If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The author on her latest novel about family secrets, New Orleans, and characters waiting for their stories to be told.
Jami Attenberg has figured us out. She writes books that people love to read, books that are at once digestible and addictive, but also deeply poignant. Her new novel and seventh book, All This Could Be Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), tells the story of the (flawed, dysfunctional) Tuchman family as their sinister patriarch, Victor, withers on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital. Told from various perspectives—notably those of Victor’s wife Barbra and their children Alex and Gary, as well as residents of the city of New Orleans—the novel studies the relationships between characters and family members, questioning the choices people make.
With each new perspective, the narrative uncovers a family secret, creating a prism of betrayal and hurt—and, somehow, a dose of humor. Central to the story is Alex’s preoccupation with her mother’s marriage to this cruel man. “If I know why they are the way they are,” Alex says about her parents, convinced there is a catch-all answer, “then maybe I can learn why I am the way I am.” Attenberg knows her characters’ inner landscapes aren’t that simple, and speaking to me on the phone from her home in New Orleans, she unspooled the questions that probed her to write the novel, and the ones she is still asking.
Elena Sheppard What was the impetus for this book?
Jami Attenberg I wanted to write a New Orleans book. I was actually working on another book set in New Orleans that was a ghost story, or an other-worldly story. (I’m so determined to write a ghost story, and I keep failing at it, but I keep trying anyway.) Then I started this book. The family in this book has nothing to do with my real-life family at all, but I had family in town one weekend and I was being a tourist, as one is when your family comes to visit. I had just lived there for a couple of years. I think that was the beginning of it—discussing family and thinking about this city as an outsider looking in. Part of the problem that I had with writing a book that was set in New Orleans was that I didn’t feel comfortable yet writing about it as a citizen of the city. My starting point was thinking about people visiting the city or being new in town.
ES I’m realizing that all the characters are basically outsiders looking in on the city, even Sharon who is from the city. She leaves and then comes back.
JA That was my sneaky, sneaky way of getting in. The voices of some of the supporting roles are native New Orleanians. The thing about Sharon is that once you’re from here you’re from here forever.
ES Why do you think those secondary characters are important to the story that you are telling?
JA They told me that they were important. This city is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. People come here, and they come to the French Quarter, and they have fun, but I don’t think they consider what makes it all work. Not all those tertiary characters are in the service industry, but a lot of them are. It just seemed like if I was going to write about one side of it (like an outsider coming in), I needed to write about who was making that experience happen.
ES The book is broken into temporally titled sections like “Just Before,” and “Morning,” and “Everything After,” to name a few. How do these sections work? Was structuring it part of the reader experience that you were trying to create?
JA There are lots of little internal structures in the book that are layered. Some are maybe less obvious than those, and they prop the book up and make it feel stronger. These small things that we can do to change the way that a book feels are super interesting to me. Originally it was just the three middle sections, there was no “Just Before” or “After.” For a long time, the story began on chapter six and ended with Barbra sitting in front of the storage unit. For three drafts, it was that. At some point, a reader, I think it was Maria Semple who said I needed a little more “before.” Semple is the master of pacing and structure. She gave me a note that I sort of grumbled about and then eventually I realized she was right. Maria Semple is basically always right.
I ended up adding the first five chapters and then the end chapter came way, way, way late in the game. I looked at all the characters and I made sure they were all covered. Then I realized that I missed the people who show up at the very end (I don’t want to give it away). I didn’t finish their story. They had been waiting for me to tell their story.
ESI don’t want to give anything away either, but I loved the ending.
JA Thanks. As soon as it happened I was like, Ahhh. That is the joy of writing, those kinds of feelings. The publishing of a book is not very fun. But it is fun to do these interviews and talk about a book and reminisce about what it was like to write it. It’s reminding me why I did it.
ES I’m sure it’s such a different experience to be internally working on what you’re working on, and then have to externally present it to all these people.
JA It’s a really strange thing, and I keep thinking it’s going to get better, but it’s not. It’s better in the sense that it helps to get my book attention. I’ve written plenty of books that nobody wanted to interview me for, that nobody paid any attention to at all. And that’s hard. But when you aren’t getting attention, you don’t actually realize it. I didn’t really know that my career sucked until it got better and I thought, Oh my career was terrible. I’d rather have it this way, but it freaks me out. I was recently tweeting something about writers being neurotic and crazy and whatever, and one person, who I think is a sci-fi writer, said I was totally wrong. So maybe there are some who aren’t but I don’t really know any. Maybe the sci-fi world is super chill. Maybe I need to be a sci-fi writer.
