Jami Attenberg

Image credit: Edmund Fountain

All this is hers

After years of wandering, author Jami Attenberg, A&S '93, has settled into success in the Big Easy.

The drive to New Orleans was, by Jami Attenberg's standards, a short trip: five days of bad coffee and car trouble, endless fried food and chipotle aioli, and a few home-cooked meals with old friends.

Attenberg, a novelist, had spent much of her adult life wandering—from town to town, from gig to gig. Even after she'd embraced a kind of steadiness, a series of jobs in advertising in New York City, she'd leave for monthslong writing sabbaticals. But by 2011, when she drove to New Orleans, Attenberg, A&S '93 had spent two unbroken years in the city. She was at a crossroads, hoping her next book would be a critical and financial hit; in the meantime, though, to pay the bills, she had taken a temporary job as a copywriter at an advertising agency. Every time her boss passed her desk, he commented on her expression: Why aren't you smiling? Now that job was over. Attenberg was free.

In New Orleans, Attenberg spent two months in a spacious sublet apartment, at a third of the cost of her Brooklyn apartment. She wrote every day. She worked, too, on remote freelance gigs. She kept a journal that winter, which she titled "The Two Months I Was in a Good Mood."

Not that all was perfect. The check from the copywriting job was delayed, so finances were tight. Attenberg decided to keep subletting her apartment in New York City, a bit more money to supplement the freelancing. She stayed a third month in New Orleans—in a different house, one with a stinky bathroom and nowhere comfortable to sit—and then hit the road. A big loop carried her from Texas to her hometown in Illinois and back to New York City. Guest rooms and bed-and-breakfasts and the occasional hotel: seven months of sleeping on couches and air mattresses and spare beds.

Jami Attenberg and her dog

Image credit: Edmund Fountain

Writing was the only thing Attenberg had ever wanted to do. But writing was not an easy path. She had just hit her 40s. "I will never own a home," she wrote in an essay published by the website The Rumpus that fall, after she had made it home to Brooklyn. "I will never have money in the bank to last me more than a month or two in advance. ... I will work until I die, but I will be happy to do it because I love my work."

Early this fall, as Attenberg walks into Pascal's Manale—a hundred-year-old, wood-lined, family-owned restaurant that is purported to have invented New Orleans–style barbecue shrimp—the oyster shucker grins. In thick, stylish plastic glasses, curly hair tumbling freely, Attenberg has an easy, quiet confidence. Uptown T, as the shucker is known, is something of a local celebrity. He tells Attenberg she has been gone too long.

When friends arrive from out of town, Pascal's Manale is often Attenberg's first pit stop. Get them a dozen oysters, a dose of zinc before she drives across the city to a small shotgun house equipped with a custom cypress bookshelf, lots of houseplants, and a charming puggle named Sid. To the house she owns, in the city she now calls home.

Uptown T wants to know how Attenberg is doing. "I feel like all I do is work, all the time," she replies.

Her new novel, All This Could Be Yours, would be due on shelves in late October, just a few weeks away. A tale of family secrets that unravel over the course of a single day in New Orleans, it is Attenberg's first work set in her adopted city. As she settles into oysters, Attenberg is in the midst of a publicity blitz: The book has already appeared on best-of lists in People, Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, and BuzzFeed, and she is prepping for a seven-city tour. In the days before a new book appears, her normal writing routine is impossible. Lately she has been spending her days talking about herself and her work to newspapers and podcasts—and here, now, to an alumni magazine.

Not that she has stopped writing. Just a few days earlier, she had finished the proposal for her next book, a memoir—her first foray into book-length nonfiction. As she worked on the proposal, she pulled out her old essays, and re-encountered her grim predictions after her months of wandering in 2012.

"Isn't that crazy?" she says now, reflecting on how much has changed in seven years. It wasn't the result of luck, she says—she worked too hard for it to be just luck—but she isn't quite sure what led to the turnaround. She doesn't really want to define it, she says, "because I don't want it to disappear. I'm very grateful for it, but also, now I will fight for it forever—to keep it."

