Jami Attenberg is someone I would consider “legit.” She is a writer through and through. She is the author of a collection of short stories, three novels, numerous essays and her work can be read in anywhere from old school punk/diy ‘zines to the New York Times. She sets out on tour this week to promote the paperback of her most recent book, The Middlesteins and you can keep up with her in real time online here: http://jamiatt.tumblr.com/ She used to drive herself across the country to do diy readings. Figured we’d ask her a couple q’s about that. Learn from her, she’s an example of a writer who actually handles her career correctly. Love, Nicolle
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: When did you first realize you were a writer?
JAMI ATTENBERG: I’ve just always written, and always considered myself a writer. I wrote my first story when I was five. There was nothing else I wanted to do or be. I went to college for writing, and I kind of messed around after college for a while, did a lot of drugs, moved around the country, and then I had a couple of jobs that I didn’t really love but were fine, and then when I was in my early 30s I got my shit together and started writing books.
NE: Do you think studying writing is needed to publish as an author?
JA: Studying writing to me means reading and also rewriting obsessively. That’s the best way to learn. I did my undergraduate work in writing but did not get an MFA. It seems like an MFA affords you the time to read and write, but getting that degree does not feel necessary to me. Although I wish I had the luxury of time to read and write like grad students do. That sounds pretty awesome. When I was writing my first book one of my friends was going to grad school at the same time and I heard a lot of stories about drinking, too. I feel like everyone was having affairs. I mean it sounds fun! I am all for having fun.
NE: Have you ever veto’d an edit from a publisher on your work or do you think it best to “go with the suggestions”?
JA: Writers have a job to do. Editors do, too. You have to stand ground and cede ground on a case by case basis. When an editor tells me something isn’t working and I still believe in it, I tend to think it just isn’t working hard enough. Often I’ll rewrite it to make it stronger. Usually we can find a middle ground. I feel pretty lucky to have worked with really talented editors over the years, so now I have them in my head when I’m writing.
NE: What’s it like to go on a national tour?
JA: In its current incarnation in my life touring is a lot of airports and hotels and car services and only OK food. It is definitely a business trip, but also I am happy to have a publisher that cares to send me out there on the road. And you get to meet lots of great people, readers and bookstore people and librarians. This is my tribe. So that part is definitely cool and rewarding. TSA agents, not as much. Although obviously I love a good frisking.
In the past I did a lot of road tripping which was fun and dramatic and a lot more free-spirited, but also a lot riskier. I feel like it wasn’t a real tour unless I got stuck in a fucking snowstorm at least once.
NE: How did the cross country road tripping start? Why did you start doing it?
JA: I’ve done five tours where I drove myself across country, booked a lot of it myself, really went for it. Just right off the bat I wanted to hit the road. I was coming from an indie rock mentality. I was doing zines before I signed up with a big publisher – my first story collection actually started out as a zine series – and I feel like my roots have always been in DIY. I used to book bands in college and always felt like those guys were my creative role models because they were on the road, really putting themselves out there on their own terms. I recognized that more conventional paths existed, and that they were valid and important, but I never felt as connected to them. So when I started putting books out it was very natural for me to want to hurl myself out into the universe like that. And I had always loved life on the road. It was just something that appealed to me very deeply.
NE: Do you think one should not do anything else but write if they want to be a writer?
JA: Wouldn’t that be nice if we could all afford to just freely pursue our dreams? I mean: Yes, of course, but nearly every writer I know has to come up with another way to pay the bills. But it’s kind of all I care about so I don’t know. I’m really a terrible person to ask about this because I’m always broke. I guess you should ask yourself how broke you are willing to be first.
NE: What are you working on now?
JA: I’m about to start this big paperback tour through June and early July, but then after that I get to work on my book, SAINT MAZIE, that is due at the end of the year. I’ve got 150 pages done, but so much more to go. I wish I could write while I’m on the road but it never works for me. I need to be sitting still. So I try to cut myself some slack and give myself permission to just think instead. Or post shit on my tumblr. Or just be. Or whatever.