Tottenville Review

A new review of books focused on debuts, translations, and all works that would otherwise go undetected. It is a collaborative of authors, translators, and reviewers bound by one purpose: to contribute to the dialogue of literature.

A Talk With Adelle Waldman

AdelleWaldman

It would have been easy for Adelle Waldman to write a cruel satire. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., her excellent debut novel about a Brooklyn literary man of uncertain virtue, could have made a few cheap points—this man is pretentious; this man is sexist; this man is an asshole—and the book still would have been fun to read, and quite possibly accurate. But Waldman is far too scrupulous a writer to be satisfied with such a novel; the one she has written instead is full of truly astonishing and often uncomfortable psychological precision and acuity.

One recent morning, Waldman and I met over coffee in a Brooklyn café, surrounded by young writers who may very well have been writing novels similar in subject to Waldman’s, but that do not cut nearly as deep. With uncommon insight into the craft of novel-writing, she reflected on the classic psychological novels that influenced her (and of which she is an accomplished critic), on the time it takes to mature into a serious psychological novelist, and on the disappointment of not getting her first novel published. It is clear that The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was worth the wait.

—David Burr Gerrard

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INTERVIEWER

The book is very closely observed. So many psychological details that you get really right. I think any guy who interviews you is going to be tempted to ask: “Who squealed?” How did you get all these observations? Did you have any kind of method, or was it just a matter of noticing things over the years?

 

WALDMAN

I was always drawn to psychological novels. I spent my twenties reading a lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. I spent a lot of time reading for insights into psychology. Jane Austen and George Eliot, for instance, have an emphasis on characters’ moral lives and how they justify behaviors to themselves, and that to me is super-useful. There are so many ways for writers to bring characters to life, but for me, I try to pay a lot of attention to self-justification.

 

And I had all those years of talking about guys with my women friends, analyzing bad boyfriends and my friends’ bad boyfriends. “What was he thinking? Why’d he do this? Why’d he behave this way?”

 

Another thing that was useful was doing this thought experiment that was really difficult: trying to get way out of my head and know that Nate was going to think things that were going to upset and offend me. Not even offend me in a general sense, as a Woman with a capital letter. The fact that I probably dated men who thought in these terms about me is horrifying. But I thought: I’m willing to do this. I just felt that there’s a degree of taking ego entirely out of the equation. Then I’d look at it later and get mad at my ex-boyfriends. Occasionally I’d get mad at Evan, the one I’m married to. He’s great; he’s nothing like Nate. But I’d think: he probably thinks like this sometimes; all guys do. I’d come out of my little study and be mad at him, and he’d be like: you’re mad at me for something your made-up character did?

 

INTERVIEWER

A lot of the best realist novels have cross-gender protagonists. Why do you think that is?

 

WALDMAN

For me, one thing that’s great about it is that it forced me to take myself out of it. Nate wasn’t a stand-in for me in any way, so I couldn’t use him to grind axes or make points. That enabled me to be more objective about him and see him more fairly, good and bad. In the novel I wrote before, and in my other previous attempts at fiction, I tried to write more directly my own story, and I look back now and see that, whatever else I thought was trying to do, I was trying get the world to see how hard it is to be Adelle. So gender helped me to be objective.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned morality. You wrote an interesting essay arguing that Emma is the best of Jane Austen’s novels because it’s the least explicitly moralistic. Is that something you were thinking of when you wrote this book?

 

WALDMAN

One thing I thought of a lot was the need to keep myself and my desire to moralize out of the book—my desire for the reader to know what I thought, and that what I think is different from what Nate thinks. As much as I love Jane Austen and George Eliot, I don’t want to write an omniscient narrator who’s just telling you what to think. It took a lot of willpower to keep it in all in Nate’s voice, not to tell the reader everything. I adore Jane Austen, but the moralizing is the weaker element in some of her novels.  The way she analyzes character on a moral basis is vital to her strengths as a novelist, but I think sometimes there’s that desire to teach lessons. Sense and Sensibility is the most explicit example. This is a good way to be; this is a bad way to be.

 

INTERVIEWER

But you do disapprove of Nate.

 

WALDMAN

When I was writing the book, I tried really hard not to think about whether I liked or disliked him, and not to come up with an analysis of him. “This is what’s wrong with him”; “this is why he does these things that are not to the liking of women who want him to behave otherwise.” I didn’t want to make the character work in theory. I felt like any judgment or analyzing would get in the way. If I could just make him real, I could analyze him later.

