The Rumpus Book Club chats with Jami Attenberg about The Middlesteins, the fair portrayal of an overweight protagonist, and food addiction in the face of an unforgiving culture.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Rebecca Rubenstein.
David B: Anything in particular inspire your cast of characters?
Jami Attenberg: Well, it’s set in the community where I grew up. So everyone sort of felt familiar to me, even though they weren’t inspired by anyone in particular. Robin was the first character I wrote and she was a little bit of an alternate universe version of myself, like if I had moved to New York City and left and never came back, although we are very different people. And I would say Kenneth had a direct forbear of sorts. He was inspired by a New Yorker piece I read, by Calvin Trillin. He wrote this food piece about a Chinese chef who moved all around the Eastern seaboard. And people were obsessed with him, and he was very mysterious.
David B: I wondered if there was a character you were especially close to…
Jami Attenberg: I mean, Robin feels the most like me even though we’re not alike. But I get Edie. And I get Emily, too.
Brian S: Unrelated, but Trillin is how I discovered the turducken, even though it was apparently invented less than a hundred miles from where I grew up.
Kevin T: I loved Kenneth. Have you made that cumin-cinnamon-lamb dish? If so, can you share the recipe with us?
Jami Attenberg: I have not made that cumin-lamb dish! But I have eaten it at Xi’an Famous Foods in New York. Minus the cinnamon. Which someone suggested to me. I have had a turducken Thanksgiving before and it is not the same. I do not recommend the turducken.
Roxane: Turducken sounds a bit frightening.
Brian S: I fancy myself an adventurous eater, but I’ve never tried that, either.
Candy: When writing this, did you ever consider having Richard come back to his wife, or did you always plan to end the book as you did?
Jami Attenberg: I always knew Richard was gone and never coming back. It was a question of whether he was going to find love or not.
Candy: Very realistic but so sad.
Roxane: One of the things that we talked about was Edie’s unlikability. Did you worry about how she would be perceived by readers?
Jami Attenberg: I didn’t worry about it that much. Honestly, I didn’t like any of them that much when I started, and then I wrote my way into liking them.
Megan: I was so sympathetic to Middlestein and sad that granddaughter was the only one who came around.
Jami Attenberg: Megan, it’s true, he definitely became more sympathetic by the end. He just wanted love. I think we are perhaps entitled to at least try for it. I don’t believe much in entitlement but that seems like a right.
Brian S: The pursuit of it [love], yes, that’s something we’re entitled to.
Candy: Honestly, I would have preferred he did not find love. He didn’t deserve to.
Jami Attenberg: So Candy, you didn’t like him?
Candy: Sorry, but he was definitely my least favorite character.
Jami Attenberg: It’s okay! Ha. You can not like him. No one is particularly easy in this book.
Megan: I think we all know people with addictions and can relate to the helplessness in trying to help them.
Candy: I was more of an Edie fan.
Jami Attenberg: I love Edie. Edie is a queen.
Brian S: How did not liking your characters affect your ability to write them/mess with them over the course of the book? I’m not a fiction writer so I have no concept of what that feels like.
Jami Attenberg: I mean, in a way, I put all my own bullshit into them. So they’re sort of all me in little bits and pieces, I think. You have to be able to identify in order to write.
Roxane: I was able to empathize with everyone in this book, even when they were frustrating. They all felt very human, though Benny’s wife was a bit much.
Jami Attenberg: Rachelle was my least favorite, definitely.
Candy: You did a great job of transitioning between different time frames—was that hard to do?
Jami Attenberg: The time frame stuff was the most fun. I have this secret desire to write speculative fiction, and I think all the time-shifting really filled that need. Also, it’s sort of like playing chess, if that makes any sense.
Candy: I found it made the book move very fast, which I really enjoyed.
Jami Attenberg: Thanks, Candy! My favorite books are ones that move. I love reading books that you can’t put down, and they just take you over for a night or a weekend.
Candy: Totally agree.
Brian S: Why is it a secret desire?
Jami Attenberg: Brian, do you mean why don’t I just do it?
Brian S: Yeah—I’ve never understood the sneering that speculative fiction receives.
Jami Attenberg: Oh, it’s not sneering. I tried to do it once, an early version of The Melting Season. My last book was speculative. I just don’t quite know what I am doing. But I’ll get there. I have a list of things I would love to write. I’m sure Roxane can attest to the same thing. But it’s not always the right time.
Roxane: Indeed, I do have such a list.
Brian S: Oh, okay. I just mean that there’s a bias (at least in many MFA programs) against anything that smells of genre, and I don’t understand why that is.
