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“The Whole World that’s Interesting to Me in One Book”—Jami Attenberg on her Incredible New Novel

by Brendan Dowling on October 22, 2019

In Jami Attenberg’s dynamic family saga All This Could Be Yours, amoral businessman Victor Tuchman lies dying in a hospital bed in New Orleans, leaving his family to reckon with how his monstrous behavior has shaped their lives. While his wife Barbra restlessly paces the halls of the hospital, alert to her Fitbit’s mounting stepcount, his daughter Alex explores New Orleans, reconnecting with her enigmatic sister-in-law and reflecting on her recently dissolved marriage. What follows is a very funny and very sad exploration of relationships, secrets, and discoveries, all told through Attenberg’s signature wit and empathy. Critics have heaped praise on All This Could Be Yours, and it was named a Best Fall Book Title by Entertainment Weekly, Salon, BBC, and Buzzfeed. Time stated that “All This Could Be Yours illustrates the heartbreak, isolation and chaos that comes from really getting to know your family,” and People hailed it as “a richly drawn pleasure.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Attenberg via telephone on September 16th, 2019.

In Kirkus’ review of All This Could Be Yours, they called you the “Poet Laureate of difficult families.” How do you feel about such a title?

I’ll take any title I can get. (laughs) Even when I’m writing from first person perspectives, which I’ve done in a couple of my books, there’s always this backdrop of difficult families or complicated families. I think that even if our families are absent, they’re often with us one way or another. We can’t necessarily shake them. I’m also interested in the families of friendships, the families we create on our own. It makes for more interesting storytelling; it opens a story up. It was really fun to have lots of different kinds of voices that I could explore, especially coming off a first person narrative with my last book.

I was struck by how compassionately you treated all of the characters, even when they’re making terrible decisions. Can you talk about your approach to exploring these characters’ lives and choices?

I’m always trying to express compassion in my work. I won’t take on a project unless I can approach it with empathy and compassion; it’s one of my guidelines. I didn’t like all of the characters. Some characters, I started the book not liking them and sort of wrote my way into liking them. Some of the characters I did like, and then I found things wrong with them as I went along. I also like to leave enough space in the book for readers to insert themselves into the book and into the characters. I think that can make the reader feel more connected and empathetic to the characters.

How do you create that space for the reader?

I think it has something to do with that I’m a minimalist. I like having characters, scenes, and locations not be over-described; having just enough so it allows the reader to impose their own experiences upon it. That’s my hope.

Sometimes I will slightly address the reader. There are moments where I’m a little bit in conversation with the reader—or the “author” is, not to get all meta about it. In lots of my books there are moments that say to the reader, “We’re all on the same team here.” Or we are for the experience of reading this book.

In terms of liking characters more than others, were there characters easier for you to write?

I don’t want to say that any of them were easy to write, but I felt like I knew them. Not in any personal life story kind of way, but a lot of them showed up pretty fully formed. I’d say Barbra was probably the biggest challenge for me because I really didn’t like what she was about or what she represents. I tried to give her joy, and I tried to give her some redemption in the book. Sometimes people don’t deserve it, though, you know what I’m saying? Not everybody deserves to be liked.

Barbra was a character who I was initially wary of, but I found her so funny.

She’s a funny, dry lady who has been entertaining herself for a long time, so I think that sense of humor helps. Most of my characters tend to have a sense of humor one way or another. Even Victor, for the two seconds that he’s present in the book, is funny in his way. It’s more entertaining for everyone, for me the writer and for people who read it, if everyone’s funny.

This is your first book set in New Orleans, and you give the reader this detailed view into a lot of hidden parts of the city. What does New Orleans mean to you and what did it mean for you to set a book in this city?

It was quite a challenge. I had two books in a row—and I’ve had three books overall—that have been primarily set in New York City. I lived there for eighteen years, so I never questioned for a second if I was getting it right. I knew the terrain that I was speaking of. New Orleans is a much smaller space. It has a really specific sense of history and it revels in its sense of history. I wanted to feel comfortable when I was writing it. I was trying very hard to respect this city and not come in and just think, “I know everything I need to know about this city and I’m ready to go.”