 

I find myself playing devil’s advocate. If I talk to someone who really hates him, I want to know why. But I also talk to people who feel too soft on him. I think, like all of us, if your behavior is laid bare, there are areas where you can stand to be a little more empathetic, and sometimes I think that he will take uncomfortable feelings and push them away by doing something else that will distract him.

 

INTERVIEWER

There’s been a lot of talk in the last couple months about sympathetic characters, particularly sympathetic female characters. Do you think it’ll be easier to get readers to sympathize with Nate because he’s a man?

 

WALDMAN

I had thought, while writing the novel, that if a woman made a woman character who was as unapologetic as Nate in her judgments, she would come off much worse. Sinister, cold, calculating, maybe autistic. She’d come off that way to both male and female readers. But we’d forgive it more in Nate, and he might seem a little arrogant, but not morally reprehensible. That was my theory. But I could be totally wrong; I’ve been surprised at the extent to which certain readers, particularly on the website Goodreads, really seem to dislike Nate.

 

INTERVIEWER

I know you didn’t write this book out of any kind of reforming zeal, but if you could make literary men read this book and change some kind of behavior, what would it be?

 

WALDMAN

 I would say, more than just literary men, men and women—this might sound Pollyannaish, but I think that there are ways in which we all evade uncomfortable feelings. When we feel bad or guilty, our primary instinct is to talk ourselves out of it, or distract ourselves, or push it away. There are failures of empathy at key moments. I think I identify more strongly as a zealous moralist in wanting all of us to be better.

 

In a more gender-specific way, I would say that, for Nate, it’s less important to him to have a partner he considers an intellectual equal. For women, it’s almost axiomatic that we want that, and we assume men who are reasonable men we might be interested in want that. For men, that’s one option, but it’s not necessarily for all men always the only option. I don’t know that I want to go so far as to tell men that they should change, but I think that’s an interesting thing to call attention to.

 

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk about the relationship between Nate and Aurit, Nate’s female confidant?

 

WALDMAN

Aurit gave voice to certain things that I wanted in the book, but I really didn’t want to have a book where there’s this wise friend who just came in and told Nate the error of his ways. But I did want a counterpoint. I needed to make her a fully-fledged character, and make Nate’s reactions to her more realistic than “Oh, wise friend, you’re so right.” That became a lot of fun for me, and in some ways I went so far that now I think: have I discredited her? Just because she’s irritating doesn’t mean she’s wrong.

 

I wanted all the characters to seem reasonable and real. They might have interesting stuff to say even though they might not be presented as heroic figures who come in and tell the truth all the time.

 

INTERVIEWER

One thing I like about Nate is that, for all his pretensions, there’s a core of seriousness to him.

 

WALDMAN

I’m so glad you think so. I certainly think so. I didn’t want to make him just this pretentious, careerist, cheesy writer. I thought that the fairer I was to him, the more legitimacy there would be to the moral critique. I’m not at all critical of him for being intellectual. Some people find his seriousness off-putting. I don’t have any problems with that.

 

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk about the relationship between fiction-writing and book-reviewing?

 

WALDMAN

I’ve found myself changed as a reader. I have a hard time writing some of the negative book reviews that I have written in the past. I don’t think that’s a good thing for me as a book reviewer. There was a point when I was in my twenties when I felt like I was upholding some idea of Literature with a capital “L” that I had in my head. And I kind of do think that there’s something to that, even though it yielded some harsh reviews. Now my sympathy is too much on the side of the novelist. I think: well, it’s really hard to write a novel and they tried as best as they could. With any novel, you can find a few things that you think are good. That’s not a good critical position; it’s just one with more empathy for the novelist.

 

INTERVIEWER

There seems to be something cheapening about the entire enterprise if you can never write a negative book review.

 

WALDMAN

Right. And there are possibilities for careerism that I don’t think I anticipated before my novel sold. There are lots of incentives to be positive. All it can do is help you if you’re nice to other people; they’ll want to be nice to you. There’s something a little eye-rolling about that. “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” I don’t want to be that kind of person.

 

INTERVIEWER

Does critical writing help you as a fiction writer? A lot of people find it paralyzing.

