Debuting, again: A good day for Brooklyn novelist Jami Attenberg and 'The Middlesteins'
“I’m sort of not interesting enough maybe that, like, there’s not really anything to report about me," the novelist Jami Attenberg was saying as she sat at a long, rectangular table in her south Williamsburg loft. "It’s just, I’m just another—another writer in Brooklyn.”
The floor to ceiling windows have views of the river and, in the distance, Manhattan; the room is both spacious and cheerfully cluttered with books.
Attenberg, who is warmer than the slightly suspicious look she wears in her author photo would suggest—both contemplative and sure of herself; quick to self-deprecating laughter—was describing the buzz surrounding her new novel, The Middlesteins.
It’s been hard to ignore: a front-cover blurb from Jonathan Franzen; a starred Publishers Weekly review. And, for the most part, the attention has centered on the book, not on the author.
When Attenberg calls this lack of personal attention “wonderful,” the sentiment reads as genuine. Perhaps it’s because she’s been through all this before: the galley mailings and the advance praise; the interview requests fielded and the review attention sought; the pub date, the book party. The Middlesteins, which goes on sale today, is Attenberg’s fourth book, though given the tone of discovery accompanying its release, that might come as a surprise to some.
“I’ve had that debut thing like three times now,” she said. “Because I had a story collection … so then they were like, OK, now it’s your first novel—and people keep saying that this is my debut because no one’s ever heard of me before”—here she started giggling again—“which is really entertaining.”
Still: this time around, something is different. The volume of praise, certainly, outweighs any pre- or post-publication excitement for Attenberg’s actual debut, the short story collection Instant Love (2006), or the two novels that followed it, The Kept Man (2007) and The Melting Season (2010)—though all three received mixed-to-good reviews (the Chicago Tribune praised Attenberg’s “narrative voice—a lean, straight-ahead, deadpan tone,” in The Melting Season).
And Attenberg, who was born in 1971, is older, wiser.
“I got better at my job,” she said, before quickly correcting herself: “I’d like to think I got better at my job, so it’s maybe a better book, has a wider appeal.”
She also switched publishers after Riverhead, who had bought her last two books, dropped her due to underwhelming sales. Though her agent was able to sell The Middlesteins to Helen Atsma at Grand Central within about two weeks, it was a difficult time for Attenberg.
“I sound kind of OK about it now," she said. "But I will tell you, like a year and a half ago … I was really, really upset about it.”
This disappointment came after she’d already scrapped a finished book, a heavily autobiographical novel about a graphic novelist stuck in Los Angeles with a broken ankle. Attenberg had moved out to L.A. for a few months in the wake of a breakup, gotten a house in Silver Lake, and promptly broken her ankle. She spent the next two months indoors, watching “Intervention” and popping Percocet. Attenberg, who’d been through wilder days but no longer does drugs, had to be talked into taking the medication.
“My friends finally had like an opposite intervention,” she recounted, “where they were like, 'it’s called pain management for a reason: take these pills.'”
But after sitting on the novel for six months, making notes for revisions, Attenberg decided that she “didn’t ever want to look at it again.” It felt, ultimately, too small: more an act of catharsis than a work of art. She couldn't be that publicly vulnerable.
“Why I will never be a rich person,” she said, reflecting on that.
It may have been the right decision artistically, but it left Attenberg broke.
“Imagine if you worked for a year and didn’t get paid for your work,” she said.
But a working writer always has—is always living—a back-up plan. For Attenberg that has meant working on an occasional basis at Brooklyn bookstore Word (though she told me that she just ends up using much of the money she makes there on books), writing articles here and there, and taking on assignments as a freelance copywriter.
“[It’s] not really good for long-term planning,” she admitted, “but this is just the thing that I love to do so I’m just kind of doing it. I don’t know. I know so many people who hate what they do for a living. Like, hate hate hate hate hate it. And I don’t want to be that person. So I kind of just threw all in on it.”
Every so often a headhunter will contact her through LinkedIn, which always makes her feel “like a sullen child. Because I don’t want to do it.”
And right now, she doesn’t have to. After the disaster of the autobiographical book, The Middlesteins took shape very quickly, in about four months. And now, having worked all summer and gotten the balance of her advance, she’s fine, she said, “until the end of the year.”
“[I’m] always keenly aware of my finances at all times,” she said. “I’m always aware of exactly how much money I have in the bank. I thought it would be better at some point. And it doesn’t really get better.”
