Novelist Jami Attenberg joins Zibby to discuss her first memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, which contains a number of stories about how she developed her creative identity. Jami and Zibby talk about the feeling of needing to share everything when writing a memoir, how they both meditate on where their things are going to end up when they’re gone, and how Jami envisions the spectrum of her writing from her novels to her tweets. Jami also shares why she misses going on book tours and how her literary career was far from a linear trajectory.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jami. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so excited to discuss your latest book and all your work and everything.

Jami Attenberg: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: First, your latest. Please tell listeners what your latest book is about and what inspired you to write it. Then I want to delve into all the stories and essays and everything because, oh, my gosh, so much to discuss.

Jami: It’s called I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home. It’s really a story of developing a creative life for yourself. A lot of it is set in my late thirties and throughout my forties. I just turned fifty two months ago or a month ago, something like that.

Zibby: Happy birthday.

Jami: Thank you very much. I feel good. I feel good being fifty. I’m all right. I’m hanging in there. It is about being a writer, but I think it’s more than that. It’s just about uncovering your voice and figuring out who you want to be and the struggles as a woman and as an American and as a citizen of the world too. There’s a lot of traveling all around the world in it as well. I was looking back at my life. I was ready to talk about it, the things that I’d learned and the mistakes that I’d made too, for better or for worse, this book.

Zibby: There’s so much. First of all, I can’t believe how many jobs you have done. Your first chapter is about the temp jobs and things you’ve fallen into over the years on your way to becoming this creative, amazing author, and all the experiences. That was mind-boggling. Then your tour over the whole United States in your rattly car with your snow-crunching boots, the journey, the way you’ve described the journey in so many ways from the lens of beds to trips, it’s just really amazing. From the minute I started reading it, I was like, oh, my gosh, this book is good.

Jami: Thank you so much. There’s no direct path. Especially in a creative life, I don’t think there’s any sort of — no one says, okay, if you just do A — it’s not like going to med school or something like that. Not that that is easy at all. I’m not saying that, but you know what you’re going to do the first year, the second year, that kind of thing. For me, I was really just kind of cast out in the world after I graduated from college. I was like, I don’t really actually know what I’m doing or how to become a writer, but I’m just going to fumble my way through it. I was really inspired by other working artists like working musicians. That’s why I went out on the road so much. I was like, let me just go out and see people and meet — I love meeting people. I love meeting people who love books so much. We’re all the same kind of nerd. Also, leading any sort of artistic life, any kind of life, really, it’s about being curious. I definitely have a curiosity for the world and just seeing what’s out there.

Zibby: Totally. Are you based in New York? Are you in New York now, by the way?

Jami: No, I live in New Orleans now. I moved here about six years ago.

Zibby: Oh, wow, New Orleans.

Jami: I was in New York for a really long time. I thought I was going to be there forever. Then I fell in love with New Orleans, so I’m here now.

Zibby: I wanted to read just so that people listening know how amazing a writer you are if they haven’t read — I read The Middlesteins, by the way, when it came out forever ago. I was so excited to even see you had a new book coming out. I know you’ve had some in between and all that. You have this one passage about makeup and how being the daughter of a motherless mother — I loved that whole — it’s not an essay. I guess chapter, but they feel like essays in a way because they’re so self-contained.

Jami: I know. People kind of want to call it an essay collection. Whatever you want to call it is fine, but to me, it just feels like a book of stories about my life. Thank you for picking up on that. It’s a tricky thing. It’s also like, just enjoy it. Just embrace it.

Zibby: It’s also hard — when you think about your own life, you want to put it all — if you’re talking about a topic, you want to put it all in. I’m not saying that very well. When I’ve been trying to write about my own life, people say, don’t tidy it up with a bow at the end. I’m like, I know, I get it, but that’s that section. Now I want to move on to this section. It can be tricky.

Jami: This book was twenty thousand words longer, the first draft. I was like, I just have to write it all down. That’s what my editor said to me. “Just put it all down there. Then we’ll carve out a story from it.” Really, there’s a much more X-rated version.

Zibby: Ooh.

Jami: I’m glad that I wrote it all down and got it all down there. At some point. It becomes less about you and more about, how are you communicating this story to the world? What do you want people to take away from it? That’s when it gets tricky, the putting it into a box kind of thing because life is not put into a box at all. There are no easy endings. Usually, you don’t even get a sense of closure. That’s kind of the myth that we aspire to, but it’s really difficult. Actually, when you’re writing it, you still have to figure out a way to present it to the world. It’s hard. Writing is hard.

