A Middle-Aged Coming Of Age In 'All Grown Up'

Mar 5, 2017
Originally published on March 5, 2017 11:29 am

Is it possible to write a coming of age novel when your main character is 39 years old? Jami Attenberg attempts just that in her new novel All Grown Up.

Protagonist Andrea Bern is about to turn 40 — she lives in Brooklyn, working as a graphic designer in advertising. She's a failed artist, and she's trying to figure out a path to happiness.

"I don't know who made these rules, who made this list of milestones ..." Attenberg says. "It looks something like: being married or partnered up, having a kid, owning a home, knowing what your career is and what direction you want to be going."

These trappings of adulthood have remained elusive for Andrea.

"Sometimes those milestones aren't of interest to people or available to people," Attenberg says. "How do you figure out what it means to be an adult if you haven't achieved those traditional milestones?"

(Ed Note: Speaking of adult, there are some adult subjects referenced in the highlights below.)


Interview Highlights

On knowing she always wanted to be an artist and writer

I didn't have anything else figured out, but I knew that I always wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to be an artist. ... I think that if you can figure out what you want to do with your life you're one of the luckiest people in the world because I know so many people that struggle with that.

On how she wrote the book

I wrote it really quickly. ... I wrote three chapters in the book as short stories and then I put it away for a year because even though the character isn't me, I was going to have to think about being an adult and being a grownup, and look at my own life so that I could understand how to write about it in somebody else's character.

I showed [a novelist friend] some of the stories and he was like: I don't understand why you're not writing this book. ... I just went on a real tear and I think I wrote it probably from beginning, to middle, to end, within a six-month period.

On not holding back in her writing

The old saying is: You have to write as if your parents are dead ... that's an oldie but goodie. You have to just speak the truth even if you're writing fiction, right? It's that there's an emotional truth to it. So in all areas everything that I'm writing I'm really trying to be as bold and brave as possible.

On writing Andrea's sex scenes

All sex scenes to me are entertaining. ... I usually try to write really positive sex scenes but this one ... I think that at one point I describe her as achieving an orgasm in a minor key which really entertained me. Bad sex is still good. It's still interesting from a writing perspective — you get to know about characters in that way.

On how she hopes people will read the book

I like the idea of somebody buying it in an airport ... and then finishing it by the end of the trip — and sort of sobbing on the plane, too, that would be a little fantasy of mine as well.

On where we leave Andrea

I think she's getting to a place where she ... comes to a place of understanding. Where she's a little bit less self-involved and a little bit more understanding of the rest of the world around her. I think she's certainly making adult decisions by the end of the book.

Barrie Hardymon, James Delahoussaye and Beth Novey contributed to this report.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Is it possible to write a coming-of-age novel for a main character who is 39 years old? If so, Jami Attenberg may have written it. It's called "All Grown Up," and the central character is likeable even when she's not. She is just dead honest. Jami Attenberg, welcome to the program.

JAMI ATTENBERG: Hi, thanks for having me.

KELLY: We are glad to have you. OK, introduce us to your protagonist, Andrea Bern.

ATTENBERG: So Andrea Bern is 39. She is a failed artist. She works as a graphic designer in advertising. She's born and raised in New York, and she lives in Brooklyn. And she is trying to figure out how to become happy in her life.

KELLY: How to become happy - and she actually turns 40 as the novel unfolds.

ATTENBERG: It's true. Yeah (laughter) a crucial time to know whether or not you're happy.

KELLY: There you go. And yet, she seems to have none of the trappings of adulthood that women are expected to have by the time they are turning 40.

ATTENBERG: I mean, I don't know who made these rules, who made this list of milestones, but somebody did it. And you know, it looks something like being married or partnered up, having a kid, owning a home, knowing what your career is and what direction you want to be going in your life, kind of really wanting to know what's next, which is something that she says a couple of times in the book. And sometimes, those milestones aren't of interest to people or available to people. And how do you figure out what it means to be an adult if you haven't achieved those traditional milestones?

