The ProsenPeople

An Interview with Adelle Waldman, Part III

Friday, October 11, 2013 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is publishing an extend online edition of our Jewish Book World interview with Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., over three installations.

Previously: Writing about relationships, composing epigrams, and the complexities of correspondence with readers

Nat Bernstein: Which literary figures or works did you fashion Nate after, and which literary figures or works does Nate fashion himself after?

AW: I don’t know that I have a particular literary work for Nate that I especially looked to; there were books I was responding to, but there was no one that I was modeling him on. What really motivated me to write the book is that I had had these experiences, my friends had, and I just didn’t feel like I saw them… I mentioned Goodbye Columbus, which I love, and there are so many books by men about romance that I thought of, that I think are beautifully written; but I also just felt like there was an experience that I had, and my roommates had, that was getting lost a little bit, that it wasn’t in our common, collective canon. (And I guess I’m not counting light chick-lit books, because that’s not what I read, anyway.) I felt that there are many books by male authors that feature a charming, lovable, really smart protagonist who’s come to the city and conquered it with his intellect and have a few dalliances with women, and be great, but I felt like the experience of women was getting lost in those stories. In some of the books that I’m thinking of, I feel like the women characters are presented very unsympathetically, so as readers we don’t really sympathize with them when the male protagonist treats them badly: he decides that they’re just a nagging shrew and moves on, and they’re presented as nagging shrews, so we think, “Good riddance!”

Then there are books where the romantic stuff doesn’t even necessarily come into play, but I wanted to respond to that, too, because for a lot of men—and men like Nate… thinking about this stuff is a little uncomfortable for them. I think Nate would rather be thinking about abstract intellectual ideas, and politics, and economics, and Marxism than he would prefer to be thinking about his relationship with Hannah or the nitty-gritty of dating because it makes him feel bad and guilty and uncomfortable and confused. There are a lot of books by male authors that I admire but that avoid a lot of this stuff, so in a sense Nate wasn’t modeled after one character, but he was a response to the fact that I felt like a lot of characters I saw in literature were somehow different from the men I saw in life. I wanted to reconcile that chasm a little bit.

I think that if Nate wrote this book about himself, it would not be about his love affairs with the women he dated, and it would not mention taking note that Hannah was “a 7 out of 10,” and it wouldn’t have him wonder at moments if he could still get it up for a casual hookup. If Nate wrote the book it would be all about his great flights of intellectual fancy, and it would just have a few valiant successful sexual escapades, and then he’d ride off into the sunset with some hot women at the end.

What interests him is really different from what interests me. Many of my favorite books are 19th century literature—like George Eliot, Jane Austen, Stendhal—and I’m not sure that those are Nate’s favorite books. I don’t know that I know what his favorite books are. In the book it mentions that he’s reading biographies of Becket—oh wait, did I take that out? I don’t remember if that’s still in the book. He used to be reading some Becket. I pictured Nate being very well-read—and not just in a pretentious way: very earnestly well-read, and enjoys reading seriously and cares about it. I gravitate to books that are very psychological and probably have relationships at their center; I think that Nate, like many men like him, might be more drawn to books that are more modernist tradition, more experimental, from David Foster Wallace, or Pynchon, or Becket—things that are more showy with language and less focused on the psychological.

NB: Since you mentioned George Eliot—and in light of the recent J.K. Rowling revelation—did you ever consider assuming a male pen name, just to see how it would affect the novel’s reception?

AW: If my agent had said that that would have been a better way to do it, I would have seriously considered it, but no one brought that up. And it’s become so much of the marketing hook of the book—that I’m a woman and it’s from the male perspective. So I think that from my literary agent and publisher’s point of view, they really just wanted to use that to the book’s advantage. I didn’t feel like I knew enough to argue with it—and I didn’t even want to know that much, at that point: I guess I just sort of hoped to focus as much on writing the best novel I could and then leave the marketing of it to others, so that was a call that I made. But none of the people on my team ever suggested that we should do that; if they had, I’m sure I would have thought about it, the pros and cons.

NB: You mentioned in an interview at Gawker that you see yourself at somewhat of an advantage in that “there are things that men can’t actually say in their novels because they would be accused of misogyny,” while you, as a female writer, are freer to write an honest male perspective. Do see Nate’s own writing inhibited in the same way as your male contemporaries?

AW: I think if it’s true for men generally, it would be true for Nate. And that’s just a theory, I don’t know that that is true—I think it probably is. Men, men like Nate, who want to be nice people, they believe in the values of feminism in a basic sense, and they might harbor all sorts of thoughts that they don’t want to say for a number of reasons: they don’t want to be disliked and have women be angry with them, and also because they’re a bit ashamed of the thoughts, as well—or ashamed of some of them, actually. Some of Nate’s thoughts about women’s writing, I don’t think he’s ashamed of: I think he earnestly believes them and knows better than to say them aloud because he wants to be invited to dinner parties.

