I first met Jami Attenberg in the East Village in early 2006. She was hosting a reading series at the Boxcar Lounge and I was there with a few other debut novelists to read from my as-yet-unpublished first book. We were both on the brink of professional writer-hood filled with all of the excitement and vertigo that state suggests. Since that time, I’ve watched her grow as an artist, writing with a commitment that was unfailing, a humor that was irresistible, earning the respect that was inevitable and long overdue. Her books are not just carefully-crafted gems. They are humane, honest, and full of heart—much like Jami herself.
This interview turned out to be more of a candid dialogue. So, you’ll see my responses sprinkled throughout. We chatted about being women writers, lit culture, Leaning In, sexist reviewers, and what drives us.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Jami Attenberg: I have contemplated this so many times, especially because my career was more miss than hit for the first few books, and more than once I thought, oh you’re really going to have a backup plan here. I’ve worked for a few non-profit organizations in the past, and I worked as a producer on internet projects, and I also was an advertising copywriter. I did my time in the service industry, too. I didn’t particularly love any of those things, or they didn’t really fulfill me anyway, not like writing does. But I guess if I couldn’t write again I’d work for some sort of activist organization. Also once in a while I’ve had a far off fantasy of directing, because I like telling people what to do. But I hope I get to write forever.
Do you consider yourself first and foremost a female writer, or is your professional identity simply, writer?
JA: I think writer first, then female writer, then American writer. (There are more categories I could include but those immediately come to mind.) These things are all an important part of who I am, but if I thought about how I would introduce myself to someone who asked what I did for a living, I would say, “Writer.”
There has been so much discussion of women in the workplace of late—from leaning in, wage inequality, boardroom behavior, to women being too embarrassed to negotiate for themselves, discuss money, or champion their own work. Turning that critical eye toward books and publishing, an industry largely run by women editors, agents, and publishers, have you ever felt sidelined because you were a female writer in a way a male writer might not have been?
JA: Of course. Being a woman has affected the way I’ve been marketed and sold and reviewed and by whom I’ve been reviewed, both in terms of publications and the gender of the reviewers. It continues to this day—I just had a long conference call with my agent and my editor about whether or not my cover could be considered even the slightest bit chick lit. Not that there is anything wrong with writing chick lit—it’s just not what I write, and to mislead an audience is bad for everyone. (We agreed the cover was fine in the end.) I feel certain there is no male author in a comparable stage of his career worrying about such matters. I’ve had to work very hard to be taken seriously. (Marisha—It seems like you had a different experience for your first book? You got really serious literary reviews out the gate, no?)
Marisha Pessl: I did. But there was a backlash. And a backlash to the backlash, all of which felt like a bus hitting me at the time. In hindsight it seemed to be spawned by a mixture of misogyny, envy, snark-culture, and my own inability to stop smiling in photographs. There is something incendiary about a woman writing a story and putting it out there for others to read. I still haven’t quite figured out why that is. Is it the shock of a female having the initiative to step out of the crowd to do this little age-old thing? On the whole though—and perhaps this is naïve of me—I believe the work will speak for itself. Individual pettiness, a bad review, trolls, reviewer bias, literary takedowns etc.—it is all a bit of refuse washing up on the beach in the ocean that will ultimately be one’s career. The work is the work is the work. Words on a page—that’s all we can control. And it’s such a gift, this job, being a storyteller, that everything else is really just ambient sound. Now, back to Jami.
JA: But my sense is that many female literary authors—at least early in their career—are concerned about how they are being perceived because of their gender. And I could probably write a whole separate essay on how it took being blurbed by a prominent male author for people to start taking me seriously.
MP: That’s funny, now that I think about it, because that same male author blurbed my first book. (I wonder if he’s secretly some lit-world Vishnu.)
How comfortable are you with the word ambition and would you describe yourself or your books as ambitious?