Jami Attenberg: I didn’t get an MFA, so there is probably a bias against me in some way. By the way, all this can be yours.
David B.: I’m hungry now…
Brian S: I have that sort of list with poetic stuff, things I want to try, etc.
Jami Attenberg: My list is like: post-apocalyptic, mystery, YA, memoir. Maybe not mystery. I read Zone One and was super into it. I thought Colson [Whitehead] did a great job. Brian, it’s good to try stuff. I wrote a book last year that I threw away, and I think I just wrote it so I could try stuff in it and not be scared.
Candy: Never throw away. There is always someone out there who would love to read … me, for example. I do not write at all, but will read anything and everything.
Jami Attenberg: Oh, it exists. But. Not fit for human consumption. Sometimes, things are just exercises.
Roxane: I loved the cover of The Middlesteins. Did you have any involvement in the decision about the cover?
Jami Attenberg: I didn’t really. They were really late on that, I can tell you. Because they were trying to get it just right.
Brian S: There was a lot of discussion in the group about the role addiction played in the book. Seemed like there was some strong disagreement among members because of that, especially since you were writing about a fat person. How did you decide on food as the addiction?
Jami Attenberg: Well…so I have a few responses. One, being from the Midwest and of a certain community of people, it is just something that people struggle with, their weight. So it felt very true, and something I knew about.
Brian S: We have that problem in the Deep South, too.
Jami Attenberg: Two, I have my own food issues. Three, it could maybe have been something else—booze or drugs or whatever—but the fascinating thing about food is that if you have issues with it, you have to face it every single day. Like you can quit smoking, and never have to have a cigarette again to survive. But with food, it is a daily challenge. It is just very rich source material.
Megan: I thought it was sad but realistic that Edie’s life’s chapters were delineated by her weight at the time.
Candy: I think choosing food as the addiction allows most readers to connect more. I know some of us may have dealt with other addictions, but almost everyone knows someone who is on the heavier side and can relate to the story.
Brian S: Weight is complicated to deal with because it’s one of those things that people who don’t have weight issues tend to dismiss as a lack of self-control.
Jami Attenberg: And people judge you because of your weight and your food issues. It’s very visual.
Roxane: Did you worry about how you portrayed fat people?
Jami Attenberg: I did worry about it. I had friends—who were heavier than I am and who struggle more with their weight—read it every step of the way. I thought very deeply about how I was portraying her. I was careful not to turn her into something that was grotesque. I had one friend read it and we had one quibble, which I agonized over for a while. Which is the spoon in the ice cream at the end. Because she [my friend] felt that was the only note where I was expressing her as grotesque, but in my mind, that was what I would do when I came home from a party. I would stand there and have one more bite of ice cream.
Shann Palmer: It is so sad, though. I found it profoundly affected me.
Candy: You can take out the fact about Edie being overweight and the story still would have worked. People don’t pay attention to their health in many ways and families have to deal with the stresses of it.
Shann Palmer: Yes, but the weight and the diabetes makes it very now.
Jami Attenberg: That’s right, it’s health issues. How do we help our loved ones? How do we communicate better?
Brian S: And it’s the kind of thing where total strangers feel well within their rights to express their opinions on the way you look.
Roxane: Yes, indeed. I found it very relatable.
Jami Attenberg: To me, Edie is GREAT. I loved her. She changed people’s lives. Even in small ways. Even if she was sometimes a terror.
Candy: I loved her, too. She was very realistic.
Megan: I enjoyed reading the evolution of Edie’s relationship with food starting in childhood.
Jami Attenberg: Thanks, Megan.
Shann Palmer: I know myself, I’ve gone to the drive-thru at Krispy Kreme because I feel judged if I have a flippin’ doughnut.
Jami Attenberg: Haha, Shann…oh my god, me and the drive-thrus.
Shann Palmer: You captured the mindset perfectly.
Jami Attenberg: Whenever I end up at a drive-thru I’m like, Okay, something’s really up, Attenberg.
Brian S: Hell, if I’m at the store by myself and grab a Butterfinger, I throw the wrapper away before I get in the car. It’s not that anyone would give me grief if I threw it away at the house either—I’ve just internalized it over the years.
Shann Palmer: It’s one of the few books where the fat person isn’t vilified.
Candy: We all think we will live forever and so did Edie.
Brian S: I’m counting on cyborg technology to make me immortal.
Jami Attenberg: I don’t even know if Edie quite realized she needed help. Even though she’s a smart lady. I just think out of every character in that book, the one I would most want to hang out with is Edie. And Pierre, the dance instructor.
