Interview: Jami Attenberg


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unnamedMidwestern Gothic staffer Michelle Torby talked with author Jami Attenberg about finding inspiration, extensive research, talking to her characters, and more.

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  1. Michelle Torby: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Jami Attenberg: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and left there when I was 17 years old, for college in Baltimore. My folks still live there, so I go back and visit.

MT: Joseph Mitchell’s 1940 New Yorker profile on Mazie Phillips, the generous-hearted woman who worked at New York City’s famous movie theater, the Venice, inspired you to write Saint Mazie.  Typically, how do you find inspiration for your work?

JA: I just try and pay attention to the world around me, reading, thinking, walking, observing, and then pretty much every day I’m feeling inspired. I suspect it’s probably the same as everyone else.

MT: As your first historically based novel, Saint Mazie must have required extensive research.  Was it difficult to balance research with the creative process of fiction writing?

JA: I did most of the research upfront and then filled things in as needed. At some point I just had to pull the trigger and start writing. I can’t explain to you how I knew when that moment was, only just that I was ready to go. I wouldn’t describe it as a balance so much as a chicken/egg moment.

15-saint-mazie.nocrop.w529.h848.2xMT: Did you ever feel torn between representing a fictional Mazie and wanting to know the “real” Mazie?  

JA: I definitely wished I could have known the real Mazie! But I did the best I could representing her essence. I wouldn’t say that I ever felt torn. I just felt a sense of duty to do her justice.

MT: Your previous novel, The Middlesteins, is set in a Chicago suburb, which some have noted closely resembles your hometown of Buffalo Grove, Illinois.  What is it that inspired you to set The Middlesteins, a work about the complexity and frailty of family ties in the face of unhealthy habits, in a place similar to Buffalo Grove?

JA: I hadn’t written about where I had grown up before and for whatever reason it felt like it was time. I can tell you that I read several books that people had written about small towns and families that felt instructional to me. Like, here’s a way to tell this kind of story. Olive Kitteridge is a good example of this. So seeing someone else do it was inspiring.

MT: Much of your work focuses on place.  When brainstorming ideas for a novel, is setting one of your first considerations?  Or is a developing character the first thing to catch your attention?

JA: In general characters tend to talk to me before anything else. The book does not exist without the characters. But I do seem to be switching back and forth between the Midwest and New York from book to book. It’s where I feel comfortable. Those are my two milieus. For now, anyway. I’ve only written five books! Talk to me in ten.

MT: What’s next for you?

JA: Writing a new novel and touring heavily this fall to promote Saint Mazie. Always working!

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Jami Attenberg is the author of five books of fiction including The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie. Visit her online at jamiatt.tumblr.com or @jamiattenberg.

One Response to “Interview: Jami Attenberg”

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