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Discipline and Compelling Characters Drive Jami Attenberg’s Novels

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Melting Season book cover
The Melting Season
Jami Attenberg

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An exclusive interview with Jami Attenberg,
author of The Melting Season

By Ellen Birkett Morris
March 2010

I did not mean to take the money. Well, not all of it. — The Melting Season

Author Jami Attenberg said her novels are born with a sentence from a character that shows her what the character sounds like and where the character is in his/her life.

In her latest novel, The Melting Season, that sentence happens to be the first line of a book that takes us on a journey with Catherine Madison, a twenty-five year old farm girl who takes a suitcase full of cash and leaves her husband in search of herself. It is a story about the pain inflicted by families, the challenges of intimacy and, ultimately, how one heals oneself.

The Melting Season is her third book. Attenberg is also the author of The Kept Man, a novel, and Instant Love, a collection of linked short stories. She began writing when she was in grade school and won a short story contest then, worked on her high school paper, and went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins.

She began her first book at the urging of a friend at age 32.

“My life was fine, but wasn’t great. I needed a push. ”
—
Attenberg

"My life was fine, but wasn’t great. I needed a push I have always been a bit ambitious. I decided to try writing a novel and see where it took me, I just didn’t know any better,” said Attenberg.

To start her first book, she began tuning into the voices of her characters and set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day for three months, having heard that would yield a first draft.

“I don’t do an outline. The joy is in not knowing what will happen yet."
—Attenberg

 

 

 

 

“I don’t do an outline. The joy is in not knowing what will happen yet. About halfway through (the writing) what will happen is revealed,” said Attenberg.

To keep her focus, she stayed at a friends’ guesthouse in Northern California and had minimal exposure to television and radio.

“Once I sold the first book, it was expected that I would write a novel. After writing three books, I am beginning to see that this is kind of hard. I have been working instinctually, following my fascination with character and voice, and now I am learning how to put more plot into my books,” said Attenberg.

In The Melting Season, Catherine “Moonie” Madison leaves her hometown of Nebraska looking for relief from a dysfunctional family and a marriage that lacks intimacy. She ends up in Las Vegas and forms a friendship with a woman named Valka, who shares her own story of survival.

Attenberg captures the nature of home, which can be both appealing and suffocating at the same time. She draws a vivid, engaging picture of small town life in Nebraska drawn from her experience sitting in cafes and listening to locals talk while completing a residency at Art Farm Nebraska in Marquette, Nebraska.

She also took a number of pictures to help when describing the landscape.

Attenberg said the challenge of writing the book was getting to the heart of Moonie’s inability to feel. Attenberg had to “write through” the problem with the help of her editor Megan Lynch of Riverhead, who urged her to dig deep and heighten the dramatic elements of the story.

 

“What was hard was finding the emotional truth, which we all have to do as writers. . .”
—Attenberg

 

 

 

 

“What was hard was finding the emotional truth, which we all have to do as writers,” she observed.

The book was completed in around 13 months and it took several more months to complete revisions. The process included getting an editorial letter from Lynch, a common practice, which outlined the strengths and weaknesses of the book and pointed out areas that needed expansion or clarification. There were also a set of “cold readers” who offered last minute notes on the book.

Attenberg met Lynch at a party in New York after she had finished a first draft of her first book. Lynch read the stories and contacted Doug Stewart of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc on Attenberg’s behalf. Stewart agreed to be Attenberg’s agent.

She compared the work of writing a novel with training for a marathon. “You have to be really disciplined. Sit down and write. If you are really hungry for it you have to figure out how to do it, whether you write 250, 500, or 1,000 words a day. That book won’t write itself. Banish the critical voices,’ advised Attenberg.

She also cautioned writers not to quit their day jobs, noting that she still does freelance advertising work for three months out of the year to augment her income.

 

"The chance of making a living at writing is slim. You have to do it because you love it."
—Attenberg

 

 

 

 

The chance of making a living at writing is slim. You have to do it because you love it, because you are driven to do it, and because you want to be heard,” said Attenberg. She is currently working on her fourth book.

 

About Jami Attenberg Jami Attenberg is the author of Instant Love, The Kept Man, and The Melting Season, now out from Riverhead Books. She has contributed to a number of publications, including The New York Times, New York, Print, Salon, and Nylon, as well as the anthologies Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone and Love is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Heart. Originally from the Chicago area, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.
About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.