You think, because she’s so funny, so sharp, so sarcastic and constantly moving, that Jami Attenberg can’t make you sad. But she can floor you. Fiction like Attenberg’s—entertaining, witty, a swirl of happiness, hope, and disaster—is an escape from daily reality and worry. It’s also a way into topics that are rarely approached otherwise, unless by way of sterile academic argument. Precisely because they appeal to emotion, Attenberg’s stories render accessible those things we often can’t, intellectually, persuade people to see.
All Grown Up follows Andrea Bern, the daughter of a heroin addicted, musician father and activist mother. Andrea doesn’t want the things she’s expected to want—babies, marriage—but she doesn’t know what she wants instead. She likes to drink, sleep with men, and, for some time, paint. As with many of Attenberg’s stories, All Grown Up doesn’t feel plotted. Everything is revealed seemingly at random as Andrea thinks back to her past and experiences her present. Because we’re moving around in time, we see the same moments in Andrea’s life through multiple lenses. This has the odd and wonderful effect of creating a multidimensional personal history for her that feels a lot like one’s own past: There is no linear quality to time; at discrete points in our lives, we view memories and experiences differently.
Attenberg’s descriptions are snarky, a bit in-your-face, but on point and always visual. They are much of what enlivens her characters. A “real” Italian man has “chest hair by the fistful.” Another character’s clothes “seem to hover around his body, barely attached.” And my favorite, Deborah: “gray-haired, bespectacled, wearing a witchy black dress with a smattering of black sequins, a delicious bosom, you just want to crawl up inside of it already.”
Attenberg critiques culture by revealing her characters’ lived experiences. She writes about falling in love, about death, sickness, consumerism, guilt, drug use, alcoholism—all without blinking. The focal point of her work is always the person, and she denies her characters the indignity of being defined only by their problems. Nina and Indigo, Andrea’s friends, deal with being fetishized and labeled as exotic; her friend Kevin is exhausted by “being a black man” in New York City; her characters survive poverty because of rent-stabilized apartments; but they are each so much more than what they go through. They are quick-witted, complex, and fully fleshed-out, fast-talking themselves off the page. Attenberg’s sixth book, All Grown Up, came out March 7th from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Jami and I recently exchanged emails about her work, her new novel included.
—Sarah Hoenicke for Guernica
Guernica: There’s a line in The Middlesteins about all malls looking the same, but your character, Kenneth, knows that each one is unique. It seems like that’s how you feel about people. We have the same problems, the same kinds of lives, but still, each of us is unique. Also, your characters’ worlds are so complete. Everything is there—their politics, preoccupations, family worries, environment—and it’s all delivered so fluidly as to completely mask its fictional nature. What does character creation look like for you?
Jami Attenberg: My books always start with hearing a character’s voice first before anything else. I hear them talking, and there’s usually an immediate stake to be discussed or analyzed. I often like to engage them in dialogue with other people even though I won’t ever use it. That’s a good, quick way to get to know them better. Every so often I might do a quick doodle of them. I have a specific set of interests and messages I want to explore or expose with every novel, so my gaze looks for those threads in each of my characters. For example, if we know their political leanings, it’s because I want to make sure my characters think politically in one way or another, because I personally think that’s an important part of one’s character.
Guernica: Your work is frequently hilarious, like in the moment in All Grown Up when Baron halts sex to clean his glasses with Andrea’s panties. These instances are so ludicrous they feel real, and they happen so often throughout your books that they seem intrinsically part of your voice as a writer. How do you balance believability with theatrical-feeling moments of comedy?
Jami Attenberg: In part, I write to entertain myself, so if it makes me laugh it goes in the book. Also, I like to spin tragedy together with humor, because I feel safer writing about the sad stuff then. I don’t really know how I balance it; I suppose it’s instinctual. I do think about things in terms of a joke working or not working, does this line land the joke correctly, that sort of thing. I’m less concerned with it being believable or not. I trust myself to write things that feel realistic.
Guernica: You are six books into a wonderfully successful career. Are you the writer you wanted to be when you first started Instant Love?
Jami Attenberg: I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be when I wrote my first book, necessarily. I was just happy to be getting published at all. I was so naïve about the industry and about writing in general, especially as I didn’t have an MFA and had few writing peers. I knew I wanted to have a feminist stance to my work, just as I do in my life. Now I feel much more in control of the work I’m creating and the messages I want to communicate, and also what my strengths are as a writer, and how best to exploit them. And what my responsibilities are as part of the literary community. So, it’s not just the material or how many books I sell (or don’t sell). It’s about the actions I take.
Guernica: Neither The Middlesteins nor All Grown Up is written linearly. All Grown Up is a particularly interesting choice since we get to see the same moments play out: first in memory and then in real time, or the other way around. Why did you make that choice? Is it a kind of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” experiment? (I think it worked well — it made Andrea’s past so multifaceted!)
Jami Attenberg: Even though the spine of the book is a diary, I’d add that Saint Mazie is also, in part, not written in a linear fashion. So that’s something I’m interested in: figuring out what’s most important in a character’s life, and then what that actual order of importance is from a time perspective. I’ve just always seen things that way. When I meet a person and I engage with them in conversation, I find myself wondering what they’ll be like when they’re really old, what they were like when they were younger, what their big moments were in life. Someone I met recently said, “Oh you think like a therapist,” and I said, “No, I think like a novelist.” So, I don’t really think of it as an experiment so much as, again, where my gaze goes. But a lot of literature plays with time. I certainly haven’t invented anything new. But, of course, every book is an invention, an experiment. We’re all mad scientists in the laboratory no matter what.