The way that I worked around that initially was to have a lot of these characters not be from here. There are all these characters that show up as the book progresses that are working here and from here. They really insisted as I was writing the book that they be acknowledged. I was like, “Great, if you guys want to be in this book, then you can be in this book.” I know I sound insane, but it was really like that. I was like, “I’m going to be respectful of everything. I’m going to try to figure out a way to do this where I can use my skills and write a family book.”  I gave myself permission to do that. Then as I wrote and studied and thought and really dove into it, I began to see that it was okay for me to write about New Orleans in other ways.

So theses other characters just showed up?

They definitely just showed up. It was something about my gaze—not that I was bored with what was going on—but my gaze just started to wander and look around the room a little bit more, and the whole world was interesting to me. So this is the whole world that’s interesting to me in one book.

It was fun to see the Tuchmans from an outside perspective.

I just kind of wanted to try all the things. Coming from first person narrative, I was like, “Oh my gosh, now I can do anything I want to do”. You have this immediacy, this authenticity—for lack of a better word—and an urgency to what you’re doing when you write first person. You lose it when you do a close third, to a certain extent, because there’s just another layer between the “author” and the third person voice; so it’s twice removed for the reader. But then I was like, “How do I infuse it with a different kind of energy where it still feels fresh and immediate?” A really good way to do that is to have—I don’t want to say tricks—but stylistic flourishes, shall we say.

All Grown Up took place in 2016 and All This Could Be Yours takes place in 2019. What have you enjoyed about writing about the world we’re living in for your last two novels?

They’re both pretty dark books. I started this in fall of 2017, finished it in the summer of 2018, and then I copyedited it this year. It was definitely a different time writing this book in the post-Trump era versus a more optimistic time. I want to write an essay about it but I haven’t figured out a way to do it.  I actually want to write about writing The Middlesteins versus writing this book. We were deep in the Obama era when I was writing The Middlesteins. I wrote that in 2010 or 2011. The world was a beautiful place; one wrote unafraid. I say that as a white, middle-aged, middle-class lady. I can say that I wrote unafraid, whereas I’m sure that there were many, many people who wrote with fear. But it felt that way more then. Now I feel that a lot of my writer friends, we’re all sort of terrified.

I have hopes for this book. It’s a really tricky thing, because all I’ve been doing is putting out books for fourteen years. So all I’ve been doing is getting reviewed, going on book tour, having conversations with people, seeing people write about my book online, and having think pieces written about my books. So I’m keenly aware of what it’s like to write a book, create a piece of art, have it consumed by the public, and know that once it goes out in the world it’s not yours anymore. At some point you get to have a new relationship with it, but it takes a year to get there. My understanding of what it is to write a book now is that whatever I want people to take away from it, I don’t know if they actually will. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been closer to creating a more openness to my writing, so that hopefully people are going to get it; if they don’t get it, they can have their own experience with the book.

You’ve also been running the online writer’s group 1000 Words of Summer the last two years. Can you talk about why you started it? What has that experience been like?

All of my favorite things are things you can’t plan or control. If I had thought, “I’m going to start this community project for people,” it would never have worked. I have a friend who’s a teacher and a writer who lives here in New Orleans. She and I were talking about what she was going to do over the summer. I said, “I always do this one thousand words thing, that’s how I kickstart a project.” She said, “All right, we’ll do it for two weeks.” I tweeted that I was doing it, posted it on Instagram, and all these people were like, “Oh, I really want to do this too.” So then I thought, “I guess I’ll do a little mailing list,” and all these people signed up at once. Then I said, “I’ll send out a letter everyday.” I just thought, “All right I’ll try this,” and then I got all these writers to write parts of the letter for me. People just really seemed to like it and get something out of it. It’s a tremendous amount of work so I can’t really do more than once a year. I have to write the letters and then I have to write my own thousand words. I have to monitor the online community, so I’m on Twitter and responding to the people who are posting about it, and people who are feeling excited or discouraged or whatever.

It’s not a twenty-four hour a day thing but it’s certainly a very intense experience. I like it. It keeps me on my toes too and makes me really think about why I’m working on whatever it is I’m working on. I learn so much from it. Also I’m very excited for the fact that it genuinely helps people. I know a couple of people who have gotten book deals because of the books they’ve finished up during that time. Beyond that, what I’ve heard from people is that they might have had a negative relationship with their work before, but now they have a more positive relationship with it because they’re really committed to it. People get excited about it. It’s also really nice because Twitter can be horrible. (laughs) For the two weeks we’re doing it, we claim this little corner of the internet for ourselves.

You’re making it a more livable space.

(laughs) That’s a good phrase. I’m going to steal that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.