Prolific author Jami Attenberg is well on her way to becoming the Joyce Carol Oates of Brooklyn. With her debut short story collection, Instant Love, in 2006, her first novel, The Kept Man, published in 2008, and now her latest novel, The Melting Season, she's garnered acclaim for her deadpan, exacting prose. I interviewed her about The Melting Season, "women's" writing, and the tragically doomed courtship of Jessica Simpson and John Mayer.
In The Melting Season, the protagonist's Nebraskan husband is undersized in both frame (55 inches tall) and phallus. Your original title for the novel was The Prick. Do you want to elaborate?
The protagonist and her husband are both emotionally stunted, and that manifests itself physically in both of them. They're both short, and unformed in various physical ways. I think I saw them both almost as like little dolls living in this toy farmhouse in Nebraska. So they're sort of these semi-neutered versions of human beings. Or at least halted in adolescence, anyway.
I think the first draft--the Prick draft--was a much angrier, weirder book. And it was kind of awesome, but also less accessible. Were I writing for a small press, maybe that draft would have become the final version and the title would have remained. But in the end I wanted to reach a wider audience with the points I wanted to make, and so adjustments were made. I don't think this book is necessarily sexist against men, is what I'm trying to say.
The story is about a young woman who runs away, to the west (Las Vegas), from her stifling marriage and hometown with a suitcase full of cash. It's an iconic narrative structure of the great American road novel, a traditionally masculine domain (excepting Hollywood treatments of same). At the same time, it's about domesticity and family and sororal bonding. This is a roundabout way of asking how you feel about the state of contemporary fiction written by women (which, like most fiction these days, tends to find female audiences), what critical and commercial pigeonholing that might impose, and how you feel if you're pegged as a "woman writer." Also, why is "woman" used improperly so much as an adjective, as in "Hillary Clinton is attempting to become the first woman president"?
Most of my writer friends are women, and they're all extremely talented, so of course I think the state of contemporary fiction for women is pretty great. Which is to say there is a ton of amazing work out there. These women are writing hard. There's much to be said. We're on it, chief. Is that work finding its audience? Well, I'm not sure if very many people at all are finding their audience.
So on the one hand, it it's easy to get frustrated with being put in a box, which doesn't happen to men very much at all, unless you're speaking of genre fiction, and even when it does happen it frequently doesn't work. (Remember lad lit? How's that working out now?) I was bewildered when my first book was called chick lit, as were the readers who loved chick lit and then purchased my book only to find it populated with a bunch of sourpusses who resented men and could really give a shit about getting married. And yet, there I was, in a box. It's dumb. Readers don't want a bait and switch. People know what they like.
On the other hand, I'm part of a system, a big mainstream publishing system, that's faltering at the moment. I chose to be a part of it and am complicit in my partnership with it. We're all just desperate to sell books, and I don't think anyone is any position to be resentful. I'll save my resentment for when the economy recovers.
Of course it's clear to many people that whatever the publishing industry has been doing is no longer working. We're all going to have to make changes. Maybe one of those changes could be giving women writers as much respect as men. Maybe just as many women writers as male writers could be billed as the next great American writer by their publisher. Maybe book criticism sections could review an equal amount of female and male writers. Maybe Oprah could start putting some books by women authors in her book club, since most of her audience is women. I think she hasn't had one in five years, something like that?
Like I said, we're all complicit. But we have the power to transform this industry into something different.
I'd add also I don't believe that my publisher markets me as a "woman writer." They definitely give me respect. But they're just one piece of the puzzle.
In the novel, you touch on a host of topical tabloid issues--vapid celebrities (and their impersonators), plastic surgery, reality TV. Were you concerned about writing on these topics in a way that didn't stoop to their level, or about the difficulty of saying something new about such well-trod ground?
I don't think there's any topic a writer should feel afraid of tackling just because it has already been discussed. If you feel you have a fresh perspective and an understanding of a certain emotional truth, it's always worth writing. I was looking at it through my character's eyes, someone who was an innocent, and had an extremely limited worldview. There was less room for overt snarkiness. It was more about humanizing her, and to a certain extent that world. And understanding why so much of America is fascinated with these topics. Myself included.
What does fascinate you about them?
At the time I started writing the book I was living at a residency program on a farm in Nebraska. There was no television or Internet access, and my cell phone didn't work. I had to drive twenty minutes to town if I wanted any access to the outside world. I was reading a book a day, and eventually ran out of reading material. At the one grocery store they sold mainly sold celebrity rags, and I would buy them all up every week. I'm saddened to admit how much I looked forward to the one day they refreshed the stock.
That was the summer of Jessica Simpson and John Mayer, and I became really focused on the story arc of their relationship, how they were initially the hot new couple, and then everyone turned on Jessica, and then everyone turned on John, and it just kept playing out week after week. It was mesmerizing, probably mostly because I had nothing else in my head except for fresh air and cornfields and chickens. It was like a serialized novel. A really simplistic, poorly written serialized novel with big colorful pictures. Obviously the tabloids have a long tradition of perpetuating scandal on this planet, but it was the first time I had nothing to distract me from it. I went deep, I guess. I was trying to understand what it would be like if you grew up on that cultural diet. So the narrator comes from that place.
You're quite the doyenne of the New York literary scene, throwing book parties and hosting the new Largehearted Lit Reading Series. What do you like most and least about the lit world here, other than, on both sides of the ledger, me?
"Doyenne"--that sounds so fancy and international! I just like to have fun, and I love supporting other writers. We're all in it together, don't you think, Teddy? I don't know if I had ever found my place in the world until I fully committed to being a writer. So I love being a part of this community. The only negative I can think of has less to do with the writing world and more to do with being an artist in New York in general. No matter what creative field you're in, there are way too many distractions here, and it's too damn expensive. You have to be extremely focused and on your game to make in New York. But I wouldn't want to do it anywhere else.
I'm not in it together with anyone. But this interview has temporarily made me feel I've found my place in the world. Wait, now I've lost it. Oh, well.