When I think of contemporary writers who have convincingly taken on the youthful voice of a protagonist of the opposite sex, Jefferey Eugenides immediately comes to mind. Wally Lamb with his 90s hit She’s Come Undone also rings a strong distant bell. In recent years, Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Jonathan Franzen (Freedom), and Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) have all dabbled, switching their POV’s between man and woman in their respective novels. But when it comes to a young woman writer assuming the perspective of a young man—an unmarried rising media hot-shot in NYC no less, which is a special breed of man all together—I think I’m unable to recall anyone, until now. Enter The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., the bold and humorous debut of Adelle Waldman. She wears the hat of her titular character Nate Piven well and she unapologetically sets her hero on a very emotional rollercoaster of a ride. For Adelle, it’s a strong look. For the rest of us, we just gotta wonder, “How does she pull it off?” We catch up with the newbie novelist and take that plunge with her (and Nate!). —JL
Something I really appreciate about the novel is that you see the characters change (and eventually mature) from their previous failed relationships, which is something people in real life often have difficulty seeing in their own exes. Were there reflective realizations you discovered when writing the book?
Yes! By the time the book is published, it will have been five years since I started writing it. Part of the reason it took me so long is that I had to learn a lot about Nate, which I learned while I wrote the book. I had to see the whole world—the world that I know—all over again, from his perspective, and with his set of biases and inclinations, which are very different from my own and mean that his world feels very different from mine, even though there are external similarities. For example, I learned how different things look to a guy who is relatively indifferent to whether he is in a relationship or not—he can be pretty happy either way. That is, Nate cares about women generally—about being attractive to them—but he’s not necessarily invested in being the boyfriend of a particular woman. When I dated (I am now married), I tended, if I liked a person, to be anything but indifferent to whether we made it as a couple. In writing the book I came to see how much this different starting point mattered, how much it influenced what happened next. That knowledge enabled me to see how certain of my past relationships had been similarly affected by this kind of difference in priorities.
Sex and hook-ups are a huge part of the book. Nate is unabashed about having sex or fantasizing about sex (when he’s not in the moment yet). Did you make a conscious decision about how much sex you actually wanted in the book?
In real life, I actually get very embarrassed talking about sex, and when I started writing this novel, I think I imagined there’d a lot less of it in my book, that it would be alluded to but not depicted in graphic detail. But when I got down to it, I found that if I was going to write realistically about a contemporary relationship, I couldn’t ignore sex. As much as it embarrasses me to talk about, it plays a role. That said, I didn’t want sex in the book to titillate in any way. That wasn’t what I was going for at all. I just felt I couldn’t ignore not only the way sex preoccupies Nate, as well as how it plays out specifically within his relationship with Hannah—the way it reflects the overall state of the relationship and also, in terms of one particular blow job scene, how it is laden with nonsexual elements and brings up some of his most isolating habits of thought.
Aurit, what a great character! Is she based on someone you know?
Thank you. No, she is not based on anyone I know. But she did embody a certain perspective I wanted in the book. The problem I faced is that I didn’t want the book to fall back on the trope of having a “wise” female friend correct Nate where he is wrong and give voice to my, Adelle’s, thoughts. I think that kind of device is gimmicky and inartful. What I wound up doing was having Aurit articulate a certain position but at the same time, I tried to call that position into question through Nate’s critical perspective. Nonetheless, Aurit gives voice to ideas that I wanted in the book and which I wanted Nate to have to respond to, but I think (hope!) she comes to seem like something very different from the stock character of the wise friend. And let’s face it, in life that character doesn’t exist, in large part because when someone thinks they are playing that role for us, chances are the person on the other side is reacting more like Nate does to Aurit, with a mixture of affection and eye-rolling, rather than with unstinting admiration and acceptance of their every word as truth.
Can you tell us a bit about the book cover and how that was conceived? (I think is a great design, by the way.)
Thank you! I love it too. But I cannot tell you how it was conceived, other than to say that the designer, David Shoemaker, is extremely talented. (Both as a designer and as a writer; his book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling, will be published in October.) But the truth is I don’t know how David did it. I know he worked long and hard, and I’ve been told that there were many iterations before this one, but I didn’t see them. All I know is that I think think what he came up with in the end is cool and fun without being sensational or cheap in any way.
There is a lot of commentary on the state of freelance writing and the publishing industry that I found relevant peppered throughout the book. Did writing the novel feel like a meta work-in-progress considering both you (in real time) and Nate were going through similar life experiences as journalists-turned-novelists?
Well, my freelance writing career and Nate’s were actually pretty different. Nate was supposed to be far more successful than I was. He had more status in his little literary world. That was important for me, in terms of the book and what I wanted to explore, gender-wise. Nate is intended to be quite smart and hardworking—I don’t mean to say he is undeserving in those ways—but I think he tends to take for granted a certain something that can either be called confidence or entitlement, depending on your point of view. I think in that he is quite “masculine.” I also think the world as a whole is more willing to see him as a rising star that it would if he were a woman. Nate fits people’s ideas about what a promising young intellectual seems like. I think that further reinforces his confidence. That said, I don’t mean to imply that I think I was less successful than Nate purely because of my gender. That was just one factor I wanted to explore.
You cite The Corrections as an inspiration and Franzen is known to create some complex, if not downright “unlikeable” characters. But do you feel that way about Nate, that he comes off as unlikeable?
I wanted Nate to feel real, and I tried not to worry too much about whether I thought he was good or bad; I tried not to analyze him. I was worried that if I got too stuck on an analysis, I’d start writing the character to conform to the analysis, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to reduce him to a set of ideas. I wanted him to feel as hard-to-pin-down as a real person, and I felt if I just got the character down right, so that he felt real, I could analyze him after the fact. That said, at times, I did feel disturbed by what I’d written—and bothered by it because it seemed true, how guys would really think. There were times when I got mad at my husband just for being a man—which he felt was a little unfair, that I was mad at him for things I made my imaginary character do in my imaginary world. But I think many guys are at least a little bit like Nate. I don’t think that’s all bad, by the way.
You say in your twitter bio that you “may have forgotten how” to be a journalist. Do you feel like fiction writing is now more your calling? Are you working on other forthcoming stories?
For me, journalism was always a day job. It was often a great one. I loved being a newspaper reporter. I learned so much from my time at The New Haven Register and The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Reporting various stories allowed me to spend time with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and broadened my knowledge of the world and of people in ways that I am deeply grateful for. But as much as I admire very committed journalists—including my husband, who routinely becomes wholly immersed in his reporting—I don’t think I was ever one of those people myself. Although I worked hard on individual pieces, I wasn’t sufficiently committed to the idea of a journalism career. What I care most about has always been novels, reading them and writing them. At this point, I think the journalism I am most likely to do is about novels, so really criticism more than journalism.
Photo credit: Lou Rouse