The books interview: the US writer on epic plots, small moments and creating tricky, independent heroines
In her new novel, All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg has done what many long assumed to be impossible: she has coined a smart and original take on the single woman in a big city. Just when the shtick seemed hopelessly exhausted by decades ofBridget Jones, Sex and the City, bad chicklit and worse romcoms, along comes Attenbergs heroine, Andrea. Spiky, utterly uninterested in marriage or babies, the daughter of an activist mother, she is broken but not in a way arelationship could or should fix. An individual but at once so familiar that every line seems to sing effortlessly off the page. In a typically wry and layered moment, Andrea, addressing herself, describes when her sister-in-law got pregnant:
You throw a baby shower, at which you drink too many mimosas and cry in the bathroom, but you are pretty sure no one notices. Its not that you want a baby, or want to get married, or any of it. Its not your bag. You just feel tired for some reason. Tired of the world. Tired of trying to fit in where you dont. You go home that night and draw the Empire State Building and you feel hopeful doing this thing you love to do, so hopeful you look up online what tonights [lights on the building] mean and find out its in honour of National Eating Disorders Day and you get depressed all over again even though youve never had an eating disorder in your life.
Id always felt frustrated with the depiction of single women in movies, TV shows and books because they always feel very centred around the romantic ending, says Attenberg when we meet in a bar near her home in Brooklyn. I wanted to see if there were other kinds of happy endings.
To do this, Attenberg has structured her novel as a series of linked short stories that jump around in time, encompassing not just Andreas past and present but also those of her family, friends and lovers. The stories, which can be about something as simple as a botched flirtation at a wedding or as complex as Andreas fathers long-term heroin addiction, provide a satisfyingly thorough portrait of all of their lives, explaining how they got to where they are when we meet them. They also suggest all kinds of different endings for single women in fiction that are always realistic and often optimistic.
I wanted you to know everything about Andrea, and I felt if we made a list of the most important things about our lives it would never be in order. It would be: seven is the guy I made out with in high school, eight is the guy I made out with last week, and nine is the job I got fired from when I was 30. While I always want to write epic sweeping plots, my work is character-driven and small moments that take you forward.
In the case of this novel, these small moments are all unmistakably tied to life as a 40-year-old single woman in the 21st century: all your Facebook friends posting on your wall about how you have to read the new book about what life is like as a single woman; being patronised by men who are far more neurotic about being single than you; finding out the friend you thought youd lost to the perfect marriage is unexpectedly getting divorced.
But as natural as the book feels, Attenberg resisted it. She started off by writing three of the stories, but then quickly shut them away in a drawer.
I was like, I dont want to write this book because its going to be super annoying, she says, in a voice that slips into somewhat endearing teenage-like inflections. Not to write, but I knew it was going to force me to evaluate where I was at with my life as well, and then talk about it, and I didnt know if I wanted to do that. You know, I grew up in a small midwestern town, where every third house on the block looked the same and there were not really any single people. My instincts to get out were always there, but those expectations were still something that formed me to a certain extent about what was supposed to make me happy. I think its important that someone writes stories that show something else, so I finally decided to do it.
And yet some of her fears about writing this book were soon justified. When we meet she had recently done an interview and the (male) journalist asked what her marital status is: I was like, I cant believe you asked that question when the whole point of my book is that it shouldnt matter!
Attenberg, 45, has for some time been building up a reputation as the writer par excellence of tricky, independent women. Her third novel, the bestselling breakout The Middlesteins (2012), is a warm and expansive story of a dysfunctional suburban family, including Edie, acompulsive eater whonever should have married her husband, and her thorny daughter, Robin, who whispers This doesnt mean anything to men as she has sex with them. Saint Mazie (2015) is a brilliantly constructed fictionalised oral history of Mazie Gordon-Phillips, a real woman from 1920s New York, who Attenberg first discovered when a friend gave her a copy of Joseph Mitchells 1940 New Yorker profile.