Artist Talk: Jami Attenberg

By Janet Somerville

jami attenbergBrooklyn-based novelist Jami Attenberg captivated the Pub Hub audience with her frank and funny demeanor, breezily responding to Sue Carter’s prompts about her most recent novel, Saint Mazie. And, that’s no small feat, considering she’s been on book tour for weeks, shuttling from venue to venue, country to country, crossing time zones: the north of England one day, Mexico City the next and now Toronto.

Attenberg became entranced by Mazie Phillips after reading Joseph Mitchell’s essay about her in Up in the Old Hotel. Phillips worked the ticket cage at the Venice movie theatre in The Bowery from 9am to 11pm and then wandered the streets after, ministering to the legions of homeless (mostly men) to whom she gave little bars of hotel soap and money for booze. For two decades. And, she called more ambulances than anyone in NYC to send many of these souls to hospital where they’d receive essential care. She was an incredibly modern woman and fearlessly went places where women weren’t allowed. Attenberg’s friend opened a Brooklyn bar he called Saint Mazie because she was “the closest thing to a saint I’ve ever heard of.” When the two of them would “get together to bitch about our work, Mazie gave us perspective.”

Attenberg found Phillips’ obit plus the Mitchell essay, but that was about it in terms of source material. As Stewart O’Nan (who wrote West of Sunset, a novel about Scott Fitzgerald’s final years as a script doctor in Hollywood) said to her on one recent panel, “you’re lucky to have nothing.” Having only the seeds of Mazie’s life allowed Attenberg to richly imagine it in her novel. She fleshed out details of the time by visiting NYC’s Tenement Museum, watching a 1950s documentary on The Bowery, thumbing through the Princeton University audio recordings from the era and reading a summary of the 1920s published in the 1930s, in which she discovered a Wall Street bombing, an event that Mazie would have experienced. Attenberg was able to filter her own emotions about 9/11 through that recreated moment. Attenberg, Saint Mazie

An imperative for Attenberg in writing Mazie’s story was to “know more about people who are good.” She “can’t take on a book without being able to express compassion; there’s no better reason to write.” Attenberg insists that she’s “trying to learn how to be a better person through my work.” As she was working on Saint Mazie, her editor discovered an 80 year-old man also looking for information about Phillips. He ran a flower shop on the Lower East Side and she used to “shoot the breeze” with him. He said, “she had a heart as big as herself.” The big question for Attenberg was why did Mazie help those men? The florist said, “she was really good.” In writing the novel Attenberg accepted that she would never really know. What she did know, however, was that Mazie would be a character she could spend time with and also could be viewed through a feminist lens since she had been so strong and progressive.

Before closing the conversation, Attenberg read from a new short story, “Chloe,” noting that with short fiction “every line has to land” and warning “It’s really dirty. If it will offend you, just leave.” The excerpt was funny, wry, satiric. Full of life. Like Attenberg herself. In her own way Jamie Attenberg is as generous a spirit as Mazie Phillips had been all of those years ago in The Bowery.


Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

FLORIDA ORIGINS: How Country Club Met Its Mother

By Andy McGuire

We put Alabama behind us.The first palms flicker along the highway. “Suddenly I am on a balcony,” Elaine Scarry writes, “and its huge swaying leaves are before me at eye level, arcing, arching, waving, cresting and breaking in the soft air.” She was in Spain. We are following the migratory route of the Canadian snowbird, bound for Estero, Southwest Florida, land of ample parking, the Sunshine State, where even the shadows have some colour. So begins my love affair with the palm, the international symbol for hold my calls.

Who among us can resist the propaganda of palm trees? To do so would be unnatural. This winter Estero is seeking to incorporate as a village. Hard to say what distinguishes the local palms. Golf course communities, malls, liquor stores, car dealerships and gas stations run the length of the Gulf Coast like a sentence loving itself out loud, spreading a rash of Matisse palms made for TV. Sprinkler systems run like veins under a skin of sod. For the fairways, flowers and lawns, city water is just as good as real rain. Safer, even.McGuire, Country Club

Southwest Florida is a translation of nature so wonderfully bad it’s beautiful. Stingrays, manatees, birds with scimitar beaks and dolphins all punch in for their morning shift. Stock footage of sunshine loops. Everyone calls the place paradise and pretends to know what to do with the excess beauty. Between Corkscrew Road and Split Oak Way sits our street, Butchers Holler. I love the sense of celebratory menace in our return address. I send more letters than ever.

We quit reality cold turkey. Spanish moss and beamers and banyans and dentures galore. The same old couple reassert themselves every afternoon in a red corvette, desperate as a pop star duet clawing at the charts. The palms tick away all the while. Repetition regulates, and quality control, it seems, is job number one. Someone hung fresh citrus on the tree across the street. Here, the source state of seventy percent of American oranges, it’s almost impossible to find a glass of fresh orange juice. You squeeze it yourself.

