Jami Attenberg on Food, Family and ‘Working Sh*t Out’ Through Fiction

Jami Attenberg on Food, Family and ‘Working Sh*t Out’ Through Fiction

Newly out in paperback, Jami Attenberg’s bestselling novel, “The Middlesteins,” is about a Jewish family in the Chicago suburbs whose interrelationships are complicated by their own fraught relationships with food. Also a bookseller at the Brooklyn bookstore, Word, Attenberg told Bookish about some of her most highly recommended books and why addiction to food is a different beast than other self-destructive habits.

Bookish: What book do you recommend to others most frequently?

JA: I feel like I recommend “Just Kids” a lot.

Bookish: What do you like about it?

JA: I just think it’s beautifully written. It’s really inspirational. There isn’t anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to. I work in a bookstore part-time, and it’s always a winner. And I also have a copy that–usually, when I lend my books out to people, they never come back to me–and this is a copy that I probably loaned out to a dozen people, and I just say to them, “This is a really great book, a really important book–you have to give it back to me, so I can pass it on to somebody else,” and they take it seriously. It always comes back to me.

Bookish: So you’re a bookseller who doesn’t mind lending books instead of making people buy them?

JA: Well, that’s the one book I think that I just want to thrust into people’s hands, and they might not be somebody who’d go to a bookstore to buy it or check it out of the library, but sometimes it’s just more important to just read a great book.

Bookish: What’s the best book recommendation that you’ve gotten? Who recommended it to you, and why is it great?

JA: Somebody recommended “The Corrections” to me a couple of years ago, and it was really helpful to read that book in terms of my writing. It’s just a masterpiece. Joanna Smith Rakoff recommended it to me–she’s a novelist. I was in the middle of writing a book, and she said, “You should totally read this book. It’s going to help you.”

Bookish: Did it?

JA: It did help me a lot.

Bookish: And “The Middlesteins” is your third book?

JA: Fourth. Third novel, along with a story collection.

Bookish: And do you like it the best?

JA: Yeah, it’s my best! You kind of hope that they’re getting better as you go along. I always think that I’m just getting better at my job.

Bookish: What book makes you laugh?

JA: I remember thinking “A Confederacy of Dunces” was pretty funny. Or you know what book is really funny? “The Epicure’s Lament,” by Kate Christensen. Oh, it’s so good. She’s a very funny writer in general.

Bookish: What book makes you cry?

JA: I just read “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, and I cried when I was reading that.

Bookish: What part made you cry?

JA: I’m not giving anything away: Her mom dies at the beginning of the book, and it’s really sad. It doesn’t take much to make me cry, though.

Bookish: Are you also a happy crier, or mostly sad crier?

JA: I’m emotional, I have moments. Like this morning I was a little misty because I set out on my day, and I’ve done all this hard work, and I’m going to come to Book Expo America and sign galleys–I’ve never signed galleys before–and it’s great.

Bookish: What book do you find inspiring?

JA: So many of them. I just read Lauren Groff’s book, “Arcadia,” and it was just so impeccably written–it was inspiring in that way, where you just see somebody at the top of their game, and it has this really solid craftsmanship. So that inspires me.

Bookish: What do you hope readers will feel when they read your book?

JA: Well, I wrote “The Middlesteins” with a lot of compassion for my characters, so I hope that they have sympathy for the people in the novel, as well. And, hopefully, they’ll take that compassion and sort of spread it out into the rest of their life.

Bookish: Which author, living or dead, has been a big unconscious influence? One that you didn’t realize was influencing you until after you had finished writing a book.

JA: I feel like I grew up reading John Irving. I read him when I was really young, probably when my mom was reading him, and I didn’t understand all of it (like the sex parts). But he was so upfront and outrageous about so many things, so when I look at my writing now–I’m not comparing myself to him at all because he’s freaking John Irving; I wouldn’t even think of myself in that vein–but seeing somebody who just completely says what he wants to say is really inspiring.

Bookish: Do you try to do that as a writer, or do you put that tendency into your characters?

JA: Sometimes they do, but I think just like owning your voice, owning your authorial voice, is important. I’ve been reading him a little bit now, and I’m like, he so owns what he does. It’s his deal, you know?

Bookish: What was different for you about “The Middlesteins” from previous books you’ve written, and why do you like it the best?

JA: It was definitely the first time that I knew what was going to happen at the beginning. So I wrote it really fast. I wrote it in probably about four or five months. Even though I wrote about half of it, and then I came back to the beginning and changed it in certain ways, I always knew what the through line was, and I always knew what had to happen at the end of the book. Even though there were things that sort of surprised me along the way, that I didn’t know were going to happen. I think as you get older and more experienced, you’re just more controlled. I just feel like I was on a mission. It’s so cheesy to say, but I was trying to understand something specific when I was writing it. I worked out a lot of stuff in that book.

Bookish: Is the family in the book similar to your own?

JA: It’s the same area that I grew up, suburbs in Chicago, and it’s definitely my milieu–Jewish-American family–but my parents are not the parents in the book. We’re so different from them. But it’s almost an alternate-universe version of my family. My brother lives in New York, I live in New York, we just led a very different life from those people, but it’s sort of the same family structure: brother, sister, parents. I feel very connected to it, for sure. There are definitely things in that book that happened to me, sort of loosely. Not a lot, but enough that I knew I was working some stuff out when I wrote it, so in a way it’s my most personal book.

Bookish: If you had to boil it down, what was the essential question that you were trying to answer by writing the book?

JA: The main character in the book is killing herself. Not trying to kill herself [as in suicide], but she’s killing herself with food, and I was trying to understand why people don’t take care of themselves and how you contend with that as a family member. And then, also, how people get judged for [not taking care of themselves]. Your weight is a really specific thing, and being obese is a really specific kind of thing and food is specific. You could be a drug addict, you could smoke cigarettes, you could drink too much–and you could just look at a person and not know they do any of those things. But if somebody eats too much, you know right away, and you can judge them right away.

You just try and understand and work things out by writing a book, selling it and hope lots of people work on it. It’s kind of weird, right? If you write because you’re just working your sh*t out, and then you’re like, can everyone else work my sh*t out for me too? Let’s everyone get invested in me. Yeah, right.

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