Jami Attenberg on Jewish Identity and the Heartland
Jami Attenberg’s new novel “The Melting Season” (Riverhead, 2010) is about a young Nebraska woman who leaves her husband and small town for Las Vegas with a suitcase filled with cash. On the road she meets a very un-small town Nebraska cast of characters — including a cross-dressing Prince impersonator and a cancer-surviving flamboyant woman named Valka. Attenberg’s original title for the book was “The Prick,” and was originally conceived as a feminist response to Phillip Roth’s “The Breast,”. Attenberg spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the formation of her Jewish characters, her own breast cancer scare and her conscious efforts to be more of an American writer — and less of a New York writer.
Elissa Strauss: You have written before about how Jewish characters always pop up in your books, even if, unlike your parents who are founders of their local synagogue, being Jewish isn’t a central part of your identity. Well, it happened again in “The Melting Season” with Valka, the cancer-surviving friend and occasional savior to the main character Catherine. Why make Valka Jewish?
Jami Attenberg: I think in every book there’s one character that pops up that’s sort of the “me” character. That character gets to say things to the other characters that I would like to say to them myself. And at the time I was writing the book I was actually going through the tiniest of breast cancer scares, and talking to genetic counselors about my family history, and obviously because I’m Jewish that became a different kind of discussion. As I was crafting this character, of Valka, I started to add in bits of details that were going on in my own life, as a way of dealing with all of the stress and fear. So it is the smallest of mentions, that she is Jewish — she says, “I have the bad Jew gene,” when she is telling the narrator her life story. And she started to become something that felt sort of distinctly Jewish as I kept writing. Her name is not necessarily Jewish, but it definitely feels like it could be, which kind of adds to this general feeling of Jewishness. And she is bold and funny and wise.
The book in a larger sense is about a woman’s sexual awakening. Did the messages you received about sex growing up as a young woman in a Jewish Chicago suburb overlap or contradict with the messages your central character, Catherine, receives in her small Nebraska town?
Well, Catherine had some really messed-up messages in the book that had nothing to do with my reality, but I definitely did get the message from my family that it was better to wait until you were married to have sex, and that it was better for sex to be attached to a real, permanent kind of love. But at the same time I was clearly under the impression that if I didn’t wait, there was nothing wrong with that. There was no morals clause attached to my sex life. I have never felt guilt about having sex. I always felt so bad for my Catholic friends. But they never had guilt attached to food, so it was kind of a trade-off.
Lastly, your story brings together red-staters and blue-staters, coastal elites and salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners, gays, Jews and natural blonds. This is somewhat unusual for Brooklyn-based writers. Is this something you consciously set out to do?
My first two books, “Instant Love,” and particularly the second, “The Kept Man,” which was set in Brooklyn, were dominated by more of a sophisticated, urban voice. While I treasure both of those books, I also felt like maybe I was shutting out a wider audience. Coupled with the fact that I have spent a significant amount of time traveling this great country of ours over the past five years — I’ve driven cross-country and back each year, and usually spend a month or two living in different cities — I started to feel like I wanted to be less of a New York writer and more of an American writer. I’m definitely fascinated with America. It’s an amazing place! I guess also there was a secret little hope that if I created a narrator who at least superficially was more conventional, all kinds of folks would feel comfortable reading her and embracing the less conventional universe that unfolds before her, or at least keeping an open mind to it.
edited for clarity