Jami Attenberg is the author of “Instant Love,” “The Kept Man,” “The Melting Season” and, most recently, “The Middlesteins,” which Interview magazine called “juicy, delicious, dark smorgasbörd of a novel. (It is that and more.) “The Middlesteins” is the story of a Midwestern Jewish family’s relationships, realizations and appetites. Attenberg spoke with The Sisterhood about loving her characters, connecting to the past, and writing a Jewish book.
THE SISTERHOOD: Whenever I read your books, I have the experience of things being revealed in such a clever and graceful way. I see so much in “The Middlesteins.” It’s about missing each other in spite of being present in each other’s lives. It’s about how much we don’t know about people we love. And it’s about ritual, surprise and hunger. What does “The Middlesteins” mean to ou?
JAMI ATTENBERG: Oh gosh, it’s about so many things. When I look at my favorite parts of it now, I go back to the bits that were about passion and excess. So I love all the eating scenes, for example. I wrote all those with love. But also it’s about communication, or lack thereof. The hard conversations we don’t want to have — and often don’t have - are hovering around the edges of this book for me. For such a loud culture, we often remain too silent.
I’ll be transparent here. I’ve read “The Melting Season,” “The Kept Man” and “Instant Love,” all ravenously, and I’m curious as to what brought on, well, the surge of Judaism. It’s so present throughout your new book. I know that as a writer it’s complicated; sometimes you get attacked by characters, sometimes they creep in slowly. How did you decide to follow this particular thread?
Jami Attenberg’s new novel “The Melting Season” (Riverhead, 2010) is about a young Nebraska woman who leaves her husband and small town for Las Vegas with a suitcase filled with cash. On the road she meets a very un-small town Nebraska cast of characters — including a cross-dressing Prince impersonator and a cancer-surviving flamboyant woman named Valka. Attenberg’s original title for the book was “The Prick,” and was originally conceived as a feminist response to Phillip Roth’s “The Breast,”. Attenberg spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the formation of her Jewish characters, her own breast cancer scare and her conscious efforts to be more of an American writer — and less of a New York writer.
Elissa Strauss: You have written before about how Jewish characters always pop up in your books, even if, unlike your parents who are founders of their local synagogue, being Jewish isn’t a central part of your identity. Well, it happened again in “The Melting Season” with Valka, the cancer-surviving friend and occasional savior to the main character Catherine. Why make Valka Jewish?