Jami Attenberg on Literary Break Ups, Credit Card Debt and Epic Book Tours
In Which the Author of All Grown Up is Indeed, Asked If She Is All Grown Up
Ed. note: the following profile alludes to certain plot points from All Grown Up, so proceed with caution.
In 2010, the novelist Jami Attenberg published her third book of fiction, The Melting Season, which had a woman on the lam from Nebraska to Las Vegas with a suitcase full of cash. The book received very good reviews, but did not sell well. She was dropped by her publisher.
Attenberg took the literary break up like a punch in the gut. “I wasn’t sure if I could keep going as a writer,” said Attenberg in a telephone interview in Washington DC, where she was attending the AWP conference last month. “I thought, ‘Oh, man, I have to go get a real job.’ I was so confused because I thought writing was what I was supposed to be doing with my life.”
A year later, Attenberg’s fortunes took a 180-degree turn. Her editor left the same publisher and sold her new publisher on Attenberg. Attenberg’s 2012 novel The Middlesteins, a crisp domestic drama of a family ripped apart by a mother’s eating disorder, was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, hit the Times bestseller list and went on sale in ten countries, being translated into German and Italian, among other languages. The book became Attenberg’s breakout novel, putting her prominently on the literary map.
Now Attenberg is back with her fifth novel, the witty and dark All Grown Up, which introduces readers to Andrea Bern, a 39-year-old Brooklyn professional woman who wants neither husband nor baby, but is searching for a fierce connection with her friends and lovers.
Maybe Andrea drinks too much for her own good and has uneven taste in men. She’s a failed art student in a boring, stable job she happens to do well. Andrea is working through some buried traumas from her past while at the same time failing to deal with the fact of her niece’s rare, inevitably fatal medical condition.
“The very first chapter I wrote was ‘Indigo Gets Married,’” said Attenberg, as she prepares for a PBS interview related to AWP. “I don’t even know where Andrea came from at that moment. I wanted to write about a person who was watching a friend achieve all these adult grown-up milestones in her life and she was not achieving them. Andrea is not me, but myself and so many other people can identify with watching a friend do the things you are supposed to do.”
“In a way, the Indigo cycle of chapters was easy to write,” said Attenberg. “It was ‘Here’s 20 things that are annoying about this.’ I then put the novel away because I didn’t want to do it at that time.”
“I didn’t want to write this book, to deal with the subject matter,” she said, which also addresses sexual violence. “I sincerely had a sense of taking one for the team. There finally was a moment when I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
“I made a list,” she said. “I want to talk about how young women view themselves. I want to talk about how older men treat young women. I want to write about when a friend has a baby and disappears. All these things were happening around me. I wrote this book so fast.”
“I don’t feel this character exists elsewhere, or that these issues are discussed enough in fiction,” she said “In many books, female characters are forced to think about when they are going to find their romantic partners.”
“Andrea lived in the physical landscape I had occupied for so long,” referring to the South Williamsburg neighborhood where the fictional Andrea Berg and Attenberg have both lived. “I had an idea of the annoyances and grievances that she had. I could see it all around me.”
Attenberg published Instant Love, her first book of stories, in 2006 when she was 34. “My first book was about what love was for the women of New York back then,” she said. “I think the two books are connected. I wrote the new book when I was 44. I want to show what life is like out there now.”
“It is the weirdest thing, for fiction is fiction, but I kept telling myself that I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted there to be a specific honesty to it. The characters are invented, but there are these important feelings and sentiments.”
In the novel, Andrea goes through the men in her life. There is Matthew, the truly impoverished painter committed to his art. Then there is Barron, a shell-shocked divorced father of a little girl, groping his way around, trying to put his life together. Finally, there is Kevin, who is the closest thing to a soulmate for Andrea, but whose mother won’t let him bring home a white woman.
“Andrea is jealous of Matthew, because he is committed to his art,” said Attenberg. He’s a pain in the ass, though, because he can never afford to pay for his own dinner. “I definitely identify with Matthew,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with myself, where I’ve said ‘Either I’m not going to write, have stability in my life and not be happy, or I am going to do this and accept what comes my way.’”
