Human Relationships Are Hard: An Interview With Adelle Waldman
By Evan AllgoodAugust 25, 2013
ONE OF MY FAVORITE PASSAGES in Adelle Waldman’s debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. — a book teeming with favorite passages, and justifiably one of the most talked about of the summer — is the following: “Was this his life now? Nate wondered. Sitting across from Hannah at various tables, in various restaurants and bars? Ad infinitum.” There’s nothing wrong with Nate and Hannah’s relationship, no reason for him to dread sharing a drink with an attractive, intelligent woman with whom he’s tremendously compatible. Which is why the childish, jaded bemoaning of this fate strikes me as so bleakly funny.
(Of course, depending on the person, sitting across from someone at various tables, forever, can sound like a dream or a nightmare. As Chris Rock put it in Never Scared: “That’s all relationships are: fucking and eating […] And the longer you’re with somebody, it’s more eating and less fucking.”)
One of the triumphs of Waldman’s novel is that Nate, a successful, self-involved young writer living in Brooklyn, is both an okay guy and an asshole, depending on whether or not you’ve tried to date him. Most of us are friends with at least one heartbreaker, a charismatic non-sociopath who, for one reason or another (fear of commitment, boredom, infidelity, all of the above) winds up hurting if not devastating almost everyone he or she dates. Waldman ushers us into the mind of the Male Heartbreaker like an overqualified and visibly disappointed zoologist giving a tour of the monkey cages. The result is hilarious, poignant, infuriating, depressing, and (for both sexes) painfully relatable.
Waldman and I met at a café in Bed-Stuy. True to her claims, she is much nicer than her protagonist.
Evan Allgood: Did you find it difficult writing from the male perspective?
Adelle Waldman: I feel as if it’s easier in some ways. My ego got in the way so much in previous attempts at novels where I was trying to write so directly about my own experience that the main female character became a stand-in for me, and I’d use her to vindicate myself and my point of view. That just gets in the way; I feel like this enabled me to be more clear-sighted about the character and about the artfulness of [crafting the story]. When you’re writing your own story directly, it seems so interesting to you, but [because] this is so clearly not me, I could see it more on the level of story rather than self-vindication or autobiography. So that was surprisingly useful, and I made it easier on myself: I made Nate from Baltimore, where I’m from. He’s Jewish; his parents are immigrants (my mother is an immigrant). Since I had to research every thought he had, I decided to keep a lot of my own background details. An exception is that I didn’t go to Harvard, but it was important to me that Nate go to Harvard because there’s an aspect of confidence and entitlement and intellectual status that I wanted him to have.
EA: There’s a line in the book I really like: “Contrary to what these women seemed to think, he wasn’t indifferent to their unhappiness. And yet he seemed, in spite of himself, to provoke it.” When Nate starts these relationships he’s not going out of his way to hurt the other person, and yet it keeps happening. What do you think he should do differently?
AW: I hope that was an interesting predicament to imagine. I tried to come up with a plausible psychology for him because Nate, and some of the men I’ve dated and that my friends have dated don’t hurt other people for fun, but nor do they feel that the chance of hurting someone is so horrible that they should run the other direction. They must be torn between feeling bad but feeling also tempted to keep doing the things that lead, eventually, to heartbreak. I think it’s a predicament; there’s not exactly an answer. I don’t feel like I can say, “This is what’s wrong with Nate.” Human relationships are hard.
EA: He seems to spend a lot of time justifying his actions instead of owning up to them, and batting his conscience down when it rises up to tell him he’s done something wrong.
AW: I think that’s exactly it, that his concern is justifying himself in his own eyes. That’s not quite the right concern; [the right concern] is the effect on other people. I wanted the book to reflect what life is like, and that there are ways in which people are not at all villains or in possession of some very obvious character flaw that makes them difficult to deal with in life. I wanted Nate to be more self-justifying than empathetic; it seems more true to the experience I’ve had in that you don’t come across that many people who are just really bad. I wanted to write in that gray area of life.
EA: [Spoiler alert] Why did you decide to pair Nate with Greer at the end? Do you worry that some readers will roll their eyes at that relationship?
AW: I knew from the beginning that Nate was going to wind up with Greer because one of my ideas for the book was to dramatize the situation so that, from Hannah’s perspective, it would be something that many women have experienced and can relate to: you’re dating this guy, things are great, you’re totally perfect for each other, and then he pulls away and becomes distant for no reason that you can tell, and you break up. You’re really upset and it sucks, but you tell yourself that he just has issues with commitment and that’s it. And then five seconds later he’s with someone who seems so much less suitable. I’ve seen that kind of narrative happen; that was my skeleton and what I wanted to dramatize. But I wanted everyone to be equal and for Nate not to be revealed to be a total fool at the end for winding up with this totally ridiculous person. People read the end differently. Greer is less of an intellectual partner for Nate, I think, but I tried to make her and the story real enough and not put too much of my analysis in the text.
EA: Greer’s certainly not an idiot; she’s a successful author. She’s also very attractive, and Nate doesn’t tire of her the way he does Hannah, maybe in part because Greer is a little unstable.