A heart needs a part to play. I give myself over to the things they don’t show in the brochure. Snakes as long as hockey sticks. The fucking gators—Kevlar beasts straight from the cretaceous with the teeth to prove it. We drive through the Everglades, down Alligator Alley. Alligator, you point out the passenger window. Alligator, I point. Alligator. Alligator. Everglades. Alligator. Fuck that alligator, that determined young swimmer in Texas said, seconds before he was eaten alive. Thank God for the gators. One must mind them, indeed.

Repetition. Lifeblood of regimen and mission. I write, every day, all winter. At noon I go to the pool and call it research. And it is. The shortsightedness of a tan, I write. I monitor the weather back home. Ontario moans under the weight of an old-fashioned winter. In the evening I stride nowhere on an elliptical. Stock prices tick across CNN. Terror alerts rise and fall. Ukraine catches fire while we sleep. I repeat Southwest Florida to myself so often it comes true.

Legislation passes and Estero becomes a village. The first elected officials are Missourians, Ohioans, Ontarians. I leave part of my heart in the Coupon State and come home with a pile of poems. The palms follow us to the farm. The extremity of wealth, privilege, leisure, acquisitive lust and conspicuous carnality linger. Ukraine loses limbs, ablaze. Planes go missing. Poem. The palms and eagle and river run as one through the back field. The palms follow us to Toronto. Happy Hour. Poem. Everglades. Poem. And the violent spirit of formative times. And the last palm left. The footling breach of Country Club. Something has gone off.

Andy McGuire is from Grand Bend and currently resides in Toronto. He is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph. McGuire’s poems have appeared in Riddle Fence, Hazlitt and The Walrus.

You can hear Andy read from his debut poetry collection, Country Club, at two events at this year’s International Festival of Authors, one on October 25 and another on October 29.

On Reading “Paul” on the Island and Everything That Came After

By Jess Taylor

In the summer of 2013, I had no real publications to my name. I was running a reading series, The Emerging Writers Reading Series (EW), and while I had just finished The University of Toronto’s Creative Writing program, I was known more as a curator than a writer and had a manuscript that turned out to be a total disaster. I felt a remarkable sense of failure even though I knew I was young, knew that I shouldn’t have expected so much for myself so soon. At least I was writing: I was writing every day and when I was writing stories, I was really having fun. The other thing I was doing regularly was performing at reading series. Since I ran EW, people seemed to think I enjoyed being on stage, and I’d often be invited to perform a story or a set of poetry. That summer, I was invited by Chris Graham to read on Toronto Island as part of the series Amazing New Stuff.Taylor, Jess (c) AngelaLewis

Since we were reading outside, Chris requested that the readers read family-friendly pieces that could appeal to all ages. I didn’t have a lot of work that fit that category, but I did have one short story that I’d been writing to blow off steam. It was called “Paul” and featured three Pauls in the same town, loosely based on the landscape of Caledon, where I grew up. The story had a cat based on my beloved childhood cat, Cally, and I thought kids might enjoy the playful nature of the story, even if they didn’t understand its subtleties.

Ward’s Island was the perfect place to read a story with so much imagery of trees and clearings, forests and fields. Everything was green and I could see the lake from where we were reading. The crowd was surprisingly large even though it was the only reading series that required its audience to take a ferry. They were mostly people who were there to support Stephen Thomas, the other reader, who was originally from Toronto and only in town briefly. Two of the people there were Emily M. Keeler and Charles Yao, who were the publishers of Little Brother.

Readings are terrifying. I guess people have different levels of fear when it comes to getting up on stage. Some are able to divorce themselves from that fear and become someone else while performing. I’ve never seemed to manage thiswhether I’m hosting, reading or even teaching in front of a class, I’m terrified. But people learn to manage the stress or find techniques to conquer the fear. For me, preparing extensively helps tackle my stage fright, and even though I was scared, my reading on Ward’s went as smoothly as it could.Taylor, Pauls

I often think about how one thing could have been different that day. I could have read a different story. Emily and Charles could have not come. I could have botched the reading. I could have not even read at that show. But having everything happen the way it did set off a wonderful and unexpected chain of events for me. Emily and Charles really liked the story and requested it for Little Brother. The publication looked great and I was so proud. At this point, Little Brother didn’t yet pay contributors (they do now), and I still hadn’t ever had a paid publication. Emily nominated the story for a National Magazine Award and it was selected as a finalist. Then, on the awards’ night, it was named the Gold Winner, and “Paul” became my first paid publication. This led to my book of short stories, Pauls, being picked up by BookThug, which has directly led me to reading at the IFOA this year.

I wonder if my 2013 self who was so poor she could barely afford to eat, who was sad often and wondering about her purpose, who felt that sense of failure, who was scared but did it all anyway, I wonder if she knew that exposing herself to that fear meant exposing herself to that one opportunity that could change everything. I’m certainly never going to stop being afraid, and I’m never going to stop putting myself out there anyway.

Jess Taylor is a writer and poet based in Toronto. She is the host and founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, magazines and newspapers, including Little Fiction, Little Brother, Joyland, This Magazine, National Post, Emerge Literary Journal, Great Lakes Review, Zouch Magazine and offSIDE Zine. She received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul.”

Hear Jess read from Pauls, her new collection of lively short fiction, at the BookThug celebration happening at #IFOA36 on October 27.

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