Jami Attenberg is one of the keenest observers of the American Jewish family writing fiction today. Attenberg’s latest novel—her seventh—is “All This Could Be Yours.” It features the Tuchmans, some of whom have recently moved to New Orleans. The book follows her bestseller, “The Middlesteins,” the story of another Jewish family living in Chicago. In that book, Attenberg depicted the decline of their matriarch Edie, who is eating her way into an early grave. Attenberg recently spoke to JewishBoston about the Tuchmans, her adopted hometown of New Orleans and Jewishness as a characteristic like any other.
In the new novel’s first sentence, the reader meets Victor Tuchman, the ruthless family patriarch. Attenberg writes, “He was an angry man, and he was an ugly man, and he was tall, and he was pacing.” Victor has had a massive heart attack and is dying in a New Orleans hospital. Most of his family, except his estranged son, has come to say goodbye to him. As Attenberg deftly shows, it’s not an easy thing to do.
Daughter Alex, a newly divorced lawyer, comes to New Orleans looking to unearth secrets about Victor that she is certain her mother, Barbra, harbors. Son Gary is on an extended job-hunting trip in Los Angeles to restart his film career. He has left his wife, Twyla, and their adolescent daughter behind at home in New Orleans to fend for themselves. Despite the news of his abusive father’s impending death, he deliberately stays in California. Barbra recently moved to New Orleans from the family mansion in southern Connecticut after Victor’s shady real estate business failed. She persistently walks around in circles in the intensive care unit where her husband is dying.
New Orleans is more of a character than a backdrop in the novel. Of her adopted hometown, Attenberg said she first went to New Orleans after taking the winters off from New York City. “I’d leave New York and write for three months in different places,” she said. “When I went to New Orleans, I fell in love with it. I kept going back winter after winter. When I was deciding where I wanted to live in my 50s, I realized that I could live where I’m happy.”
Attenberg observed that New Orleans is also a place where the culture is vibrant and the city’s history is fascinating. “There are little stories around every corner,” she said. “It’s also a quiet city where you can live in close-knit neighborhoods.” Attenberg has a home in the city’s Upper Ninth Ward.
As for the Jewishness of her most recent characters, Attenberg challenged the suggestion that she’s an intentional chronicler of Jewish families. “I think of my characters’ Jewishness as a characteristic among many other characteristics,” she said. “Like me, the Tuchmans don’t practice Judaism. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to write about a family who isn’t Jewish. What intrigued me about Victor and Barbra is that they’re first-generation children of Russian Jewish immigrants who settled on the East Coast. There is something specifically Jewish about them. And yet there is also something universal about the Jewish families I write about. With ‘The Middlesteins,’ so many people who weren’t Jewish told me they resonated with this Jewish family. If you do it right, these characters are everybody.”
Attenberg grew up in a Reform Jewish family in Chicago and said pondering other people’s faiths and their relationships to God intrigued her. “Jewishness is very easy for me to explore because I don’t have to think about it too hard,” she said. “I like the idea of following people practicing their faiths, expressing their faith in God and managing an ongoing relationship with God. Although I don’t practice, I do have faith, and I pray and often contemplate those kinds of subjects.”
As for her writing process, Attenberg said the kernel of a book will often take the form of a conversation or internal monologue with a potential character. “It’s often about a problem the character is trying to solve or something that concerns them,” she said. “If I’m interested in the character and their problem, I’ll explore it. I can’t tell you why one character or idea sticks around more than others, but when it happens, it’s magic.”
In the case of the Tuchmans, Alex was the first character who whispered in Attenberg’s ear. The rest of them, she noted, “showed up fully formed. I knew Victor was a bad guy, and his wife had been shielding him for a long time. I also knew there was a daughter who was different from them, and a son off in the distance who wasn’t dealing with anything regarding the family.”
Attenberg said “All This Could Be Yours” is somewhat of a departure for her. “I usually write books that are character-driven and driven by small emotional moments,” she said. “This is a sprawling book, and that felt really good to me. It’s juicy and entertaining. I’m proud of how it turned out. I think I do justice to New Orleans, a city I really love. And structurally, this is my most innovative book.”
Jami Attenberg will be in conversation with novelist Laura van den Berg at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, Oct. 23. Find more information here.