Zibby: Writing is hard, yes.

Jami: Sorry, I’ve interrupted you.

Zibby: Interrupted me by talking about writing? No, that’s the whole point. I love it. Writing about your own life is a particular brand of hard. There’s fiction. Everybody has their own thing. When you’re mining, the data is only from your memory, essentially.

Jami: Are you writing a memoir now?

Zibby: I am. It’s coming out in July, so I should say I’m finished. It is finished. I’m doing copyedits. Yes, but I did it. I’ve been writing and rewriting some version since 2003. Essentially, it’s my life. You have to keep rewriting because new things happen.

Jami: I had stuff that I wrote about in the book that definitely changed after the book was done. There were new things that happened after. I was like, well, it was true when I wrote it. That became my mantra after I finished and turned in all the copyedits. I was like, nothing I can do now. This was it. I had to end it somehow. I also think that it’s good to write about things over a long period of time and then look back at it because how we feel about things in the moment is so different than how we feel about things in retrospect. The wisdom that we get throughout the years is really important to having a proper reflection on our lives.

Zibby: Yes, that’s all very true and yet still very hard.

Jami: And so hard. It’s hard.

Zibby: I’m actually terrified to — I have to go in and do the edits, but I don’t want to read it again because I know I’m going to find a thousand other things I want to totally change. It’s sitting over there. I don’t want to touch it.

Jami: It’s so hard. You just have to say, I’m done now, and give yourself permission to be done, and done with this portion of your life too. Then also, there’s the thing of, a year after the book comes out, you’re going to feel totally — even with my fiction, I feel totally different about it a year later. Whatever I was trying to say then, now I see, oh, I had my blind spots about myself and my opinions and things like that. This, I don’t even really want to — I’m glad you’re going to read from it right now because I am not ready to read from it out loud yet.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s so good. It’s so good. There were so many times I stopped and I was screenshotting, which is the electronic equivalent of underlining.

Jami: I’ll take it.

Zibby: This is one random paragraph. I just thought it was so beautifully written. “The only kind of makeup I have ever really loved is lipstick. I love all the bright colors, wild, hysterical pinks that turn a dull outfit up, poke a hole in a grey day, or bright, sexy, sultry reds that stain my lips for hours marked in some way. I like the way lipstick can interact with my eyes, which I feel like most of the time are happier on their own undressed. I like thinking about my mouth after many years of not thinking about it at all. A thing I like on my face, I can confirm it, my mouth. I will decorate that. It took me many years to arrive at that place, to find a thing I wanted to paint.” It’s so good.

Jami: That sounds okay.

Zibby: That was great. That was so great.

Jami: Thanks. I do love lipstick, don’t you?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I have a few more if you want me to keep reading. You said, “Even when sadness is not stated, of course, it can be deeply felt. A shroud of sadness was how I had thought of it, described it to people as I got older.” I just like that shroud of sadness. Oh, okay, last one. Well, maybe not last one, but something else. You said, “There are plenty of reasons why I write. This is just one of them, the sense that I want to own something, own my work, own my creativity, own my name. It is perhaps not the purest reason, not truest of heart, for there is some ego attached to it, but it is real. I own these words. I own these ideas. Here is my book.” It’s so good, Jami. How can you read that and not want to be like, this is going to be amazing?

Jami: Thank you. That’s nice of you. You did a very good reading. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Oh, thank you. Yes, I could keep going. I’m for hire. Just let me know. I’ll show up next time you go on your road trip around the country. I’m happy to show up. One of the themes from the motherless daughter section of the book, which I found so interesting because everybody nowadays is like, inherited trauma this and blah, blah, blah, but yours is like, what do you do when you grow up having lost something you never even knew? What does that absence do to your present? How does that form who you are as a woman and a daughter when there’s this hovering loss? Maybe you could just talk a little bit more about that.

