Recently I had the pleasure of talking to Jami Attenberg about her new book, Saint Mazie, which is a novel based on a real person who lived in New York City in the early twentieth century and was the subject of a profile by Joseph Mitchell. As the book makes its way into the wider world, I for one will be interested to see how it affects the Google results for St. Mazie, a delightful bar in Jami’s neighborhood that’s named after the same gal. I hope Jami’s book and the bar both get five stars everywhere, so that no one is confused. I very much wish this interview had taken place there—it would have been in keeping with the character, who likes a good time and isn’t afraid to knock back a pint with all kinds of savory and unsavory characters. However, it took place via email because Jami was living in New Orleans, as she sometimes does, at the time. We talked about taking on a new genre, sex, and how Jami stays so prolific—and why her next book might take a decade (which, let’s hope not).
The Rumpus: Jami, this is your first book set in a historical era you haven’t experienced firsthand. What was the research process like? Did you like doing research or did it change or cramp your usual writing style and habits—like, did it slow you down or make the process more frustrating when you had to figure out, for example, whether the characters were able to take the subway to Coney Island by a certain year?
Jami Attenberg: You know, I wasn’t necessarily interested in the era so much as I was the character, so I’ll admit the research was a bit grudging at first. Because it does feel like it slows you down. I’m accustomed to just inventing whatever I need and being in the moment.
And also I didn’t want to get dazzled by details. You know when you read a book and it’s all about the hand-sewn beads on a gown or the exact color of the wallpaper from that era or the characters are trapped in this old-timey dialogue and the characterization and the plot sort of play second fiddle? And you just think, oh that author fell in love with their research. Nothing wrong with that; it just wasn’t the book I wanted to write. Especially because the book was going to be in a first person diary format, and she was not the kind of woman who would spend her time tirelessly documenting those details.
But it was necessary for me to know that era and feel like I was in the room with the character, and then I could pluck out the details when I needed them, and set the scene for my reader. And then there were so many amazing things that came out of the research that I was really glad I did as much as I did. I read a lot of books, and sometimes these books would inadvertently supply a plot element, like, as you mentioned, how excited everyone was that they could now take the subway to the beach in 1919. I didn’t know that was a thing people got excited about but of course, it makes sense! Even though it’s something we wrestle with so much now, at that time transportation used to mean freedom and access. And so I made it mean something big to my character too. (By the way, I would highly recommend Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century.)
Also I did a lot of walking around the streets of the Lower East Side, the exact streets she walked on. I poked around an apartment building where she once lived. Those days of research in particular I remember fondly. Just connecting with New York City in a physical, visceral way.
Rumpus: Mazie has a refreshingly liberated attitude about sex, and she gets to have plenty of it—in the book, I mean, there’s plenty of (hot and un-gross) sex, Mazie probably had less sex overall than she would have liked, given that her #1 lover is a sea captain who isn’t often around. You are no stranger to writing frankly about sexuality, but there was a centrality of it to this character. What were you up to there? In other words, why is guilt-free fun sex important to Mazie, and to Saint Mazie?
Attenberg: From a historical perspective, it felt accurate to have Mazie be sexually positive. She came of age in the 1910s–1920s, and although I wouldn’t describe her as either a suffragist or a flapper, I don’t think she necessarily needed to be defined as such to be inspired by their agendas and actions. And what little I knew of the real-life Mazie, she seemed to have to have a swagger about her sexuality. In the original Mitchell essay about her someone asked about her romantic status and she replied, “Do I look and act like a girl who never had a date?” So braggy! I love her.
But then beyond that, I just really wanted to write a character who owned her sexual choices. She wanted to fulfill her desires, and there’s nothing wrong with that and, in fact, there’s everything right about that. The older I get, the more I recognize how I was, at various moments in my life, forced to feel guilty or apologetic for my sexual choices, because I’m a woman, and that is a way women (and sometimes men too) are specifically controlled, for various nefarious reasons related to politics, religion, capitalism, and more. So I wanted to write a character that was admirable in her sexual forthrightness, and also relatable, and human. We write things because we want to see them exist.
Also those sex scenes were fun as hell to write. I just wanted everyone to have a good time: Mazie, her lovers, me, and anyone who reads the book.
Rumpus: You seem to write quickly and without much angst—you have an idea for a book, you write the book, you revise the book, you publish the book, all within about two and a half years or so. Of course, this is what everyone (i.e., me) tells themselves they’re going to do, and how it’s supposed to work. But for most novelists the process seems to be more like, maybe: start a book, abandon it or throw out half of it, run out of money and do some other kind of work, get lost in some kind of psychodrama, etc., find your way back to the book, backtrack a ton while writing and then again while revising, publish it (maybe!) like seven or ten years later. Jami, what’s your secret?! How do you keep up that pace and still constantly generate new ideas?
Attenberg: You’ve written three books. You’re doing just fine, Emily. And yes, that first one counts. Also I just want to add that some writers purely produce books but there are other writers who produce essays or participate in the conversation in unique ways. So you make Emily Books happen, and while that is not writing a book, that is definitely producing and promoting literature.
Rumpus: I am still not counting the first one! Though it is interesting to think of its “process” in terms of what I now know, and what’s changed and what hasn’t. For instance, I no longer harbor the delusion that smoking weed makes you write better.
Attenberg: I think with my early books, when I didn’t know what I was doing, the process was more as you described, meaning write, revise, sell, publish. Just tell the story and be done with it. But as I get further along in my career, and I have bigger ambitions and want to create more complex work, the whole process seems to take longer. Like I wrote for about five months last year, really chewed on something, and ended up ditching most of it, and keeping only about four pages of it to start this new book, which I am now set on finishing, although I suspect it will take me a year or two more. I’ve also thrown entire completed novels away. So it’s not always so clean as it was for my first two or three books. But I am really unsentimental about throwing things away, just like I’m unsentimental when people say they’re moving out of town. I just think: We had a good time while it lasted, didn’t we?
Rumpus: Maybe your next book will take a decade! Just kidding! It better not.
Attenberg: One of the most oft-heard phrases I’ve heard in publishing, usually when a writer is missing a deadline, is, “Life happens.” And I feel like not a lot of life happens to me as a single childless person in good health, or that the life that does happen to me somehow seems to be directing me toward the time and space to just sit and write. Or I am directing me there. It is just very important to me to write because the act of it keeps me sane.
I’m also pragmatic. This is how I make my living and if I do not write then I either go broke or have to go work in an office again and I just can’t sit in meetings ever again in my life, unless by meetings you mean having dinner with a friend. Do meetings mean that yet or do they still mean a bunch of people sitting around a table wasting time and passing the buck? So if you ask me what my secret is, it’s basically fear of meetings. I don’t mean to be flip about it! I really treasure my ability to be productive and I cannot define it for you, I’ve just always generated ideas and written fast, my whole entire life. But I also just don’t ever want to go back to what my life was before I started writing books.
Author photo © Michael Sharkey.