INTERVIEW W/ JAMI ATTENBERG

Posted by @ 11:43 am on January 28th, 2010

jami lives in a very brooklyn building

Jami Attenberg’s new novel The Melting Season just came out from Riverhead, and she’s reading tonight at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn.  The novel’s about a woman named Moonie Madison whose husband has a micropenis, and she has some adventures involving lost women, dangerous men, Prince impersonators, and Vegas.  The writing is really good and the book is Jami’s best so far.  (I reviewed her first novel, The Kept Man, when it came out, and her collection Instant Love is excellent.)  I asked her some questions about the book and about writing sex scenes and what kind of musician impersonator she’d like to hook up with.

The Melting Season is more kinetic than your last novel (although still primarily character-based). It kicks off with the Hitchcockian/Highsmithian line “I did not mean to take the money.  Well, not *all* of it,” and then becomes a disorienting journey, both geographic and psychological, for the narrator.  And the difference is there in the concepts as well: The Kept Man concerns a woman whose husband is comatose and immobile, and The Melting Season concerns a woman who is constantly in motion.  Why the difference?  How much do you think about “story,” and how interested are you in writing a “page-turner”?

I distinctly remember wanting to write a book that moved physically, as well as emotionally.  (The Kept Man moved plenty emotionally, but you are correct, I had created a scenario where there wasn’t the possibility for a lot of physical action.  In the end, he had to either wake up or die.)  I had spent a lot of time driving the country and living in different cities and I think my life had really opened up in the past few years, particularly with the publication of my first book. So perhaps my fiction was reflecting that.

I think about story somewhat when I am starting a book. There’s usually some sort of hook that fascinates me.  But, in general, I am so much more about character, and creating a believable, authentic voice.  I’m definitely interested in making every sentence count, though, and think regardless if you are more interested in story or character, that’s what is going to make a page-turner.  I like to read books that move quickly, so I try to write them as well.  I recognize it’s not important for everyone, but it’s pretty important to me.  If I am going to ask people to spend time with 300 pages of a book, then I better give them something that is going to captivate them.

The Melting Season, like The Kept Man, deals with a woman who is in a sense chained to her husband and escaping him and looking back at the marriage throughout the novel.  Are you drawn to characters & scenarios like this?

I guess I am!  From a literary perspective, the cracks in a relationship have always interested me.  I started out as a short story writer, which is the perfect place to study cracks of all kinds.  When I started writing novels, which obviously involve much bigger strokes, I started focusing on the bigger chasms in life.  In my literary world, a marriage needs to be more than just fraught with problems — something explosive needs to happen.  The stakes need to be high, or why bother writing the novel in the first place?

From a personal perspective, I definitely am a supporter of leaving behind a relationship that isn’t working for you.  I can’t tell you how many people I have known in my life who would rather stay in a crappy relationship than move on to a healthier way of life, just because they are so afraid of being alone.  It frustrates me.  I’m no self-help guru.  But it would be nice if one thing my books could do (and there is a long list of things I wish my books could do for people) is help people to see that being alone is not so bad — especially if the other option is living in some sort of relationship hell.


The sex scene with Thomas near the end is painful.  Mortifying, awkward, sad–and excellent.  Personally I have trouble writing sex scenes that depict “good sex”; a self-consciousness hovers near you and you have to wait for it to go away, I find.  But sex scenes containing “bad sex” are more interesting to write.  What do you think?  In your experience does writing a sex scene just like writing any other kind of scene, or does it present specific challenges for a writer?

I love writing bad sex scenes – they are always one of my favorite things to write.  It’s possible I love them so much that I subconsciously come up with scenarios in my books that will lead to the opportunity for me to write a bad sex scene.  It’s where you work out your past bullshit.  Even if that scene doesn’t reflect reality – and I can honestly say that the scene you mentioned had nothing to do with my own life – you’re definitely working something out when you write a bad sex scene.  I do have a “good” sex scene in the book though, too, which actually was more challenging to write.  It’s easy to make something funny and dark and fucked-up and awkward — that’s life on a daily basis. It’s hard to write something loving without making it sound cheesy.  Which obviously says so much about me as a human being and probably a lover, but it’s a little late at this point to care.

Which writer or writers are ridiculously underrated?  Who do you love that I’ve probably never heard of?

I feel like you are probably way more informed than I am!  I like a lot of women who make comics: Julia Wertz, Gabrielle Bell, Vanessa Davis, Emily Flake.  I always want there to be more cross-over between the lit world and the comic world, and these women are poised to do it.


If you were going to hook up with a person impersonating one legendary musician of your choice, who would that musician be?

Maybe like a super young Mick Jagger?  Mick Jagger circa Altamont was kind of ridiculously sexy even though he was obviously a total jerk.  But if it only had to be for one night…


Are you working on something new?

I have a first draft of a new book.  It sags extremely heavily in the middle, poor thing.  It needs some love and care. I haven’t written fiction in a while though; it seems really far away from me.  I have written essays and blog posts and answers to a lot of interviews, all in service of promoting The Melting Season.   I always push down the voices in my head when I’m in the process of promoting a book.  But  I will be ready this spring to get back to work after my tour.

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