Interview With the Author of All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg
"People architect new lives all the time. I know this because I never see them again once they find these new lives." —Andrea, All Grown Up
It's nice to be young; you can act silly and precocious to older people and be adored for it, them with their dull lives and medium-cute partners. You can propel yourself along for a time on the fizzy idea of your own artistic potential. You can throw away social capital on terrible hookups that ruin the friendship. More friends are coming! You can spend spend spend.
Of course there are drawbacks.
The crappy furniture. The squicky hookups. Seeing the world move up and above you, blotting out your view.
Jami Attenberg's brilliantly funny new novel, All Grown Up, is the book you must must read if you have ever wondered WHAT ON EARTH AM I DOING? or Who is looking after me now? or Exactly how much did my friend pay for this glamorous silk wedding dress that looks like it has been shredded on purpose??? It's the book you must read if you're worried that your dreams or your life are pitifully small and vulnerable held up against those of your friends—"a tiny train pulling into a station." It's the book you need if you don't know how level-up into grown-dom without acquiring a life partner or baby.
The novel follows Andrea, an artist who isn't making art, and who orients her life—and the book—using other people's markers ("Indigo has a Baby") in lieu of her own. As friends marry and reproduce, Andrea dutifully meets the tiny humans once ("He smells like sweet-cream and his hair is petal-soft. All right, show me what you've got, kid, I think.") then lights the funeral pyre and pushes the friendship out into the river ("Oh, Indigo, I shall miss you, I think.").
She's furious that those who once mothered her have moved on—her sister-in-law Greta to looking after a baby with a congenital death sentence; her mother Evelyn to help care; her art-school mentor Felicia to the next batch of paying students.
Andrea is in fibrillation, ambling her way up the ladder in her advertising job, showing up occasionally for her friends and family, unsure of her own path. Of Indigo's baby, Effy, she mistakes her own importance: "I need to see the baby when it's it little, so that someday when I see the baby when it is grown or at least not a baby anymore I can say, 'I remember you when you were this big.' It's all a setup for a later scene."
Andrea fobs off her mother's request for her to be the "plug-puller" (lol) should end-of-life decisions need to be made. She attends the funeral of Betsy, a family friend who surely remembers Andrea "when you were this big," without necessarily realizing the significance of the scene—she's grown; Betsy's gone.
Most of all, she hides from her dying niece, Sigrid, who spends the novel offstage in New Hampshire with Andrea's brother and his wife. Ultimately, the unifying thread isn't the idea of growing up to be on Team Baby or Team Childfree and Proud of It, it's the idea that to progress in life you have to care, to agree to carry other people's burdens as your own.
Pop quiz: Which of the following are true for you?
I'm a sister, I'm a daughter, I'm an aunt.
I'm a former artist.
A shrieker in bed.
I'm the captain of the sinking vessel that is my flesh.
(All of the above.)
It's not just that Jami Attenberg demonstrates a power of imagination that blows past Patrick White's trope of the respectable aunt, Lena Dunham's millennial failure, past Miranda July's deranged single girl to something new in the "childfree woman" genre, it's that she has written a hilarious book that made me want to love everyone in the worlddddd. This is why I have insisted that everyone I know read it.
From an opening chapter:
"Everyone I know tells me about this book. They are like carrier pigeons, fluttering messages, doing the bidding of a wicked media maestro on a rooftop in midtown Manhattan. Nothing will stop them from reaching their destination, me, their presumed target demographic."
I was lucky enough to sit down with Jami, author of New York Times bestseller The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie, over a plastic thimble of water to discuss the book, how to be an artist, and the idea that empathy can be forced upon you. Please enjoy being inside her head, and consider rushing out to get yourself a copy of the book!
SparkNotes: Andrea talks about how she finds art terrible when she knows the artist is lying. This is your sixth book—what has changed for you from writing the first to now?
Jami Attenberg: It's not that I was not intentional with my first book, but I just know that I’m so much more intentional now because I know how the work can get read and how sentences from it can get spread or people have different conversations about it. Like I had no understanding of how it could be a part of the cultural conversation from a writer's perspective; I mean I did as as a reader, certainly. So I'm more conscious of what kind of impact I want the book to have.
Did you feel like you were pre-empting some of the reactions to it?
No no, I wrote it in a very pure way for sure, but I was very bold about it. Like, I know what’s going to happen or I know how it could possibly spread or not spread or be interpreted or misinterpreted, so I'm going to just say things in the way that I want to be heard.
The sort of pinned moment from the novel is a really funny exchange between Andrea and her therapist, where Andrea is tossing out identity statements. But on the page before, there’s a small line that introduces us to her “dying niece,” which explains everything and nothing about who that baby is. The contrast makes her identity quest in that moment look so frivolous—does it really matter?
Yeah it definitely matters. How it started the book and how I finished it were different places but, like, Andrea needs to learn. This book is about her learning. She's basically in that section saying, "Who am I?"
At either end of the story we have Andrea’s friends and family trying to foist a book onto her: at the beginning it’s a book about being single, and everyone keeps saying “you have to read this!” but she absolutely does not want to read that book, and at the end it’s a book about death.
