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Jami Attenberg On Writing Her Worst Nightmare In “All Grown Up”

by Brendan Dowling on March 13, 2017

Jami Attenberg’s extraordinary All Grown Up focuses on Andrea, a thirty-nine year-old who’s abandoned her passion for painting in favor of a financially safe career in an advertising firm. In elliptical chapters, Attenberg depicts the various characters in Andrea’s world: her mother, a former social activist; her brother and sister-in-law, a glamorous couple whose lives have been upended by caring for their terminally ill daughter; and the different men she’s dated. Newsweek called All Grown Up “impossible to put it down” and Booklist praised it as “stinging, sweet, and remarkably fleshed out in relatively few pages.” Jami Attenberg spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on February 28th. Photo by Zack Smith Photography.

The book is told in a series of overlapping chapters, where Andrea will often revisit an event she has already described to the reader and share new information that casts it in a different light or reinforces its impact on her. Did you write this book linearly or did the structure of the book come when you were assembling the disparate pieces?

I didn’t write it in a linear fashion at first. I came up with this list of topics that I wanted to talk about, and stories started forming around them. Initially I was just letting myself write them all as short stories and then altering them as it became more of a novel, and I could see how there was a bigger picture to it. And they were never really in a linear order. I think that’s because when we think about the most important things in our lives, they wouldn’t necessarily be in a chronological order. So it felt kind of true to the way life works to do them that way.

The book takes place in 2016. What was it like writing a character who existed in the exact same moment you were living in?

To me, it felt very invigorating. Even though she’s not necessarily responding to real life news stories, there’s just a lot of themes that people were talking about—in particular during the election—that have made their way into the book. Even if it’s not an entire plotline, there’s just little mentions here and there. There’s conversations about race and there’s conversations about economic inequalities and there’s conversations about rape culture that filter their way in. And I was just really responding to the world around me in a very natural way. These things felt urgent, and I felt glad that I was able to write and turn things around quickly enough that people would be able to read it. I finished it last summer, so it’s a pretty quick turnaround time.

Since your last book Saint Mazie took place in the 1920s. Was there something refreshing about being unburdened by historical research?

I certainly had to do some research for the book, but not a lot. The research that I had to do for Mazie at the very beginning was just so I could know what every room that she’s in looks like, and what the streets looked like, and things like that. So there was an extra layer and then fact-checking it at the end to make sure I got it right as well. Whereas with this I really knew the landscape, and even some of the stuff that happens earlier in her life, because there are some stories that are set in the past obviously. I didn’t feel like I was inventing too much. I didn’t feel like I had to go and watch two hours of YouTube videos.

A lot of the book is Andrea’s struggle with her relationship with her art, and how her artistic pursuits fit into her life. As someone who has written so prolifically throughout her career, what was it like writing about an artist who seems so creatively stuck?

I have a friend who read this book who said, “It’s sort of like your worst nightmare (laughs).” I just was trying to figure out what would make her happy or unhappy. I don’t know, because I’ve never not been able to not make things. Even when I wasn’t actively pursuing a career as a writer, I was still making zines and everything came out of me in a really organic fashion. And it was always the thing that saved me.

But I’ve worked in environments with people where I was the freelancer, and that was the thing I was doing on the side and the writing was really what I was doing for a living. And I’ve met people who’ve been like, “You’re a real writer,” even though we were doing the same thing—we were freelance copywriting or something like that. And they had at some point turned that [artistic] part of themselves off for very adult reasons—like they got married or they had kids or they had a mortgage, those really traditional grownup reasons, which are discussed in the book. I think it was a way of me understanding how you could stop being that person. I couldn’t do it. There’ve been moments when I’ve been like, “I should really try to get some more financial security,” but I really like doing this a lot

Andrea has a very distinctive voice, she can be simultaneously breezy while also being very frank. Since you’ve published so many essays about your own life, I was wondering if your experience writing personal essays had any effect on developing Andrea’s voice?

Well, it was meant to be memoir-istic. I read a lot of memoirs when I was writing the book.

Do you remember which ones?

When I began the book I was reading M Train, the Patti Smith book, and I’m also a really big fan of Just Kids.

And Patti Smith makes an appearance in the book, where Andrea goes to see her on New Year’s Day at St. Mark’s Church.

That’s such a New York thing. I’ve never done that, but it’s always the thing that people are doing on New Years Day. I’m always too lazy to go, but it always seems like the thing that cool people do. I’m going to make it one of these days.

I also read Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls. At the very beginning of the book I was reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and I was like, “I don’t want to read this right now, not when I’m writing a book about someone who doesn’t want to have babies.” But then at the end I picked it up again. I saw it in a different way, and it all came together for me. So all of those memoirs, they all have their charms and they all read very differently. I took a little bit from each one of them.

As for writing essays, I don’t write a lot of essays anymore. I have in the past and I’ve basically run out of things to say about myself. I’ve kind of mined everything. There’s not much left, or maybe not much left that I’m willing to talk about. But Andrea’s very open. I think it would be the only way this book would work. I couldn’t write this book with a closed-off character—what would be the point of that?

Reading the book, it’s such a gutpunch when she drops pieces of information that make you re-evaluate what you thought you knew about her.

The other thing I was trying to think about was the way people read now, the way people consume information. It’s different now, just because there’s more information, there’s more things to read, and people are basically just scanning now. So I thought, I better just tell that story right up front.

Andrea’s very forthright about how she doesn’t want to have babies and is ambivalent about being in a monogamous relationship. What was it like to write a character who was so at ease with living with herself?

I mean, she’s totally neurotic, too, though (laughs). She’s very troubled in her own way. There’s lots about her life that she feels uncomfortable about, but those are the things that she knows from the get-go are not appealing to her and basically haven’t ever been appealing to her. So I wanted to see what that character looked like.

She’s not a role model necessarily as a human being, but that part of her is sort of a model. I wanted to see that character exist, to see somebody who was, as you say, “at ease.” I just felt like I never see that. I always see people—not necessarily even in real life but certainly in movies and television and books—the female characters can be as gutsy and independent as they want but people are always trying to slide them a romantic happy ending. I thought, “Well what if that wasn’t even on the table? What does that look like?” That felt important to me.

Even all the guys that she’s interacting with, it’s not like there’s one you’re rooting for.

No, but I like them all, in their own way. But there’s not one for her, no.

And finally, what role did the public library play in your life?

I went to Indian Trails Library when I was growing up and my mom used to take me there and I loved it. I would stay there for hours and hours and it was really important to me. I could just lose entire afternoons at my public library. I read really really fast, as most writers do when they’re children, and just consumed everything and I was glad to have what seemed like an unending supply of books at the library. I’ve had the opportunity to read at Indian Trails several times. But its always wonderful to go and read in my home town go and spend some time there. It’s a wonderful library.


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