JA: I don’t even understand why people think being ambitious is a bad thing. What’s wrong with wanting to achieve things? Yeah, I’m plenty ambitious. My identity is extremely tied into my productivity. And my books are ambitious in that I’m always trying to do something formally interesting and different and inventive with each new one. But is that ambitious? Isn’t that just what being a writer is about? Constantly challenging yourself to do something new and exciting with your art? I don’t really understand how you can be a writer and not be ambitious with your work. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
MP: Absolutely. As Jim Patterson says, “Aim for the stars.” What else are we going to do with our time on this planet?
Is there a literary culture in America and if so, where is it?
JA: I could never go to another so-called literary event again for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t miss a thing. I mean, they’re fine, mostly, it’s just that I’ve been to enough of them, like hundreds and hundreds of them, so there aren’t a lot of surprises left—although I am always happy to be surprised, and that does happen on occasion. And, of course, I am always happy to support my friends! But if you banned me from bookstores I’d be devastated. Bookstores are where the real, pure literary culture thrives. People just standing around, shooting the shit, talking about books—that’s what it’s about for me. And you can find that in any indie bookstore across America.
MP: I find this response interesting—how you thought of the average New York lit-world party, which I agree is strangely hollow. But remember when writers supported other writers and created art out of their very connection à la the Beats, the Lost Generation, the Algonquin Round Table? I’m wondering why the literary world has become so fractured and peripheral today. Unless I’m romanticizing and even in those so-called brotherhoods it was competitive, insidious, and no one could really stand each other. I guess this is just my fantasy, that one day American culture will have something more immediately substantive than so many movie stars talking all the time. Wouldn’t it be cool if a show called Lit Talk aired at the same hour as The Bachelorette?
JA: To answer your question, the literary world has become so fractured because of the Internet. We don’t need to show up as much in person because we see each other online all the time, and so many of us never shut the fuck up.
Who are your mentors, real or imagined, and what do they do for you?
JA: I had a mentor once but several years ago she severed our relationship. It was worse than any breakup I’ve ever had. It took me months to recover, and I still think about her—oh, she would like this book, oh I just ordered her favorite wine—although certainly less so now. But when she was still in my life, she really nurtured me, encouraged me on a daily basis, read my work, showed me the contents of her brilliant mind, which I readily fed from. I’m a better writer because I knew her. I don’t know if I’m a better person, per se. But I’m a better writer. These days I don’t have any mentors, I’m all on my own, but I’m in my mid-40s now anyway, so it’s probably time for me to mentor other people. I try to make an effort and reach out to young women who are doing good work that I think I can help or support. I don’t know if mentorship is for everyone, but for me it feels like a responsibility, something I can do as a good literary citizen.
What is the most memorable thing someone said to you at one of your readings?
JA: I mostly remember the mortifying things. Recently I did an event where my interlocutor was this sharp, funny woman, and we had this impassioned conversation about feminism and writing about strong women and taking unconventional paths in your life, and I read a bit from this book I have coming out next year, kind of a funny sex scene, and after the event was over an older man came up to me with his wife and said, “I have a question for you—where do you meet your boyfriends? Do you use dating sites, or what?” His wife actually hit him, and if she hadn’t I might have.
What are you deathly afraid of?
JA: I’m hugely claustrophobic. I see death all around me on an airplane or in a crowded room. I’m always looking for an exit. This may also be applicable spiritually as well, but I don’t like to think about it too hard.
Now that you are about to publish your sixth book, what is your view of your work? Do you trust that you have a certain level of mastery, do you still feel like a novice, or is it something else?
JA: I’m becoming a better writer all the time, but I can’t say for sure that every book will be better than the last. It’s hard to be completely consistent in your trajectory, and there other outside factors involved, like relationships, where I’m living, health issues, the state of the world. Like this election year, for example, is killing my writing. Donald Trump is murdering my prose.
Also not every idea is necessarily my best, though I might end up writing it anyway. But also I understand now not every book needs to be published—if there’s anything I’ve mastered it’s that! I’ve thrown away two full books and several half books. I highly recommend throwing things away. Some of our more prolific authors, you read every other book of theirs and think, couldn’t you have just sat that one out? Have you ever thrown a book away, Marisha?
