Novelist Jami Attenberg is dealing with an unexpected house guest when we meet. She found a dog wandering her home city of New Orleans and has taken him in, hoping to track down his owner. In the background, there is the noisy yapping of a turf war as Attenberg’s dog Sidney — named after her grandfather — gets acquainted with the intruder.
Taking in a stray is exactly the sort of behaviour you’d expect from Edie Middlestein, the warm, morbidly overweight matriarch of Attenberg’s bestseller, The Middlesteins, a novel that won plaudits for its intelligent discussion of obesity, marriage, and suburban Jewish life.
It would be in character, too, for “Saint” Mazie Phillips, the titular protagonist of Attenberg’s fifth book; a Lower East Side Jew who makes it her mission to help down-and-outs during the Depression.
Based on the fascinating true story of the so-called “Queen of the Bowery”, who spent her days at the famous cinema’s ticket office and her nights helping homeless men, Helena Bonham Carter was so enamoured with Mazie that she optioned the screen rights and a screen adaptation is in the works.
Attenberg’s latest, sixth book, the acerbic, funny All Grown Up, is set in present-day Brooklyn, and follows Andrea Bern, a single woman approaching 40, as she looks back on the family dynamics and personal relationships that have coloured her adult life.
Attenberg lived in Williamsburg for 18 years; she shares with Andrea a taste for bagels and whitefish, and her fictional heroine is every bit as dry and self-deprecating as the author herself. But, although no stranger to writing what she knows —The Middlesteins was set in the affluent, tight-knit Jewish community outside the Chicago of her childhood — Attenberg insists All Grown Up is not autobiographical. “With all my characters, I sort of feel that they live next door,” she concedes. “In general, I was interested in the idea of what it means to be a grown-up.”
Still, elements are surely drawn from her life. Andrea embarks on a relationship with an impoverished artist — a situation Attenberg is no stranger to. Her first books did not sell widely and were written while freelancing at various jobs. Only with The Middlesteins did she experience critical and commercial success.
“I never realised how bad my career was until it was good,” she laughs. “The year or two before The Middlesteins, I was really struggling. I had to come to a place where I told myself, you may never make money to live on, but if you keep getting published that’s the most people can hope for. For it to become the thing I do with most of my time has just been a real blessing.”
After The Middlesteins, her life became a whirlwind of book tours and literary festivals. As a consequence of its Jewish setting — the story culminates with the b’nei mitzvah of Edie’s twin grandchildren, and also looks back on Edie’s immigrant parents and the 20th-century American Jewish story — Attenberg found herself embraced by the community.
“I spent two years in synagogues and Jewish community centres — more than I’d ever been before,” says Attenberg, who views herself as “culturally Jew-ish”.
“I probably identified a little bit more because of that and I was very touched with how welcomed I was. But I’ve learned that every book has a different audience.”
Published in 2013, The Middlesteins shot up the charts after Jonathan Franzen gave it a gushing review. A few years earlier, the novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult had made waves in the literary world by highlighting the fact that the New York Times “tends to pick white guys” like Franzen for review and profiling, with top papers dismissing female authors writing mainstream and contemporary fiction. What’s Attenberg’s view?
“I think it’s definitely changed in the last couple of years. People are more aware of the inequities,” she says. Partly, she doesn’t care how she is categorised — even if it’s as “chick lit” — because she just wants people to read her work.
“But then of course I want to be read by everyone, so that’s the danger if you get typecast in one way or another, or your book cover looks a certain way. Being put in any kind of box for an artist, is kind of dangerous,” she says, noting diplomatically that her first three book covers “weren’t super universal-looking,” which didn’t help them sell.
Her bugbear is not so much sexism but “lazy” comparisons between writers. “I’ve seen all these books since Gone Girl being called ‘the literary Gone Girl’. It’s maddening. Gone Girl was plenty literary, and I think it does a disservice to all these books, because they’re doing their own thing,” she says. “I want to be me, I don’t really want to be a female anything, or a Jewish this, I just want to write and create my own stuff.”
Her next book is still brewing, although she plans to set it in New Orleans, where she has lived on and off for the past few years. She loves the laid-back atmosphere compared with New York’s frenetic pace. And in President Trump’s America it’s an interesting place to be: a Blue city in an avowedly Red state.
Hardly a regular activist, she has been to four protests in the past fortnight. “I try to be as politically active as I can be, and it’s on here, there’s no taking a break.”
She remains optimistic, buoyed by a sense that people are coming together in opposition to the president’s vision. “I don’t know what that means or what it looks like, I just know we’ve got plenty of fight left. We’re only getting started.”
She hopes that fiction, hers and others’, will be part of the fight-back. “I consider writing my books to be a political act and a feminist act. I consider my subject matter to be political and feminist and occasionally radical.” If nothing else, her aim is that All Grown Up “will provide some sort of emotional distraction from matters at hand. I would like if people read it and feel like they are transported.” She sighs. “I don’t know how to save America with literature, but I hope it plays one small part of a big movement.”
In the meantime, there’s a dog to reunite with its owner and, like her characters, Attenberg won’t give up easily.
‘All Grown Up’ is published by Serpent’s Tail