Brooklyn author Jami Attenberg on Jewish family epic 'The Middlesteins'
Williamsburg writer Jami Attenberg is basking in rapturously positive reviews of her fourth novel, "The Middlesteins," about a morbidly obese Chicago matriarch who can't stop noshing her way into her grave, and the efforts of her ferklempt frustrated family members to variously save and escape her. Attenberg will be discussing "The Jewish Family Novel" with fellow novelist Joshua Henkin 7 p.m. Wed. Dec. 12 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place. Tickets are $10, though students and seniors pay $7 and museum members $5.
Q. Why are there so many awesome novels about Jewish family life?
A. Jewish people have a great oral tradition of story telling. So we tend to be pretty good story tellers and families in general are just great material. We're analytical, emotional, passionate people, and family is pretty important to us. We all drive each other crazy, but we love each other, too, and always come back to each other - not to say there aren't some people who never come back.
Q. The Middlesteins is set in Chicago but you're a New Yorker! Why didn't you give NYC some love?
A. My second book (The Kept Man) was set in Williamsburg! I consider myself an American writer, not just a New York writer. That milieu of Chicago at that time was my life. I was writing about territory I knew.
Q. We all have someone in our lives like Edie: An incredible person we love who is killing himself or herself with food, cigarettes, booze or drugs. Can the Edies be saved?
A. I don't have the answer. I was interested in having an understanding and sense of compassion for these people, but in the end, they have to want to save themselves. Edie was approaching the point where she wanted to save herself, but she just had too many walls. You don't know, or you don't want to know, that it's too late.
Q. In what ways do you identify with Edie?
A. I've had moments in my life where I've hit rock bottom. I used to weigh 50 pounds more than I do now. I've smoked cigarettes, done drugs and all those things. I knew something was wrong but it took something else to get me out of it.
A. Writing. Someone told me, "you need to write your first book." It was not an easy step. Sometimes, when you have an addiction, you have to understand what the other problem is.
Q. Appetites are such an interesting focus in your book. Edie's is insatiable, and her presumably anorexic daughter in law tortures her family with minute portions of tasteless so called "health" foods because she doesn't want anyone to get fat.
A. Even though I knew Rochelle, I didn't like her right away. For Edie, I also talked to people who were heavier than I am. I'm friends with people who are Edie's size and I have an understanding of what it's like. I wrote a piece, "My History of Being Fat," and I still don't keep a scale in the house. It's so layered. I really want to eat. Edie was very intuitive for me and I identified with her more than anyone else in the book. She's flawed, but so worth loving. What I'm most interested in is that line between passion and excess.
Q. What would Mayor Michael Bloomberg say about Edie's over eating?
A. I would be very happy if Mayor Bloomberg would read my book and talk about it at one of his press conferences. Michele Obama, too!
Q. How did you get so much compassion for so many different kinds of characters?
A. I was raised in an environment where being a Jew was something you were proud of and crucial to your identity, because it could be taken away from you. I don't practice, but the cultural identity is something I still have. I went to Hebrew school, where you get ethical dilemmas posed to you when you are still a child. You are raised to have plenty of guilt, but no guilt about sex. At least we are raised to have zero guilt about that. At least we get to get off.
Q Where did you get the drill bit to bore into every person's individual needs and idiosyncrasies?
A. You just walk around and watch people in the world. I picture myself in a room with them. How do you explain imagination? Sometimes it's just closing your eyes and letting your brain go. My mind always takes care of me. It's my most valuable asset.
Q. What's it like to have every review about your book be a rave?
A. I don't read my reviews unless someone makes me. But the attention already feels like more than I've ever had before. I've been working really hard for 10 years. You work 10 years at a job and you just hope you get to the next level. I've written four books, but I guess this one is more grounded in reality and the characters are more relatable. This is definitely a better book. It was a big step for me to try new things.
Q. Edie's husband, Richard, leaves her because he's sick of watching her gorge and tired of her being mean, and is excoriated by many family members for doing so. Whose side are you on as a narrator?
A. I don't take a side. But all people are entitled to try and find love. That's what Richard wanted to do. And Edie needed to try to find love, too.
Q. How did you get your gushing cover blurb by Jonathan Franzen?
A. My editor sent him a galley a year before it came out. I don't know him, but I'm very grateful he did that. I would not even begin to compare myself to him, he's such a fine writer.