Still, Attenberg has already sold her next novel to her Middlesteins editor on proposal. Tentatively titled Saint Mazie, it will be based on the life of Mazie Phillips, in Attenberg’s words, a “boozy, bawdy broad,” who worked at movie theater on the Bowery in the '40s and ministered to the area’s poor. The deal is a vote of confidence from her publisher; it also means a further financial cushion to keep writing.
And while there’s no such thing as a sure bet in literary publishing, reading The Middlesteins—which treats obesity both gracefully and forthrightly—it’s easy to see why Grand Central was eager to keep her on their list.
THE BOOK'S TITULAR JEWISH FAMILY, WHICH is scattered around Chicago and its suburbs (Attenberg grew up in Buffalo Grove, a northern suburb of Chicago ) is thrown into turmoil when Richard, the patriarch, leaves his wife, who is over 300 pounds and severely diabetic. The novel is both an account of what happens next, and a history of Edie’s relationship to food, which begins as an appreciation and spirals into an out-of-control obsession.
Attenberg, like most women, has had her own food issues. She wrote the first half of the book without ever describing what Edie was eating.
“I was like, I don’t want to describe her as grotesque,” she said, explaining that she was struggling with how to depict the relationship and with what sort of author she saw herself as being. “I didn’t want to have to look at what I do, you know. And I don’t do that.”
Writing the book seems to have been in part an exorcism; she was able to talk about her struggles with food and with her body—she has, at points in her life, been as heavy as 200 pounds—without discomfort. She joked casually about her and her friend Kate’s word for the pooch of extra flesh just under waist. They call it “the business,” as in “How is the business today?” “Business is booming today.”
But Attenberg also admitted that her issues with food—she buys what she plans to eat each day, rather than keeping a stocked fridge—aren’t going away.
“I used to do a lot of drugs,” she said. “I don’t do drugs anymore, and I used to drink a lot more than I do now, and I used to smoke cigarettes. So I’ve done everything. I’m really proud myself that I’ve done just about everything. Not to mention my love life, which is a whole other interview. But, uh, I don’t—it’s almost like I had nothing left to focus on, [eating] is kind of like the core.”
Her insights into Edie’s eating habits—she finds comfort and friendship in food, specifically in unhealthy food; her obsessively health-conscious daughter-in-law follows her as she goes to two fast-food restaruants, then a Chinese restaurant, all in quick succession—feel personal. Describing a younger Edie contemplating a McRib sandwich, Attenberg writes:
Suddenly she felt like an animal; she wanted to drag the sandwich somewhere, not anywhere in this McDonald’s, not a booth, not Playland, but to a park, a shrouded corner of woods underneath shimmering tree branches, green, dark, and serene, and then, when she was certain she was completely alone, she wanted to tear that sandwich apart with her teeth.
The moment reeks of uncomfortable truth.
“If I could be a glutton,” Attenberg said firmly, “I would be a glutton. Because I—at my core—I’m a gluttonous person. But I can’t. So I’m not. But I was. So I get it!”
Yet beyond the personal, Attenberg saw the universal appeal of her subject
“[That’s] how the story ends up feeling bigger I think,” she said. “To me the book became kind of a history of fast food or overeating.” Attenberg posited that we are all “sort of set up to fail in this country.” For her, it started in childhood: “We’re being raised to eat crap and we’re being raised to become addicted to sugar, because that’s what’s quick and easy.”
Writing about women’s bodies is tricky—first, because it’s not typically seen as a topic for serious literature, and second because it’s so easy to offend. Though she was hesitant to speak about the Fat Acceptance movement, Attenberg agreed that conversations about food have to center on health rather than weight. And certainly the narrative voice of The Middlesteins has a sympathy, a kinship with Edie, even if the characters around her sometimes don’t. Compassion, for Attenberg, is central to the act of writing.
“It’s something that I hang my hat on,” she said. “Now I approach books like I’m making art and I’m telling this story that I’m dying to tell, but also, I’m approaching everything from, ‘How is this going to make the world a better place?’”
She admitted to feeling a bit corny saying that, but also genuinely hoped that The Middlesteins might encourage readers to say something to friends and family members who are overindulging—in any vice—or at least make readers less judgmental toward overweight people.
Though finally she settled on a much simpler idea of what she really wanted readers to feel about her work: “Super entertained.”
Word bookstore is hosting the launch party for 'The Middlesteins' on Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. featuring Attenberg with writer Kate Christensen.