ES I love the first sentence of the novel. You create such a rhythm with it. I’m just going to read it because I have it right here: “He was an angry man, and he was an ugly man, and he was tall, and he was pacing.” I want to ask you about the “ands,” and about first sentences in general—what do you think they need to do?
JA That was also something I wrote later in the game. I was not going to write about Victor at all, because I really had no interest in hearing what he had to say. But then I thought, Oh, it’s actually going to do something if I put him in the book, but just for a second. I really wanted no one on his side, but I wanted readers to know what we were dealing with.
The “ands” are their own punctuation marks in a way. They’re little punches or something. I had to give myself permission to write that sentence because it was obviously judgmental on my part. That’s very different from how I usually roll. I tend to let the characters speak for themselves and define themselves. It felt really narrated by me.
ES Then why did you do it?
JA Because I had something to say. I felt that if I had to spend time with this character who I really do not want to spend time with then I want everyone to be really clear on how I feel about him. I didn’t want him to be in any way mistaken for captivating, or interesting, or heroic.
ES That makes sense. Why did you want such an unlikeable character in the center of the drama?
JA I don’t think he is. I didn’t want to have any male voices at all in the book. I thought that it was just going to be the three Tuchman ladies and Sharon, but then the men seemed to say, No, we’re part of this too. I wanted to show what a man like Victor could do, and how this kind of patriarchal system is broken, and how women can be complicit in it, and how they can be broken by it. He had to be a part of the story, but I didn’t want anyone to mistake him for the center of the universe because he’s not.
Do you know David Berman from the indie-rock band the Silver Jews? He very famously had a bad dad, like a bad fixer kind of guy in DC, in the political world and the business world. Berman had a deal with HBO to make a TV show about their relationship—I only know this because it was referenced in this LA Times piece that Tom Beller wrote about him after he killed himself. But Berman walked away from the deal because he said he looked at the shows HBO made, like the Sopranos for example, and he was concerned that they were going to make his father into an antihero, and so he was like, Fuck that. I realized that was exactly what I was doing. If anyone in this book were to be an antihero, for me, it’s Barbra. I’m not really interrogating Victor. I’m interrogating Barbra. When Alex wants to know about her family, what she really wants to know is why Barbra stayed with Victor and what Barbra knew.
ES Do you judge Barbra for staying with him?
JA I judge everybody in this book. I judge everybody for everything. It is true of every book I’ve ever written. When I start a book I either have a character I don’t like and I try to figure out ways to like them, or I like them and I want to figure out what’s wrong with them. Part of what I was doing when I was writing All This was trying to figure out how I could understand a woman like Barbra. Did you judge her?
ES I did, but one aspect of the book that I loved was how you take what I thought of as photographs of these characters that simultaneously show their past and their future, and by doing that I really understood their choices. Twyla was a character who I didn’t agree with, but all the characters were really rounded out so that I could understand them even if I judged them.
JA But did you think what Twyla did was bad?
ES For sure.
JA I keep asking people. I’m so interested.
ES I felt sad for her, that she was that lonely. How do people usually respond?
JA People tell me who they identify with the most. The majority so far identify with Twyla. No one I know identifies with Barbra, but everyone knows a Barbra. So many people say, That is my mother-in-law, or step-mom, or whatever. I have had some Alex’s, and very recently I had a woman who said she identified with Victor, which was fascinating. I was like, Are you sure? What are you telling me right now?
ES This book felt so present-day America to me, without ever saying the president’s name. Do you think this is a story that could have existed at another time, or do you think there is something about this Trumpian era that made you write this and led you to talk about patriarchy in this way?
JA I wrote a family novel that came out during the Obama era, The Middlesteins, and it was a totally different writing experience because I wasn’t writing from a place of fear. Though, I do acknowledge that of course as a white, middle class, privileged human being, I wasn’t writing from a place of fear, but there were certainly plenty of people who could have been writing from a place of fear. Today, I feel like everybody’s writing from a place of fear because we are just so terrified of seeing these systems around us. You can’t tell if this is their last gasp for power, or if everything is just going to fall apart. That being said, my books don’t work without characters. If I sat down and decided to write something about my political beliefs, fears, or anything like that, it just wouldn’t have been successful. It had to come from a place of trying to understand who these people were, and then the politics filtered in. It’s pretty understated. I don’t ever mention the president’s name, and I’m not responding to a lot of things that are going on, but the tone is there.
Elena Sheppard is a writer based in Brooklyn, and currently pursuing her MFA in non-fiction writing at Columbia University. You can find her on Twitter @eleshepp.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.