Attenberg wrote her first book—"Me, Myself and I," she called it—as a first-grader in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, a cornfield suburb an hour outside Chicago. She was the sort of kid who wore black and spent too much time buried inside books. But she is glad that she discovered so young what her talent was, and what made her happy.

She came to Johns Hopkins for the Writing Seminars, and when she graduated in 1993, she had developed real skills—how to write a solid sentence, for example—but still had no clear picture of how to turn writing into a career. The obvious next step, an MFA program, had little appeal. "I was just done," she says. "I had worked so hard my entire life to be a good student. And then I was like, 'Ugh, I gotta keep doing this?' So I just, like, hit the road instead."

'All This Could Be Yours' book cover

Over Attenberg's five-year ramble—working odd jobs from Tampa to Fairfax to Seattle—her mother took to calling her the "Wandering Jew." She got to see much of the country, which would inform her work later, writing what she considers American novels. But Attenberg wonders now if she wandered around for a few years longer than necessary.

She arrived in New York City in 1998. From a job running videoconferencing for an advertising agency, she sweet-talked her way into the "interactive" department, as online advertising was then known. That led, in 1999, to a job as a consultant for HBO, where among other duties she developed and produced the "enhanced web content" for The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, including writing scripts for online extensions of episodes. New York City provided new literary opportunities. She interviewed fellow writers for literary websites. She attended book parties. She became one small satellite in the swirling cosmos of the city's literary scene. "I was no one special," she says.

In 2003, she took a break from the city and headed west, to dog-sit for friends in Napa. Prompted by a friend's question—When are you going to write a book?—and based on some small bit of advice she'd read once, Attenberg cranked out a thousand words each day. Nine months later, she had enough material to round out a collection of short stories.

She sent these to a very junior editor she'd met at a party, who—once she got around to reading them—decided she liked them. But Attenberg's résumé was slim: She had published a chapbook with an upstart press and produced an occasional zine called Instant Love that sold a modest few hundred copies each issue. The very junior editor had little clout, and the only way she could convince the more senior bosses to publish the book would be if Attenberg at least got an agent—proving someone else liked her work, too. So Attenberg shopped around and found an agent, and then the junior editor sent the manuscript to her bosses.

"And her bosses were like, 'What the f— — is this book?'" Attenberg remembers. They essentially told the junior, no thanks.

By then, though, her agent—Doug Stewart, who still represents Attenberg today—was invested. And in March 2005, he helped her sell Instant Love, as the collection was also known, as a hardcover edition. A year later, just before the book was published, she sold her first novel to Riverhead Books. The Kept Man was narrated by a woman mourning her comatose husband. Her next novel, The Melting Season, was published in 2010 and featured a wife running away from a stultifying marriage. On its cover, the first edition showed a woman running through a field of wheat. This all reflected the marketing plan for Attenberg's work: books by a woman, for women. Yet despite strong reviews, the books were not commercial hits.

We asked Attenberg to share some of the books she returns to again and again.

In these years, Attenberg prized her isolation. New York City is so vast that it allows for invisibility. It's not that she was a misanthrope; her years of wandering built a scattered network of friends. It's just that writing well was Attenberg's goal, and writing well, she thought, required finding time and space to be alone. She learned to get good at saying no, walling herself away from the city that roiled outside. She grew comfortable walking through the streets as an anonymous blip amid 8 million other lives.

Hers was the life of a writer who had both made it and not. She kept her life loose enough to allow for book tours and seasons out of the city, where she could wander and think and dive deep into new novels. But the bulk of her income came from freelance gigs, writing and copywriting. Then, in 2010, she was dropped by Riverhead.

