Jami Attenberg and I were supposed to go to a protest in front of the White House. It would really have been the perfect setting for this interview—and made for a killer lede. Plus, fresh off the Women’s March we were both genuinely jazzed to wave more signs in the cold. But come the appointed hour Attenberg wasn’t feeling too hot and I myself was starving. That’s how we ended up sitting at a hotel bar drinking water and eating French fries. But there’s a way in which this backdrop is more keeping with her new novel, All Grown Up, which is about, in part, unrealized ambition and practical compromise. What do we owe each other?, it asks. What do we owe ourselves? On this particular afternoon, the answer was a meal.
Attenberg, who splits her time between Brooklyn and New Orleans (though New Orleans has increasingly had the lion’s share of her time), was in DC for the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference (or AWP). Her sixth book, All Grown Up, which came out in March, had—that week in early February—yet to be published. Still, the publicity machine was in full force and had been for months. I had gotten, and hung up on my kitchen’s corkboard, a little pin reading one of my favorite lines from the novel–“I am the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh”–in October, and just the day before had seen Attenberg at a happy hour hosted by her publisher. Attenberg’s books, in particular after the publication of her New York Times-bestselling novel, The Middlesteins, have become events, and rightfully so.
A clear-eyed and disarming short novel, All Grown Up tells the story of Andrea, who describes herself best here, in conversation with her therapist, in the book’s first few pages:
“I’m a woman,” I say.
“I work in advertising as a designer.”
“I’m technically a Jew.”
“I’m a New Yorker.”
I start to feel unsettled. Surely I am more than that.
“I’m a friend, I say. “I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, I’m an aunt.” These things feel farther away lately, but they exist as part of my identity.
In my head I think:
I’m a drinker.
I’m a former artist.
I’m a shrieker in bed.
I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.
Andrea, at 39, swats away preconceptions about how her life should look like mosquitoes: Should she be partnered? Should she have children? Should she make more art? Should she be more sober? Should she shut up in bed? Should she grow up? The trick of the title is that the answers to all the previous questions (a collective, resounding no) have nothing to do with the answer to the last one. Being grown up, Attenberg makes exquisitely clear, has nothing to do with the accouterments of a “grown-up life.” If Andrea isn’t quite grown up yet—she’s not—it’s not for the reasons you think.
Attenberg and I are looking over the menu. On Twitter over the past month I’ve read her talk about how often she’s been asked about the similarities between her own life and her protagonists. I ask about the worst queries she’s gotten so far. “Romantic status,” she responds, without a pause. “That’s the top annoying question.”
We order: I’m not going to tell you what, who cares, but we do split an order of fries because we are two human beings who enjoy being alive. I ask how she got from her previous book, Saint Mazie, which dramatized the life of real-life Mazie Phillips, who reigned as “Queen of the Bowery” from the 1920s to the 1940s. “I wrote a historical text,” Attenberg explains. “Afterwards I thought, I’m ready for the present tense, the immediate.” We talk about the election, the current president. “The election lasted so fucking long,” Attenberg says. “It started in fall 2015,” right when she was writing the book. The campaign, in some ways, spurred her on. “I needed to talk about all of this fucking stuff.”
The summer of 2015, when Saint Mazie came out, Attenberg and I talked about that book’s protagonist as a feminist role model. Mazie “was saying all the things I wanted to say,” she told me at the time. “She was childless and she was obviously overt about her sexuality. She was a leader of the community. She was brave. She walked the streets by herself.” Now, over fries, I ask her how Andrea differs. Attenberg shrugs. “They are both flawed. They both love to drink and have sex.” She pauses here. “But Mazie is really good,” she says, “and Andrea is really self-involved. She’s not even that bad really, but I want her to grow up.”
The questions both books ask, she says, are about “empathy and compassion and how to be in the world.”
We talk about the book’s structure: it’s made up of short, non-chronological vignettes. Attenberg describe feeling “this push and pull—is this short story collection or a novel?” For her, the book’s final form was dictated by character, by intuition. “I wanted to tell all the stories of her life. You don’t sit down and think, these are the then most important stories in the order that happened.” What came out “is just how it’s chopped up.” She mentions that she wrote the novel’s first chapter, written in the second person, “really late in the game.”
“It’s a map of the book,” she explains. It’s “a list of everything important about being a woman alive today—but also being a human being live today, about being a grown up.”
What is growing up, I ask? Our fries our gone, our plates are cleared. “The answer for me, personally,” Attenberg says, “is about making decisions responsibly. And taking responsibility for those decisions.”
This—not her childlessness, or singlehood, or career path—is what determines Andrea’s grown-up-ness. It’s the same measuring stick that Andrea’s friends and loved ones, themselves more-grown up-looking than her (whether parents or spouses or artists), fail and succeed at in equal measure. Why should that be a surprise?, the novel asks. It’s the hardest and most important task we face in our lives.