KELLY: Yeah, and so she grapples with that throughout the book, these traditional milestones, and also just what the heck to do with her life. I mean - which was interesting to me because it's - some people figure that out early. They know what they want to be. They do it. It gives this purpose to their life. For others, like your character, it's this lurching, lifelong process. Is that something you were exploring through her?

ATTENBERG: I mean, the only thing I ever really had going for me my entire life was knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't have anything else figured out, but I knew that I always wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to be an artist. And so it's possible that this was an exploration of not having that direction and not knowing what it is. I think that if you can figure out what you want to do with your life, you're one of the luckiest people in the world because I know so many people that struggle with that and struggle with it their 20s, 30s and 40s until the day that they die. And it's a real gift when you can figure it out.

KELLY: Yeah, and so she never does. Was it hard to write a character like that, who seems to be lurching from one thing to the next looking for what's going to be her animating mission in life?

ATTENBERG: I mean, I just enjoyed her so much. I enjoyed - even when she was bad, she was really entertaining to write because she has a very funny voice. She's really witty and sharp and direct and honest with everybody around her and with herself. I mean, it was - I think maybe I've witnessed people like that before, but - I don't know - that's part of being a writer, right? - is, like, writing things outside yourself.

KELLY: Absolutely. She - you mentioned she's honest and direct. And I have to ask you about some of the sex scenes you wrote. There is one that is between Andrea and a newly divorced dad. It is pretty raw, and I wondered as I read it, I wonder if Jami, as she was writing, if you were laughing or cringing.

ATTENBERG: I mean, listen, all sex scenes to me are entertaining if - even if they're bad or they're good. I usually try to write really positive sex scenes, but this one to me was - had to go the direction that it had to go. I think that, at one point, I describe her as achieving an orgasm in a minor key, which really entertained me. I like - bad sex is still good, you know, it's still interesting. From a writing perspective, you get to know about characters in that way.

KELLY: Stay with that point for a second, that you get to know your characters through writing the sex scenes. How so?

ATTENBERG: Oh, it's the same to me as anything else. I mean, what a character likes to eat and what their politics are and the way that they have sex or like to have sex, it's all about getting to know a person.

KELLY: And I guess they're literally naked and stripped down so you're getting to know them on that level.

ATTENBERG: Yeah, really. And it's - I don't know, I think it's really fun to write. People always comment on my sex scenes in my writing. And I'm just like, how are you not awake and aware and observant when you're having sex?

KELLY: But then actually writing it down and knowing everybody's going to read about it is a different thing.

ATTENBERG: Well, it's not my sex life, it's the characters, you know. Like, you can be aware of sex, you can have had sex and you can invent sex out of that sex. Like, that's a very writerly thing to do.

KELLY: So I have to share that I sat down and did not stand up until I had finished this book. I read it straight from start to finish in one go. I can't think of another book I've done that about recently. How - did you write it in that way? Did you - once you got the character in your head, it just flew?

ATTENBERG: Well, my favorite way to read a book is the way that you just described. I like the idea of somebody buying it in an airport on one end of the trip and then finishing it by the end of the trip and sort of sobbing on the plane too. That would be a little fantasy of mine as well.

(LAUGHTER)

ATTENBERG: But you know, I did - I wrote it really quickly. I started it. I wrote three chapters in the book as short stories and then I put it away for a year because even though the character isn't me, I was going to have to think about being an adult and being a grown-up and look at my own life so that I could understand how to write about it in somebody else's character. A friend of mine, a novelist, Alex Chee, I showed him some of the stories, and he was, like, I don't understand why you're not writing this book.

So I went away for three weeks to residency, and I wrote it really quickly, I mean, 90 pages of it just like that. And then it was just - I was really off after that. You know, I was just - I just went on a real tear, and I think I wrote it probably from beginning to middle to end within a six-month period.

KELLY: Wow.

ATTENBERG: But it's a very short book, right (laughter)? So it was just all there in me. I was just ready to talk about all of these things.

KELLY: That's Jami Attenberg. Her new book is "All Grown Up." Jami Attenberg, thanks so much.

ATTENBERG: Thank you for having me.

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