AW: Right, and that was another interesting thing one sees in life that I wanted in the book: the way we actually live can be different from the ideas we have about it — in fact, someone being a little crazy can be appealing because it makes things interesting. Sometimes what we say we want isn’t actually what we want.
EA: It also makes sense because, in my experience, people have a tendency after a breakup to date someone totally different from the last person they dated, and Hannah and Greer are almost polar opposites.
AW: I love that you say that, because certainly someone could say that Hannah and Greer are similar in that they are writers who live in Brooklyn who both went to college, so in a demographic sense they’re similar, but they have different vibes as people. To me that’s important too because it’s so easy to generalize: All these Brooklyn writers are the same. But that is just not true at all. People are so distinct as individuals even if we look like we’d be in the same market or demographic. I wanted to resist that kind of satire that rests on the types. That’s fine every once in a while; I maybe did a little bit of it in the book, but to me it’s more interesting to keep these individuals from falling under these broad categories. There are a lot of books that I enjoy that satirize in a broader way, and it can be funny, but that wasn’t what I was interested in.
EA: Were you still working as a journalist while you wrote Nathaniel P.? Do you consider yourself a novelist first or a journalist?
AW: I always wanted to write novels, and journalism was just a day job. I graduated from college in 1998 and moved to New York with the idea that I was going to be a waitress and write a novel. Then I became a waitress and it quickly dawned that I could not write a novel. Everything I wrote sucked, and I didn’t really like being a waitress. I had a boyfriend at the time who was quite a successful magazine journalist for his age; he was pretty young, just a couple years older than I was. He was the only person I knew that age — 22, 23 — who really liked his job, so I thought, Maybe I should do what he’s doing. I got a job as a reporter for a financial newsletter, and I did think it was easier than being a waitress in the sense that I was just such a bad waitress. I have so much respect for people in the food service industry. When I was a waitress I would concentrate so much on trying to look like I was empathizing with the person and hearing them that I would forget everything. I just wanted them to like me so they would tip me but I had no idea if they wanted their steak rare or what.
I was writing a column for The Wall Street Journal about seven years ago, and I quit it to write a novel. I was 29 and I quit that column and sublet my apartment and moved into my parents’ in Baltimore and told myself I was going to write a novel in six months. And I did. It was not only the first time I’d finished a novel but was so far beyond any attempt I’d made prior. I’d never made it past the 25 or 50-page mark. I was really excited about that, but the novel didn’t go over super well with agents, and even after I found one it didn’t sell. It took me about a year to level with myself. In that year I was so confident and happy about the novel that I didn’t immediately want to go back to journalism. I thought, Oh, soon I’m going to be a famous novelist. It’s gonna be great. I was so clueless. I started SAT tutoring because I thought that was a way I could make money, and I wasn’t dying to get another journalism job — and six years later, I was still an SAT tutor. I would write book reviews on the side but the reviews were not nearly enough to live off of, while tutoring was. I found myself getting progressively older, a 35-year-old SAT tutor; I spent 30 to 35 as a tutor. It’s a very lucrative market, and it was fine; I don’t want to complain about it. It was just, if the novel hadn’t worked out, I would have been very sad because it wasn’t my life goal to be a 35-year-old SAT tutor.
EA: In 2008 you wrote a response to a Lori Gottlieb essay titled “Marry Him! The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough,” in which you said you felt a palpable priority shift when you turned 30: “the question of marriage […] becomes much more angst-ridden.” This is something you touch on in the novel, too: “No matter what [women in their 30s] claimed, they seemed, in practice, to care about little except relationships.” How have your priorities changed now that you’re in your mid-30s, married, and published?
AW: If I wrote that piece again I’d probably be a little more careful about certain things that I might have written casually: I don’t want to speak collectively about something women experience. For me the family wasn’t a priority; I always wanted to be a novelist. I think when I was in my early 20s I didn’t want kids at all, but as I got older I thought, Maybe, possibly, but I want to be a novelist first. But it seemed like the social perception was that other people assume you want to get married, they assume you want to have kids, you’re perceived as eager to do that, and that makes men take that for granted.
At any time in my 20s and early 30s, romantic stuff definitely occupied a big part of my time and mental life. I think the best remedy for that is being in a good relationship. I spend so much less time worrying about that because I don’t have those kinds of emotional problems. There’s nothing more distracting from writing than being really upset because a relationship isn’t going well, so that’s been a relief. I feel like for the first time ever I can think seriously about whether I’d want to have a child, and I think that’s sort of unusual. Many people, men and women, know from a younger age that they want to have kids, but I was just so obsessed with the novel. Of course, I have to talk to my husband. For me suddenly it’s becoming a viable possibility, but he gets a say too.
EA: It’s a cliché, but it sounds like the book was the kid you wanted to have.
AW: It’s true; I was obsessed with the book. I’d get up in the middle of the night with an idea — a sentence here, changing something there. If someone dislikes the book I could never say, “Oh, I just dashed it off. It’s nothing.”
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