Fucking and Writing: The Rumpus Conversation with Jami Attenberg

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“Perhaps we should talk about fucking. Fucking and writing, fucking and talking, fucking and thinking, fucking and whatever else it is that fucking goes with…”

Jami Attenberg’s third book, The Melting Season, will be published soon by Riverhead books. It’s the trenchant, frank, poignant, tender, and, dare I say, heartwarming (one of my favorite qualities) story of a Nebraskan woman nicknamed Moonie who leaves her husband, takes a bag full of his money and drives away, heading west, toward a series of adventures, both decadent and wholesome, that surprise the reader as much as Moonie herself.

Fittingly, Jami is about to drive cross-country on a self-generated book tour, with boxes of books in the backseat instead of a suitcase full of money, and lots of fans and friends along the way to host, support, and toast her. You can find her tour dates here.

So, on the brink of her departure, I was glad to have an opportunity to ask Jami some questions. Stephen Elliott challenged us to come up with some topics not usually covered in writer interviews, so we did our best to perk things up with some bookish sex talk.

The Rumpus: Jami, perhaps we should talk about fucking. Fucking and writing, fucking and talking, fucking and thinking, fucking and whatever else it is that fucking goes with — booze? It’s the darkest time of the year and also possibly the most festive — fucking goes with the season, too. So I’ll kick off the conversation. What character(s) of yours would you most like to fuck, and why?

Jami Attenberg: Fucking goes with cigarettes too, I think.

The character I always wanted to fuck – and I think it’s because I’ve fucked about five different versions of him in real life – is Mal, the decadent, adulterous former indie rock star in The Kept Man.  Sex with this type of man is always extremely hot but only for one night.  They’re used to being on tour, dropping in and out of towns, saying and doing the wildest things imaginable, blowing your mind, digging into your soul, and then getting the hell out of there before things get too real.  I don’t know if I could enjoy it as much these days – my bullshit meter is finely honed at this point, and let’s face it, these guys are totally full of shit – but in my youth, those dudes were like catnip to me.

I’d also add that fucking one of your characters is akin to masturbation.  The whole act of writing is masturbatory, don’t you think?  Who would you fuck? I always think your female characters are way hotter than your male.  Although Felipe from Trouble was pretty sexy.

The Rumpus: I agree with all you say — cigarettes go beautifully with fucking, and Mal is hot, and writing about fucking, and writing, and fucking one of your characters, are all indeed somehow masturbatory. As far as my own characters go, if I were a man, or gay, I would want to fuck Stephanie Fox, the forty-year-old, unhappily married, very sexy, very bitchy, very bored femme fatale in The Epicure’s Lament. I created her out of the desires of my internal dick, which come to think of it is the compass that directed the entire novel, in a sense — that novel was simultaneously very male and very sexual to write — soaked in testosterone — obviously completely different from my own (straight, female, estrogen-based) experience. Writing the sex scenes between Hugo and Stephanie — the adulterous romp at the motel, the in-the-window scene in Atlantic City — was an exercise in empathy/imagination, picturing myself in Hugo’s place, imagining everything from the male perspective. Which is to say, it was a total mental whack-off.

Yeah, of course, you got it, I’d choose Felipe, he was a complete fantasy dude, the only one I’ve ever created (generally, the men in my novels aren’t people I’m attracted to, they’re created for reasons other than fuckability)  — that sex scene in Trouble was deemed “cheesy” by the New Yorker, which I have chosen to take as a sign that it worked. But the weird thing about writing sex scenes, for me, is that it’s most fun when I’m imaginatively inhabiting a body very different from my own or envisioning sex between two people who are not me — like Hugo, and Teddy and Lewis in The Great Man, who are both over 70, and Jeremy Thrane, a gay man.  Which brings me to something I’ve been wondering about your work — in The Melting Season, there’s more gay sex than I can recall reading in any of your other books. Why is that?

Attenberg: Do you think people who work at the New Yorker have good sex?

I totally am with you on creating male characters for something other than fuckability.  Most of the sex in my books is not particularly good sex.  It’s funny sex, or it’s sad sex, or it’s angry sex.  But it’s not sex coming out of love or a necessarily healthy-passionate place.  It’ll hopefully teach you something about the character though.

But at heart I think there’s a possibility I’m a romantic.  (I’m still on the fence about it.)  So I kind of keep working toward good sex for my characters. Even though I’m not gay – although I am a New Yorker, and I believe everyone in this town is a little bit Jewish and a little bit gay – I felt drawn to write about them more in The Melting Season.  In past books my characters have mainly witnessed gay sex for a second, or heard about it.  But while I was writing this book there was so much stuff going on (and still is going on) with gay marriage and gay rights in general in this country, that I felt like these characters and their sexual connections needed to be front and center.

So it’s no accident that the healthiest emotional/sexual relationships in this book belong to gay couples, and the most dishonest and sexually dysfunctional relationships belong to straight couples.  Which isn’t to say that is true everywhere.  Just in this particular creative universe.  I was making a point, I guess.

