Jami Attenberg, author of The Kept Man and The Melting Season, has experienced a breakthrough of sorts with her latest novel The Middlesteins, which has reached No. 25 on the hardcover fiction best-seller list and is one of Amazon’s picks for best books of the year. Set in a Chicago suburb, the novel tracks the effect Edie Middlestein’s food obsession has on the rest of her family. As Edie’s health deteriorates, her husband of almost 40 years leaves her, placing the burden on their seething daughter Robin, their good-natured son Benny, and his tightly wound wife Rachelle. Attenberg took the time to talk to EW about food addiction and family in The Middlesteins, as well as her career reinvention.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve talked before about being a somewhat obscure mid-list author, but the roll-out you’ve gotten for The Middlesteins has been pretty A-list. What’s different this time around?
Part of it is that I did switch to a new publisher, Grand Central, so they sort of relaunched me, which is the best way to explain it. I think I was put in an incorrect category before and now they’ve just been really great about pulling me about of whatever boxes I’d been put in in the past. Beyond that, and I can’t figure out a way to say it without sounding arrogant, but I feel like people relate to these characters more than they have in my last two books. People either feel like they’re one of the characters in the book or they have a family member who’s like Edie. A lot of people have that one family member who just refuses to take care of themselves, whether they eat too much, smoke cigarettes, drink too much, or they just don’t get exercise. Whatever it is, people seem to connect with that.
Did Middlesteins feel different when you were writing it?
I just think I’ve been doing this for a while and I think I’ve just gotten better at my job. I think I understand how to write a book better, which is not to say that my other books were not good because I love those books, but it’s just an evolution. There’s not even high drama in this book. There’s no sort of weird “hook” to it. It’s just a story of a family.
Well, food addiction is sort of a hook – so many people can relate to that.
I’ve written about it before – I’ve certainly weighed a lot more than I do now. I did an online chat last night with the Rumpus book club and we were all talking about drive-throughs, and I was like, “Oh yeah.” [Laughs] I do eat fairly healthy but once in a while it’ll be 11 o’clock at night and I’ll be sitting in a drive-through, and I’ll be like, “Whoa, what’s going on in your life, Attenberg? What just happened? How did you end up eating French fries at 11 o’clock at night?” I get that if you’re upset about something, you just go. I think there’s a line at the end of the book where Richard suddenly figures out that food is a really great place to hide. I get that mindset.
Everyone likes to binge once in a while, but your description of Edie’s over-eating is wonderfully detailed, appealing and revolting at the same time. How did you get inside the mindset of an extreme over-eater?
It was less about how to eat or how somebody can over-eat because that’s not really that hard to imagine. I do it. I’ve done it, though not at the same scale at all. It’s more about how when you become obese, you can put yourself into a corner where suddenly some of the joys in life that belong to being a woman – like going shopping or getting a certain kind of attention from men – there are certain things that can fall away. Sometimes you can put yourself in a corner where certain things are not available anymore and the only thing you have left, the only comfort is food. It’s kind of that double-bind thing. That was my understanding of her. She didn’t mean to put herself in this position, but once she was there, it was hard for her to find away.
Even though Edie has this one major problem, she’s also intelligent and successful.
To me, she’s the person I would most want to hang out with in the book. She is the best friend, the most politically aware, the smartest, the funniest, and the most loyal. Also, the toughest to take, at times. She’s just incredibly complex and interesting to me, so she was the most fun character to write and the most rewarding character to write. It’s tricky because food is an entry point into discussion of this book, but I didn’t sit down to write a book about food, I sat down to write about these characters. Now I’m glad that there is a discussion that is going on around it because that means the book is working in some way. It’s exciting to see people talking about it and engaging with it. I mean, nobody likes Richard, and I’m like, “Oh, come on! Cut him some slack!”
Richard is interesting because people hate him for leaving Edie after all those years of marriage, but at the same time, he had been incredibly devoted to this woman who wouldn’t help herself.
No one in the family really knows how to deal with the situation because she’s tough. I think with Richard, the way I understood him had less to do with their relationship and more that they were just not in love anymore, and that I felt like he was entitled to try for love. That’s a really tricky boundary because you can try and try and try to help somebody, but when do you get to take care of yourself? What’s that line? It’s really complicated. I don’t think there are any easy answers to any of it in this book. It’s not like I finished the book and said, “And now I’ve solved every problem!” [Laughs] Instead I was like, “Well, there are all the issues.” I thought I’d brought everything up and confronted it, even if I hadn’t resolved it.
So writing this book was kind of like preemptive therapy for you.
Yeah, I mean therapy for things I don’t need therapy for. I mean, I’m pretty pro-food. I try to make all the food sound good. At my book party they had Chinese food for me and in Chicago too, and the New York Times took me out for lunch for an article. Everyone’s just feeding me now. It is pretty nice because I’m running around eating a lot.
What books are you recommending to people lately?
I just read Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, which is this memoir about her getting this strange virus and going mad for a month. It was riveting. I couldn’t put it down. I just re-read Heartburn by Nora Ephron, and it was the greatest book ever. Actually, my mom found this old school newspaper when I graduated from high school. I won the English or journalism award or something like that, and there was an interview with one of my English teachers who said that I was like a combination of Anne Tyler and Nora Ephron. But I was like, 17 years old – how freaking dark must I have been? I’ve always been an old soul.
I work at WORD bookstore in Brooklyn so I always recommend Just Kids because it’s the mother ship of creativity, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve given that to a dozen people who seem to need it, people who seem to be at a creative or career crossroads in their life and it always realigns them. It’s like a mental chiropractor. Also the collected stories of Deborah Eisenberg. So good. The thing is, she’s sort of like Alice Munro, sort of like our New York version of her – it’s not the same story over and over again but her point of view is consistent.
What have been some of highlights from the publication of The Middlesteins?
Just to make the best-seller list, even if it was the extended list – I never thought I’d do that because it’s never happened. I’ve already sold more copies of this book than my last book that’s been out for two years. I’m really happy these days, I have to say.
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