A Pinpoint Perspective: Talking with Jami Attenberg

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In her seventh novel, All This Could Be Yours, Jami Attenberg pulls us into a kaleidoscopic world of familial dysfunction.

Set in New Orleans over the course of a single day, we first meet Victor Tuchman who’s busy dying of heart failure. Tuchman is a real estate criminal and an abusive husband and father, just a hands-down bad man. And while his presence is felt on every page, All This Could Be Yours is decidedly not about him. Instead Attenberg focuses on the women he leaves behind. His wife of almost fifty years, Barbra, finds herself unsure of—and possibly incapable of—dealing with her sudden independence. His daughter, Alex, sees an opportunity to finally question her mother about their family secrets, though the truth may be more than she can bear. And Twyla, wife to Victor’s son, Gary, is in the middle of a mental breakdown.

We move back and forth between the Tuchman family members as they navigate their unexpected grief for Victor. But the story doesn’t hold tight to a linear timeline, often jumping years into the future, and nothing is as simple as it seems. Most compelling to me as a reader were the people often overlooked by the Tuchman family, the people of New Orleans who carry as much narrative weight and who Attenberg weave into the fabric of the story with equal care.

Author of the best-selling novel, The Middlesteins, and five other books including All Grown Up, Attenberg writes compelling stories that can be enjoyed sheerly as binge-worthy reading, but there’s so much more deeper in the water if you decide to go down there. From gentrification to tourism to an unavoidable nod to the Me Too movement, All This Could Be Yours takes a definite political stance.

I had the honor of speaking to Jami recently over Skype, which involved several pauses for her to let Sid, her dog, in or out to handle important doggie business. We talked about so many things including the process of writing book number seven, the people of New Orleans, and occupying the minds of minor characters.

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The Rumpus: This is book number seven! What was different about writing this book? Does it get easier?

Jami Attenberg: I don’t know if it gets easier. I know what to expect. I know more about my process, even as it’s evolving. An example of this I know that when I’m feeling frustrated it’s usually not because I’m not ever going to be able to write again or that the book is terrible. It’s usually that I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. Certainly with my first book, second book, third book I wasn’t doing it for a living. I had freelance gigs I was doing, and stealing time. I’d work a bunch and then take two months off to write, so that’s new for me—getting to write full time. It’s different when you have to get, up or rather get to get up, and do the work every single day. That’s a gift and opportunity.

Also, this is the first book I’ve written start to finish here [in New Orleans].

Rumpus: How long have you been in New Orleans?

Attenberg: I bought my house in February 2016, so in February it will be four years. And I’ve been coming back and forth since 2012 in the winters. It’s been three years since I’ve been here full time, when I gave up the apartment I was renting in New York, because I was much happier here than I was in NYC.

Rumpus: That makes me think about the parts of the book that mention carpetbaggers. [A not so kind term for northerners who opportunistically moved south post-Civil War.]

Attenberg: I’ve heard people use that word. Even seen it on NextDoor. It’s very tricky. Especially in New Orleans. I ran into someone the other night who was born and raised here who moved away just before Katrina for college and then came back eventually and he’s like, it’s a totally different place. The first time I came was in 1995 and I remember it being a wild, sort of feral place and that wildness is shrinking or being pushed out. Of course, I’m not an expert. I’ve only lived here for such a short time and there’s so much in the book that I had to ask people who are from here for help on, just to be sure I got it right. Whereas when I wrote books set in New York I didn’t have to think twice about it. I knew it was right. This has definitely been different for me, setting All This Could Be Yours in New Orleans. It was like doing a research project, but doing the research often meant walking outside my door.

Rumpus: Yeah! I felt that. I think the Sharon section reveals that the most. Because everyone else is an outsider, I felt like she was the voice of New Orleans.

Attenberg: I hope she comes off as a very human character. She’s such a surprise that I don’t want to give her away. I don’t have a lot of surprises in my writing—I’m not very plot driven; I’m a very character-driven writer and the growth is usually personal, emotional growth, so it’s so weird to have a book where there are actual surprises, which for me feels like, Oh my gosh, I did something. But I will say Sharon was always a part of the book. I hope she feels like a real character, a real human, but it is a lot to ask a character to represent an entire city. I worked pretty hard to make her as human as possible, but in my mind of course, she’s someone who could live right around the corner from me, whereas all the other main characters were all people who, in a way, feel like they’re from a past version of my life.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about Barbra, Victor’s wife. I wonder who she could’ve been without him and I wonder if you think she would consider herself a victim of abuse?

Attenberg: She was someone who suffered from abuse from many many years and was confused and conflicted and did not know how to get out of it. But I think she saw her own complicity in their relationship. She knew everything that he’d done wrong for a long time and for whatever reason it didn’t matter to her. I feel like someone could hand her a book about domestic abuse and she would say, “I am not interested in reading this.” Or she’d  watch a TV movie about abuse and there would be such a disconnect that she’d wonder why she was even watching it.

Rumpus: Which leads me to Alex, who thinks she wants to know all of her parents’ secrets, but I don’t think she wants to know. I’m curious if you’re a person who wants to know, or whether you think ignorance is bliss?

Attenberg: I think I want to know, but then if I knew, I wouldn’t want to know. [Laughter]

Rumpus: Yeah. Same.

Attenberg: I like information. That’s my thing. As a writer, I think it’s very natural to want to know people’s secrets, but it depends. Like I wouldn’t want to know about my parents’ sex life, right? Which is not necessarily what Alex was asking for but, I think she recognized it was all a big stew. I’m not dying of curiosity, though.

