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.

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.