It was a sweltering Brooklyn afternoon when I met debut novelist Adelle Waldman in a quaint coffee shop to discuss her brilliant new novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. In full disclosure, Waldman and I share an editor, but upon finishing The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I had the feeling that we shared much more than that. We met on the kind of New York day when most sane people wish to flee to the country and jump into a quarry so cold it could obliterate the sun. And maybe even the memory of the city. As I sat across from Waldman, a woman of tiny stature with serious, inquisitive, see-everything eyes, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. Like I was at the start of one of those terrible dates I used to have before I got married.
Waldman draws a character I have known all of my years in New York: the narcissist who wields a pen and has a novel in contract with a publisher. A man who looks so far into himself that he fails to see anyone else. He has no interest in the people who live around him—at least not the ones who work the bodegas and taxi cabs. He is careless with women, and distressingly uncurious about the biological imperatives that stir longings for sex, safety, and love, and even the success as a writer that he is so hungry for. He’s a kind of Peter Pan, and he embodies so many of the qualities of many men and women in literary New York: the nervous strivers, the cutthroat careerists, the people most likely to look over the shoulder of their companion in conversation at cocktail parties; their gazes lost someplace in the ether, in the hope of finding someone more interesting to talk to.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this book could have been a disaster. In Waldman’s hands, she holds up a mirror to a generation and asks us to take a good long look at ourselves.
The Rumpus: The women of this book are so harshly judged by Nate for their looks and for their intellects. Nobody will ever be good enough for him. That seems more a reflection on his anxieties about where he comes from, and what he is capable of as a writer than on the women he woos. As a reader it was irresistible to psychoanalyze him, exactly in the same measure I have done with dates of my own and with those of my best girlfriends.
Adelle Waldman: Ha! I know just what you mean. When I meet someone who has read the book, but who doesn’t know me, the first thing I want to tell them is that I am not at all like Nate. I am much nicer, seriously. My inner life is very different from Nate’s, which was why it was both fun and frightening to try and imagine his. It scared me because it made me wonder retroactively if men I had dated in my past sized me up the way Nate sizes women up. It’s not exactly a comforting thought.
But, as you said, I wanted to create a character that would be as hard to peg down as those bad boyfriends we sit around and discuss with our friends, the ones who are total assholes in some senses—but just when you want to go and say they are completely immature or selfish, you remember something about them that complicates the picture, some really thoughtful thing they did for someone else or something like that. I feel like that’s what makes those guys—and Nate—so frustrating. They aren’t all one thing, only guys with “commitment issues.”
Rumpus: It’s so important to remember that as a reader, and certainly as a writer. A great piece of literature is always trying to show you that the great circle of darkness can’t exist without lightness. A book without balance is unreadable. We can never be our best selves without having known the parts of ourselves we’d rather forget. But as a writer of memoir myself, Nate’s ideas of it as a lesser form, a woman’s game, were particularly unforgivable to me. And you never really went about rounding him out in that way, giving the reader a moment when we might be relieved of his ideas about what men do well that women can’t. Were there moments while writing Nathaniel P. that you wrote against him, proving Nate wrong about the kinds of books women write?
Waldman: It’s funny. People have wondered if I wrote this book from some sense of grievance toward an ex-boyfriend. And the answer to that is a resounding no. While I can relate in broad strokes to what the women in the book experience, I didn’t date anyone exactly like Nate. Where I do have more of a sense of grievance is in terms of the intellectual stuff that you mention. I think I was, as you said, writing in part to prove men like Nate wrong about what women could do. I suspect there were men who imagined that a woman couldn’t possibly write a convincing book about the inner life of a self-consciously intellectual male, who expected I’d be too doctrinaire or sentimental or intellectually-limited to pull it off, or that I’d create a very effeminate and barely convincing male character.
But I know what you mean. I think it is, in some sense, frustrating that Nate isn’t called out in the book for some of his most unnerving thoughts. But I wanted the novel to feel entirely realistic, and I don’t think, in reality, men are always—or often?—punished for harboring these kinds of ideas. That’s part of the problem. I think that these are thoughts that probably quite a few progressive men have about women’s writing, but they mostly refrain from stating them aloud.
