Bookforum talks with Adelle Waldman

On an unseasonably cool day last month I met with Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. at a wine bar in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood—not far from the preferred stomping grounds of her novel’s main character, Nathaniel “Nate” Piven, an ambitious young writer whose romantic misadventures Waldman probes with astute psychological insight. Over gin-and-tonics we discussed the solemnity of youthful reading, the “moral lives” of nineteenth-century literary characters, and the different reactions people have had to Waldman’s Nate.

Bookforum: I just read your essay in The Millions in which you describe a very interesting shift in your literary tastes, from being a “Richardsonian,” as you put it, to preferring Fielding a bit more. You mention valuing humor in fiction a lot more now than you used to.

Adelle Waldman: Right, and not just valuing it in fiction but valuing it in real life. I had a friend point out to me that all of my major concerns in my twenties—romantic concerns, professional concerns—were sort of distracting me from noticing things. My problems seemed so oppressive that I was always looking for insight and answers and Big Analysis. I think I must have had a sense of humor somewhere deep down and enjoyed books that were funny, but I ended up categorizing them as trivial and unimportant. Then, sitting down to write this novel—my first published novel (but second one I’ve written)—made me realize how much more has to go into a novel than big themes. At the outset I was interested in issues of gender, in relationship dynamics and so on, but if I had just written a very earnest novel about all that, it would have been really boring. It would have been flat. This was something I started to notice more as I re-read the novels I love; that every page was filled with insights and ideas—some funny, some serious. There’s a lot going on, a multifaceted-ness. In the end I had so much fun writing this novel. I don’t think that’s trivial anymore.

Bookforum: There does seem to be something solemn about being a young reader, something that drives you to look for major pronouncements about the human soul or the human condition. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that, looking back at the books you read when you were younger, you discovered that the only sentences and passages you’d underlined had the phrase “the human heart” in them, or something to that effect.

Adelle Waldman: Yes, and I do think there is something great and charming about that. I don’t want to entirely disparage my younger self. Some of those sentences about the human heart were really important to me. But it is interesting to grow and change as a reader and to add more to the experience.

Bookforum: There is also something very funny about the way fiction works, the way literary detail works. Metaphors are often inherently amusing. There’s a great one in your novel: “His apartment cleaned up was unconvincing, like a career hoodlum dolled up for court by his lawyer.”

Adelle Waldman: There’s a funny story about that line. I spent a lot of years writing this novel and a lot of time editing it, and when I first thought of that metaphor I was sort of enamored of it and thought it was really funny. But I overwrote it for the first three-and-a-half years of this novel’s existence. It used to have all this follow-up detail—the criminal’s smirk and smile, the nicks on his freshly shaved chin, all the things that give him away as a criminal... I couldn’t see it at the time but it just went on for a bit too long. And then I had this moment where I thought, “You know what? It would be much better if I just left it alone, if I trusted readers to get the analogy.” It was an important experience, because so much of writing this novel was editing this novel. I felt like I learned so much, not just about writing in a technical sense but also about what I was bringing into it. Sometimes I over-wrote things because I was insecure and trying to show off or prove I could do Nate’s voice, the voice of a self-consciously intellectual male. It took time to see that, to try and separate the words on the page from my own personal worries.

Bookforum: How long did it take you to write it?

Adelle Waldman: Five years, and it took almost four years before it was sold to a publisher. The book went through a round of edits at the publishing house, but they weren’t edits that substantially changed its shape. Those edits were essential, of course, but by the time the book sold, the structure was pretty much there. It took me a long time to get to that point because I had to learn so much about technique during the process of writing this novel. I’d spent so many years reading, which is obviously important for writing, but I came to feel I knew very little about the technical aspects of novel-writing: about crafting scenes and pacing, conveying the passage of time, that kind of thing. I was learning as I went. At times, I wished I’d had people to talk to about the process of revising. I know a lot of writers, but I didn’t know many fiction writers for much of the time I was writing. I lacked people to talk to about the emotionally high-drama process of revising a novel, and it felt very lonely at times. I was actually heartened by Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates, which I read while revising. It made me feel less crazy for being so obsessed, for re-reading the same scenes over and over again until I felt like I was going to scream because on the tenth reading, I’d see something I’d missed the previous nine times, the spot that called out for an additional detail or the word that could be cut. I didn’t know until I read Bailey’s book that that was normal.

