Jami Attenberg’s sixth book, “All Grown Up,” details the travails of a single New York woman, Andrea Bern, who is unable to idealize the hurt and heartache of family life.
Set mostly in NYC, Andrea fantasizes about and fools around with her neighbors, debates and dodges obligations to loved ones and struggles to balance the need for financial security with her artistic yearnings as development hammers away at her apartment’s slim but precious view of the Empire State Building.
amNewYork spoke with Attenberg, 46, from her new home in New Orleans, where she lives when not in Brooklyn.
The protagonist in “All Grown Up” abandons her dream of a creative life to pursue financial security in a swiftly gentrifying city. That is a quandary facing a lot of cash-poor New Yorkers.
The book is a real Rorschach test: Every character is trying to figure out what it means to be grown up. The people who followed their dreams aren’t happy either! The character Andrea came from an impoverished background and wanted stability. She was over struggling and suffering. For some people (the trade off) is a good bargain. They have a reason that is bigger than liking or not liking their jobs to stay in them — like supporting a family. I stopped working in offices about four or five years ago. I just couldn’t do it anymore. You don’t make that much money writing books, but I didn’t believe in anything I was doing. I went really broke when I stopped. It took me three years to pay off all my bills. I got really lucky when “The Middlesteins” came out. It did well enough for me to get out of debt.
Your novels are so cinematic. Can we expect to see them on screen?
“Saint Mazie” has been optioned by a production company, and “The Middlesteins” has been optioned by Showtime, but it’s not in production. You don’t get much money any more with options: It’s not until (a film) gets made that you get real money. As long as the book exists, I’m good.
You recently bought a home in New Orleans and still keep your apartment in Williamsburg. Which place is best for writing?
I got a little house with a little back porch in the Bywater, which is very special. It’s much calmer and quieter and easier and I can write really well (there) — but I can write anywhere. This was a lifestyle choice, looking toward the future. New York is more exciting. I get a jolt of energy there and it’s still a very necessary part of me and gives me ideas. I registered to vote in Louisiana, but it isn’t going to do any good. My vote in New York doesn’t matter and my vote in Louisiana doesn’t matter — you know what I mean?
Why is dating such a horror show for so many women in NYC?
It just might be bad everywhere: I’m not sure. There are just so many people and so many distractions in NYC, it’s hard for people to remain focused on relationships. This character has been dating her entire life and continues to do that, but I don’t know if she has a goal in mind. Even if the scenes are tragic, I made them as funny as possible: You have to laugh about it.
The book is so meta: The single female protagonist is bombarded with people telling her she has to read a book about what it’s like to be a single female. Did you have a similar experience?
No one in my life would ever suggest a book to me about being single. That was more about my awareness of how marketing campaigns work. But I do have empathy for how women who are single and who have been single for a long time, are being marketed to.
Even though you’re not writing traditional suspense, “All Grown Up” is such a page turner. What is your trick to crafting irresistible narrative?
I designed this book to be read quickly. That is the way I love, love, love, to read myself and I wanted a sense of urgency. I was really strategic about trimming things down and keeping them lean and mean. I wrote it really fast and instinctively. This is my sixth book and I’m older and wiser and have my editor’s voice in my brain as I’m writing. The style is reflective of how people express themselves and read — in short bursts — on the internet. The fact that people read in headlines now instead of a whole story has affected my writing.
You’re not shy about sharing your politics on social media. Could that affect your sales?
As an artist and a human being, I would rather speak out about how I feel and about politics. Every little bit helps in speaking up for people. I’ve made a lot of friends through Twitter and Facebook. I offered to give away a signed first edition of “Saint Mazie” to anyone who would donate $20 or more to several organizations, such as the ACLU or Planned Parenthood. People donated much more than $20 and some people didn’t even want the book. I’m trying right now to reach out in the best way I can. Social media is a way of organizing nationally and internationally, even if you’re often speaking to the choir.
The book seems to contain a sneaky lesson that none of us can be truly happy — or at peace, perhaps — until we embrace pain.
Andrea (who drinks and has some sloppy sexual adventures) shut down a lot, particularly in the beginning of the book. I really wanted her to feel things.