Our Weapons Always: An Interview with Jami Attenberg, Author of “All Grown Up”

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. How do we know what is unnecessary? And I am sympathetic: not everyone loves what they do for a living; we grow uninvested over time. At the time I wrote it, it was more of just a little joke to myself. Do they have a responsibility that goes beyond telling an entertaining, well-constructed story? 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. Also I wanted the book to feel memoiristic, without seeming like a formally constructed memoir that someone has set out to write. Well, the joke’s on me now, isn’t it? 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. What is the role of writers right now? In terms of what effect I wanted it to have, I was hoping for it to feel immediate, exhilarating, and highly confessional. 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. I certainly get bored of answering questions after a while. 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. Also, I was trying to do justice to the real-life Mazie and all she accomplished. And I liked both of the characters better after I finished writing it. Writers at a minimum have a responsibility to fight for freedom of speech. I like to think the reader could easily imagine they’ve had this conversation without ever knowing it had happened. But surely things have become more openly toxic in the 24-hour news cycle since the election. (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. I could not fuck it up. Most of the first draft was done within a six-month period. 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. 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. JAMI ATTENBERG:   All of my books start with a character speaking to me and demanding to be heard. 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. 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. Writing with compassion and intelligence, those are our weapons always. (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 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. The distress I feel is nothing in comparison to the distress of these people. 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. And that also means taking our work seriously. During our two-hour conversation, Attenberg speaks about the first-person narrative and literature in Trump-era America. After spending two years writing Mazie and another year promoting it, I was more than happy to move on to the contemporary era. Which brings me to editing. 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. 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. ¤
Eric Nelson is a fiction writer and cultural critic living in Queens, New York. 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? How are you coping in the current political climate? 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 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. 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. 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. How was your mindset different while writing it? So I think in this case it was easy to step into the first person, because the character allowed me in so easily. But you asked “how,” and I don’t know if I’ve answered that question. And how do we maintain a sense of empathy? It’s not me I’m worried about. But look, we can only write about what makes us feel passionate. It was never meant to be published. What is behind this assumption? Human emotions and a good story are always relevant. Writers work so hard to create a specific and unique piece of art that rises above our particular reality. 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. I do admit I am completely fascinated to see what kind of writing comes out of this moment. 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. What made you choose a first-person narrative to tell Andrea’s story? The past life of the book’s protagonist, Andrea, unfolds through flashbacks while her Brooklyn neighborhood changes in present time. I think laziness or lack of time may be the real cause of the problem here. 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. Misogyny? 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. And because of that I wrote it quickly. I both regret and don’t regret slipping those lawn signs into the book. 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. That shows up in the book. It’ll be a few years, but we’ll start to see a cycle of post-election writing getting published. But in writing it I established a bond between them, an openness and an honesty in their conversations. The reader takes on the role of voyeur, following Andrea to weddings, work, and family visits in New Hampshire. There was just a lot I had to get right. God help us all in these cruel modern times to maintain our sense of empathy. ¤
ERIC NELSON:   All Grown Up seems to be written almost in a constant stream of consciousness. MARCH 8, 2017

IT IS 9 a.m. I was beholden to nothing. 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. That comes from instinct and experience, and there is no shortcut, although editors can be helpful in this area. So it exists because I maintain that knowledge. There were a lot of layers to the process. Lazy criticism? 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? Just because it doesn’t get published doesn’t mean it never existed.