NB: Do you see our postfeminist hyperconcern over political correctness eroding modern literature? I’m just wondering if part of what established the past generation of great (Jewish) American writers was their unabashed portrayal of the male experience—maybe our current values are creating more space for women writers in the next canon?

AW: I think that political correctness means that there are some things that, as writers, we’re reluctant to say. But I also tend to think that in every point in time and every society there are things that one is not supposed to say, that one is reluctant to say, and they’re just different. Like now, we can talk really candidly about sex—no one has a problem with that—but not necessarily our attitudes toward it, whereas in the Victorian era you could be as sexist as you wanted, but you couldn’t read about sex. There being areas that are taboo is a constant, even though what the taboo is changes. When it comes to the previous generation, of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, I think that as much as they could be really candid about some things—and, certainly, misogyny, and being very critical of women—without too, too much in the way of repercussions, I guess some part of me thinks that there are always things that feel very hard to say, and that would have been true for Roth and Bellow, too. It might have been a different set of things, but maybe they were so invested in being these figures who were sort of nodomesticated men urging the values of the sexual revolution that some of their more conventional thoughts and their more bourgeois yearnings might have felt shameful, and they might have been reluctant to write about both.

Find all three parts of the interview here.

An Interview with Adelle Waldman, Part II

Thursday, October 10, 2013 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is publishing an extend online edition of our Jewish Book World interview with Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., over three installations.

Previously: Nathaniel P. and Jewishness in the postracial meritocracy

Nat Bernstein: In a novel that is so representative of dating, modern communication (or the lack thereof), and the literary world, I couldn’t help but notice the near absence of social media—Facebook, Twitter, online sources, dating sites, etc.—in Nate’s life. Was this a conscious decision?

Adelle Waldman: Personally, I have an iPhone, and I use the Internet a lot—so does everyone I know—but when I think of the stories of my relationships and my friendships, social media isn’t central: it’s something I do when I’m bored or I’m procrastinating. There’s an extent to which I keep up with old friends from college and high school from whom I might have otherwise drifted apart, but I don’t think my primary relationships have changed that much as a result of social media. So it wasn’t so much a conscious decision to keep that out of the novel so much as I didn’t want to put anything in unless it felt organic to the story. I wasn’t particularly interested in writing a novel that’s about social media or the internet or the way we live now in terms of the digital age; I was interested in writing a novel about emotions and gender and relationships.

NB: I really connected to the painful accuracy that The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. delivers with regard to the modern, urban American dating scene—it felt pretty validating to read, even (or especially) at the most uncomfortable moments of Nate’s interactions with the women he’s involved with. Since the novel’s debut, do your readers now approach you as some kind of relationship guru? How do you feel about that?

AW: I’m just so happy to hear that, because in a lot of ways, I wanted the book to be validating—especially for women. I think the book can be painful to read as a woman, because Nate’s thoughts are horrifying: I basically took all these insecurities I had, the things that I most feared a man I dated might have been thinking about me, and I made Nate think them. I’ve been Hannah, who feels like she’s acting kind of crazy, and then she’s upset, and then she’s embarrassed, and then she feels ridiculous—but then I realize, no, she’s not: she’s acting in response to some of Nate’s behaviors. And in some ways I’m struck that male readers, in particular, have a lot of sympathy for Hannah, and that when they relate to Nate, they relate to Nate with a sense of shame and misgiving.

I’ve definitely been getting emails from people that are incredibly interesting, but they get very personal. I have one from last night, from a guy who wrote to me in response to the book, and he said he related to Nate a lot: he’s about 30 and dating, and he’s not proud of Nate-like-ness but he doesn’t know what to do about it. I feel like this man is telling me all of his dating life, hoping that I’m going to be able to say something like, “Oh, this is what you’re doing wrong,” and of course I can’t! I’m fascinated as a novelist, and I appreciate that he’s talking so candidly about his experience, but I just worry that I’ll let a whole lot of people down. I wish I knew… The best advice I can give women is not to date Nate. I’m fond of Nate in a lot of ways, but I don’t think he’s a good boyfriend. I think he’s a great person to be friends with, and that’s not necessarily the most satisfying advice. And to be Nate—that’s just tricky. I don’t have a five-step solution.

NB: Do you feel like they’re sort of missing the writing itself and focusing on the relationship deconstruction?

