Jami Attenberg: I wanted to see if there were other happy endings for single women

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.

Same old shtick Sex and the City back in 2007. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex/Shutterstock

I didnt want nothing to do with marriage with a respectable man or any other kind of man, Attenbergs Mazie declares stoutly at the beginning. Not once in my life did I ever dream of my wedding day, no white dresses, no goddamn diamond rings. I only ever dreamed of freedom. It could be the mantra of most of Attenbergs heroines.

As it happens, the bar we are meeting in is owned by the friend who gave her that profile, and is called Saint Mazie. I tell her Ill now picture this bar as the one Andrea hangs out in, and Attenberg looks surprised.

Oh no, I wasnt thinking of this place. Although the room downstairs is where I imagined Andrea hosting her birthday dinner

As screenwriter Nora Ephron once wrote, the words thinly disguised [autobiography] are applied mostly to books by women, and asking Attenberg about the overlaps between her books and life feels cheap. But the question is unavoidable from the moment she walks into the bar.

I have big breasts and a tiny waist and round hips, round but narrow, and big fistfuls of curls, and well-manicured eyebrows, and rosy cheeks, and I wear all black, and I have a cool, smart look to me, angled and soft at the same time. I got my thing going on, is how Andrea describes herself in All Grown Up, and it is a pretty bang on description of Attenberg, although she is shocked to near speechlessness when I say this.

But shes short! Im not short. And OK, she has a brother, and so do I, and she works in advertising, and I did that, and she lives in Brooklyn. And she is Jewish, but shes an Upper West Side Jew, which is a different flavour from a suburban Jew. But I pictured her as, not me in a parallel universe, but someone Id pass in the subway station. My mother said, She sounds like you, but shes not you, and a friend said, Its like shes your worst nightmare life.

That latter description sounds especially plausible. A major theme in the novel is Andreas regret about giving up her dream of being an artist to work in advertising. Attenberg went the other way. After getting the heck out of suburban Illinois, Attenberg studied writing at Johns Hopkins University, where her senior fiction professor, the novelist Robert Stone, hated her writing.

Right before I graduated he was like, You know, honey, honey! you can still work in publishing. You can be a publicist. My impression of him was that he didnt like writing by women that much, and I think that was the last time I let a man tell me I couldnt do a thing I wanted to do, says Attenberg.

She travelled and temped all around America for the next few years, always writing but not sure what to do with it. She briefly lived kind of a hippy life (I never really fit in I admired the spirit but I didnt like fish) before moving to New York in the late 90s, where she worked in an advertising office.

Cover quote Jonathan Franzens recommendation opened doors for Attenberg. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

People who were married with kids there used to say to me with this weird envy in their voices, Oh youre living the dream you have all this freedom, and I was like, No, youre supposed to be the one whos living the dream. But they always made it sound like it wasnt much fun. So that was how I got to see the other side, she says.

After a stint working at HBO, Attenberg made a decision to commit to fiction, so she quit her job and interspersed novel writing with tempjobs. She completed three well-reviewed books Instant Love, The Melting Season, The Kept Man but had, she wrote in 2012, what is politely called achallenging track record in the publishing industry. Getting three books published means I am technically a success, but if you ask some people, my empty bank account unequivocally means I am a failure.

She lived in 26 different homes over a decade, reliant on the kindness of friends and cheap rent where she could find it. Does she think shed still be living that peripatetic life if things hadnt turned around?

I dont know. Something had to give, I guess, but Id accepted that writing was the thing I wanted to do,because I just loved it more than anything else. I just felt it was what I was supposed to do with my life, but it was really hard. Icant imagine what would have happened if Id decided to be the other person [who gave it up]. I dont live in fear of that, not any more.

In 2012, two things changed everything: first, Attenberg moved publisher. Before, I wasbeing marketed as womens fiction, and now Im with a publisher who said, No, this is literary fiction, and we wont ever put a woman looking wistful on your covers. And that washuge for me. Thenext was that TheMiddlesteins became a bestseller, helped, she thinks, by Jonathan Franzen giving a quote for its front cover, praising Attenbergs sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling. This, she says, was mentioned in every book review, sexist as that probably is, and itgave me a whole new level of credibility. Although not as much as some: Chad Harbachs novel The Art of Fielding came out at exactly the same time, was also about a dysfunctional midwest family and had been praised by Franzen: It was reviewed everywhere, whereas mine wasnt in the New York Times Book Review until three months after it came out, she shrugs. Although once it finally got there, it got a front-page rave.

The sidelining of womens stories and female writers is one of Attenbergs real bugbears. The day before we met, she tweeted her disgust that the actor Drew Barrymore, who wrote about her 10 favourite books for the New York Times, hadnt included asingle one written by a woman.

Seriously, what the FUCK, dude? Charles Bukowski was always on point. I mean, Bukowski was the opposite of on point, she laughs.

After publishing three books in five years (I guess I had a lot to say), Attenberg is thinking of taking a little break and has been judging books for literary competitions. And thats where I see a real change happening somany writers of colour, so many women, trans voices. So no matter what the current political situation is, Ithink things are changing. Slowly. Maybe, she says. And when she laughs she sounds, characteristically, both cynical and hopeful.

All Grown Up is published by Serpents Tail. To order a copy for 11.04 (RRP 12.99), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/mar/24/jami-attenberg-interview-women-all-grown-up

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