Candy: I see so many people in my line of work that don’t know when they need help, and are supposedly smart enough to know better.
Jami Attenberg: It’s just hard! I smoked for many years like a total idiot.
Brian S: That’s the issue, though—maybe a person knows they need help or have decided that that aspect of their life isn’t the thing to deal with right now. We all make trade-offs.
Candy: Very true, Brian.
Jami Attenberg: Well, when I quit smoking, I had this moment where I said to myself, Whatever you are punishing yourself for, stop. Like it was just an idea that floated in my head, and then I knew it was over.
Shann Palmer: The dad is particularly poignant, though I don’t like him much.
Jami Attenberg: Candy doesn’t like him either, Shann. I feel like we’re gossiping about Richard…
Megan: I liked Richard. I was so on his side at temple with [the] grandkids.
Shann Palmer: It’s easier to hide online or in activities than face up.
Jami Attenberg: So easy to hide online. Megan, I loved writing that scene. That’s one of my faves. It’s like the story of a life.
Shann Palmer: It’s so true: kids and devices.
Jami Attenberg: Adults and devices, too. My mom has this theory that we’re raising a nation of hunchbacks.
Roxane: My dad feels that way, particularly because my youngest brother has made himself a video game hunchback.
Shann Palmer: Yeah—my son’s ex-girlfriend got her MA at Georgetown and at the ceremony, the whole row of grads had their phones out chatting all through the speaking.
Brian S: My students say they hate it, but they never put their devices down. But then again, neither do I. Well, almost never.
Jami Attenberg: I try to make eye contact.
Candy: Although without all that technology, we would not be able to talk to you, Jami, about your great book.
Jami Attenberg: My laptop broke a week ago, and because of the storm I could not get a new one. And so I’ve been promoting my book via iPhone.
Shann Palmer: It must have been awful!
Brian S: Are you dying?
Jami Attenberg: I want to die. I’ve just been running around borrowing iPads and laptops here and there.
Brian S: Right now, I’m on my laptop attached to a second screen, with my iPad to my left and my phone near my right hand. Edie had a problem?
Shann Palmer: We have six computers for four people!
Brian S: Tell the truth—you’re standing in an Apple Store right now.
Jami Attenberg: No, but I did have to run out and borrow a computer.
Roxane: I am feeling agony just thinking about this, Jami.
Jami Attenberg: Oh Roxane, you have no idea.
Shann Palmer: Maybe a next book! What are you working on?
Jami Attenberg: I sold a book proposal. I have about eighty pages done. It’s based on a real-life person named Mazie Phillips, who ran a movie theater on the Bowery from the 1920s to the 1940s. And she was this boozy, bawdy broad, very flawed.
Shann Palmer: Excellent! Great time period.
Jami Attenberg: And she worked from 9 am to 11 pm every day for decades in the ticket booth on the Bowery, and when she would get off work, she would walk the streets of the Bowery and help all the homeless drunks. So it’s about her life and her relationship with these drunks.
Shann Palmer: I’ll buy it!
Jami Attenberg: Ha, thanks. First I gotta write it.
Candy: Sounds great…anything 1920s has got to be good.
Jami Attenberg: I’m not really an expert on the era. I’m sort of learning. But I’ve been told by people who write historical novels that you just sort of write the emotional truth first, the story at the core, and then you go back and research it at the end. I’m not that much of a researcher. I’m good at channeling characters, and I’m good at structure. Before The Middlesteins, I didn’t think about structure and now it’s a joy. I think someone earlier mentioned how the chapters—
Brian S: Can you expand on that?
Jami Attenberg: —with her weight worked. I just think structure can make a book feel so much bigger. It’s the architecture. You could use flimsy materials if you wanted to, even, but it could still feel big.
Shann Palmer: Your structure was impeccable. The weight was a good foundation and the “meat” of the story.
Jami Attenberg: I wrote about half of the book minus the weight chapters. And then I realized I needed to go back and put those chapters in. And then it became a different book. After my editor bought the book, we went through a period where she thought the book should start with the chapter where Richard and Edie meet. And we would lose the first two Edie chapters. And I went down the path just to see if she was right. But it would have been a different book. It would have hinged on their marriage. But the book was more than that.
Shann Palmer: No, the first chapter grabbed me.
Megan: Edie’s weight chapters made me reflect on my own chapters based on weight and how it affected how I viewed myself because of weight.
Candy: I am glad you did not leave them out. Those two chapters were what set up the idea of her personality.
