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LAist Interview: Jami Attenberg, Author of The Kept Man
New York author Jami Attenberg is in town this week to read from and sign her excellent debut novel, The Kept Man which examines the life of a young woman, Jarvis, whose artist husband is in a coma. It also curiously examines the life of the"kept men" friends Jarvis meets who are able to spend their days as they please because of their wealthy wives. Attenberg's tale is intense, as any novel about a coma patient is likely to be, but her gorgeous prose and her pitch-perfect humor turn what could be a standard-coma-drama (is there such a thing?) into a story that plumbs the deeper depths of what it means to be an artist, what it means to live for your art and how to live - or die - with dignity in today's political climate.
A few years ago, you were interviewed by the mothership, Gothamist, and you engaged in a little... ahem, LA-bashing of sorts. To wit: "I got dumber with each successive day until finally I just started losing my car keys every hour. I really don't feel comfortable with that much relaxation." Do you have any new LA experiences to share that might, maybe, have improved your opinion of our fair city?
You are trying to get me into trouble! I think I had a really limited exposure to LA when I did that interview. Some good friends have since moved here and shown me a different side of it, and I enjoy myself quite a bit whenever I visit. I spend a lot of time in Topanga Canyon, actually. I think if you're just visiting for a few days and you don't know your way around you might miss how beautiful it is here, and how much nature surrounds the city. I have since been schooled.
Have you run across "kept men" in LA or is that a predominantly NY thing?
I can't really speak for LA but I would imagine any city where there's a lot of money and attractive men, the possibility is high. And last time I checked, there were a lot of good-looking men in Los Angeles.
I understand that you are fascinated by these men who are "kept" by their wealthy wives. What led you to write about this fascinating role-reversal?
More than anything I was interested in people being held back or "kept" in some way, and every character in the book – beyond the kept men characters - has that issue in their life. And I had met a few men in my neighborhood who claimed to have all these big plans but then never seemed to do a lick of work and I always wondered: how are they surviving? And then I met their wives, and it all became clear.
You live in the hipster art scene in Williamsburg, no doubt an inspiration for Martin and the other artists in your book. What is the LA art scene like by comparison? Are LA artists, in your view, equally self-involved? I've known a few who are cut from the same cloth as Martin's! Maybe it's less a geographic thing and far more an artist kind of thing?
It is totally an artist thing. Doesn't matter where you go, they're all the same. And I suspect it's as much of a boys club in LA as it is in New York. Do you think that's true? I did an article a couple of years ago on the art/design magazine scene and I interviewed a number of editors – all men – and for the most part, they were all extremely intense, charismatic, and egocentric, much like the character of Martin. I kind of think you have to be self-obsessed to be an artist, though. You have to believe in yourself if you're going to get anywhere, because – at least in the beginning - no one else is going to.
Are you still photographing rock shows?
I'm an old lady now in rock years and don't go to as many shows, and anyway is there any room for another camera? It stopped being fun taking pictures at shows when I realized how competitive it had become. I'm really a hobbyist when it comes to that sort of thing. I'd rather let the NYU film studies sophomore with the thousand-dollar camera get the shot.
How has your photographic art informed your writing? How has it informed your portrayal and understanding of artists and that desire to place the work above all else?
In general I like to go out and take pictures so that I can be creative in a different way than just writing. I think of it as a sort of cross-training for my brain.
Sometimes taking pictures feels almost like cheating, because now I can have this visual record of something, so I don't have to remember every little details all the time. For example, there are a few scenes in the book that take place at Mount St. Helens, and I had actually visited there a few months before writing the scenes with the intention of using the location in the book. When I actually sat down to write those scenes I pulled out the pictures as a reference, and described what I saw in those photos in the voice of my narrator, Jarvis. It flowed very naturally and I remember it being a thrilling creative moment for me, to be able to combine the two passions. It doesn't happen like that all that often, but when it does it's a real rush.
What's your favorite thing happening in art right now?
I'm all about Kara Walker's work. She makes everything look so effortless, while at the same time her work is so layered and deep. She's an American original.
What's your favorite thing happening in fiction right now?
I think I'm just always looking for fresh voices. I kind of don't care that much about plot, I just want to meet someone new and interesting when I read a book. And a great example of that is Junot Diaz's The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
What recently seen film blew your mind?
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It was a piece of art, a complete moment in time from start to finish. When I saw it, no one moved during the end credits. I've never seen an entire theater of people just sit there and watch the entire end credits. All of us were too stunned to move.
What's next for you? A novel? Short stories? After the intense emotional landscape of The Kept Man, are you tackling a lighter topic? Darker?
I am at work on a third book, a novel. I'm on a third draft, and I think it's much funnier and weirder than The Kept Man. It makes me laugh a lot. I want to write short stories though! I get to do it every so often and it's so rewarding and relaxing. I have an idea for a fourth book – another novel – and then after that I'm writing another short story collection, and it's going to be totally dirty and funny and extremely satisfying. You can count on it.
Author photo by Lisa Whiteman