Debut novelist Adelle Waldman made a big splash in 2013 with The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., a 21st-century novel of manners about a Brooklyn writer on the up-and-up who’s not always as smart or fair as he thinks he is. Waldman was recently gracious enough to answer a few of our questions about writing, Nathaniel P., and her 2014 novella New Year’s: Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of His Friend Aurit.
You were a journalist before you were a novelist. In what ways did your journalistic background help you write Nathaniel P.? Were there any ways in which your practiced sensibilities as a reporter hampered your efforts?
I always hoped to write novels one day—I became a journalist because I graduated from college and needed a day job. (Also, none of the fiction I wrote in my twenties was any good, which made me think I’d better try and hedge my bets in case I never was able to write decent fiction.) That said, I loved being a newspaper reporter. I learned a lot and was exposed to people and situations that I hadn’t been as a middle class teenager and then a college student. I don’t think journalism hampered my efforts at fiction writing, although I think the two are very different. Basically, journalism enabled me to live for a number of years and to read, and the reading I did in my twenties was essential for me as a writer. When I became serious about writing The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.—that is, once the book began to take on some momentum—I had to quit doing journalism because I simply didn’t have the time or the energy. The novel was all I wanted to work on, writing-wise. I wound up working as an SAT tutor for a number of years to support myself as I wrote the novel.
You describe the lives of writers living in the literary nexus of America. From your own perspective as a Brooklyn writer, to what extent is it necessary to be part of the “scene” in order to find success in publishing?
I don’t think it’s necessary at all. The hardest part of writing a novel is writing a novel. I suppose that being part of the scene may allow for some shortcuts. It is—unfortunately—true that an agent may be more likely to read your manuscript quickly if he or she knows you socially or if you have mutual friends. But I think that ultimately your manuscript will get read, even if you have never set foot in Brooklyn and know no one in publishing and don’t have an MFA from a fancy school. And being part of the scene can also have disadvantages, I think, in a bigger picture sense. Sometimes I think novels are published that shouldn’t be, or are over-hyped, because of the writer’s connections. That isn’t good for the writer either, psychologically or as a writer. As hard, and demoralizing, as it can be, obscurity is a good and necessary teacher for any aspiring novelist—it motivates one to sharpen his or her work, to make it better.
Nathaniel P.’s tongue-in-cheek, n+1-flavored intellectual chatter is a delight to read. I’m curious to know your inspiration and methods for developing these ideas and putting them in your characters’ mouths.
I came up with some of the characters’ more outrageous ideas while on the treadmill at the gym. Nate’s friend Jason was especially fun for me to imagine—he spouts all sorts of theories, about how men and women differ or why it’s good for everyone that men are attracted to beautiful women. He’s influenced by evolutionary biology. Often times some cockamamie-yet-slightly-ingenious theory would pop into my head at the gym, and I’d think, “oh perfect, Jason can think this!” (Incidentally, I also find Jason a little more pitiable than many readers do—I think he’s one of those people who is fairly asexual and who doesn’t really have romantic relationships; his relationship with Nate is the most important one in his life.)
You recently released a novella called New Year’s: Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of His Friend Aurit as an e-book exclusive. It’s a fascinating release: it’s less of a full-fledged sequel (or prequel, in this case) to Love Affairs than a kind of expansion pack. How did New Year’s come about? Do you see this kind of follow up happening more often in the realm of literary fiction?
I can’t make any predictions about literary fiction in general. I can only speak for myself. I never expected to write New Year’s. I mentioned to my publisher that I had in my head backstory about all of the characters from Nathaniel P. that didn’t make it into the novel. He asked if I would be interested in putting some of that into a story. This was something I’d never considered, and at first I said no—it wasn’t material I’d ever intended to publish. But I was also kind of intrigued. The idea of revisiting the world of the novel was appealing, so eventually I agreed to give it a try. When I began to work on it, the story took on a life of its own.
We’re living in a world where more people are watching Netflix and playing video games than reading novels. What do you see as the purpose and role of the novel in the digital age?
The same as the purpose ever was, honestly. I don’t think novels should be forced on anyone. To me, it’s disrespectful to the novel to treat as the equivalent of eating one’s vegetables. If people prefer watching Netflix and playing video games, I think that’s what they ought to do with their leisure time. There is a subset of people for whom novels are vital and deeply important and provide things that other sources don’t. I’m one such person. I think these are the people for whom one writes novels. If there are fewer of them, so be it. The important thing, to my mind, is the novel itself, not the number of people reading it.
Imagine you picked up Nate’s novel and have just finished reading it. Are you impressed?
Oh, that’s hard! I feel very close to Nate, as if he’s my brother or something. I care about him. For that reason, I want to believe his novel is good. I do think Nate is very smart, and very capable of playful, inventive and intelligent writing. What his writing is likely to lack is insight into some of his own limitations and his own dependencies on others (he believes he is far more independent than he is). Still, the subject of his book—his parents—is one that he knows very well and has applied all his intelligence to and he may be a skilled and fair observer of situations in which he isn’t intimately involved, so I have hopes that he would have been able to pull it off. (How funny to speculate about a fictional character’s nonexistent novel!)