Attenberg was devastated. She considered aborting this whole lifelong literary dream and accepting her lot as one more office-bound American. (Thus, in part, the two years in which she barely left New York.) But a year after that dark moment, a ray of hope emerged. Her old editor, after taking a new job, talked Attenberg up to her new publishing house.

"My new editor at the time said, 'We're going to relaunch you,'" Attenberg recalls. "'We're not going to talk about your other books. We're just going to give you this new fresh start, and we're just going to market you like you're a really great writer, instead of trying to put you into a box.'" Attenberg hoped her next book would be a hit. But if not, she was determined: One way or another, she'd find a way to write.

What is success? For a creative writer, there are always higher rungs. First, you get a book deal. Then, maybe, you write a bestseller. If you're lucky, a book is optioned for a movie; your name becomes familiar, first in the literary scene, then to an ever-wider circle. Then there is the infinite ladder of awards and prizes, atop which some other better known, better paid writer always sits.

A few days before our chat at Pascal's Manale, in the midst of the marketing push for her new novel, Attenberg settled on a humbler goal: Success as a writer is when someone buys your dinner, she wrote in a tweet. So, consider that box checked. Attenberg's stature as a writer is now being affirmed in the form of barbecue shrimp.

Despite her affection for Pascal's, Attenberg had never had the dish that made the restaurant famous. "Yay!" she cries, with a grin and earnest golf clap, tilting forward gracefully so the bartender can slip a paper bib around her neck. It's a necessary accessory: These shrimp aren't actually barbecued but cooked in a rich and messy sauce of butter and Worcestershire and wine and garlic and hot sauce.

Attenberg's turn, from dropped to feted, began in 2012, after her long ramble had concluded and she'd returned to New York. Her new and newly marketed book, The Middlesteins, told the story of a Chicago family whose matriarch was eating herself to death. For the first time, Attenberg employed a third-person narrator, who roved through the consciousness of many characters and jumped forward and backward in time. The book quickly hit The New York Times bestseller list, and suddenly Attenberg was being asked to write stories for glossy magazines, to travel the country—the globe, even—for book festivals and paid speaking gigs. "I never knew how bad my career was until it got good," Attenberg says. "I never knew all the things I wasn't getting, for years."

As her career stabilized, Attenberg found herself drawn back to New Orleans. She spent the winter in the city in 2013. The next year, she returned again. Over a backyard dinner, alongside friends who had decided to buy homes and commit to the city, Attenberg realized she could do the same. Not in New York, of course, even with her newfound success. But here, in this slower city? Yes, here, it could work.

Headed to New Orleans?

Illustration of New Orleans landmarks

Image caption: Here are some of Attenberg’s favorite spots to taste the food and take in the landscape of her adopted home: The 1.8-mile linear Crescent Park preserves the old, industrial character of the Mississippi River and carries walkers from Bywater to the edge of the French Quarter. “I like to hit up Crabby Jack’s at the beginning of Mardi Gras season,” Attenberg says. She's a sucker for their fried oyster po’ boy and the fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp remoulade. One of Attenberg’s first meals in New Orleans was the famous po’ boy version of barbecue shrimp at Liuzza’s by the Track. It’s the sort of sandwich that requires extra bread, for dipping in the abundant sauce. At Pascal’s Manale, the oyster shucker, known as Uptown T, is a three- decade veteran. “He shucks them perfectly and with charm and a smile,” Attenberg says. Satsuma Café, a classic neighborhood café with outdoor seating, is a spot to bump into friends and acquaintances. And her dog drags her there whether or not she wants to go: He knows they give out free biscuits.

Image credit: Heather Gatley

In 2016, Attenberg bought a house in the Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that is crusty and gritty and gentrifying at once. The house sits along the route of Chewbacchus, a parade of sci-fi-themed dancers that rolls in the first days of Mardi Gras season (and shows that the city is more than just Bourbon Street boorishness). The streets behind her house have the lumpy, broken pavement that is endemic to this sinking city. But they are lined with shotgun houses where neighbors sit out on their porches. Sid, the puggle, loves the sunshine and the attention of the neighbors. That New Orleans is a great place to be a dog, Attenberg says, makes New Orleans the right place to be.

