Attenberg’s new novel The Middlesteins is the story of family relationships and
individual obsessions, set in suburban Chicago. Earlier this year the book was
chosen as the official selection for One
Book | One Community, the Chicago Jewish Community’s Jewish Book Month
initiative. One Book | One Community, which is organized by Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and
Leadership,seeks to encourage a
community-wide conversation around a single book, providing a month’s worth of
discussion groups and events in locations across Chicago. Programs begin in
October. In November, Jami Attenberg will join us in Chicago for a series of
author events, including one near her hometown of Buffalo Grove.
interview, Attenberg shares her inspiration behind the
story, reveals which character she would most like to have dinner with, and
reminisces about some of her favorite mealtime memories.
started you on your path to becoming a writer?
I’ve always written. I’ve loved writing since I was
four or five years old. For a while I wrote in high school, was editor of my
high school newspaper, that kind of thing. I wrote poems and stories here and
there. But what really started me on my path was when I went to school and got
a degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. Writing was always
the thing I loved most, and I’m a firm believer that if you can find the thing
you love most in this world that you should definitely pursue it. A lot of
people spend their whole lives trying to figure that out. I feel I got lucky
figuring it out right away.
and obsession seem to be major themes in The
Middlesteins. How did writing the book allow you to explore these topics in
In all of my books I have characters who have issues.
So it wasn’t necessarily new territory for me. Still, it was very interesting
to explore issues of food, mostly because I love food. I think about food a
lot, and I see in America that we have a problem with obesity. But I didn’t set
out thinking I was going to write a book addressing this big American issue. But
food addiction is a really
interesting subject. It’s something that you can’t really get away from. You
know, if you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, and you quit those things,
you don’t ever have to deal with them again. But if you have a problem with
food, it’s something you have to face every single day.
book is notable for the way its characters can engage in destructive behavior, but
still gain our empathy. How did you achieve that effect in your writing?
I just tried to write from a place of compassion. That
was the most important thing for me. I was just trying to understand them, and
I hope the reader is trying to understand them along with me.
big element in this book is food. In the course of your research, did you
encounter any interesting theories about how Jews relate to food? Was food a
big part of your family growing up?
Writing about food felt very instinctual. I didn’t
have to think too hard about it. I have a family and friends and I’ve traveled—so
I already had some ideas about how people relate to food and how Jews relate to
food. And again, it’s not all Jews that relate to food the way I do, but I’m
glad it feels universal to people. I did, however, research some stuff about
you discover the secret of why Jews love Chinese food?
There are a bunch of reasons, and everybody has a
different story behind it. To be honest, though, my family wasn’t much of a
Chinese food family. We were more like a pizza family, or a hot dog from
Portillo’s family. We did Eduardo’s a lot, but not necessarily Chinese food. It
wasn’t until I moved to New York that I started eating Chinese food.
you consider The Middlesteins a
I didn’t really set
out to write a Jewish book. None of my other books have been about characters
that are Jewish, even though I’m Jewish. It’s certainly been embraced by the
Jewish community, which is wonderful. People have been incredibly generous with
me in the last year, inviting me to speak and inviting me into their temples
and homes. It’s a wonderful experience to have people feel a personal
connection to my work.