Jami Attenberg and Bernardine Evaristo on chronicling the grit behind their glamorous careers
Jami Attenberg and Bernardine Evaristo have had somewhat disparate careers; Attenberg has become known for her particular brand of family novel, and Evaristo shot to immense stardom last year when her eighth book, Girl, Woman, Other, won the Booker prize. Next month, both will publish memoirs that peel back the curtain on their careers, revealing the years of toiling (and relentless touring) that made them the authors they are today. Here, the two meet for the first time through the magic of Zoom — Attenberg resides in New Orleans, Evaristo in London — to compare and contrast their experiences.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Bernardine, we'll start with you since Manifesto: On Never Giving Up is already out in the U.K. What is it like to promote such a personal work?
BERNARDINE EVARISTO: I've written a lot of nonfiction, but it's never been work that I revisited, so this is all new territory for me. When I won the Booker Prize two years ago, I found that it freed me from caring what people thought, and I began talking about myself a lot more. Then I decided to write this book, and I find it all to be easier than discussing my fiction; it's my life, and my choice to tell it.
JAMI ATTENBERG: I thought I would feel that exact same way. I just turned 50 and I felt ready to accept myself, put [I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home] out there, and not care what happens. But I'm feeling a little vulnerable right now. I'm trying to focus on my intention, which from the beginning was to tell a story about being a writer and being a woman, and to do it while being inventive and playful with form. Bernardine, you sound so much more confident than I do. It's so exhilarating.
EVARISTO: I was a very private person for most of my life, and I quite liked that. But in the writing, I tried to avoid the mistake, which can be easy in a memoir, of presenting myself as an angelic person. I had to take responsibility for my choices. I see a lot of parallels in our stories: both of us struggling for a longtime and not coming from privilege.
As you reflect on your success in the memoirs, how do you define it? What markers are important to you?
ATTENBERG: I felt successful once I didn't have to have a day job anymore. That took up until my fourth book [The Middlesteins]; the month before it came out [in 2012] I was still working for an advertising agency. I had this really mean boss who would comment on whether I was smiling when he would walk by my desk. I was like, please let this book be the one. I'm 40 years old, I can't have someone comment on my facial expression for the rest of my life.
EVARISTO: For me, the writing itself is a reward, but you also need a readership. I became really ambitious about my writing in my 30s, and it was my goal to sell millions of copies of my books. I wanted to win the Booker Prize. Everything changed for me after I won, and I'm so grateful for it, but now the question is, how do you sustain it?
ATTENBERG: You write a best-selling memoir. Ride that rocket, baby.
A lot of times readers or critics can project authors onto their characters. Does that happen to you, and do you think your memoirs will correct that narrative?
EVARISTO: The only book I've written that is even partly autobiographical is my second, Lara, which is a fictionalized version of my family history. With my last, Girl, Woman, Other, there's a character loosely based on my younger self — but the other 12 protagonists and all the sub-characters are creations. Yet, because I was in a destructive relationship with a woman just like this character, people sometimes point to it and say, "See, we knew you were writing about yourself." This false equivalency has always bothered me. It can feel as if they're saying I don't have a good imagination.
ATTENBERG: We work so hard to make our art, and it's supposed to be taken as art. I want people to appreciate that more.
EVARISTO: The impetus to write about our own lives is also about reshaping our public image, isn't it? I think the impulse comes after we have a degree of this thing we call success. I never wanted to write a memoir until the Booker, and then I wanted people to know about the journey I'd taken to reach this point. I also wanted my story, as a Black British woman specifically, to be out there.
ATTENBERG: When I read your book, I thought, "Oh, she should definitely write a memoir."
Is there anything in your books that makes you nervous?
ATTENBERG: I've been told by my female memoirist friends that the criticism is different for women than for men, and if there's any sex or unconventional life choices in it, then you're opening yourself up to even more judgment.
EVARISTO: You wrote about — I can't remember how you phrased it — but [it was about] having lots of lovers. And until I was married, I did too. I am a bit of a contradiction, because I knew I was going to acknowledge that in the book, but I also didn't want people to start saying I'd slept around. I don't like when things become part of the context of who I am. Male rock stars are celebrated for things like that, but we don't have that liberty as women, do we?
ATTENBERG: No, we don't. But I couldn't pretend to be anything other than what I am. My sexuality is a part of me. I wish I still had as much fun as I used to. I was writing this book and thinking, "Damnit, I used to have a good time."
Has examining your own lives changed what you want to write in the future?
ATTENBERG: I usually write stories that take place in one setting, but I really enjoyed spanning time and location, and I didn't want to lose that. My next book takes place over five decades.
EVARISTO: I'm always going to be exploring the African diaspora, but what I'd really like to do is write into the future. It would be new territory for me, and I think it sounds really exciting.