Writ­ing about the peo­ple who live next door

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - JEN­NIFER LIPMAN

NOV­EL­IST JAMI At­ten­berg is deal­ing with an un­ex­pected house guest when we meet. She found a dog wan­der­ing her home city of New Or­leans and has taken him in, hop­ing to track down his owner. In the back­ground, there is the noisy yap­ping of a turf war as At­ten­berg’s dog Sid­ney — named af­ter her grand­fa­ther — gets ac­quainted with the in­truder.

Tak­ing in a stray is ex­actly the sort of be­hav­iour you’d ex­pect from Edie Mid­dlestein, the warm, mor­bidly over­weight ma­tri­arch of At­ten­berg’s best­seller, The Mid­dlesteins, a novel that won plau­dits for its in­tel­li­gent dis­cus­sion of obe­sity, mar­riage, and sub­ur­ban Jewish life.

It would be in char­ac­ter, too, for “Saint” Mazie Phillips, the tit­u­lar pro­tag­o­nist of At­ten­berg’s fifth book; a Lower East Side Jew who makes it her mis­sion to help dow­nand-outs dur­ing the De­pres­sion.

Based on the fas­ci­nat­ing true story of the so-called “Queen of the Bow­ery”, who spent her days at the fa­mous cin­ema’s ticket of­fice and her nights help­ing home­less men, He­lena Bon­ham Carter was so en­am­oured with Mazie that she op­tioned the screen rights and a screen adap­ta­tion is in the works.

At­ten­berg’s lat­est, sixth book, the acer­bic, funny All Grown Up, is set in present-day Brook­lyn, and fol­lows An­drea Bern, a sin­gle wom- an ap­proach­ing 40, as she looks back on the fam­ily dy­nam­ics and per­sonal re­la­tion­ships that have coloured her adult life.

At­ten­berg lived in Wil­liams­burg for 18 years; she shares with An­drea a taste for bagels and white­fish, and her fic­tional hero­ine is ev­ery bit as dry and self-dep­re­cat­ing as the author her­self. But, although no stranger to writ­ing what she knows —The Mid­dlesteins was set in the af­flu­ent, tight-knit Jewish com­mu­nity out­side the Chicago of her child­hood — At­ten­berg in­sists All Grown Up is not au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. “With all my char­ac­ters, I sort of feel that they live next door,” she con­cedes. “In gen­eral, I was in­ter­ested in the idea of what it means to be a grown-up.”

Still, el­e­ments are surely drawn from her life. An­drea em­barks on a re­la­tion­ship with an im­pov­er­ished artist — a sit­u­a­tion At­ten­berg is no stranger to. Her first books did not sell widely and were writ­ten while free­lanc­ing at var­i­ous jobs. Only with The Mid­dlesteins did she ex­pe­ri­ence crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess.

“I never re­alised how bad my ca­reer was un­til it was good,” she laughs. “The year or two be­fore The Mid­dlesteins, I was re­ally strug­gling. I had to come to a place where I told my­self, you may never make money to live on, but if you keep get­ting pub­lished that’s the most peo­ple can hope for. For it to be­come the thing I do with most of my time has just been a real bless­ing.”

Af­ter The Mid­dlesteins, her life be­came a whirl­wind of book tours and lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals. As a con­se­quence of its Jewish set­ting — the story cul­mi­nates with the b’nei mitz­vah of Edie’s twin grand­chil­dren, and also looks back on Edie’s im­mi­grant par­ents and the 20th­cen­tury Amer­i­can Jewish story — At­ten­berg found her­self em­braced by the com­mu­nity.

“I spent two years in syn­a­gogues and Jewish com­mu­nity cen­tres — more than I’d ever been be­fore,” says At­ten­berg, who views her­self as “cul­tur­ally Jew-ish”.

“I prob­a­bly iden­ti­fied a lit­tle bit more be­cause of that and I was very touched with how wel­comed I was. But I’ve learned that ev­ery book has a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence.”

Pub­lished in 2013, The Mid­dlesteins shot up the charts af­ter Jonathan Franzen gave it a gush­ing re­view. A few years ear­lier, the nov­el­ists Jen­nifer Weiner and Jodi Pi­coult had made waves in the lit­er­ary world by high­light­ing the fact that the New York Times “tends to pick white guys” like Franzen for re­view and pro­fil­ing, with top pa­pers dis­miss­ing fe­male au­thors writ­ing main­stream and con­tem­po­rary fic­tion. What’s At­ten­berg’s view?

“I think it’s def­i­nitely changed in the last cou­ple of years. Peo­ple are more aware of the in­equities,” she says. Partly, she doesn’t care how she is cat­e­gorised — even if it’s as “chick lit” — be­cause she just wants peo­ple to read her work.

“But then of course I want to be read by ev­ery­one, so that’s the danger if you get type­cast in one way or an­other, or your book cover looks a cer­tain way. Be­ing put in any kind of box for an artist, is kind of dan­ger­ous,” she says, not­ing diplo­mat­i­cally that her first three book cov­ers “weren’t su­per universal-look­ing,” which didn’t help them sell.

Her bug­bear is not so much sex­ism but “lazy” com­par­isons be­tween writ­ers. “I’ve seen all these books since Gone Girl be­ing called ‘the lit­er­ary Gone Girl’. It’s mad­den­ing. Gone Girl was plenty lit­er­ary, and I think it does a dis­ser­vice to all these books, be­cause they’re do­ing their own thing,” she says. “I want to be me, I don’t re­ally want to be a fe­male any­thing, or a Jewish this, I just want to write and cre­ate my own stuff.”

Her next book is still brew­ing, although she plans to set it in New Or­leans, where she has lived on and off for the past few years. She loves the laid-back at­mos­phere com­pared with New York’s fre­netic pace. And in Pres­i­dent Trump’s Amer­ica it’s an in­ter­est­ing place to be: a Blue city in an avowedly Red state.

Hardly a reg­u­lar ac­tivist, she has been to four protests in the past fort­night. “I try to be as po­lit­i­cally ac­tive as I can be, and it’s on here, there’s no tak­ing a break.”

She re­mains op­ti­mistic, buoyed by a sense that peo­ple are com­ing to­gether in op­po­si­tion to the pres­i­dent’s vi­sion. “I don’t know what that means or what it looks like, I just know we’ve got plenty of fight left. We’re only get­ting started.”

She hopes that fic­tion, hers and oth­ers’, will be part of the fight­back. “I con­sider writ­ing my books to be a po­lit­i­cal act and a fem­i­nist act. I con­sider my sub­ject mat­ter to be po­lit­i­cal and fem­i­nist and oc­ca­sion­ally rad­i­cal.” If noth­ing else, her aim is that All Grown Up “will pro­vide some sort of emo­tional dis­trac­tion from mat­ters at hand. I would like if peo­ple read it and feel like they are trans­ported.” She sighs. “I don’t know how to save Amer­ica with lit­er­a­ture, but I hope it plays one small part of a big move­ment.”

In the mean­time, there’s a dog to re­unite with its owner and, like her char­ac­ters, At­ten­berg won’t give up eas­ily.

‘All Grown Up’ is pub­lished by Ser­pent’s Tail

We’ve got plenty XO »PQ] left, this is the start’ Jami At­ten­berg: ‘I just want to write my own stuff’

PHOTO: MICHAEL SHARKEY

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