MP: What you’re talking about is the equivalent of A-list stars doing movies called Cambodia Bombast that go direct to On Demand and yes, it happens all the time in publishing. Hello, John Updike and Brazil. I’ve thrown away two. A twenty-four hour East Coast suburban nightmare and a 900-page gothic southern novel. But I acknowledge, too, the reality of artistic integrity being a luxury. There is art and there is also wanting to pay for your kid’s college so she isn’t burdened with a lifetime of debt and if that means releasing a book that isn’t quite up to snuff, maybe that’s okay for someone every now and then. (Which is different from the aging literary genius who suspects every thought in his head worthy being etched in bronze.) Which leads me to the question did Picasso ever release a series of paintings that were—in his own mind—duds? Warhol did. And Dali did Alka-Seltzer commercials. Those thirty seconds of sell-out chintz now, after all this time, seem oddly wonderful.
As a writer who actively engages in social media, what has been your experience with bullying trolls?
JA: I don’t want to curse myself, but the trolls don’t seem that interested in me. I might block a few people a week, usually for something sexist or anti-Semitic, but sometimes I’ll just block people because they correct a typo I’ve made. I’m seriously horrified by how some of my friends have been treated, though. But I don’t know if they can win. They’re battling automated hate.
One of my favorite things about your novels is that every story is so different from the next, though they are bound by a hilarious and touching generosity of spirit. How do you choose the idea that will sustain you creatively over the course of writing a novel and how do you begin?
JA: Well, thanks Marisha! My books are character-driven at the beginning. Every book has started with me hearing a voice speaking to me loud enough that I need to write it down. And then I just do the usual thing we all do, think very deeply about who this character is and what her story is and how I might best approach telling that story.
Around the writing of The Middlesteins I experienced some changes in my life that helped me to recognize the importance of actively expressing the idea of compassion as an element of my writing. So I also do a lot of thinking around that—how will this book help me to communicate compassion to my audience? And how can I learn from the writing of this book myself? And sometimes the answer is showing a character who is truly compassionate, and sometimes it’s showing a character who is deeply flawed, but in my telling of the story I invite the audience to apply compassion to the characters.
Look, I come up with lots of ideas that would probably be really commercial and I just throw them away if I don’t think they’re compassionate enough or I won’t personally grow from the experience. Amongst other things, I view writing as an act of service. So that sustains me, I think. Knowing that I can write whatever I want as long as I have this spine of compassion that supports it.
Do you view contemporary writers as:
A. Fellow patients in the madhouse
B. Fellow survivors in a lifeboat somewhere in the South Pacific
C. Aliens from distant planets
D. Ideal company for a rainy Tuesday
E. Other: __________
What drives you to write?
D. Desire to regularly torture myself like the Opus Dei albino in The DaVinci Code
E. Possibility of immortality
F. Other: Idle hands are the devil’s workshop
About Jami Attenberg
Jami Attenberg has written about sex, technology, design, books, television, and urban life for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, Print, The Hairpin, Vogue, New York, Elle, Real Simple, The Rumpus, and others. She has contributed to numerous anthologies and also wrote Wicked: The Musical: A Pop-up Compendium.
Her debut collection of stories, Instant Love, was published by Crown/Shaye Areheart Books in 2006. She is also the author of two novels, The Kept Man and The Melting Season, both published by Riverhead Books. Her third novel, The Middlesteins, was published in October 2012 by Grand Central Publishing. It appeared on The New York Times bestseller list, and was published in England, Taiwan, Russia, Italy, France, Turkey, The Netherlands, Germany and Israel in 2013. It was also a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Prize. A fifth book, Saint Mazie, was published in 2015 in the U.S. and the UK, and in Italy, France and Germany in 2016. In March 2017, HMH Books will release her novel All Grown Up. It will also be published in the UK, Italy, Holland, France and Germany.
She divides her time between New Orleans, LA and Brooklyn, NY, where she fights crime in her spare time.