Rumpus: But secrets in families still persist. Every family has secrets. Maybe one everyone knows, or maybe only the adults know…

Attenberg: Right. There are things you hear about but no one comes out and talks about. And I think it’s not about the secret itself, but how it makes the person feel, right. Like, unless you murdered someone, but often it’s not that the things someone did wrong are that big of a deal; it’s more about the guilt a person feels. It’s all about our inner workings.

Rumpus: That makes me think of Gary, the son and brother of the family.

Attenberg: Yeah, he was another surprise. I really wanted the book to have all female voices and he just showed up. I had zero interest in representing male voices, you know? I do like some of the men in the book, but I’m annoyed with the voices represented in our society right now.

Rumpus: Yeah, I get that. But Gary is a surprise because as an adult he doesn’t become physically or emotionally abusive after years of growing up under Victor, but he does showcase a few other sinister behaviors.

Attenberg: It’s how he was raised. You don’t want to hit the reader over the head with it, but it’s very clear to me that all these things are connected. I tried to write a book that you can have an experience where you’re reading it and it’s purely entertainment and then you can walk away like, “That was a fucked-up story about a family.” But there’s also more layers that if you choose to read it that way—there’s more waiting for you.

After fourteen years of writing books I’ve learned to offer several access points.

Rumpus: Can we talk about how you occupy the heads of seemingly minor characters. Often a chapter will end not with the major character but with the stranger they’ve just interacted with. It’s a craft move that could, at first, make readers wonder, What the fuck?

Attenberg: I really only thought I was going to have the main characters when I started the book, but as I was writing these other characters insisted on being heard. When I write initial drafts I let things instinctively happen; it’s less strategic. It would’ve been a very different book if I had taken them out. So in the various drafts I had to decide whether to lean into it and really go for it because there was a moment when those minor characters were not working in like draft three or something. They were gazing at the main characters, but they weren’t fully evolved as people themselves, so they had to become sort of flash fiction moments—where I thought if they’re going to be in there, they need to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Laura van den Berg was an early reader and she said, “You really have to lean in even more into this kaleidoscopic vision.” And sometimes you just need that: someone to push you in the right direction.

People come to New Orleans and they have a good time here, but they don’t for a second notice who’s making them have a good time. So that’s where the city really came into play for me, because now more than ever I see the people who are working and living here.

Rumpus: Yeah, there’s the streetcar driver who makes sure Alex gets off before she ends up in a sketchy neighborhood…

 Attenberg: Meanwhile she’s on her iPhone looking up places to visit. I’ve been that tourist who’s like, “Let me look up the top ten places to visit in this city.” Instead of meeting people and talking to people. Interacting with the world and not looking at a screen, but I’m online enough that I’m not allowed to preach about that.

But I find when I travel—I went to Asia in the spring—I was so used to being on my phone that I started saying to myself, “Look up. You’re in freaking Asia, you’ve never been here before.” It’s different from say, Chicago, where I’ve been a million times, but when I go somewhere new I have to witness it and be a part of the world. And I think that’s impacting my writing.

Rumpus: All This Could Be Yours takes place over the course of the day when we know Victor, the head of this family, will die. Alex says, “You see how you feel when your father is about to die. You won’t know until it happens to you.” Grief is ever-present throughout the story. But I wondered whether you think of grief as a plot device or completely as an emotional territory?

Attenberg: I don’t know the answer to that question! I was thinking about how there’s an implication that you feel grief because you loved the person, but I think you can feel grief even when you don’t. They’re all grieving in their own way, but they all hated him, too. I was interested in exploring how losing someone, whether they were good or bad but they played a role in your life, can fuck you up, no matter what. That’s interesting to me. You think you would say, “Good riddance,” but instead that person stays with you. So I don’t know if it’s a plot device, but it’s definitely a theme.

Rumpus: Well, that leads me to another theme. Often there’s a collision of the absurd with the mundane, but in a very subtle way. A good example is Barbra going to buy toilet paper, a mundane activity for most of us but for her, it’s the first time in years and she finds herself out of her element.

Attenberg: They used to ask presidential candidates how much things cost and no one ever knew. They’d ask them the price of a gallon of milk and no one ever knew because they hadn’t been to the grocery store in years. It’s ____ right? I seem to travel in that territory frequently. I’m interested in the everyday and to me the everyday is super weird. I don’t write big, sprawling novels. I’m reading a great crime novel thats coming out next year by Liz Moore and I’m reading The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer which is a sprawling novel full of adventure, people are escaping during World War II, and they’re both so great, but it’s just not what I do.

I have a pinpoint perspective. It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to leave the house and when I do have interactions with people now they feel larger than life. I’m so fascinated with people and tiny little things about them. Don’t you feel that way, too?

Rumpus: Yes! I have another layer to that, with not being able to understand the language and sometimes the customs that I see every day.

Attenberg: Has it affected your writing?

Rumpus: Oh yeah. I meet people and wonder about their backstory. They have a whole life that I know nothing about.

Attenberg: When I was traveling in Asia I made a goal to speak to one person a day. I kept a notebook of these interactions. I don’t even know what I did there, you know, walked, biked, swam. And met one person a day. I was just on the go. But in the airport when I was coming home I was sitting there quiet for a moment and I thought, Oh, now I’m going to be bored again. Because when you go out in the world you always see something. When people say, “I have nothing to write about,” I think, How is that possible?

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Photograph of Jami Attenberg by Zack Smith Photography.


Monet Patrice Thomas is a writer and poet from North Carolina. She is the interviews editor at The Rumpus and currently works and lives in Beijing, China. More from this author →