IT IS 9 a.m. in New Orleans, during the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebration, as Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins and 2015’s Saint Mazie, sits down to answer questions over Gchat. Her new novel, All Grown Up, set to be released on March 7, reflects on the social pressures placed on women as they mature and enter adulthood. The past life of the book’s protagonist, Andrea, unfolds through flashbacks while her Brooklyn neighborhood changes in present time. The reader takes on the role of voyeur, following Andrea to weddings, work, and family visits in New Hampshire. During our two-hour conversation, Attenberg speaks about the first-person narrative and literature in Trump-era America.
ERIC NELSON: All Grown Up seems to be written almost in a constant stream of consciousness. What made you choose a first-person narrative to tell Andrea’s story?
JAMI ATTENBERG: All of my books start with a character speaking to me and demanding to be heard. There are times when I’m in their shoes but I need a little remove from them, so I can have some authorial control, and that’s when I’ll go with a close third. And there are times when I’m instantly up close to the character, first person, really in their skin, and I feel like I know them right away, and I’ll just go first-person, because I’m already there. So I think in this case it was easy to step into the first person, because the character allowed me in so easily.
In terms of what effect I wanted it to have, I was hoping for it to feel immediate, exhilarating, and highly confessional. Also I wanted the book to feel memoiristic, without seeming like a formally constructed memoir that someone has set out to write. And I wanted it to feel conversational, as if Andrea were directly talking to the reader, as if she were revealing the contents of her soul to the reader. When I think about Andrea explaining what this book is, I imagine her saying, “Here’s everything you need to know about me in one place.”
I remember you writing on your blog some time ago about how many male critics presume books written by women must be autobiographical. What is behind this assumption? Misogyny? Lazy criticism?
To be fair, I’ve had women ask me this question too, although certainly not as many, and I find that women who have read this book have many other questions to ask besides that.
But I would say in general it’s a lazy question to ask, and I think the critic or interviewer isn’t doing enough work as a reader or a thinker if they can’t get beyond that question. Writers work so hard to create a specific and unique piece of art that rises above our particular reality. When the interviewer doesn’t want to figure out a way to ask the author about their lives in an interesting way, or can’t be bothered to dig deep enough into the text to move beyond the superficial, suggests a certain kind of boredom on their part. And I am sympathetic: not everyone loves what they do for a living; we grow uninvested over time. I certainly get bored of answering questions after a while.
Also, obviously, some writers offer their material up as autobiographical — I’ve noticed Elif Batuman describes her new book as “semi-autobiographical,” and I look forward to it and all of her press — but the interviewer just needs to do the work to decide if that’s the right question to be asking. I’ve had three books come out in the last five years, so I’m a real student of press and the way people talk about their books. I think laziness or lack of time may be the real cause of the problem here. I’ll save the sexist label for the men who tell me that they’re surprised they like my work because they were certain it was going to be chick lit.
How did the process of writing All Grown Up differ from that of writing Saint Mazie, which required some research on your part for the historical setting on the Bowery in the early 20th century? How was your mindset different while writing it?
After spending two years writing Mazie and another year promoting it, I was more than happy to move on to the contemporary era. I spent a lot of time researching Mazie, and there were also a multitude of first-person voices in that book, so it was just a slower process in general. There was just a lot I had to get right. Also, I was trying to do justice to the real-life Mazie and all she accomplished. I could not fuck it up. There were a lot of layers to the process.
So setting a book in a modern era with a present tense, wholly invented, contemporary voice enabled me to have a really vivid writing energy. I was beholden to nothing. And because of that I wrote it quickly. Most of the first draft was done within a six-month period.
Which brings me to editing. In an interview with Emily Gould, you’re quoted as saying, “I am really unsentimental about throwing things away.” How does a writer keep that distance and know what is unnecessary without losing a sense of empathy for the characters they’ve created?
Just because it doesn’t get published doesn’t mean it never existed. If I write a scene between two characters and I learn something about them, even if I don’t use that scene, not even a phrase from it, I’ve still acquired that knowledge about the character, which could ultimately inform some other moment down the line. So it exists because I maintain that knowledge.
As an example, with my new book, I wrote pages of dialogue between my narrator, Andrea, who is just about to turn 40, and her co-worker Nina, who is 26 years old, where they discuss all the drugs they’ve ever done in their lives. It was never meant to be published. But in writing it I established a bond between them, an openness and an honesty in their conversations. That shows up in the book. I like to think the reader could easily imagine they’ve had this conversation without ever knowing it had happened. And I liked both of the characters better after I finished writing it.
But you asked “how,” and I don’t know if I’ve answered that question. How do we know what is unnecessary? That comes from instinct and experience, and there is no shortcut, although editors can be helpful in this area. And how do we maintain a sense of empathy? God help us all in these cruel modern times to maintain our sense of empathy.
How are you coping in the current political climate? At one point in the book, when the protagonist Andrea is in New Hampshire visiting her brother and sister-in-law, there’s the mention of Trump lawn signs. But surely things have become more openly toxic in the 24-hour news cycle since the election.
I both regret and don’t regret slipping those lawn signs into the book. I regret having his name in my book — because fuck that guy, obviously — but I don’t regret it, because it makes the book feel immediate and current and accurate to the time in which it was set, which was actually 2016. At the time I wrote it, it was more of just a little joke to myself. Well, the joke’s on me now, isn’t it? (And all of us.)
I am personally coping just fine, because I am a middle-aged, middle-class white person who currently has all of her rights intact. It’s not me I’m worried about. It’s our immigrant population, women fighting to maintain control of their reproductive rights, people of lower income, people of color who are treated unfairly by our police and judicial system, people who desperately need affordable healthcare in order to stay alive … I could go on and on. The distress I feel is nothing in comparison to the distress of these people. Sure, I feel shattered by the news on a daily basis, but I think everyone I know is capable of moving beyond the shell shock toward focusing on resisting this new regime and helping our communities grow stronger.
What is the role of writers right now? Do they have a responsibility that goes beyond telling an entertaining, well-constructed story?
I’m certain I’m preaching to the converted with this audience, so forgive me if you’ve already made your three phone calls today to your elected officials. Writers at a minimum have a responsibility to fight for freedom of speech. (However much you are capable of committing your time, of course.) It can mean figuring out ways to work within our communities either through activism or education, and supporting organizations working at a national and international level as well, such as ACLU or PEN. And that also means taking our work seriously.
But look, we can only write about what makes us feel passionate. People shouldn’t have to throw away the 150 pages of a novel they were working on before the election just because it doesn’t feel relevant to our current political nightmare. Human emotions and a good story are always relevant. Writing with compassion and intelligence, those are our weapons always.
I do admit I am completely fascinated to see what kind of writing comes out of this moment. It’ll be a few years, but we’ll start to see a cycle of post-election writing getting published. If people channel half the energy into their fiction that they put into their tweets and protest signs, we’re in for some great writing.