Rumpus: While I was writing Her, I tried to keep in mind that no matter how wronged I’d felt in a relationship, or even by my parents, that I wanted the book to be bigger than that. I also wondered if my impulse to do that was an overcorrection. I wondered if I’d be less worried about other people’s feelings if I were a man. And maybe I worried that because I’m a woman, it would be easier for others to interpret some parts of Her as revenge writing. Certainly a book written about grievances and for payback is never really very interesting in the end. Those kinds of books don’t stick with us. Do you think that The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., because a woman writes it, is more easily described as a story of revenge?
Waldman: I felt like I had to be very careful not to let the book read like a bitter ex-girlfriend’s revenge fantasy. I had to be very fair to Nate—to make him no worse than he is. And you bring up something interesting; I don’t know if I’d thought of it before, but I think you might be right. I’m not sure if a man writing something similar about a woman would have felt this concern. I do think there is a reflexive assumption on many people’s part that women are more likely to write out of anger than men are—the whole “hell hath no fury” bit—and that we are less capable of taking a more disinterested objective stance. I felt the only way I could counter this was by being so fair to Nate that men would see themselves in him.
It’s also so interesting to me what you say about your feelings in writing memoir. I definitely felt similarly, in that I was writing a book about relationships and dating, the kind of book that could so easily be pegged as “chick lit” or “women’s fiction.” And I think we worry about that stuff because it’s real—women’s books are categorized this way all the time—yet as a reader, I also feel very strongly that a book’s seriousness or universality has little to do with its subject, and more to do with how incisive and revealing it is in the way it handles the material.
Can I ask how you went about making your book bigger than your own experience? I wonder because for me, what I tried to do with Nate, was to get at what I felt were pretty universal gender dynamics and psychological realities, ones that weren’t specific to Brooklyn or writers or Nate’s relationships with Hannah and Elisa and Kristen.
Rumpus: I’ve known so many people who have said that they wish they’d had an identical twin, someone who thinks like they think and finishes their sentences. It’s a kind of fantasy, twinship. Some people believe that if they had a twin they’d never be alone. But of course twinship is much more complicated than that, and filled with problems of infighting and competition. After Cara died, I even saw her in the mirror when I looked at myself. I wasn’t prepared for the hazards of having been so linked with her. For many, I think the fear of being without companionship or of never being truly understood is vast. Much more existential than desiring the companionship of marriage or the blood bond of having children. It’s animal, and terrifying, the idea that we’re in this world and no matter who we are, we are by ourselves. The experience of losing Cara became the frame for me to try and tell a story that I knew was universally important in its theme.
This sounds so far from your novel, but on the other hand, it’s not at all. Your characters are bumping up against one another but never really connecting; they’re starkly alone. But they don’t have to be! And that’s one of the most frustrating things about Nate. He’s capable of great intimacy, I think. But he’s a harsh and often blind judge and that hurts him. It keeps him walled off, especially with women. That is even reflected in his choice of literature. It seems he has a hard time taking seriously writing by women. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read your novel, if it would be the kind of book Nate would read? The kind of book he’d keep on his shelves for his friends to see. Was that on your mind as you were writing it?
Waldman: I have to say that so far, I’ve been really heartened that a lot of men seem to be reading my book. I’m going by notes I am getting and what people say to me on Twitter and stuff like that. So maybe, yes, Nate would. On the other hand, I think it’s not the kind of book Nate would be immediately drawn to. His first reaction would be to be skeptical because of a) the misgivings I referred to above about whether a woman could pull off the male voice; and b) he is less interested in personal relationships than I am (or than my book is). I think if Nate wrote his own book about his life, it wouldn’t be about his girlfriends, but about his great intellectual flights of fancy. It would have a few exciting sexual encounters thrown in for a bit of dash, but he’d leave out all the bits about shamefully unanswered e-mails, rating women on a scale of one to ten and wondering whether he could still get it up for a casual hookup.
