Smoking With Jami Attenberg

Read the Story December 15, 2007

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction, says, “Failure to recognize that the central character must act, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction of beginners.” Your character in this piece acts. For me, her moment of action contained great impact—it demanded my attention, elicited a response (I gasped at her deliciously wicked ways), and has stayed with me since reading the story. What does impact mean to you, and how do you go about achieving it?

The moment of impact in short fiction is almost always the most satisfying part of a story for me, even if I don’t know what it’s going to be when I start writing. So I try to create forward motion in all of my writing. It’s important to keep the story moving along so that the reader will stay interested in reading it, but also so I stay interested in writing it. And as long as the character is actively doing something, there will ultimately be a moment of impact. (Watching people does not count as an action, by the way.) Interestingly, once I decided on the moment of impact in The Off-Season, I went back and forth between which character was going to do it. It changed everything when I decided to make her take control of the situation.

I admire the way you handled the couple’s fight. The woman says the fight was about the coffee pot, but the response the fight elicits implies a greater battle. Without any further clues as to what this greater battle is, you manage to convey the severity of their problems. Great job. I’m curious, however—how do you think revealing the story behind the story would affect the outcome?

I don’t think you need to know what the fight was about. You already know how they fight, and I think that’s the most important part. Talking about what the fight was about would require this to be a much longer story and new characters would have to be introduced and I think ultimately her act of revenge would be lessened in the process.

You are the author of two books—INSTANT LOVE and THE KEPT MAN. Which form—the short-short, the short story, the novel—do you feel you have greater mastery of?

Well I don’t think I have a mastery of either at this point in my life, but I would say I prefer to write short stories because they are more relaxing and instantly gratifying. I can do one quickly and easily, and then put it out in the world and hopefully give people a brief bit of pleasure in their day. I write fast, and that can mean something in the short story world, but no matter how quickly my fingers fly on the keyboard, novels will always be a huge time investment. And while there is a great pride at the end of the novel process, and then another hit of joy two years later when it is finally released, it is perhaps not as fulfilling. Talk to me after I write a couple more novels though, and I might feel differently.

On your website, you say you “believe in the power and importance of independent publishing and self-publication.” Elaborate.

I started out making zines and I also had a chapbook published by a small press, So New Media. And of course I’ve been writing on the web for ages, on my blog, and for a lot of websites that are the very definition of independent publishing. Through all of this work I found my voice, gained confidence, made great contacts and got a lot of valuable feedback. So for me independent publishing and self-publication was instrumental in developing my artistic self as well as my career in general.

Beyond that, the voices of small press and self-publication need to be heard. They demand it. It’s crucial to our creative lives, our cultural lives, and our political lives that they be heard. I cannot stress this strongly enough. I’m not saying the output is all good, but then neither is the output of big publishers. But the fact that these voices can exist unfettered by the concerns of marketing departments or sales teams—and god bless all of those people, because they make my life better and easier and help me to pay my bills, but we’re not talking about me here—is truly a wonderful thing. Trust me, you would miss the small presses of the world if they were gone. I will always be supporting and contributing to them, for as long as they’ll have me.

SLQ completed issue 18 at the close of summer and launched this issue, 19, on the threshold of winter. During the three months in between, the crops were harvested, the leaves fell, the rain returned, temperatures dropped, darkness lengthened. Death in increments. How does the turning of the seasons affect your “muse,” your inspiration?

In Brooklyn it’s quite a nice time to be writing right now, actually, though I’m not getting much done because I have a book coming out soon and I’m rather distracted. The streets really start to clear out in December. I live right on the waterfront and all of the bike riders have dropped off, and you can walk down the street for a mile without seeing a soul. It’s a great time to establish clear-headedness. I want to stay inside all day and fill my head with new people and their adventures.

About the Author:

Jami Attenberg is the author of Instant Love (Crown/Shaye Areheart Books, 2006) and The Kept Man, which will be published by Riverhead Books in January 2008. Her work has appeared in Jane, Print, Nerve, the San Francisco Chronicle and others. Visit her at jamiattenberg.com.

About the Artist:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.