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Author Archive: "Jami Attenberg"

Long Live the Queen of the Bowery

Previous to Saint Mazie, I've only ever written about characters I've made up from scratch before. Then I read an essay by Joseph Mitchell in his wonderful collection Up in the Old Hotel, and I became entranced by the idea of writing about a real person: Mazie Phillips, aka The Queen of the Bowery. She ran a movie theater on the Lower East Side for decades and was the heart of her community, befriending eccentrics, children, and all the bums on Skid Row. She was a real knockout of a human being, and I couldn't stop thinking about her.

But she died in 1964, seven years before I was born. I would never know her, and it would be difficult for me to find someone still alive who had known her. I had a finite amount of information: the original essay, an obituary, and another article written when she retired. How could I write accurately about a person I had never met? What kind of responsibility did I have to her personal truth? How does one fictionalize a real person and still make it a "true" story?

First, ...

Book People

I don't have much time to write today, but I wanted to tell you about this really great moment from last night. I went to WORD Brooklyn, my favorite bookstore in the entire world, for an event sponsored by the Vol 1. Brooklyn collective: a discussion of Hard Art, DC 1979, which details the rise of the punk scene in DC.

That would have been enough of a social occasion, just hearing those stories about these cool local kids creating what looked to be quite a joyous movement out of air. While the authors of the book spoke, pictures of kids hanging out at Bad Brains shows played on a screen in the background. As the pictures scrolled I made up little stories about all of these people from 1979 in my head. Near the end, one of the authors talked about the influence of former DC mayor Marion Barry on this music scene, a thing I did not know, which means I learned something new last night. So really, that is a pretty full evening for me, and I probably could have just gone ...

Making Them Laugh; or, When Everyone Sucks

Last night I did a reading for students at NYU with Lydia Davis and Chad Harbach, two great, literary writers, but also two very funny writers. (I promise you the crowd was really entertained by both of their readings, and I was extremely glad to be the opening act. You do NOT want to follow Lydia Davis.) During the Q&A we were asked several times about being funny. How do you impart humor in your writing? How do you know when something is funny?

I always think life is funny enough without even having to try very hard. I've heard from some people that they think my most recent book, The Middlesteins, is funny, but I've heard from plenty of others that it's extremely sad. It's both, I guess. Last night I said I was a "laugh through the tears" kind of person, which probably describes the essence of my writing too. (Although, sadly, I am also a "laugh when it is totally inappropriate to laugh" person, as well.)

One young woman said that she thought she was writing something that was funny, but then when ...

The Tour Car

Well, I know you were all worried from yesterday's blog post: my car passed inspection. Of course, does a car really "pass" inspection if it involves hundreds and hundreds of dollars in repairs? I feel like this car kind of slid by yesterday, as if its daddy bought its way into Harvard.

I can't quite seem to quit this car, even if a few of its parts are actually taped together. No big deal; it's just the stereo face, which kept popping out until I stashed a roll of masking tape in the car, which I ritually apply and remove every time I have a long trip. I make lots of jokes about how the massive dent on the rear left side of the car, acquired when a big rig rammed into me as we simultaneously climbed an expressway entrance, makes me fit into my Brooklyn neighborhood. "No one will ever want to steal my car," I say, like I'm a genius and I planned it all along. Though sometimes I think someone might set it on fire, just to put it out of its ugly old ...

On Sharing Works in Progress and Outlining

Lately my life has been a lot of travel, on planes, trains, and in a station wagon that is so beat up I am pretty sure it's not going to pass inspection today. (I'll let you know if it passes tomorrow. Please send your best thoughts to a 1993 Honda Accord station wagon.) And because my life has gotten sort of repetitive, I hope you'll forgive me if I asked for a little help with this first blog post. I asked people via my tumblr to send me their questions about being a writer. If you've got any yourself, please send me an email, and I'll try to answer them another day this week.

I'm for the first time really encountering the tension in sharing process updates with writer-friends. Excited updates/commiseration/feedback-seeking versus quiet head-down work. I'm surprising myself by being drawn to the latter. I wonder if it's not competition but rather needing to remove myself from the insecurity/reassurance cycle that the process-sharing can turn into.

The other day I was talking to a friend who had been offered a writer's residency out of the blue, and he was going to reject it for a number of reasons, but the one that he joked about was this: "My worst nightmare is, at the end of the day, having to listen to a group of writers talk about all the work they had finished that day."

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