about them—I didn’t know all their secrets—I had a pretty good idea of who they were, even though they weren’t like anyone I knew. And they’re certainly not like my family. I just had a familiarity with them almost right away. And I was interested. It was like I had a first impression of them, and I wanted to get to know them better. And so I wrote a book about them to get to know them better.
Kendra: And one of the things that I love about this book is how it is sort of like this . . . almost like a mosaic of this family because the different chapters are from different perspectives. And you kind of get a view on the patriarch, Victor. It’s a story about their experience with this type of man who is very abusive in different ways. Did you know that . . . all that part of this story going into it? Or did you learn parts of the different family members’ story as you were writing it?
Jami: The kaleidoscopic vision or map was natural and kind of evolved, like, the style of the book evolved as I was writing it. But in terms of knowing all the stories about the whole family, I mean, I knew that Victor was bad. I knew that Barbra was complicit, but also perhaps a victim. I knew that Alex questioned it, but she had her own hypocritical moments. I mean, I knew that. But it was, you know, writing a book is about uncovering these kinds of details. I didn’t map the book out in any way. I just knew who the characters were. And I just went with it.
Kendra: I found how these characters are so interwoven with their lives together, and even by the end of the book, they’re still very closely tied in a lot of different ways because of the actions of this one man. But we never get his perspective and how things went. We just see how he’s affected the world around him.
Jami: I mean, I wasn’t really interested in him. You know, like I was interested in him to a certain extent. But I wasn’t interested in writing things from his perspective in any way, shape, or form because I feel like we’ve really heard enough from these kinds of men in the world. I’m really over these kinds of men. But also, I needed to show what kind of damage they do. So he was necessary to the story. But I was mostly just interested in the family members.
Kendra: So when you’re structuring a book in this kind of mosaic-type format, what was your process of deciding how the story will be told? Because there are also flashbacks. But we also have this, I guess, more present narrative where Victor’s had a heart attack. He’s in the hospital. And the family’s deciding what they’re going to to do about it, as it were.
Jami: It was very organic for me. I mean, basically, what I knew was . . . when I was structuring the book . . . was that I was going to have most of the book happen over the course of a day. And then it would be broken into morning, noon, and night. I don’t know. I’d always wanted . . . I think I’ve always wanted to write a book like that, that was like within a really specific time constraint because I think it sets the stakes, makes the stakes really urgent at the beginning of the book. So mostly the book is that way. So I knew that. I knew that. And so, because if you have something that’s really urgently set in the present tense, then you have to make room for the past. Right? So like, not a lot happens in a way in the present tense of the book. And most of it seems to happen actually in the past tense of the book. That was just natural storytelling, flashing back on those kinds of things. Like it was just . . . the answers weren’t going to be in the present tense. The answers were going to be in the past.
Kendra: One of the things I just keep thinking about is also other parts of the family who’s married into it. So, Twyla. She is possibly my favorite character in the whole book. She, you know, she went to Hollywood to try to become a makeup artist and different things. But there’s this moment where she’s in the drugstore and piling up all these different types of makeup items, and that just stays with you . . . that, kind of, process of her mind. But also, like we all . . . I feel like we all know a Twyla or have been Twyla at some point in our lives.
Jami: Yeah, it’s funny who relates to Twyla. Some people do, and some people don’t relate to Twyla. She was very foreign to me in a lot of ways, although I definitely have spent time in an aisle at CVS in my life. But in other ways, I’m very much not like her. But I have heard from lots of women that they really identify with her. I’m still waiting to hear from some men that they identify with her, although I know that that’s coming because it just always does. I’m always . . . I’m not . . . I shouldn’t be surprised anymore by who connects with what. I mean, I’ve had women tell me they identify with Victor already. So especially if you’re . . . I think . . . if you’re in the South, I had a lot of southern women say, “Well, I’m not her, but I definitely knew a lot of Twylas was when I was growing up.”
Kendra: Definitely. And I think that the fact she comes from a rural background and is. . . . There’s a class difference between she and, you know, she’s married into this family. And I feel like that that sometimes comes through, and that’s part of her struggle to fit into the family is trying to understand them. But there’s such a difference. I’m trying to jump around spoilers.
Kendra: Of course, per usual.
Jami: I know it’s so tricky. I’m glad. I appreciate you not spoiling the book because I don’t usually have books that have a lot that happen in them. I’m mostly about small, emotional movements, if anything. And so to have a book that sort of has like a juicier plot, and it’s just a . . . you know, I really wanted to make something that was, you know . . . even though so much of the action takes place in the past, I think that there are a few gasp-worthy moments in this book. And I just want people to enjoy those those moments. I really was trying. It’s time to do it. I mean, ordinarily, I’d just let the characters do whatever. But I was a little bit more active, active in trying to make. . . . And actually, I mean, I just think it was the story. It was that’s the way the story was like. It just wanted to be that way.
Kendra: You mentioned that you look at different characters, and I always feel like when I read your books that even characters that may make poor decisions or etc. that there’s always like . . . you kind of have some sort of sympathy for them or empathy towards them. But, you know, Victor is just . . . I feel like . . . this flat-out villainy kind of character. And I was recently listening to an interview with Ann Patchett about The Dutch House, and how she’s written this character, and she’s very proud she can finally do like some sort of villain or something because she did something very similar. Was that something that you were conscious of when you were writing Victor?