“With Barron, I’ve never been in a 12-year relationship and gotten out of it,” said Attenberg. “I’ve known people who’ve done that and everything after feels huge, everything feels like the first time.”
“These people fell in love, they felt they were all grown up, they were doing everything they were supposed to do,” she said. “Suddenly, it’s over. ‘Holy crap, I am completely adrift and I don’t know how to behave myself. I have to figure out how to be an adult in a different way.’”
“All the men that Andrea has sexual interludes with—I don’t think I can use the word romance—they are all in different ways trying to figure out how to be grown ups, how to treat people and how to be in the world.”
Andrea goes out for drinks with Nina, a 25-year-old coworker. Over stiff drinks, they bond over bad dates, creepy sexual behavior by men, rape and near-rape stories that happened to themselves and friends.
“I’m on social media and I see what young women are readily revealing about themselves, that they might not have revealed 20 years ago,” she said.
“The way that we talk about rape culture and that it exists wasn’t discussed 20 years ago,” said Attenberg. “It’s a positive step that people feel comfortable talking about the negative sexual things that happened to them.”
But the burgeoning workplace friendship with Nina doesn’t last, particularly after a surprising revelation that has Andrea thinking to herself, “Every day, there is a little death waiting for me. All I have to do is wake up and walk out the front door.”
Andrea’s yoga-teaching, gorgeous friend Indigo resurfaces when she has her baby. She is condescending about Andrea’s single status. “I was thinking of all these women who have those fancy tech jobs, who say ‘All I want to be is a yoga teacher,’” she said. “How do they afford it? Oh, you’re married to a super-rich dude!”
“There’s no point in writing Indigo if I’m going to make fun of her,” said Attenberg. “A one-note character is not interesting to me.” After life doesn’t quite turn out like it should, Indigo tries to reconnect with Andrea, looking for sympathy.
Andrea mockingly compares their lives: “Her life is architected, elegant and angular, a beauty to behold, and mine is a stew, a juicy, sloppy mess of ingredients and feelings and emotions… But have you tasted it? Have you tasted it. It’s delicious.”
In a flashback, Andrea explores her jazzman father’s heroin addiction and its disruption of her family. At 13, she trails her father from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village, where he scores and shoots up. She confronts her father’s junkie friend, defiantly saying, “I make my own rules.”
“I think what Andrea means is ‘This doesn’t feel right for me, this situation doesn’t fit for me,’” said Attenberg. “Andrea is going to spend the rest of her life trying to make things fit, or to make herself fit in.”
To say the least, the 17-year-old Andrea has a tumultuous upbringing, including one man’s inappropriate sexual attention at one of her mother’s “rent parties,” that veers into something worse.
“The mother is high and sad, not able to protect her daughter,” said Attenberg. “That scene is reflective of how some men treat younger women and take advantage of bad situations. I wanted to create a character that would allow readers to feel less alone.”
After high school, Andrea goes to art school in Chicago. Her own art dreams are thwarted after she becomes an assistant to a charismatic, abusive woman artist Felicia. Felicia systematically rips Andrea down, burying her artistic ambitions for years.
“The teacher was a mentor, as well as a friend,” said Attenberg. “I wrote this relationship to show how it is the responsibility of women to support each other.”
“I do think women can destroy each other in more specific ways than men can,” she said. “Friend break-ups are a million times worse than romantic break-ups.”
“This book was a way for Andrea to look at everything that was important in her life,” said Attenberg. “Andrea is offering up what made this character who she is today.”
Attenberg’s path as a successful novelist was nontraditional. “I had a very indirect path to a writing career,” she said. “I didn’t get an MFA, and I moved around a lot, all over the country. I met a lot of different people and got into all kinds of trouble.”
Attenberg is from the Chicago suburbs. She moved to Seattle after college. “My aunt tells me that after I finished college, I told her that I was going to travel a lot. At 21, I knew that I was going to roam. My mother calls me the Wandering Jew.”