Jami Attenberg: I know. I got where my editor was going, but it needed to be not so tidy as that. So what happened was, I realized that those chapters weren’t working as hard as they should have, and I went back and rewrote them a little bit. Added some details in.
Shann Palmer: Even in family dynamics, one person often dictates the thrust of a story, I think.
Jami Attenberg: That’s right, Shann. Agreed. Anyway, I made them work harder until they worked well, and I’m so glad we left them in.
Shann Palmer: It was nice to see your book mentioned on the Shelf-Awareness blog. I have recommended it to friends.
Jami Attenberg: Honestly, we’ve gotten such lovely attention for the book, thanks. I am the most surprised by how it has been doing. Because all my other books tanked, ha!
Brian S: Has the storm put a crimp in your ability to promote it? I mean obviously it has, but are you getting past it okay?
Jami Attenberg: Well—I’m in Brooklyn, everyone—I had to cancel a book party. My Manhattan launch. And also a reading at a Barnes & Noble. So that was a bummer. But I had my Brooklyn launch party. Most of my big press happened the week it came out, which was two weeks ago.
Brian S: Will there be any travel out to other parts of the country?
Jami Attenberg: Yes. I go to the Midwest on Tuesday, so three events in the Chicago area. An indie bookstore in the city, a Barnes & Noble in the suburbs, and my hometown library. And also a Milwaukee reading.
Brian S: Anywhere near Des Moines? (Probably not.)
Shann Palmer: Get thee to the hinterlands—that’s where the action is. Richmond, Virginia at Fountain Bookstore would be a nice place!
Jami Attenberg: I’ve read at Fountain before! I think what I will do next summer…
Brian S: Farther west. You must come farther west.
Jami Attenberg: So next summer I will go tour. Like, get in my car and drive all over the country and just hit a bunch of places.
Jana C: Anything in Los Angeles?
David B: Come to Ohio, the Kingmaker state.
Jami Attenberg: I might go to Los Angeles just for fun the first two weeks of January. And I have a friend who owns a tiny bookstore there in Eagle Rock, I think? So I could set up a reading there last-minute if i wanted to. But next summer will be my big journey to go hang out and meet people.
Brian S: Seriously, if you come to Des Moines I will find you a place to read.
Jami Attenberg: I will come to Des Moines. I think for hardcover we were like, Let’s just go where it makes perfect sense.
Brian S: You can do Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Kansas City, just like that. (I sound like an agent.)
Jami Attenberg: I love, love, love touring. And I love doing readings. I was super excited to do this chat. I could really give a crap about reviews. It’s kind of about the readers.
Brian S: We’re down to five minutes. Any lurkers want to get a question in?
Jana C: Maybe I missed this but, what was the seed that started this fictional story for you?
Shann Palmer: I have to split…I loved the book and the chance to meet you here, and look forward to your future visit to Richmond! Thanks, Rumpus, for another great pick!
Jami Attenberg: Thanks, Shann!
Candy: I have to log off for the night but wanted to say…I really enjoyed your way of writing and loved the book, even if I did not like Richard. Keep up the great writing and I look forward to reading your future work.
Jami Attenberg: Thank you so much, Candy! Jana, I did discuss it a bit. Well, I think they asked about food. I sort of heard Robin’s voice first. The second chapter of the book was actually the first. So I was thinking about someone hitting rock bottom, and health issues. And how family members contend with it when they don’t actually feel like dealing at all. I feel like everyone sort of got to say what they needed to say.
Jana C: Ah, I could see that… I was wondering the other day, why we didn’t hear more of Robin’s voice, and that makes sense.
Jami Attenberg: The most important thing for Robin, the best she was going to get, was reconciling with her mother and finding love.
Jana C: Definitely. And it was super bittersweet the way the granddaughter ended up bonding with Richard.
Jami Attenberg: I didn’t even know that was going to happen until I wrote it. But as soon as I did I knew the book was done.
Jana C: Nice. I love to hear of writing like that.
Jami Attenberg: Like, I wrote him walking out the front door and I was like, Bye, Richard, and then there she was waiting for him.
Megan: I was hoping Robin would direct her fire into her work.
Jami Attenberg: Interesting, Megan.
Jana C: Well done. It did read as a very organic process.
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight Jami, especially with the storm and all. Good luck with the recovery efforts, and with the book going forward.
Jami Attenberg: Oh, thanks Brian.
Jana C: Thanks, Jami! Look forward to seeing more!
Jami Attenberg: Thanks everyone! I really appreciate all your comments and thoughts. Thank you so much for reading.