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January 9, 2008

Ryan Walsh Interviews Jami Attenberg

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Jami Attenberg's debut novel, The Kept Man, is one of the best books I read last year. I'll write a review when I post her Book Notes essay for the novel, but suffice to say that as much as I enjoyed her short fiction collection, Instant Love, this book is a great step forward and holds incredible promise for her literary future.

Her book tour for The Kept Man starts tonight (the reading notes are Jami's):

January 9 - New York, NY
Barnes and Noble, Chelsea, 7 PM
Come on New York City, show some love.

January 10 - Brookline, MA
Brookline Booksmith, 7 PM
Sponsored by Kickass Cupcakes
Ryan Walsh from Hallelujah the Hills is singing!

January 11 - Chicago, IL
Book Cellar, 7 PM
w/Wendy McClure (I'm Not The New Me, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan)
We are going to do a Battle of the Bad Reviews!

January 12 - Mount Prospect, IL
Borders, 2 PM
Come meet my mom and dad.

January 13 - Los Angeles, CA
Book Soup, 4 PM
LA, I need to see your shiny faces at this very important bookstore.

January 13 - Los Angeles, CA
Vermin on the Mount Reading Series @ The Mountain, 8 PM
Jim Ruland has promised a special cake!

January 16 - Seattle, WA
Elliott Bay Book Co, 7:30 PM
It has been a dream of mine to read there since the mid-90s. I am freaking PSYCHED.

January 17 - Portland, OR
Powell's Books, 7:30 PM
There will be many fun and charming people at this event, I can guarantee it. And there will be drinks afterwards.

January 18 - Corte Madera, CA
Book Passage, 7 PM
Wild card reading! Do you live in the burbs? Come and play.

January 19 - San Francisco, CA
Progressive Reading Series @ The Make-out Room, 7 PM
with Tobias Wolff, Walter Kirn, Adam Johnson and Ali Liebegott
How about THAT list of readers?

January 23 - New York, NY
Class of 2008 @ Boxcar Lounge, 8 PM
with Ceridwen Dovey, Blood Kin
Michael Dahlie, A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living
Lynn Lurie, Corner of the Dead
Mark Sarvas, Harry, Revised
My regular series is back and I will be hosting and telling tour stories all night long.

January 24 - Brooklyn, NY
Pete's Candy Store Reading Series, 7:30 PM
with Jim Shepard, Like You'd Understand, Anyway
Holy cow, this is going to be fun.

February 2 - Rhinebeck, NY
Oblong Books, 7:30 PM
The manager of this bookstore is adorable.

February 7 - Providence, RI
Symposium Books, 6 PM
Another wild card reading but I have faith this is going to rock.

February 10 - New York, NY
KGB Bar Sunday Night Fiction, 7 PM
w/Lauren Groff, The Monsters of Templeton
Lauren is supposed to be awesome, and I am excited to see her stuff.

February 20 - New York, NY
Class of 2008 @ Boxcar Lounge, 8 PM
Authors to be announced

February 27 - Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn Book Court, 7 PM
w/Janice Erlbaum (Have You Found Her, Girlbomb)
Janice Erlbaum is one of the shiniest stars in the universe. I love her, and this bookstore is great, and this is going to be a wonderful, warm, funny night.

March 3 - Madison, CT
R. J. Julia Booksellers, 7 PM

March 13 - Washington DC
Cheryl's Gone series @ Big Bear Cafe, 8 PM
At last I get to read in DC. And there will be experimental musicians playing I think.

March 18 - New York, NY
Housing Works, 7 PM
w/Anne Landsman, The Rowing Lesson
Girlfriend in a Coma night. Wait and see.

Ryan Walsh is the vocalist and guitarist for Hallelujah the Hills, many thanks to him for taking the time to interview Jami.

Musician Ryan Walsh interviews author Jami Attenberg:

Ryan Walsh: Jami Attenberg is a boundlessly talented author whose first novel, The Kept Man, has just been unveiled to the public at large by Riverhead Books. While she has written for heaps of publications and her well received short story collection Instant Love came out in paperback just a bit earlier this year The Kept Man is her first novel and it's a fantastic first splash. TKM is simultaneously a classic New York love story, psychological ghost tale, a living-breathing-political-devil's-advocate, and an authentic examination of the ins and outs of the contemporary art world.

My band (Hallelujah The Hills) played a show at one of Jami's books readings last spring and we've been in touch ever since. She was kind enough to interview me for Largehearted Boy when our debut "Collective Psychosis Begone" came out and I am proud to return the favor here today.