By the late 1990s, Attenberg wound up in New York. At that time, she was an early blogger, writing about culture, dating and sex in her adopted Brooklyn neighborhood. She supported herself as a freelancer, writing shopping books and dull pharmaceutical copy. “Sometimes three months of freelance would pay for four months of my own writing,” she said
First came Instant Love, followed by The Kept Man in 2008, which was narrated by a woman who discovers that her comatose artist husband had been having prolific affairs with Polish coffee shop waitresses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as part of his last photo project.
After Attenberg was dropped by her publisher and moved to Grand Central Publishing, her editor and new publisher tweaked her career, taking her out of the box of women’s fiction and promoting her as a literary novelist.
“Grand Central knew what to do with me,” said Attenberg. My editor Helen Atsma saw The Middlesteins as a chance to relaunch my career. I had been marketed as a women’s fiction author, which was not true to the material I was writing. When you are mismarketed, when the audience picks up the book, they are not going to read it or talk about it. Word of mouth is what sells books. Half the battle is getting people to talk about your book, to tell their friends about it and to read it for their book club.”
Loyal to her editor, Attenberg followed Atsma when she moved to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is publishing All Grown Up.
Before The Middlesteins was published, Attenberg had doubled down on her writing career. “I was massively in debt,” she said. “Six months before The Middlesteins, I was couch surfing. It was probably foolish, but writing novels is the thrill I like to do, so I just went all in,” putting her expenses on her credit card. “Maybe I went too far. I was 40 and in bad financial shape.”
Becoming a bestselling literary novelist had unexpected perks. “I didn’t really know how bad my career was until it became good,” said Attenberg. “I had been plugging along publishing books, but not selling that well. Before The Middlesteins, no one asked me to write for glossy magazines. No one asked me to speak at universities. Now there are travel opportunities and events to promote my books. Because I’ve published in Europe, I get invited back there, as well.”
Attenberg is going old school with an upcoming epic bicoastal book tour, doing 27 events, mostly over a five-week period in March and April, swinging through the northeast, down to Key West, out to San Francisco, through the Midwest and the South. She’s hitting the great indie book stores, like Politics and Prose in D.C., Elliott Bay Books in Seattle and Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
“It’s not the fanciest book tour ever, “ said Attenberg, “but my publishers are behind me and I feel super lucky. I’ve written three books in five years, and I’ve built good relations with the independent booksellers. I feel like I am coming home, because I am seeing the same faces again.”
Attenberg looks forward to the conversations that will be had in newly toxic Trumpland. “I want to see what’s happening in America,” she said. “We are going to have an enormous conversation. Everything feels so urgent now.”
Though based in Brooklyn for two decades, Attenberg’s wanderlust never abated. She’d sublet her loft for months, going out to a new city, like her sojourn in Los Angeles several years ago. Recently, she kept going back to New Orleans. “For the past five years, New Orleans has been my spot,” she said.
A two-book deal pulled Attenberg out of debt and allowed her to buy a house in New Orleans. She splits her time between there and Brooklyn. “The house is called a side-hall shotgun, with all the rooms off one hallway,” she said. “It is a small house, but it has a beautiful office. New Orleans is a great place to write.”
“I love New York for millions of reasons, but I am interested in quality of life,” said Attenberg. “My quality of life is better down in New Orleans. I was looking to where I wanted to be in my fifties, and I wanted to be here.”
The title of her novel begs the question—does Attenberg feel grown up at 45? “Am I all grown up? I don’t know if anyone can be. I have this little house, a dog and a quiet and secure life,” she said. “I don’t even know if I was dreaming of that, but suddenly it became possible. For me, to have a home of my own feels like progress.”
Speaking of home, Attenberg has already tapped into the New Orleans literary scene. “There are a lot of writers down here,” she said. “I helped organize a Writers Resist event recently. I knew some writers and met a lot more. There are a lot of journalists down here who write about New Orleans for other places. It is a fascinating place with a complicated history, and a lot of things to write about.”
“I’ve met some great people,” said Attenberg. “I had my birthday dinner in November and I was at a table with people dressed in black. We were all writers. We all have shared sensibilities and neuroses. Wherever I go, I can’t escape that scene.”
Featured photo by Melissa Hom.