Jami Attenberg on Unhappy Families, Grief, and All This Could Be Yours

Jami Attenberg on Unhappy Families, Grief, and All This Could Be Yours

Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s new novel All This Could Be Yours takes readers inside of an extended family as one of its members, patriarch Victor, is about to die. Here, Attenberg chats with Bookish about writing about the complicated web of loyalties in a family, the structural decisions she made in setting up this novel, and why many of us look to our parents to understand ourselves.

Bookish: This book gets at the complicated web of loyalties in a family. What interested you in these kinds of familial relationships?

Jami Attenberg: I’m interested in the small movements of life. I’m interested in the way that people talk to each other without saying anything. I’m interested in families and the ways that they interact and stick together even if they don’t like each other very much. I’m just interested in all of it. To me, writing is like gossiping about characters. I always look at a book at the end and think that I was just telling the reader everything I wanted them to know about these people. 

Bookish: In the flashback sections of this book, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that Barbra and Victor’s relationship is off from the very beginning: How did you decide what their dynamic would be like, how they’d grow and change (or not) as people, and what their backstories would entail?

JA: First, I knew what their ending was. I knew where they were headed. I knew that they were both first-generation Americans, and I think that informed some of how they met and what they would have in common. I knew that they were members of the same generation. They both didn’t come from money but they both valued working for it one way or another. In the case of Barbra and Victor, they would also do anything to keep it. I saw them as originally coming from the East Coast, but I really didn’t want to write another New York book. I started with that and I moved to the middle. 

Bookish: In the book, Alex says about her parents: “If I know why they are the way they are, then maybe I can learn why I am the way I am.” Even as adults, many of us look to our parents to understand ourselves. Why do you think this is?

JA: Part of it is that we don’t actually want to blame ourselves for our problems. It’s easier to blame our parents. I think sometimes when you explore these things, where you came from and why you are the way you are, hopefully where you get to on the other side is that it doesn’t really matter, because you’re responsible for your actions and happiness now. I understand why people want to know and want to investigate  that, and I want to from a storytelling perspective. But ultimately, we are responsible for our own choices.

Bookish: This book reminded me of the famous quote from Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” How did you decide on the specific ways in which the family in this novel would be unhappy?

JA: With this particular family, I think it would have been harder to find how they were happy. There aren’t very many happy moments. I knew how they were unhappy immediately, and I think the hard part was writing towards happiness. I have issues with all of the family members; I find them all to be very deeply flawed. I tried to write towards understanding them and having empathy for them. 

Bookish: Grief is complicated in this novel. What drew you to writing about it, and how did you decide how you would approach it?

JA: I think the interesting thing about grief is that whether you like someone or not, if you care about someone, you still grieve. So it gets more complicated when you have problems with the person. If you loved the person, that grief can be really pure and you feel it deeply. But not liking someone and feeling sad has many layers. I think that’s interesting. I also think that there’s no way to avoid grieving–whether you’re openly facing it or not, you still have to go through that process. 

Bookish: What were the challenges of structuring this book so that it would take place over the course of a single day?

JA: Somebody asked me the other day if I had always intended for it to be set on one day, and I confidently said that I always knew. Now I’m like… did I? I loved this structure because it gave me a firm deadline. Knowing most of the book would take place over one day gave the story an internal drive. It forced me to fit everything into a specific structure, and I really love playing with structure. I think I did know I was going to do it–when I started, I couldn’t see beyond the end of the day. The flashbacks came naturally, and I knew what the events of the day were. It set a really nice stake to have it all take place over one day, and I think that when you can offer something like that to the reader, when you can say “I’m going to give you something really tight and really sharp and I’m going to do a smart job with it,” then I think that the reader appreciates that. 

Bookish: What have you read recently that you’ve loved and would recommend to Bookish’s readers?

JA:  Liz Moore has this book Long Bright River, which is a crime novel set in Philadelphia. It was excellent. It was written from a first person male police officer perspective, and I really enjoyed that and ate it up. Sinéad Gleeson has this book of essays called Constellations coming out that was originally published in the UK. It’s just a beautifully written, deeply affecting collection of personal essays. And I read Emily Gould’s new book Perfect Tunes. I just love her writing so much. I like to see what she’s thinking about. It did not disappoint.  

 

Jami Attenberg is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels, including The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie. She has contributed essays about sex, urban life, and food to The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Lenny Letter, among other publications. She divides her time between Brooklyn and New Orleans.

Elizabeth Rowe
Elizabeth is a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in Nonfiction Writing. She is based in San Francisco and can frequently be found at Philz with her nose in a book. Her current obsession is the My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and she thoroughly embarrassed herself when she met him shortly after the release of volume four (and she has the photos to prove it).

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