Do you think there’s anything wrong with making a point?  I feel like some of the criticism I’ve gotten for this book has been directed toward my point-making.  I guess I don’t understand what the purpose is of putting out art of any kind and asking for people to pay attention to it, to you, to  consume it, if you’re not going to make some kind of statement.

The Rumpus: Good question — and to answer it bluntly, I have to say, I don’t understand how a novel comes into existence without at least one point the novelist wants to make; that’s the fuel that drives the engine and animates the characters, the energy that gives the thing its zing — of course the idea is to make your points without being too heavy-handedly didactic, at the expense of your characters or the story — which you do, beautifully, So I don’t understand this criticism at all — the greatest novels make very pointed, strong, unmissable statements about subjects from politics to sexuality to love etc. — look at Anna Karenina and Middlemarch, for example.

Your books are all extremely different from one another — The Melting Season is your third published book, and I’ve read chunks of the two new ones you’re working on now, which makes five different books of yours I’m familiar with — I am continually struck and impressed by how each one is a completely new thing, although they all have in common a fresh, strong voice and propulsive energy. So do your essays — but that voice is unmistakably your own, and it’s consistent from essay to essay. I’m interested in this relationship between fiction and nonfiction for you — between invented characters’ experiences and your own. I would love to know how you view the construction of an alternate identity in nonfiction and novels and the relationship between the two, if there is one.

Attenberg: Oh no!  We’ve stopped talking about fucking and started talking about writing.  Well, like we said, it’s all the same.

I don’t know if I have an easy answer to your question. I’ve noticed in the last few years, as much as I’ve tried to fight it off because there’s still this small Midwestern middle class girl in me who would like to have some sort of “normal” life (whatever that means), I’ve become mostly consumed by my life as a writer and as an artist. (I should add not just as a solo act, but as part of a bigger community as well.)  This is both invigorating and terrifying, though increasingly less scary.  It’s not like I’m giving myself over to the dark side, per se.  But there is a feeling of giving myself over to something, definitely.

I am reading the galley of the new David Shields book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, on which I will refrain from commentary, because I’m reviewing it in a few weeks.  In it he talks about how Alfred Hitchock’s films were complete in his mind before he even began them, and Francis Ford Coppola’s films are created as part of a process; he “harvests random elements the process throws up, things that were not in his mind when he began.”  And I identify with the Coppola process so strongly. So much of the time I am creating in real time; it’s become almost impossible to consider the past because so much is happening all the time. I think there is this non-fiction part of my brain, and there is this fiction part, and when something happens to me, or I learn something new, or I hear a good story, or whatever, that idea, vision, moment, usually gets slotted in one side or the other.

For example, sometimes there are things that happen that are so dry and funny and internal and almost-but-not-quite banal, quieter and smaller, I guess, that there’s just no way they could be anything but non-fiction.  Big visual moments, or juicy, emotional bloody messes, those feel more fictional to me.  Such rich territory.  But sometimes things are so enormous, like, say, a break-up, or a death, where there are so many highs and lows and they’ve made such an impact on me, that they actually slot into both parts of my writing brain, and it’s all I can think about, all I can write about, for months and months.  It spills over into everything, my real life, my fictive worlds, the pictures I take, the movies I watch, the books I read.  The more I become invested in my writing, the more I give myself over to it, the more this kind of thing happens.

Whatever the case, it’s all getting filtered through that writer’s voice. It’s all getting processed.  That writer’s voice, I suppose, is the alternative identity.  It’s me, but it’s that creative part of me.  It’s not always in charge though!

The Rumpus: About the difference between Coppola and Hitchcock, it seems to me that maybe some writers and artists in general are more visceral and improvisational, others are more cerebral and schematic. I’m with you in Coppola’s camp, for sure. I find out what I want to write by writing it — I find out who my characters are by giving them their own voices.

One more question. We’re both female, but we know a lot of male writers… I wonder whether you’d care to generalize about how men’s and women’s different sexual makeups might lead us to write differently.

Attenberg: I’ll take a stab and say that because women, in general, feel less entitled than men (for various societal reasons), I think we tend to work harder to please our audiences.  Not that we sacrifice our vision, but we are perhaps more keenly attuned with connecting with our readership, and communicating our message.  And, I’ll add, for some reason, that is rewarded less, at least from a critical perspective.

You got any generalizations over there in Italy?

The Rumpus: According to the Publishers’ Weekly “best books of 2009″ list makers who chose books by men only, women write “small” novels, which these judges deem less “ambitious.” Maybe that comes from being awash in nurturing, connection-seeking estrogen and having all our sex organs neatly tucked away inside. Those guys with their outward dangly bits can swashbuckle their testosterone around on the page and be “big” and “ambitious.”  Oh I don’t know, this is probably a load of crap; I can think of so many exceptions to this generalization in both men and women writers. But there’s something going on that seems decidedly sex-based, and I can only hope that some day the “small” novels of keenly attuned communication (by men and women both) get their due.


Kate Christensen is the author of five novels, including The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has written reviews and essays for numerous publications, most recently the NYTBR, Bookforum, Tin House, Elle, and the B&N Review. She is at work on a new novel, The Astral. More from this author →