Jami: What I write in fiction a lot, I write a lot about families. That’s usually how people know me, for writing about these dysfunctional families. I think a lot about what we take from our parents and what we blame our parents for and how long we’re allowed to blame our parents for anything at all. For me, my mother’s mother passed when she was really young. She missed her. I think she missed her. I don’t want to speak on my mother’s behalf, but it’s something that is felt, when someone in your life is missing somebody else. I think it sort of instilled an empathy in me as well, probably, feeling that way about her, noticing this. There was sort of a hovering ghost, in a way, that shroud that you were talking about. She wasn’t there, but she was sort of felt. The idea of her was felt. I think it’s about acknowledging that other person’s feelings and sadness and learning from it but then not taking it on yourself too much. It’s about moving on from it. Every experience in my life, whether it’s good or bad, I’m always like, what did I learn from this? Also, how do I get to move on from it too?

Zibby: Yes, in calmer moments, that’s what I take out of most situations. You had a line about your grandmother. You did this beautiful examination of her photo. You said, I am childless. One day, what is going to happen to this picture? It’s going to end up in the garbage somewhere. Of course, really, all of our stuff is going to end up in the garbage one day. I think about this all the time.

Jami: All those beautiful books behind you on the shelf, I’m looking at them going, I hope somebody keeps them. I don’t know if you have kids or not. Oh, yeah, because it’s a mother show, so you do have kids.

Zibby: It’s not the mother show.

Jami: No, I said it’s a mother show. It’s a show about mothers, so you must have kids. Hopefully, they’ll hold onto all those books for you.

Zibby: I do have four kids.

Jami: It’s all just objects, so it’s like, how do we enjoy the things that we have while we’re still alive? Also, I want to say, as a book person, the greatest thing about books is that they have an incredible lifespan. How many books do you pick up on a stoop or check out of the library that live in a library forever or stuff that you read in high school that you still remember years and years later? You can bond with somebody over that kind of thing. I just read Mrs. Bridge. Have you ever read Mrs. Bridge? It’s such a good book. I’ve had so many people tell me to read it over the years. I finally read it in my book club that I’m in. It’s one of the greatest books I ever read. It was published decades ago. If it wasn’t for this book club, I wouldn’t have picked it up. It’s still alive. Somebody’s still putting it out there. Optics, they’re important, but also, they can go in the garbage too.

Zibby: Having cleaned out people’s apartments of those who have passed away a couple times, you realize that everything just needs to be sorted. Once I did that for the first time, I’ve never looked at things the same way. Who’s going to have to go through all this stuff?

Jami: Did you write about this?

Zibby: Did I write about this? I wrote about it a little in my memoir.

Jami: Good. I would write about that. You could write a — not that I want to tell you what to do. You wrote about it a little bit in your book. For me, I’m writing all these essays right now. There’s stuff that I wrote about a little bit in my book that I’m kind of expanding on to write — sorry, this is business talk, whatever.

Zibby: Don’t say sorry. I love this.

Jami: I think you should, when your book comes out, you should write a bigger essay about what you just talked about. There’s a little bit of it in your book. Then I would just expand upon it and write about it in a really big way. You kind of sparked up thinking about it, so I feel like there’s more to tell in that story. This is my prescription for you, is to write about — I would write it for Real Simple. That’s who I would write it for.

Zibby: I have an essay coming out in Real Simple, actually, though, in .

Jami: You do? Oh, well, then.

Zibby: They might not want me to write another one.

Jami: But something like that. It’s like an object that allows you to put a bunch of emotions into it. I can see it in your face. This is a podcast, I know, but I could see it in your face that you feel something about that. Actually, I’ve never had to do that before, organize somebody’s life like that. Sorry, tell me about more about it.

Zibby: Oh, my god, first of all, you’re amazing. Second of all, I’m so glad because normally when I’m interviewing people on this podcast or whatever, I’m always the one being like, I think you should write an essay about this. I feel like I’m always telling people, you should write an essay about that. People aren’t usually telling me that, so I love it that you said that to me. It’s true. I will. I’ll write about essay about it.

Jami: Okay, good. Sold.

Zibby: Why did we even bring this up? Why was I talking about objects? Oh, because of what you said about your grandmother’s picture and how life just passes us by. What does happen to everything? I think what you’re saying, too, about books being able to transcend time — I was just talking to somebody yesterday about pictures and all of that. Where do you keep videos? All of the changing technology, everything else that is not printed and in hand is lost. I’m like, oh, no, I’ll never lose those emails. I’ll just put them in this folder. Now I can’t even find the inbox from that computer and whatever. Yet the letters from my grandmother or the books on the shelf is the only thing that can really transcend time forever and that doesn’t get lost.