AW: I think it would be ungrateful as a writer to be too critical of anyone who’s going to read your book and then take the time to write a note about it, so I truly appreciate all of the responses I receive. After I’d worked on the novel for many years—and I was an SAT tutor, and I had no agent, and I’d never published fiction—it didn’t seem like a sure thing, and it’s just really gratifying for the book to be in the world and to get nods.

I guess in terms of the wider coverage—and I’m so wary of saying this, because I’ve been so lucky in terms of the coverage the book has gotten, and I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I really feel very fortunate—but I guess if I had one complaint it’s that I think the reviews emphasize Brooklyn and the writing scene a little more than I would like. In my mind, whether unrealistically or not, I always thought of the book as more about universal issues in terms of dating, relationships, and human psychology, and I just set the book in Brooklyn among writers because of the world I knew, and because I thought it added a little color and drama. I just worry that people might not pick up the book because they think they’re not interested in Brooklyn: one of the things I didn’t want to do was spend a lot of time talking about organic everything and how Brooklyn streets are just packed with strollers—I didn’t want to do just a lot of Brooklyn satire. I set the book in Brooklyn, but it’s not so much about that. So I guess that would be my one concern.

NB: I was struck by that, too, in terms of the book’s reception. The accuracy with which you described relationships: it didn’t seem Brooklyn-specific to me in the same way that other people seem to be reading it—it seemed like very much my experience wherever I am.

AW: I’m so glad to hear that, that’s so much what I hoped. It was so much my experience before I moved to Brooklyn, as well. I moved to Brooklyn maybe when I was about thirty, and I basically met the person I’m now married to at my housewarming party when I moved there; I really didn’t spend much time as a single person in Brooklyn. The experiences I had that were most like Hannah’s, for better or for worse, are not limited to Brooklyn.

NB: You composed some really great epigrams about dating and modern relationships for the novel. How did you come up with these quips? Were they ideas you’d thought up and scribbled down over time? Did they come out of real-life conversations? Are they contemporary translations of Wilde or Austen witticisms?

AW: Most of these remarks come from a character named Jason, who’s Nate’s sort of jerky best friend, and I have to say: I would think of Jason’s thoughts while I was on the treadmill at the gym. I don’t know why; I would just have these weird thoughts, and then I’d be like, “Oh, Jason could say that!” I spent so many years on this book—four years of actively writing it, basically—so I was so steeped in this stuff, just thinking about relationships and gender, and trying so hard to figure out Nate’s psychology, to figure out how he’s going to experience these things really differently than I would, what would he think about them. There wasn’t any conscious trying to update Austen, but I found that just being so steeped in thinking about dating stuff that at random moments I’d find myself having these sort of epigramatic thoughts, and I just had to find a character whose mouth to put them in.

NB: So Jason—who feels particularly Wildean—is pretty essential to the novel.

AW: I also think that Jason is important for Nate in that Nate gets to feel that he’s better than Jason, which is how he justifies his own behavior. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that, and it’s not just Nate: we’re all a little bit like that. We all have ways of making ourselves feel better when we feel poorly, and one of them is to compare ourselves to other people and think how great we are, how nicer and better we are in comparison.

Nat Bernstein's interview with Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., is being published serially online as part of the Jewish Book Council's ProsenPeople blog. Part III: on the literary influences and impetuses behind Nathaniel P.

An Interview with Adelle Waldman: Part I

Wednesday, October 09, 2013 | Permalink

In this three-part interview series, JBC's Nat Bernstein spoke with Adelle Waldman, whose debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was recently published by Henry Holt and Co. In today's installment, they discuss Nathaniel P. and Jewishness in the post-racial meritocracy. 

Nat Bernstein: Overall, the media seems particularly interested in your decision to write from the perspective of a male protagonist—which I’m sure we’ll talk about at some point; my first question, however, wasn’t “Why did you decide to make Nate a guy?” but rather, why did you decide to make Nate a Jew?

Adelle Wadlman: Other than his gender—and the fact that he went to Harvard, which I didn’t—in creating Nate I tried to use as much of my own experience as I could, because it’s hard enough to do the male stuff: the tenor of his thoughts are so different from the tenor of mine—and not just about sex or women, but even the way he thinks about his writing and his career. I had to try to channel this voice that might be similar to mine but was also very different, and because that was a challenge I tried to use as many of the biographical details from my own life as possible just to make it easier. Being Jewish is something I know, and it saved me from having to think hard about what it would have been like to grow up Catholic, the way I had to think hard about what it would be like to be a guy.

NB: So did you also attend a Jewish day school, and are your parents also immigrants?

AW: My mother’s a Romanian immigrant; my father isn’t. I attended a Jewish day school for elementary school, and then I switched to a different school. So there are ways in which I altered Nate’s biography somewhat. I simplified it: it was easier to make Nate go to one school.