There were two instances of imagery in your book that specifically made me, as a writer, jealous. The first is when you describe a tiny disturbance between two people being "like an asteroid hitting the moon" and the second being the run down of all the chemicals mingling in the mouths of two people kissing culminating with the declaration: "If I lit a match right now our moths might explode."

Do those ideas come as isolated imagery or does the development of your story force them up to the surface?

Jami Attenberg: I get pretty obsessed with visual themes when I'm writing and tend to write variations of the same ones over and over again. When I'm in the revising process of a book I'll end up seeing the same metaphor repeated throughout and I'll have to decide which one works the best. For example in this book I was really fascinated with the outdoors (I wrote some of the book in Seattle) and I remember up until the last galley I had four separate descriptions of characters that compared some part of them to skipping stones across lakes, or to lakes themselves. I think I find a safe place to travel with imagery and I just glide along that path.

Also some things I've carried with me for years. That "cocktail of chemicals" image you mention came from the idea of incendiary devices, something I've been thinking about for about 15 years, how people and actions and particularly stories can be incendiary devices themselves. (In fact, I had always hoped to write a short story collection with that as the title.) Instead I slipped it into the book - I can't say now if it was conscious or not.

RW: So, this book deals with the question whether someone in a coma, for an extended period (we're talking years), is actually alive anymore. I'm wondering if your opinions on the matter are expressed in your main character or if you have a differing opinion or if you think it's one of those anyone-who-says-they-know-what-they-would-decide-in-advance-is-full-of-shit situations. Did something about the Terry Schiavo case trigger anything for this book?

JA: The Terry Schiavo case was in the news a lot right when I was starting the book so that was definitely an inspiration for me, although none of the characters are based on anyone involved with that case. I think it extends to a larger issue for me, which is my concern that certain political and religious organizations in this country think they can tell people what they should be doing with their own bodies or the bodies of their loved ones.

So writing this book was an interesting opportunity for two reasons. First, to explore both sides of an issue that is often represented in the media as black and white. There is the narrator, who is uncertain that she wants to keep her husband alive, and her husband's parents who are kind, loving, deeply religious people who would very much like to keep their son alive. I wanted to get in their heads and understand their intent.

But also I hope that the book makes people think about how they would feel if there was an outside group that had some sort of control over their personal decisions. I like knowing that I have certain rights, and I would like to keep them.

I am getting really heavy here, aren't I? Sorry. But you know, it's about a dude in a coma.

RW: I was driving home from band practice last night around 1 AM. I came up behind an ambulance and I could see directly into the well lit room in the back of the vehicle. There was a man on the stretcher and as I got closer I got the distinct feeling I was looking at a dead person. The ambulance didn't have its lights/sirens on and the attendent in back was sitting quietly not monitoring anything which seemed to strengthen my hypothesis. I am close to people who, if they had experienced this, would flip out and it would ruin their day, possibly their week. Even though I found it fascinating to see (almost calming and holy) I still had that "Oh My Christ, I will definitely die someday, maybe tomorrow" jolt of fear go through me.

Are Americans, or Westerners in General, taught about death in the wrong way? Do we avoid the subject for our own comfort? Why are we so terrified of it when other cultures manager to stare it in the face?

JA: I have only ever seen one dead body and that was on the streets of Washington, DC, probably about ten years ago, at 3 AM, outside the awesome cheese steak place in my neighborhood. The ambulance hadn't arrived yet. There was a chalk outline around the body. He had been shot. I don't know if it ruined my night or week. Perhaps it ruined me just in general.

I don't know how I felt about death necessarily in my youth. It seemed very far away to me. I recall being actively scared of old and/or sick people, right up until I got a job in a nursing home in my twenties. And then everything changed for me all at once.

I don't think we're terrified of dying. I think we're terrified of getting old. This country has no respect for the elderly. No one wants to look old or feel old and people are freaking out and spending zillions of dollars to make sure they are young forever. We are an insanely vain, self-obsessed culture. People don't give a shit about acquiring wisdom. Personally I can't wait till I get to be a fat old writer lady. I'm just going to eat pie and write books all day long.

RW: There's a lot of art within art in this book. The novel describes a lot of photography, paintings, and even some music in vivid detail. I'm betting that was a lot of fun to do. Because you're so adept at writing, in a way, you get to become a master of all mediums.

JA: I'm so glad you changed the subject so we can stop talking about dead bodies.

I totally enjoy writing about art. In this book it was also a really helpful device. Because the artist in the book paints the people in his neighborhood, I could use all of the paintings as another way to explain the makeup of Williamsburg, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where he lived, which happens to be the neighborhood where I live. And it was really just fun to put in everything around me, the little league players at the park near my house, the local drunks at the Turkey's Nest, etc. It was definitely play time when I was writing about his work.