Jami: For sure. I’ve just sort of given up on everything except for my books in terms of what I’m leaving behind for my words. I have my Twitter account set up to auto-delete once a week.

Zibby: What?

Jami: I’ve just arrived at a place where I’m like, this is not my —

Zibby: — I love your tweets, by the way. They’re so funny.

Jami: I was like, this is not my best work at all, and so I just decided it’s not really what I want to be putting out there. I think it’s funny. I’ve had other people argue with me about it, other writers that are like, that’s the whole point of it. It’s supposed to be kind of carefree and careless. I’ve been on social media and online for so many years, since the late nineties. That’s when I had my first website, blog, online journal, whatever it was called then. Online journals is what it was called then. I don’t know, I just think my books are the best thing that I do. That’s the thing I want people to remember me for. I put so much work into them. I don’t put any work into my Twitter account at all. It’s fun, though. I’m not saying Twitter — I mean, Twitter is evil in many ways, but I have gotten so much out of it. I’ve met so many people. I talk about it a little bit later on in the book, about how it’s expanded my life, all the friends that I’ve met online, all the other writers, the way that it’s opened up the world to me. Although, I will say, to my credit, it’s because I’m open to it. I think some people can go on social media and it’s just this tiny, little box. They just want to be stuck in this little box. They want to gripe, gripe, gripe. They’re using it in a way that is different than the way that I use it. The way that I use it is like, this is just an extension of who I am as a person and an artist. I always think there’s this spectrum of writing that I have. On one end is a tweet. On the other end is a book. Then in between is essays and Instagram posts. I have a craft newsletter that’s kind of in the middle of all of that. The stuff that’s on the tweet end is not great. It’s just not great. It’s good if it entertains people, but it’s not great. It’s what you want to use it for. In a way weird, even though it’s just a screen, I like to use it to help me get close to people.

Zibby: I don’t think that’s weird. I think a lot of people use it that way. I think that people are desperate for connection right now, on the producing side and the consuming side. Consumption? Production? Whatever. I think it helps because the things you write about on Twitter — what did you say this week? You said something like, I’ve just had all this coffee, and now I’m doing all these emails. It just made me laugh because that’s how I feel too. Sometimes I go on these email tears. I’m like, okay, I’ve done a hundred emails in twenty minutes. What do people receiving them think? It’s that instant relatability because you’re writing about these little moments that everybody kind of feels and thinks.

Jami: It’s true, yeah. I tweeted this morning that I talked to the guys in the coffee shop so that I would have someone to talk to before I talked to you because I didn’t want you to get —

Zibby: — I didn’t see that one. Oh, no.

Jami: You just never know what’s going to come out of your mouth first thing, so you got to have a practice run first.

Zibby: So the coffee shop guys were the practice for me. What did you guys talk about?

Jami: We talked about what they did for Thanksgiving. We talked about if they had any plans for New Year’s. They don’t have any plans for New Year’s yet. We talked about Zoom meetings. They’re very young. They were like, every time I look at myself in the camera, I can’t believe how haggard I look. They’re like babies. They’re in their twenties. They’re so cute with their little scruffy beards and everything like that. We talked about that. That was it. That was enough. I thanked them. I took a bone for my dog because they have free bones for dogs. That was my morning.

Zibby: My dog is right here.

Jami: Aw, buddy. I love a dog.

Zibby: My constant podcast companion.

Jami: That’s good.

Zibby: That’s funny. The essays you’re working on now, are they for a collection? You’re just doing them for fun? You’re publishing them one-off? What are you thinking?

Jami: I’m working on a novel now. Then I’ve had to write some essays to promote the book. I did an essay for Real Simple. I did do one for Real Simple that is about how I threw a fancy fiftieth birthday party for myself. I’m really excited about that. I had such a good time at my birthday party. It was kind of wild. I had all these people come in from out of town. We were all like, is it going to happen? Is it not going to happen? There’s been so many things along the way that have gotten in the way. That’s about that. Then I wrote a piece for Guardian Books. I don’t know if I’m allowed — well, this will come out after everything’s out. That, I really love. It’s coming out on New Year’s Day. It’s almost like the book in a really small two-thousand-word essay. It’s just about carving your own path. I really had such a weird way to get to where I am now, but there really is no normal way to get there. I lived all over the country. I didn’t really start focusing on my writing until I was in my early thirties. I did do all these millions of office jobs and things like that. Then once I started, I just loved it so much. It’s the most fun thing in the world, writing. All I wanted was just to do that. Even the first couple of books that I wrote didn’t even really do that well. It wasn’t until my fourth book, The Middlesteins, that I actually started to get somewhere with my writing where it got recognized in a bigger way. I finally got my New York Times book review. I had three books with no New York Times book reviews. Not that many books get reviewed by The New York Times Book Review.

