Grownup Conversation: Jami Attenberg Talks with Katy Simpson Smith

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When author Jami Attenberg moved from Brooklyn to New Orleans recently, she got to spend more time with writer-pal Katy Simpson Smith (author of Free Men, a Parnassus First Editions Club pick of 2016) — which worked out perfectly for us, because it gave Smith plenty of access to interview Attenberg about her new novel, All Grown Up.

The back cover features raves from authors such as Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest) and Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Today Will Be Different).

Attenberg’s sixth book (previous novels include the New York Times- bestselling The Middlesteins and most recently, Saint Mazie), All Grown Up tells the story of Andrea Bern, a New Yorker approaching her 40th birthday with plenty of introspection but no interest in acquiring the rom-com badges of adulthood: marriage, kids, etc. Vogue  praised the novel for capturing what it’s like to be a certain kind of woman at a certain time of life, saying no-thanks to what others might think is best for her: “There’s a whole genre of literature—and television and movies—dedicated to. . . the single-minded career women on the verge of spinsterhood, who manage to come back from behind. There’s considerably less out there about those who don’t really care to enter the race at all.”

Will you like Andrea’s character? You might; you might not. If you like the book, does it matter? For the New York Times Book Review, Helen Schulman wrote, “It’s no easy task to build a novel around a character who doesn’t necessarily evolve, or perhaps evolves quietly, with baby steps, on tiptoe, close to the finish line, and maybe, please God, it’s not too late. But for all the dark clouds coasting overhead, Attenberg, with her wry sense of humor, manages to entertain and move us nonetheless. Whatever Andrea’s objectives are, we’re rooting for her.”

Here’s the conversation between Smith and Attenberg, and we hope you’ll come hear more from the latter on Tuesday, April 11, at 6:30 p.m., when Attenberg reads from and signs All Grown Up here in the store.

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KSS: First of all, this beautifully sharp novel hits on so many resonant themes — love, sex, family, food, art, recliners — that to call it a book about singledom would be woefully simplistic. And yet your protagonist’s freedom from a certain kind of romantic commitment makes her distinctive within the milieu of this book (and, regrettably, America). Your readers’ own experiences with aloneness, whatever that individually means, will color how they see the ultimate optimism of the novel, but I’m curious to know how you felt when writing in Andrea’s voice. Frustrated? Bold? Wistful? Like a fierce superhero wielding irony like razors?

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 9.00.40 AMJA: I felt a kind of relief and joy in writing Andrea’s voice, because I was curious to know what it felt like to know her experience and beliefs. I don’t have that same exact confidence she has about her choices regarding her romantic status. I wanted to create a character that knew exactly what she wanted – or rather, what she didn’t want. So it was thrilling to explore that state of mind, and see where it took the character when that set of controls was removed.

KSS: One of the many exciting qualities of Jami Attenberg the writer is that she never sits still. Each of your books launches into fresh territory, and though they share your wit and candor and ability to worm beneath the facades we all attempt to build, they also are entirely distinct landscapes. When did Andrea Bern first come to you as a character, and was her appearance tied to your own stage of life? Could she have been as fully (and heartbreakingly, and empoweringly) realized at any other point along your literary road?

JA: She came to me not even three years ago, in my early 40s, and I suppose we are only ready to write our characters at the exact moment they show up in our lives. That said I’ve certainly written strong, complicated, flawed female characters before, so she does not feel like the hugest stretch for me. I actually think this question is less to do with the character and more to do with the way I tell the story in terms of structure. The shifting timeline, the short bursts of chapters, the minimalist style, all of those things were new to me, or at least I was able to refine them or elevate them in a particular way that felt like a breakthrough. (I actually think this book is my best in terms of execution.) But I don’t think I could have figured out how to construct the book as I did at any other time. I needed to write five books to get to this point.

KSS: Last year you moved to New Orleans and bought yourself a house with a yard where your puggle can run free. How have these new environs shaped your writing process? And what has Mardi Gras done to your brain?

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This is Katy Simpson Smith (left) and Jami Attenberg (right) — OR IS IT? — at Mardi Gras.

JA: I can write wherever I go, so it’s not any different really. I would say that I’m a happier person though, which is what I was seeking when I moved to New Orleans. I’m more at peace with myself.

KSS: One of our favorite things as writers is spreading the gospel of other writers, isn’t it? If you were to go up on the mountaintop and shout down some favorite titles to the rest of us — the books that helped you triangulate your vision for this novel, or the books that are simply carrying literature in the best possible directions — what would you be yelling?

JA: Right now I’m reading Hannah Tinti’s new novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, and it’s wonderful. I always recommend the works of Grace Paley. Eileen Myles is an industry standard; I read Chelsea Girls as I was finishing this book. Ada Limon is a fantastic poet. I loved Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill. There are just so many great writers out there, I could keep going forever.

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