RW: Do you have any favorite art-within-art moments in any other books/movies/or songs?

JA: There was a wonderful novel - also in part about the New York art world - called The Great Man, which came out last fall. It was written by Kate Christensen, and there's all these wonderful descriptions of artwork (and food) in there. When I read it, it was sort of a revelation about how these things can be done correctly. Her writing is fantastically visceral and smart.

RW: I remember the night you stood outside Piano's in Manhattan and debated whether you should come see our show or go home and finish your book. I now feel bad that I tried to distract you from the completion of The Kept Man. What percentage of writing/completing a novel is overcoming distractions? What is your writing schedule and/or habits?

JA: I absolutely wanted to go in and see you guys play. I am a big fan. And it was so nice out that night, too, and I was on my bike, and there is such a great joy about biking around the Lower East Side on a warm night.

To answer your question, when I have made the time for myself to write, it is pretty difficult to distract me from my work. Making the time means not taking freelance work. Sometimes it means going to another city for a month or two. I have a friend in Seattle who lets me stay with him sometimes. He doesn't have a television set and he plays French radio a lot in the morning and he has a view of the Puget Sound and downtown from his living room, which is where I sit and work. That is my time to do my work, and I am incredibly productive. I get up, I do yoga, I go get a coffee, I read, and then I write until I've finished 1000 words for the day.

But back in New York it is all distractions. Right now I am working on the third draft of a new book and it is incredibly slow-going. I think it's because The Kept Man is coming out, and I'm going on tour, and there's just a general flurry of promotional activity. It is hard to keep my head in the game. I'm looking forward to the spring when I'll be completely able to focus again on my work. I think I've just learned there is writing time, and there is promoting time, and never the twain shall meet.

RW: With music I'm usually able to pinpoint a few of any band's major influences. With books I'm not as adept at that feat. I know it's often a maddening question but can you tell me who your literary heroes are? What authors inspired you to write?

JA: I think my literary heroes change, or at least new ones come on the forefront. When I was growing up I was all about Joyce Carol Oates, and then when I was a senior in high school I discovered all the flashy New York writers, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis, and then as soon as I got to college I was promptly introduced to Raymond Carver and Phillip Roth and Grace Paley. And I feel like all of those writers were really important in my formative years. Seven years ago maybe it was Flannery O'Connor. Two years ago I would have said it was the work of Auster and Murakami that really kept me going. I know I am forgetting about 100 people. I have not even started talking about comic books. I go back to all these authors all the time, and then I keep uncovering new ones. There are so many great books I have yet to read. I try not to think about it too much or I'll feel like I'm wasting my life.

RW: I know that when I get interviewed there are often questions I wished I would be asked about the album and songs. Sometimes these questions end up getting asked and sometimes they don't. What questions do you wish you'd get asked about The Kept Man? What do you hope people take away from the book?

JA: I haven't done too many interviews yet - and of course any kind of press is awesome and I'm extremely grateful that anyone cares about my book - but it's been cool to see that I don't have to keep answering the same questions over and over again. I really never know what I'm going to get, but it seems like people are taking this book a bit more seriously, if only because it's a novel.

I think for the first book people asked me mainly about what I knew about love (answer: not much), and my feelings on chick lit (same). I would have liked to talk about craft a bit more, rather than Being A Sassy Writer. I guess you put the word "love" in the title of a book - no matter if it's with irony or not - and people have you pegged for life.

For The Kept Man, I would love to talk about politics and art and death and inspiration, all of which you've asked me about, so I think you've done a pretty great job for a first-time interviewer. Don't ever give up music though. I like your band too much.

As long as it's fun I will always make music and put it out there.

Your book is now out! I hope it does wonderful things for you and the people who read it (which I hope and predict will be many).

Jami Attenberg's The Kept Man is out now. She will be on a book reading tour for much of January. I will be playing a solo set at her January 10th reading at Brookline Booksmith.

Jami Attenberg and The Kept Man links:

Jami Attenberg's website
Jami Attenberg's blog
Jami Attenberg's Largehearted Boy Book Notes for her short fiction collection Instant Love

Reading Matters review of The Kept Man
San Francisco Chronicle review of The Kept Man
Time Out New York review of The Kept Man

The Kept Man's page at its publisher
promotional video for The Kept Man

Ryan Walsh links:

Hallelujah the Hills' website
Ryan Walsh's Largehearted Boy Note Books essay
Jami Attenberg interviews Ryan Walsh at Largehearted Boy

also at Largehearted Boy:

previous musician/author interviews

Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)