Yeah I was very excited when I came up with that because I didn’t know [I’d use it] writing the book. I just remember like going for a walk in New Orleans and it popped into my head and I knew that’s how I have to end it.
When my editor read the book, we knew, well, this will be the book that is given to your single friends. But it’s also for people who are trying to figure out what they want and how to get it.
It's like the longest shorthand. Is there a book you push onto people?
At this point it’s Just Kids, the Patti Smith memoir, usually when I'm talking to somebody who's trying to remember why they started doing whatever it was, because it's a kind of a career book in a way—discovering how to be an artist. It's all about just like a very organic emergence as an artist. So I’ve probably given it to 15 or 20 people. That's one I really push on people. I’ve pushed the Ferrante on people. And those are probably your two biggies.
It’s so frustrating when they won’t take your advice!
Oh no everyone always listens to me!
There is an incredibly sad moment when Andrea’s mother is cradling the sick niece and says, “tomorrow, you hold the baby.” That was the first time I had to put my sunglasses on on the subway—embarrassing—but it spoke to the idea that Andrea isn’t ready to take on what other people are going through.
Yeah you’re not always ready to care. You’re not always able to care. She has to like go through a process and learn how to care. It's all about to learning that. And I don't like her very much in that moment even though I love her as a character.
You tweeted that's like it'll be interesting to see in three years time the books that are published. What do you see that's changed post-Trump?
I don't know, he's only been president for like six weeks.
But everyone has been depressed since like November 7!
I mean it will have an impact on me for sure. But the election already impacted the writing of this book. I started fall of 2015, so I have this, you know, like a six-month, nine-month period I was writing before I finished in June 2016 in that atmosphere. I'm already writing about race and I'm already writing about culture and I'm writing about economic inequality in various ways. And I’m writing about feminism.
Andrea likes to be mothered by other characters—her mother, Greta, Felicia—but she also judges younger characters like Nina, like the girl in Balthasars, for the way they let men do things to them, their inability to be proactive. What did you think about the kind of idea of when you're young, you have the luxury of letting things happen?
It’s true, but to me Nina is incredibly assertive and in control even if she is misguided. I’m very impressed with young women today, like they have access to reserves of strength that I don't know I had years ago.
Andrea views people who have kids as sort of crossing over an unreachable veil. When her friend Indigo has a baby, she’s like “okay byeee!” But how much of that idea is hers and how much is it a sort of external stereotype?
To be very pragmatic, if you have a kid, you sort of have to adapt to a certain schedule that is different from somebody who doesn't have children. So I think that that’s how lives change.
I mean I do feel like some singleton who doesn't have children, who for the most part chose to go on that path, is probably going to identify with this book more than anybody else is going to identify with this book. But you don't have to identify with a book to get it.
And there’s that idea of her being able to waste time and then worrying about wasting time.
Which doesn't happen with kids. I don't know, my best friend had a baby and I’m a godparent, but they run a restaurant, so they have a really flexible schedule, we can get lunch all the time. She did make it easier for our friendship to survive, but I have lots of other friends who really have their full time job and live in a different world.
For a while, Andrea sort of tags along with her mentor Felicia, who makes a cutting joke that none of her students have real talent and she’s just paying the bills.
I do think that teachers feel that way, but. (laughs) I mean I'm not in academia but I'm just guessing.
Haha sure, but what advice can you give young artists?
You know what there's really no shortcut for anything, you have to sit down and do the work. The little bit of teaching I’ve done, everyone wants to know the trick, but there is no trick, becoming educated about the business they’re in, doing the reading. There’s no one who’s going to write a book for you, you have to just do it.
There’s a line about how teenagers are peak cool—is there any kind of common experience of age after that? Like, Greta’s age 24 is different to Nina’s age 24.
As an artist like I feel like we all transcend age. I have friends that are younger than I am and older than I am. And then beyond that, living in New York City--it is a place you can stay young. I don’t know, it matters and it doesn’t. It is like that cliche. I very deliberately made [the moment Andrea] turned 40 incredibly anti-climactic in the book. I was like “and then she has dinner with some people.”
So I think it matters and matters more when you're not like as content with your existence and you need age as a marker, but for me I like moved beyond that for the most part. I think for Andrea when she turns 40 that's one of the least of her problems.
I read that initially you wrote three stories—
The Indigo stories. Yeah, if somebody were like to do like a super deep read of this book, there are like several stories cycles within the book, and like structures on top of structures. But that is for another time when I look at the book, but to me everything has to be organizing a really specific way. And when things are titled a certain way means a certain thing to me. If a title chapter is like a woman’s name it means one kind of thing and if it doesn’t it means something else. And I don't really know if it makes sense to anybody but me. But it's my own little map.
I started out [with the Indigo stories] and I was like I don't really need to write any more, but I saw that I would just be defining that character by romantic status at each stage if it was just those three. And I figured out who I needed to make it more than that.
Because the chapters work as stand-alone stories, how did you know when you’d found enough of an arc for each one after that?
Good question, I don't know. Yeah. I didn't plan it, but I just (shrugs).
I'm so jealous.
Haha, It’s instinctual you know.
All Grown Up was published March 7, 2017, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This interview was condensed and edited to save us all a lot of heartache.