 

WALDMAN

 I don’t find it paralyzing. Novel-writing is just hard, so when it’s not going well, it’s easy to find things that might be part of the problem. One’s gender, one’s immersion in critical literature.  In my experience, I tried to write novels throughout my twenties and didn’t get very far. I finished one when I was twenty-nine, but it didn’t sell. When I’m unable to do it, everything looks like a problem. There were challenges with this one. Not having time; too many side jobs. When I was immersed in the novel, I didn’t feel like doing any critical writing, because I was immersed. I don’t think it would have been paralyzing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe if my job were to be a critic, that would have been a problem.

 

INTERVIEWER

You started as a reporter. Did you always see yourself as a fiction writer?

 

WALDMAN

Yes. Journalism was definitely a day job. And it was great. I loved being a newspaper reporter. When I first graduated from college, I thought I would be a waitress and write novels. That seemed very romantic and bohemian. I did it, but I didn’t love being a waitress, so I got this idea to be a journalist. I realized I wasn’t ready to write a novel when I was twenty-two; the stuff I started to write was not good at all. I thought: I want to spend years reading, and hopefully I’ll learn more stuff about the world. So it worked out well for me with journalism for a while.

 

INTERVIEWER

So you decided that you weren’t ready to write a novel when you were twenty-two.

 

WALDMAN

I either decided that, or I was unable to. I think they’re a little bit related. The kind of novel that I wanted to write, the psychological novel, the realist novel, required a certain kind of life experience that I didn’t have. There are some people who are much more precocious, able to do things when they’re young. When I was twenty-two, if I had written a novel like this one—about the romantic lives of young people—it would have been eye-rollingly chick-litty.

 

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by “eye-rollingly chick-litty”?

 

WALDMAN

I just don’t think that I knew enough. I think it would have aspired to be a little like The Devil Wears Prada. The only thing I would have known about would have been my feelings—the feelings of a plucky twenty-two-year-old with a generally good heart trying to make it.  To my mind, you have to know a lot more than that. You have to be able to say: actually, you’re not the lovable, endearing hero that you might think you are. And you have to imagine more of the world and other people’s feelings. I just wasn’t capable of that.

 

INTERVIEWER

Virginia Woolf said that you shouldn’t publish a novel until you’re thirty. Would you agree?

 

WALDMAN

I certainly shouldn’t have. The one that I wrote when I was twenty-nine—it’s interesting to me because I was flummoxed at the time that it didn’t get published. I had quit my column at the Wall Street Journal.com and sublet my apartment and moved in with my parents in Baltimore to write that novel. I had never finished one, and the fact that I started and actually finished one in five months felt so good that I wasn’t able to assess the quality of it. It was just so exciting to have a novel with a beginning, middle, and end. I felt really good about it—I was starting to imagine this future of never again having to have a job I wasn’t super into. I knew so little about the book world. By all sorts of standards, everything I was thinking was unrealistic.

 

I came back to New York and found an agent. I was already getting a bad feeling, because the response from agents was telling me that this wasn’t going to be as universally beloved as I had hoped, but I did sign with one. She sent it out, and over the process of months and months, I realized it wasn’t going to sell. By the time I realized for sure that it wasn’t going to sell, probably about a year had passed, and I was starting to see that perhaps it wasn’t as terrific as I thought. I’ve since gone back and re-read it, and now I feel really lucky that it didn’t get published. It’s not so bad that I can’t imagine a world where it would have gotten published, and I’m really glad it didn’t. It just seems uneven. There are parts about it that I like, but I’m embarrassed by how unfair I was to certain characters. I wasn’t practiced enough to be generous and fair. There were characters in the novel that were the kinds of people that I, as Adelle, didn’t care for, and I used the novel to make them look bad. That strikes me as an illegitimate use of the novel.

 

So personally I agree with Virginia Woolf. But there are plenty of young writers I’m blown away by.

 

INTERVIEWER

That leads us to our last question. Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

 

WALDMAN

A lot of my advice is tied to writing a very particular type of novel that I don’t think is everyone’s cup of tea. I’m drawn to this really interior, psychological novel. For that kind of novel, take yourself out of it and practice thinking: what if your worst fears are true? Imagine that other people’s heads as not at all set up to be hospitable to you. They have a whole other set of priorities.

David Burr Gerrard is a writer living in New York and a contributing editor. His debut novel, Short Century, is forthcoming from Rare Bird Books in 2014.

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