By Janet Somerville
Brooklyn-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.
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.