Jami: I didn’t really know. I was trying, you know, I tried my best to sort of approach him with a little bit of compassion, but honestly, I couldn’t find anything for him. And I’m actually okay with him just being like the bad guy. And that’s it. We’re done. You know, like, It’s okay. There are a lot of bad guys out there. And I think that our culture really just wants to turn these guys into like some sort of . . . like a Tony Soprano or the guy in Succession or whatever, like where you, like, become very occupied with them. And you want to . . . you know . . . you almost forgive them in a certain way. And we sort of forget all the bad things that they do. And I just don’t think we should be forgetting these bad things that they do. And I don’t think that we need to be captivated by them anymore. I think that we can just say, “This is a bad person.” It’s a bad person. And it’s okay to not like them. And it’s okay to not forgive them.
Kendra: So the front of the U.S. cover is a storage unit. And the title is All This Could Be Yours. And so I feel like . . . I didn’t know anything about the book, but I saw the cover and the storage space, and I was like, “Oh, maybe this book has secret objects that are passed down in a family or different things like that.” Did you always know that this was going to be the title or was this something that came to you as you were in the process of working on the book and different things?
Jami: So the title All This Could Be Yours is actually a reference to The Price Is Right game show. At the very end of Price Is Right, where they bring out all the shiny refrigerators and boats and cars and things like that for the showcase showdown. And then somebody says, “All this could be yours if the price is right.” And it’s really a phrase and stuck in my head since I was a child because I remember watching that game show when I was a kid, when I was home sick from school and eight years old and staring wide-eyed at a television screen, and being like, “Oh, my gosh, look at that boat.” Like, I mean, what would I have done with the boat at the age of eight years old, you know? Or a car. But there’s something about the way that it’s set up that it makes you want these objects. Like it’s a very American television show. It’s a show about capitalism. It’s a show about shopping. It’s a show about consumption. And that phrase for better, for worse, and mostly in an ironic way, has been stuck in my head since I was a kid. And this book is so much about capitalism and shopping and consumption in its way as an answer to one of the questions that’s posed in the book that that title was there almost, I think, from the beginning for me. And in fact, it’s a phrase that is no longer stuck in my head because now it’s stuck on the book. And it’s out. I finally figured out what I wanted to do with this, you know, with this sentence or this phrase that I’ve had in my head for forty years, and that is to use it as the title of a book.
Kendra: And that’s . . . One of the things I think about a great title is there are so many different ways that it works with the story that you have created. And so one of the parts of this book that I really loved was how you also kind of zoom out a little bit. And there are some characters that have chapters from their perspective that aren’t members of the family, but they’re still kind of looking from the outside. And a lot of times I felt like slowly we were pulling back from the matriarch and the patriarch to see on the outside. Did their voices come to you as a process? Like, how is . . . where did they, I guess, where did these other characters come from? And why did you want to look at him from, you know, a farther back perspective as well? From outside the family?
Jami: Well, I just, you know, they just showed up, really. So I just had to listen to that. I don’t really have much more of an answer than that. Just that they . . . I thought the book was going to be just some characters, you know, the main family characters and maybe one other. And then as I was writing the book, almost immediately, these smaller characters showed up, and they really had something to say. And, you know, in the first draft, I just tend to listen to whatever wants to show up on the page and see if it’s worth keeping. And they were all worth keeping in their ways, you know. So I just . . . I began to just play with them and use them in different ways. And they were good for the book.
Kendra: Well, thank you so much for coming on, and I am sure I could talk to you about these characters all day. But before you go, I wanted to ask you, what are you reading right now and maybe what are some books that you’ve read lately that you have just absolutely loved?
Jami: Well, I mean, the books that I’ve been recommending are the books that came out of New Orleans this year. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s book, The Revisioners. Sarah Broom’s book, The Yellow House. Maurice Ruffin wrote a book called We Cast a Shadow. All of those books I’ve read and loved, and I blurbed all of them as well. And we’re all, you know, peers and working at the same time and telling different stories about New Orleans. But we’re all in conversation at the same time. So I, you know, I just really can recommend all of them. If you are, you know, if somebody is listening, is interested in reading all different kinds of things about New Orleans.
Kendra: I just finished The Revisioners yesterday and was just spellbound the entire time.
Jami: It’s a really great book.
Kendra: He does such a such a great job. And, you know, what are you working on now? Is there anything in particular that you want to tackle next?
Jami: I am going to be working on a nap as soon as I get off of Skype with you because I have been touring for two months, and I just need a little time off. So that’s. . . . I have an event tonight, and then I might have my event on Monday and then three weeks or something like that before I think about anything again. I’m really looking forward to not thinking about anything for a while.
Kendra: That definitely sounds like the perfect holiday break.
Kendra: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. I always love your books and their characters, which fascinate me to no end. And thank you for writing them.
Jami: Thank you so much, Kendra. Happy holidays.
Kendra: I’d like to think, Jami Attenberg, for talking to me about her novel All This Could Be Yours, which is out now from HMH.