Are you finished?" Jerry, the bartender, asks, gesturing toward a plate covered in discarded shrimp shells.

"I'm never really finished," Attenberg says. But the shrimp are gone, so Jerry whips that plate away and returns with another, topped with a slice of lemon and a delicately folded hot towel. This, Jerry explains, is the only way to rid your fingers of the smell of shrimp.

Attenberg says her dog will be disappointed. "But you don't want to walk down the street, have a bunch of feral cats chase you," Jerry says. They both laugh. It's a very New Orleans moment—at once polite and unrefined.

There is insistent friendliness here, a necessary uplift, perhaps, in a city where the effects of Katrina are still visible, a city where the muddy soils settle under their own weight, increasing the potential damage when the next hurricane arrives. Attenberg, when she is writing, spends the first half of the day avoiding the internet: She reads a good book, she writes longhand; often, she takes Sid for long walks along the Mississippi riverfront or to one of her favored coffee shops. New Orleans has fewer than 400,000 full-time residents, a tiny city, really—no bigger than Bakersfield, California—which means that again and again you encounter the same few people. They stop you to chat. They invite you to barbecues.

Attenberg tries to accomplish something new with each novel, and in All This Could Be Yours she aims to capture the feeling of her new home. The family at its center is, like Attenberg, from outside New Orleans: Victor Tuchman, a cruel and manipulative Northeastern businessman has retired to the city under mysterious circumstances. At the beginning of the novel, he lands on his deathbed, and the family arrives to make peace with his life and influence. They reckon, too, with their own past deeds—their lies, their hidden selves—as they travel through New Orleans' famous sites, from its oak-lined uptown streets to the tourist bustle of the French Quarter.

As they bump through their personal tragedies, they are often oblivious to the city's unspoken rules. But the novel's narrator leaps into the minds of seemingly minor characters—pharmacy clerks and transit workers and EMS responders who interact with the Tuchmans—and shows what the family has missed. These voices sometimes appear for a sentence, sometimes for pages.

Sharon, a city coroner who gets an entire chapter late in the book, articulates the hidden rules of her workplace. These seem to apply to New Orleans at large, too: "Everyone was polite in this universe," she thinks at one point. "No need to ruin anyone's day when there was harm and illness and death all around them. The importance of maintaining steadiness was collectively, silently agreed upon. If you didn't get that, you didn't belong here." In this city, Attenberg has found herself living differently. She cleans the gutters outside her house before it rains, to keep the streets from flooding. She organizes events for writers. Each summer she writes a newsletter, exhorting others to spend two weeks getting through their daily thousand words.

All This Could Be Yours, like much of Attenberg's fiction, asks what we owe to our families. At one point, two of the Tuchmans argue over whether they can judge Victor for what he's done. Barbra Tuchman, who has spent her life married to—and sometimes abetting—Victor, claims that no one is in a position to judge. Her daughter disagrees. "That's what being a sentient human is all about," she says. "Our ability to assess what is right or wrong." If you pay attention, you'll notice it's the voices of New Orleans that settle this debate. Our responsibility is not to judge but simply to try to understand. To pay attention, not just to our families but to all the humans in the world.

This is not a new revelation for Attenberg—after all, to imagine your way into other lives is the job of a writer, and since The Middlesteins she has delighted in freewheeling narrators who ramble across many points of view. But this novel, she says, includes more voices than ever before. "We power this city," Sharon thinks to herself at one point, as if channeling the spirit of the city. "We are the bodies, we are the labor." Count it as one of Attenberg's many successes: She has found her home, and she has not shut herself away inside it. Instead, she's flung the doors open, pointing the way for all of us. Just pay attention. That's how we'll make a better world.

Boyce Upholt is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.