Bookforum: In another interview recently you listed some of your literary influences—Tolstoy, Stendhal, Eliot—who were almost all nineteenth-century authors. You praised their interest in the “moral life” of their characters, and I was hoping you could elaborate on that?

Adelle Waldman: Many of my favorite nineteenth-century authors—call them moralists; they’re very interested in how people justify their behavior to themselves—have a Kantian worldview: they value impartiality and objectivity, the idea that what people should strive to be is very fair-minded and self-critical. I thought for years that I liked these moralist-writers because I was interested in moral life, but more recently I’ve started to wonder whether my interest is purely intellectual or if it also has to do with literary technique. My theory is that many nineteenth-century characters have become deeply imprinted in people’s minds because there’s something about the focus on moral life that helps create vivid characters. To me that seems very interesting. I think often times when we think about characterization, moral life isn’t what comes to mind first and foremost. But maybe characters like Dorothea Brooks are memorable in part because we get such a strong taste of their moral lives. There are obviously many facets to creating fictional characters, and so many things that are important, from social class to physical appearance to patterns of speech. I present this merely as a theory—I’m not 100 percent sure—but I do think that attention to how we justify our behavior to ourselves might be among those very important aspects of creating a character that feels “real.”

Bookforum: Might it be that these nineteenth-century writers were often adept at crossing gender boundaries because they focused on our shared humanity? It sometimes seems as though the best male characters were written by women writers, and vice versa...

Adelle Waldman: I think anyone literary has a wariness toward any kind of ism or ideology, including feminism. I feel that very strongly. When I wrote this book I had no idea how people would receive it because it takes Nate to task, but it’s certainly not easy on the women either. There was something else that was motivating me: the fidelity to what I thought was aesthetic truth rather than making men or women good or bad. But, that said, I can’t totally step away from gender concerns. There’s a part of me that wonders if I, as a woman writer, am getting special dispensation because of this strange conceit of writing from a male point of view. And that seems unfair. I think the concern about how women’s books are perceived is valid and real. I’m very sympathetic to that.

Bookforum: You’ve said that this novel partly grew out of a desire to challenge similar narratives about sad young literary men written by, well, young literary men.

Adelle Waldman: Everyone else uses the term sad young literary man and I’m not sure I would, only because, first of all, I don’t think Nate is very sad. I think it would be better, for him, if he were more sad. I think he’s fine. I think his ambition animates him. To me, he could stand, morally, to be a little more thoughtful, to be more invested in his personal life. Secondly—and I don’t want to sound like I read books in this highly moral, gendered way where I’m just scolding authors for not being fair to women—I do think there is an experience that is common to women, who might be in general a little bit more concerned with personal life, that just wasn’t represented in books, at least the ones I’m reading. And part of the reason that it got lost is because the story is being told by men who are brilliant writers but maybe could stand to be a little more empathetic and invested in their personal lives.

Bookforum: I found the ending of the novel very intriguing. Nate and Hannah meet again…

Adelle Waldman: I get so many different reactions to the book as a whole and to the ending in particular. One of the things I tried do throughout the novel was to make everything feel as real as possible. To avoid making Nate into a caricature I had to try to leave my own judgment out of it, especially since the novel is told from Nate’s point of view. With the last chapter, at times I wondered if the ending was too heavy-handed or not heavy-handed enough. I certainly think Nate is punished but the fact remains that he ends up with the hot girl and a possible literary award. To some readers, that doesn’t seem like punishment enough. I certainly was never going to write a book where all his ex-girlfriends get together to confront him, and he realizes the error of his ways. That just wasn’t what I wanted to write. But I do think there is an accumulated cost for Nate. He is very self-reflective at moments, but he has ways of distracting himself when those reflections get too uncomfortable. I think that’s how people are, often to our detriment. Nate’s not unthoughtful. But that’s how a lot of us are fooled. You can think a lot in circles and still end up thinking mostly about yourself. His punishment, in my opinion, is that he is revealed to be not quite the person he thinks he is or would like to be. That’s not really a small thing, in my opinion.