I also think what you say about twinship is so interesting. For the record, I am one of those people who always fantasized about having a twin for exactly the reasons you said.
Rumpus: I saw NYC as an equally strong and flawed character as Nate is in the novel. You draw it with filthy adoration. We fall in love with this city because in it everything seems possible, yet it mires us in an undeniably claustrophobic way of life. Just like Nate, NYC is the perfect example of an impossible lover. Tell me more about this.
Waldman: There’s a lot that I love about NYC, and about Brooklyn in particular. In the many years that I spent writing this book, I worked as an SAT tutor. I had no agent and no publisher and I’d never published any fiction. And for those reasons, I really valued living amongst a community of writers who took what I was doing seriously, who treated my Microsoft Word document with respect and not just as a hobby, who didn’t wonder why I didn’t get a real job, with benefits. I truly couldn’t have written this book without that sense of support. That’s the part of Brooklyn I love, and in the book, I wanted to reflect some of that feeling of community.
On the other hand, I think the flip side is a sense of status-consciousness among writers—I mean, not among one’s close friends but in the larger scene: at parties and things like that. That gets tiresome. I think as human beings we could all stand to be less status-conscious, but especially those of us who are writers and artists. It’s so easy to conflate success with merit, but they are very different things. Many times the most interesting people are not the ones with the fanciest job titles or most prominent book deals.
But you live in Brooklyn, too. How do you feel about it?
Rumpus: The pulse of New York is irresistible. And I find a kind of solace in feeling invisible on the streets here. As if there are so many people going along at once that I’m impossible to see. It’s a fantasy I’ve held onto since I moved to Brooklyn in 1999. I can still spend an entire day looking at the Tiepolos at the MET, or find myself lost with an angel in an overgrown garden with Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc. And now I bring my two-year-old daughter to the museum so she can ask her own questions of the work she sees.
New York has been a gift to me with all its riches in art and writing and research. But just yesterday, I was driving into town and saw a billboard that read: “raising a baby in an NYC apartment is like growing an oak tree in a thimble.” Before Josephine was born, my angst over the city was more intellectual, more similar to that of the characters in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. But now I’m thinking about what life might be like if my husband and I lived close enough to a forest that Josephine might get her hands dirty more often, and get to run around naked. I used to be a photographer of landscapes, so maybe my heart will always be in the woods.
Waldman: Yeah. I know what you mean.
Rumpus: Diane Arbus says of art-making that the more specific our subject, the more universal it will be. This seems particularly true of Nathaniel P. Certainly the New York literary world is so exclusive that your characters, who are vying for a place in it, could be likened to angels dancing on the head of a pin. How does this story resonate beyond that and them? What were you your hopes for that?
Waldman: In one sense, what I wanted to do was so small. I wanted to render one person’s psyche just so. I just got the idea to bring Nate to life, and I guess I hoped it if I did it well enough, it would be interesting to people who don’t care about Brooklyn and writers and all that because it would get at issues related to gender and relationships that I think are fairly universal. But it also seemed to me that to make Nate feel real, I had to render him in all his particularity and context. One of the things I like about my favorite 19th century novels—by George Eliot and Austen and Balzac and Tolstoy—is that they are very precise about establishing characters’ social context. As readers, we know about not just their feelings, but about their families and their finances and what their neighbors think of them. Sometimes I think contemporary writers attempt to be vague about this stuff because they think readers will dislike characters who seem “elite,” who might be perceived as snobbish or pretentious. But for me as a writer, I can’t imagine leaving it out, even if that means some people may feel my book is narrow and parochial.
If I’m honest I think there is something a little craven in this frantic desire to avoid the charge of elitism at all costs. I think some people want novel characters—especially the protagonists—to have a blank, everyman-ish sort of feel in the hope that as many readers as possible will relate to them. But popularity shouldn’t be bought at the expense of truth, and truth, I think, is very particular.
Featured image of Adelle Waldman © by Lou Rouse.
Image of New York sunset © by Jami Attenberg.