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Jami Attenberg on Writing Her First New Orleans Novel

All This Could Be Yours is classic Jami Attenberg, but it’s also a love letter to her new home city of New Orleans.

Longtime New York City author Jami Attenberg moved to New Orleans full-time in 2016. She’s written about driving South each winter to escape the coldness of New York, but it was in the Crescent City that she found her new home. “There, I knew love,” she wrote in The Guardian. “It is its soulfulness and friendliness that I treasure most, though … There is a sweetness to it, a true commiseration of spirit. I feel my edges soften there. What if I spend the rest of my life alternating between softening and sharpening myself? Would that be so wrong?”

Attenberg grew up in Illinois, so she’s not a native New Yorker, but she spent 18 years in the Big Apple. She wrote most of her books in the city, three of them set there. But she says New Orleans is a better place to write. “I am as pure a writer as I can be,” she continued in The Guardian.

She was hesitant to set her latest book All This Could Be Yours in her new home city though. She didn’t want to get the details or the history wrong, especially in a place she loves so much. “I wanted to be respectful and do a good job,” she says. That meant talking to natives, walking and biking the city frequently and using some ancillary characters to round out her family saga.

As her seventh novel, All This Could Be Yours is classic Jami Attenberg, with all the family dysfunction and drama readers have become used to, but this time it’s happening in New Orleans—a city with its own dysfunction and problems amid plenty of charm and lush landscaping.

Attenberg also says this is her most plot-heavy book. “It has a lot of surprises to it. I want people to be genuinely surprised when they’re reading the book,” she says.

We talked to her from her Ninth Ward home in New Orleans about All This Could Be Yours, how the city has inspired her, the unconventional structure of this book and where she plans to set her future work.

You can also see Attenberg at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on Nov. 2, where she will be on a panel titled “Celebrated Authors of Southern Literary Fiction” with Michael Knight, Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Jeremy Finley, moderated by Erin Z. Bass.

 

Erin Z. Bass: When did you move to New Orleans and what led to the move?

Jami Attenberg: I’ve been here for four years in February. Now it just feels like it’s my life. I’ve been coming down here every winter since 2012. I would always leave New York and go write in a different city sometimes for a month or three months. Here, I would come for three months and I had been here before and really liked it. Everything sort of clicked that first time in 2012. It was kind of the right time for me. I had just turned 40, I think, and I just connected with the city in a different way. I lived in New York City for 18 years, but I was always searching for a different place for myself. I had just met a bunch of writers and creative people down here and made friends with some great people in the service industry down here and it captured my heart in a lot of ways, and I was really happy in New Orleans. It’s been an interesting experience because it was the place that made me so happy. It’s different [living here], but I’m happy to be part of the community down here.

 

EZB: Have you found a writing community to become a part of or do you prefer to work alone?

JA: I’m friends with a lot of people at Tulane, so connecting with the academic community has been really great for me. I feel connected to 826, I’ve done readings at Antenna, the Saturn Bar near my house. I coordinated this big group reading of Toni Morrison’s work after she passed away. In New York, I hosted readings, so it’s coming down here and doing the same thing and learning about what works and what spaces are available. It’s an interesting learning curve.

 

EZB: How has the city influenced your work and your latest book?

JA: This is the first one I’ve written fully in New Orleans. My last book, I wrote half of it and edited it down here. I was really nervous about writing about here. I wanted to be respectful and do a good job. It took me four years to really commit to writing a New Orleans novel. I’m really enthusiastic but I’m trying to be respectful. I’ve written three books set in New York, but here it’s smaller, it’s a tighter community. History is so important down here, and I just wanted to make sure I was doing justice to everything.

 

EZB: Did you go out into the city to see specific locations while you were working on the book?

JA: I walk a lot. I walk my dog in the mornings, but I’ll walk another hour a day by myself. I had friends who I talked to who were native New Orleanians and I would ask them questions along the way. I definitely biked around the city too if I was writing about a certain location. I went to the morgue. I went to Potter’s Field, I walked around the city a lot and kind of tried to turn it on its head a little bit. I didn’t want to write about the city in a cliched way. One of the things I did that was a trick of the book was I created a character who wasn’t that happy to be here. I was able to use a cynical eye by showing it through Barbra’s eyes.

