Author! Author!

Author appearance: Novelist Jami Attenberg will get you hungry

 

Meet the author

Who: Jami Attenberg

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com


cogle@MiamiHerald.com

If, while reading Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, you find yourself craving a meal — say, for example, the exquisite flavors of lamb-cumin noodles — you are not alone.

“The book is a Rorschach test for people’s relationships with food,” says Attenberg, who appears Monday at Books & Books to talk about her tragi-comic novel The Middlesteins (Grand Central, $15 in paper). “Most people say, ‘I really wanted to order Chinese food when I read it.’ Every so often people say, ‘I never wanted to eat again.’ . . . I tried hard to to make the food sound delicious, but the book has more to do with how the reader feels about food than anything.”

The Middlesteins are a Jewish family living in the Chicago suburbs, and mother Edie, who weighs more than 300 pounds, is ailing but not doing much to improve her health. She thinks nothing of hitting the McDonald’s drive-thru, then Burger King, then driving to her favorite Chinese place, one after the other. Her daughter-in-law Rachelle sums up the family’s fears best: “ She’s going to die. . . . and I don’t know if we can stop her.”

But Edie is not the only Middlestein who seeks comfort and escape in all the wrong places. Her husband Richard dreams of having a sex life again — and leaves Edie, facing an operation, to seek it. Their adult children Benny and Robin suffer from their own addictions (pot and booze, respectively).

But as a subject, food had a universal appeal to Attenberg, who lives in Brooklyn.

“Alcohol or drugs or cigarettes . . . you can quit those things and never have to deal with them,” says the author of the novels The Kept Man and The Melting Season and the story collection Instant Love. “But with food it’s a complicated relationship every single day. It’s talked about in the media; it’s sold to you, marketed to you. It’s your life blood.”

Q. What was the inspiration for ‘The Middlesteins’?

Originally there were three threads. I wanted to write about the community in which I grew up, which I had never done before. I never really wanted to. Then I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and thought I could write about where I grew up. I sat on the idea for a year, but something about the intimacy of the smalltown community where I grew up . . . it was a small town, and now it’s a sprawling suburb. I was also interested in writing about a family in distress and how you contend with a family member who doesn’t want to take care of herself. And then I arrived at food.

Q. Was writing about your hometown difficult?

My family remains intact; my parents are still married. They’re not Edie and Richard. They go to the gym and eat write and are pretty healthy people. But I did feel that even though these characters are fictional, I knew them. There were bits and pieces that resemble people I may have met once. I started writing with no hesitation; I knew exactly who they were. I invented them, but I felt like I recognized them immediately. It was a strange experience. It was fun . . . . I haven’t lived there in 20 years, but I needed to have that distance to have perspective. I could not have written this right out of college. I definitely needed to grow up.

Q. Food and how we eat is a popular subject these days. Is that part of why you chose to write about it?

People are discussing it and writing about it . . . . [the subject] feels very heightened. There are a lot of great things about food, but it’s something that’s an eternal struggle in our contemporary society, where and how food is made, where it’s coming from, how much to consume. There are so many layers to it.

Q. Have you ever had a problem with eating?

It’s really entertaining to go out in the world and have people go, “You’re not fat at all!” which is great. It’s nice. But I don’t think of myself as a thin person at all. I weighed 50 pounds more a decade ago. I grew up a heavy kid. So I have an understanding of what Edie’s going through. Maybe I wouldn’t hit three fast food restaurants in a day, but I could hit one in a day. I try not to do that. But I understand Edie’s mentality; I have been in the place where you’re doing things that are bad, and you can’t seem to stop yourself, when you’re looking for something to hide in.

Q. Edie’s food addiction is dangerous, but you also make a point of writing evocatively about food. Why?

I couldn’t just show the one side of it. I would’ve done a disservice to the food! Food and love are all intertwined at our core level. It can be a very nurturing, wonderful, loving thing.

Q. What’s your comfort food?

It sort of depends on the weather. In the wintertime I like macaroni and cheese. We have a macaroni and cheese club where we try to find the best mac and cheese in Brooklyn.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

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