Zibby: I was going to say, most people don’t get reviewed by The New York Times Book Review. Maybe people listening. I don’t know. I feel like most of the people that I have on the podcast maybe do, but most, generally, people do not. You can write lots of books and not get on.

Jami: It’s true. Sometimes it’s fun when somebody wins a big award and then The New York Times Book Review has to go back and review it because they haven’t reviewed yet. They have a finite amount of space and everything. All the review sections obviously have shrunk in the last however many years. When I started out — my first book came out in 2006. You could tour America. It made sense to tour America because all these local newspapers had review sections. You could do local press. There was so much to do. Now there’s only — I like to go to all these places. Obviously, during the pandemic, you can’t really do very much. I like to go to all of these places because I don’t think you should have to live in New York in order to have access to that kind of thing. I like going to small university towns and things like that just to meet people. Also, if you just were only in New York and LA or something like that, you would just only ever meet the same kind of people. We’re supposed to be writing about the whole world.

Zibby: What do you mean? There are more kinds of people? No, I’m kidding.

Jami: Right? You’re supposed to have an eye towards — anyway, I don’t want to tell people how to live their lives, but I think it’s important to see the whole world, is what I’m trying to say. You could go and do all these kinds of cool little events in little towns. You still can, really, but in terms of a New York publisher, it doesn’t feel crucial to them to do it. You can’t really justify it.

Zibby: I will say, I’ve started my own publishing company. I don’t know if you know. It’s called Zibby Books. We announced it in September. One of the things — maybe I shouldn’t even say this. I want to make the Z Mobile and tour the authors and have us all go all over to all the towns. We have all these ambassadors in all these places. I want to have them go or have me go or whatever and see what it’s all about.

Jami: It’s cool. You know what? Chapel Hill, so many amazing readers in Chapel Hill. Anytime I’ve ever gone there or people that I know there, they’re psyched to have people come through. I’m not saying that’s a small town. It’s a smaller city than New York, is all I’m trying to say. There’s just people out there who are really hungering for it. I’ve done events, literally, smallest town, and people will drive from hours to go because they know me from online or they’ve read my books or whatever it is. I do this 1000 Words of Summer project that I do. I’ve been doing it for four years. There’s people who do it, and it means something to them, in different places. I can’t go to everywhere. Really, right now, I can’t go to anywhere, or not that many places, but it means a lot to me when I’ve gone out there. It definitely means a lot to me when I’ve gone out there in the world because it’s my way of connecting. The life of a writer truly is just sitting at home by yourself so much of the time begging the coffee shop guys to talk to you for a minute or something like that. I definitely feel like, not to be cliché about it, but life is too short not to meet people or to talk to people or to connect with the world. It depends on what you want out of it. For me, I like to meet people.

Zibby: I love that. I do too. I love how you said that. Amazing. I feel like I could talk to you all day. We only have scratched the surface here. I’m disappointed to have to go and feel oddly left out that I didn’t get to be a part of your fiftieth birthday even though I met you five seconds ago.

Jami: You would’ve loved it. It was great.

Zibby: I bet. I can’t wait to read about it. What advice would you have for aspiring authors? Then I will let you go.

Jami: I just think it’s, read every day. Write a little bit in your notebook even if you’re not “working.” I just said that in quotation marks if you’re listening on podcast. It’s good to connect with what you’re working on. Be forgiving of yourself when you need to be forgiving of yourself. Reach out to people. It’s important to have a community. You don’t have to be on your own through all of this. I can’t tell you big publishing advice because it’s always moving at the speed of light. I can say that it should not be torture. You should get something out of it that makes you feel good about yourself.

Zibby: That can apply to a lot of undertakings.

Jami: It’s just life, baby. I don’t know.

Zibby: Thank you for starting your day by talking to me and the guys at the shop. This has been so fun. I can’t wait to read more stuff and follow along and keep laughing at your tweets and all the rest.

Jami: Thank you, Zibby. Good luck with your new publishing house.

Zibby: Thank you. I’ll write that essay.

Jami: I’ll see you later. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.



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