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Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins, now available in paperback, is the tragicomic story of a jewish family outside of Chicago as it is begins to fall apart, due largely, but not exclusively, to the ever-increasing physical size of Edie, the food-obsessed matriarch. The only thing as impressive as Atternberg's prose is the expansiveness of her empathy. We spoke about food, addiction, and more. Click 'read more' for the interview. 

1) This book is one of the few I can think of that cares to treat the overweight fairly, by which I mean that Edie’s size doesn’t stand for something else. It’s something about her, and a huge problem, but it isn’t meant to represent any deficiency in her character, as size so often is in fiction. Was it difficult not to judge Edie while writing her? Her actions can be incredibly frustrating for the reader, as those of addicts tend to be.

I think it is part of the job of the author to approach their characters with an attempt to understand them rather than judge them. But beyond that, I didn’t judge her because I identified with her. I’ve led an excessive life in the past. Drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, and food too, although my relationship with it was not as extreme as Edie’s. I’ve never had a doctor say to me, “If you don’t stop doing these things you will die.” But I understand what it’s like to travel that line between pleasure and self-destruction. So if I was judging anyone in that book I was judging myself. But, of course, she and I are still very different people. I pushed myself to understand her. I wanted desperately for her to change her ways because I cared about her.

2) I think it’s safe to say that certain cultures are more practiced/skilled at using food as psychological proxies. Jews and Italians, the kindred cousins of old east New York, spring to mind. I’m half Italian, and my grandmother on that side has to be practically tranquilized before she’ll stop feeding you. What is it about Jewish or Jewish-American culture that places such an emphasis on food? Is it just that our grandmothers grew up in times/places of scarcity?

I hope that the book rings true universally, and not just for Jews. As I’ve traveled around this past year and talked to people, all kinds of people from different backgrounds, I’ve heard a lot of stories that were comparable to Edie’s experience. It’s been fascinating at readings to see people instantly identify their ethnic background to me, or at least introduce themselves to me and say, “I’m not Jewish, but I understood your book anyway.” So while I think there is something about Jews and food, there is something about lots of ethnic backgrounds and food. Food is part of our lifeblood. It’s what we use to celebrate and mourn. And we have to eat it every damn day no matter what. So it’s something that occupies our mind.

3) What are our obligations to those that are destroying themselves? I don’t mean to get into the overarching philosophy and politics behind “saving people from themselves,” soda bans etc, but the question seems to be at the core of the book.

I don’t have an answer to that question necessarily. I think that would require some sort of judgment on my part, and I think these situations work on a case-by-case basis. I can tell you that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help himself. I felt like the characters in The Middlesteins didn’t want to talk about their problems for much of the book.  I can tell you that communication is important. Having the conversation is important.


8/17/2013 04:37:16 pm

I hope that the document arenas staunch universally, moreover negative honest for Jews. As I’ve traveled about this yesteryear year further talked to persons, total speciess of persons from alien trainings, I’ve heard a many of stories that were equivalent to Edie’s adventure.

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9/27/2013 10:31:10 pm

It’s something about her, further a massive hitch, only it isn’t meant to signify some dearth in her essence, as capacity so generally is in myth.

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