Q&A: Jami Attenberg on Her New Novel, The Middlesteins — and What Is or Isn’t Feminist Writing


Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, The Middlesteins, travels through the life of Edie Middlestein, a once portly child, now obese adult, thrown into the next stage of her life after her husband of 30 years, Richard, leaves. The dissolution of her marriage not only uproots a seemingly solid life in suburbia, but also forces her children (Benny and Robin) and her pencil-thin daughter-in-law (Rachelle) to search for a cure to Edie’s endless self-destruction. Beyond Edie’s devastating obsession with food, The Middlesteins is about new love, second chances, and the role of family in personal recovery.

The Village Voice sat down with the Williamsburg-based Attenberg at South 4th Bar & Cafe and got her take on Twitter, the Brooklyn writing scene, the many shades of feminism, and why she isn’t a spokesperson for childhood obesity.

You’ve lived in quite a few places, including some big cities. Why is Midwestern suburbia an ideal location for exploring this type of familial drama?

Well, it’s where I grew up. It’s set in the Northwest suburb of Chicago. I haven’t lived there in 20 years, but I felt like it was time to go back to that place—I was ready. It took me about 20 years to get over my adolescence. I am a New York writer, but I consider myself an American writer. I am interested in the bigger story of what’s going on in this country right now, and the suburbs are a good place.

The book opens with a young Edie lazily ascending the steps to her apartment with her mother. Then she gives up, opting instead to have her mother carry her the rest of the way. She seems in many ways to be just another bratty five year old, but your description of her weight makes her somewhat differently indulgent than the average child. When you created Edie, was it your intention to make a statement about childhood obesity?

No. The Middlesteins is about a lifelong relationship with food. I was just trying to write about a life. Does that sound pretentious? That does sound really pretentious. It’s more to do with her relationship to food and a mother soothing a child with food. Less, “Oh, this is her struggle with childhood obesity,” and more this was an early lesson she learned in life—if you’re upset, put some food in your mouth and then you’ll be quiet.

The women characters seem to be so strong-willed. Juxtaposed, the men—who you even depict in some ways as frail—seem a bit weak. Did you mean to write such dominate women characters?

Yes! Strong Jewish women! I think the women are strong, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the men have to be weak. I wasn’t trying to write it that way. There is a moment when Rachelle says she never knows who’s in charge of the relationship [in her marriage with Benny], and that to me seems like the most ideal relationship you can have—the power is always being shifting back and forth. I think the men hold their own in the book, and they are more capable of understanding what makes them happy.

The child Edie seems painfully similar to the Edie we meet as an adult—stubborn, still fat. She did manage to have a family and a career—her weight causes problems with both—but you seem to assert that women can be stronger outside of parenthood and marriage.

You’re not the only person who brought that up. It’s part of it, but it’s not all of it. I don’t think you can blame all things…it’s an entire life. My past work was really about women leaving men and being much happier afterwards, but I’m recognizing there are more nuances to it. You’re doing a feminist reading of this book!

The way this book has been reviewed—90 percent of the reviews don’t talk about my being a woman. The subject matter isn’t women’s lit. It’s about dark characters and dark places. There was a lot of bait and switching going on with the marketing of my books, and now I have a new publisher, and they decided they were going to just say my book was awesome. It’s nice to not be put into boxes again. It’s troubling, right? Does it trouble you that men maybe get more attention than women do in writing than women do? Among other things.

Of course it is troubling. I didn’t realize I was doing a feminist reading of the book but I guess I did.

The problem is, I’m inherently a feminist. Well, it’s not a problem. Of course, this is a feminist book. These women are strong, but I don’t think just because women are strong, men have to be weak. Maybe it’s my brand of feminism. It’s tricky. There are so many shades of it. So many shades of feminism. Does that sound bitchy?

No. I understand. In many ways Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenedies, and Augusten Burroughs are authors who have become synonymous with dysfunctional domestic life. Who are some of your favorite women authors who deal with similar subjects?

There are so many great women authors out there! We all write about family, it is almost impossible not to. It’s tricky. Every family in literature is dysfunctional—and in reality too. I don’t think in that way. When I was writing this book, The Corrections was an influence on me, and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout was as well. I think that book is perfect.

I have been compared to Franzen. One reviewer called me the female Franzen. But when I read The Corrections, I didn’t think I need to go out and write a woman’s take on this. If anything, my book was the Jewish Corrections. Instead of a bunch of suburban WASPs. I didn’t think I needed to learn to write about families—I have one.

How do you feel about the writing community in Brooklyn?

This is sort of where people come to do work. I’m more about a community of people who loves books. I work in a bookstore [Word in Greenpoint]. If you go to readings, you run into people who are involved in the book world or marketing or publishing—there are a lot of people in Brooklyn that way. But my circle is pretty small. But no, it isn’t an ideal place—it’s expensive. It’s good to be here half the year. I’m a wandering soul.

The bio on your page says you believe in publishing independently and that you love writing about technology, but you also said, “I have five sites, please don’t ask me to have a sixth.” Can you talk about the pressures to self-promote and to be fully branded (i.e., Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook) as part of getting published?

I’ve had a blog since 1998, so I was one of the original bad idea people. But it turned out to be a good idea. I really found my voice online. I have things that I like more than others. I just started doing Tumblr early this year and I kinda love it more than Twitter, sometimes, probably because there’s the visual component. I’m definitely more amped up now, but I’m looking forward to not having to do it as much. I think you should only do it if you want to do it. The worst thing is when you see someone blogging or tweeting and you can tell it’s because their publisher told them to do it, and it is so uncomfortable. They are getting set up to fail. There’s a lack of confrontation in this culture right now because of technology.

What do you mean by lack of confrontation because of technology?

Well, this is a very BCC culture, and we don’t really have to deal with things. We also have a different way of sharing things. You can get mad with someone on e-mail and forward that message to someone else to share and it might feel good, but it isn’t dealt with. We live in a “now” culture. It really takes time to become a good writer. When I talk to people about writing, sometimes people don’t know if they can sit down and take a year writing when they get so much gratification out of writing this blog post or whatever they are writing. It’s your own personal thing when you are writing a book, and not everything has to be out there.

But ultimately, readers are smarter than that. Being marketed well and branded well is not enough. It might get them to the book, but there will be no word of mouth. I would much rather market my book than myself. I’m just a writer. I really want the conversation to be about this book. I’m not really an interesting person. I know what my reality is. I wake up, work for eight hours, go for a bike ride, spend times with my friends. So when people ask me about childhood obesity, I’m kinda like, what the fuck do I know?

So what’s next for you?

Well, my next work is a historical novel. It’s about this woman—she’s from the second essay in the book Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. This woman, Mazy Phillips, she ran this movie theater on the Bowery from the ’20s through the ’40s. She was kind of this bawdy broad, boozy. She was described as a hazy version of Mae West and she cursed a lot and sometimes she was a little violent. She worked from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and when she got off work, she would walk the Bowery and help the homeless men. And I read this essay and I just became really fascinated with her because she’s such a flawed person but also so extremely compassionate and complex. There is just enough information in this essay that I thought, there is so much more to this story that I want to know, that I can research, I can make up. Which is what I’m doing.

Besides that, I’m promoting this book, traveling. Molly Ringwald just finished reading a chapter from The Middlesteins—she’s doing the audiobook. Can you believe it? And I’ll be doing a reading in London next year, so my book is getting press overseas. Super-excited! I just don’t want to fuck it up.