 

Once in the spring they’d gone to a crawfish boil at the home of a neighbor of her son—this was when Gary was still in town—and Barbra took one look at the grinning, exuberant group of people lined up on either side of a long table, piles and piles of steaming crawfish, corn on the cob, and sausage, and said, “Are you kidding me?” She sat in the corner with a plastic cup of beer poured from a keg and watched as her husband and everyone else greedily dug into the spicy crustaceans before them.” – Chapter 21 

 

EZB: The Tuchmans in this novel are a dysfunctional family, to say the least. Why do you love writing about difficult families so much?

JA: The sixth chapter was originally the first chapter of the book. A woman is sitting on the roof of a hotel at the pool talking to her sister in law, and there’s a family member that’s sick and they’re discussing this person they don’t like that’s sick. That was the beginning of it. I’m interested in the idea of how you might have to take care of someone or grieve somebody you didn’t actually like that much. Everyone sprouted up around that. There was a bad dad, I knew that, a daughter with conflicted feelings, an easygoing sister in law, but no one’s ever really that easygoing. The mother was the secret keeper. I saw the whole family.

I don’t know any easy families. They’re all difficult. I love when people think that they’re not difficult and they’re smiling and laughing as they’re saying the most difficult things in the world. Families are very interesting to me. I think there’s so much you can do with them. Writing is basically gossiping about characters. I love family gossip. My family’s not really interesting. We don’t really have high drama in our family.

 

EZB: Barbra, the mother, is such a great character. She’s not necessarily likable, but I could have read a whole book about a woman like her.

JA: She’s not anyone I know personally, but I felt like I’d met people like her before I guess. Somebody the other day said, ‘How did you come up with all the bad things about the family?’ I said it was much easier to come up with that and much harder to come up with the good things. I was trying to figure out ways to write her moments of happiness. The thing I did like about her is I made her funny. She has a dry sense of humor.

 

EZB: In her blurb, Attica Locke references the “brilliant” structure of this book. You include characters like Sharon who are sort of on the fringe. Was the structure planned or did it just come together?

JA: It probably was the most work out of anything in the book. I really wrote Sharon hard. She was so different, but she was always there from the beginning of the book and I liked her, whereas many of the other characters I didn’t like so I had to write my way into liking them. With Sharon a little bit, I had to uncover her flaws. People are telling me which characters they identify with the most and it’s always surprising to me. I try really hard to create enough space in my writing for people to insert themselves in the book. My work is about being in conversation with the reader.

Because I was sort of struggling with how I was going to write about New Orleans, my entry point was to have people who had moved there, but still I had my native New Orleanian Sharon hanging out. I was interested in someone who had moved away and came back after Katrina. As soon as I started writing the book, it was like all these other characters would pop up and be like, ‘oh really.’ This is my way in. Everywhere I would send my character another voice would pop up. That’s part of the joy of the creative process is seeing what pops up along the way. I refined them as I went along and made sure there was a reason why they were there. They sort of operate as little pieces of flash fiction within the bigger structure.

My whole vision for the book is a kaleidoscopic vision anyway. Saint Mazie was too. Books are just a bunch of moving parts to me and it’s how you organize it that’s important. They just kind of asserted themselves into the book. It was a more organic writing experience once I let them in. It’s not an uncommon move for me to have late-breaking characters show up. It’s basically a long view like if you were thinking about the family in a different way.

 

EZB: Do you think you’ll keep writing about New Orleans?

JA: My next book is going to be essays. It’s basically about my forties. I’ll be 48 in a month. It covers my late thirties to now. There’s a little bit of New Orleans in it, but a lot of it is about foreign travel. I will probably skip a New Orleans book, then I think maybe my next novel will be New Orleans. I just need to make sure that what I’m writing makes sense to be set here and it’s purposeful. For me, this felt very much the right book for me to write about New Orleans. I think it’s about trusting yourself as a writer to do a good job and trusting your intentions.

 

All This Could Be Yours is one of our Fall/Winter Reads. View the entire Fall/Winter Reading List here.

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