Jami Attenberg: How I Write

Learn about this bestselling novelist's writing process.

Jami Attenberg
Jami Attenberg. Photo by Zack Smith Photography

It’s no surprise that before its publication in October, All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg graced many “most anticipated” and “best books of fall” book lists. Her bestselling novels often do. Attenberg’s work has been published in 16 languages, optioned by film companies, received starred reviews from critics, and been nominated for literary prizes. Set in New Orleans, where Attenberg has lived for the past few years, her latest book is a modern family drama that centers on the Tuchman family as its powerful patriarch is on his deathbed. Through well-developed characters, shifting multiple perspectives, and sharp prose, Attenberg – dubbed the “poet laureate of difficult families” by Kirkus Reviews – fully immerses the reader into the Tuchmans’ world. And it certainly is an engrossing world, full of dysfunction, personal struggles, and secrets. The author of six novels and one short story collection, Attenberg is also a talented essayist and is currently at work on her first book of essays.

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Varying perspectives

 My last book had a first-person perspective, so I was ready to have multiple perspectives with this one. There are pros and cons to both. In general, the benefit of first person is authenticity – and you can get fun with the pacing. But it can be claustrophobic as a writer being stuck in the same voice. I was ready to open things up and knew I wanted to have more perspectives for what I knew would be a family novel.

 Character development

I write my way into knowing the characters. I don’t write character sketches or anything like that. Often what I do if I have a character that I don’t like is write my way into understanding what their flaws are. They should be complex and layered. It’s like when you see something from across the room and make up stories in your head about it.

I don’t write in a box for myself and not think about being read. I think very much about how a book will be of service and entertainment to an audience.

Setting

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this place [New Orleans], and it’s been on my mind. I knew I wanted to set a book here, but I was hesitant because I was new to the area. It took me a couple of years, because I wanted to do it justice. People are protective of this place, and so am I. There are a lot of great writers in New Orleans, but they’re not necessarily writing literary commercial fiction about families set in the contemporary era. I was afraid at first to do the thing I’m good at, and then I realized it’s my art and my craft – and I became ready. I had to say, “You can do this.”

Drafting routine

I handwrite in the morning, and then I type it up in the afternoon. When I’m working on a book, my word count is 1,000 words. I get up in the morning and go for a walk with the dog. Then I’ll read, handwrite, take a break for lunch, and then type everything – and there will be 1,000 words before me. That’s what I do until a first draft is done.

Writing about families

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Families are really interesting. I think it’s rich territory, with a lot of little nooks and crannies and nuances. I like the way you can keep going with families – it’s endless source material. I’m really trying to reach people with my work. I don’t write in a box for myself and not think about being read. I think very much about how a book will be of service and entertainment to an audience. And if I wrote a family novel every time, it wouldn’t work. I have to take breaks.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.