NB: There’s plenty else about Nate to focus on, to be sure, but there seems to be hardly any mention of his Jewish background in reviews or interviews about the novel. And you know, on one hand, his Jewishness comes across as a minor, almost throwaway detail of this character, but at the same time, Nate is so innately Jewish; do you think that the Jewish perspective has been somewhat glossed over in the book’s general reception? If so, what would you attribute that to?

AW: One of the things I really wanted to write about wasn’t Jewishness but the particular world we live in today, where I think both religion and ethnicity—and race, too—matter so much less than they used to, socially. For my parents, most of their close friends are Jewish. They probably have a few non-Jewish friends that they’ve made over the years through work, but their friends from growing up, from college, from the neighborhoods we lived in—by and large the people in their lives have always tended to be Jewish. And this is so different from my experience, where for so much of my life my social life hasn’t been determined by religion. In the kind of world that Nate lives in—a sort of affluent, urban environment—I think there’s a lot of segregation of people that’s by class: it’s people who went to the same types of colleges, came from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds. But there’s so much more mixing in terms of religious and ethnicity and race, and I think that’s significant; it seems like a big change from the way my parents’ life was to the way mine is.

A book I really admire and read a number of times while working on my novel was Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. The character never interacts with anyone socially who isn’t Jewish—of course, it makes sense, it’s the Sixties. There are different types of Jews, the wealthier Jews and the poorer Jews, but, other than the people he meets at work, it’s a Jewish world—and that’s great, it’s not in any way a criticism of Goodbye, Columbus: I think it’s a sign of the times. But I wanted to write about this moment, and I didn’t want to glorify it. There’s a moment in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. when Nate makes a joke about Hannah’s (latent) Catholicism being the reason she doesn’t want to sleep with him, and she shoots back something along the lines of, “No, the reason is because you’re Jewish.” And Nate’s response is to infer that anti-Semitism from someone like Hannah could only be a joke, whereas someone Catholic making that kind of joke when my parents were that age would have had a totally different connotation. That is the part of the book that I wanted to explore—this meritocratic, post-racial world we live in: I feel like Jewishness just plays out differently in that environment. And for Nate, he’s not religious, obviously, and it’s not something he’s consciously using as a factor when he’s choosing whom to date. And I think that’s kind of of-this-moment, too: there are all kinds of Jews, some more observant than others.

NB: Is Nate perhaps using it as a factor in choosing whom not to date?

AW: I imagine him being a little more indifferent. I don’t talk about this in the book, but I give Greer, the woman with whom he ends up, the last name Cohen, so presumably she’s Jewish. (In my mind, she is Jewish, but I hesitate to throw in information that’s not in the book.) I don’t think he was—as perhaps his mother might have suspected at moments, when he had a girlfriend named Kristen in college—consciously avoiding Jewish women: I think it really was a nonfactor for him. And I say that, perhaps, because I’m drawing on my own experience, where I feel like I’ve had boyfriends who were Jewish and boyfriends who were not Jewish, and it seemed to my parents that I went out of my way to date non-Jews, but that wasn’t the case.

NB: Do you think Jewish audiences read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. differently than others? Maybe in the same way that writers (or aspiring writers), or single Brooklynites in their thirties, or the children of immigrants might pick up on certain nuances that the rest of us fail to perceive?

AW: I get such a variety of responses, but I don’t know if I have a large enough sample size. At a reading I did in Baltimore, where I grew up, one of my mom’s friends asked if I had gone to Jewish sleepover camp over the summers—apropos of nothing: it was the first question after I was done reading. I was trying to figure out if her implication was that if I had gone to Jewish sleepover camp maybe my portrayal of suburban Baltimore would have been more flattering. I guess I worried about that. In my mind, I felt that the book, when it does go back in time, is sort of “equal-opportunity”: it’s satirizing the Jewish world and also the WASP-y stuff at Harvard, so I hope that no one was offended by that.

To me, there’s something characteristically Jewish in the aspect of Nate that is so concerned with being a nice guy and doing the right thing. And it’s so ironic, because he often doesn’t do the right thing, if the right thing is defined as the kindest thing. But I think that Nate’s concern about his behavior, while not exclusively Jewish, is not uncharacteristic of a Jewish man. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I don’t think it’s somehow enough with Nate to make him not be hurtful to the women with whom he gets involved, either. I really did want to write about a man who has a conscience, who’s not a sociopath, and who has some kind of moral sense, and still he has trouble. I do think that’s characteristically, if not exclusively, a trait of Jewish men.

Nat Bernstein's interview with Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., is being published serially online as part of the Jewish Book Council's ProsenPeople blog. Check back tomorrow for the second installment, in which they discuss writing about relationships, composing witty epigrams, and the complexities of correspondence with readers.