It's always exciting when someone you know actively fulfills a dream—especially when that dream is a wildly successful novel that's been named a best book of the year by The New Yorker, NPR, and The Economist. (In addition to other heavy-weight media outlets.)
Adelle Waldman and I shared a year at J-school in New York City, back when pursuing journalism was her primary goal. She's since left behind her journalistic pursuits and has embraced fiction. Her debut novel—The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.—follows relatively young and supremely ambitious Nate as he works to achieve journalistic stardom—and gratifying romantic connection—against the backdrop of contemporary Brooklyn and a circle of heady, ambitious writers. The book is honest and funny and touching—and sometimes frustrating (Nate's insecurities and cockiness are all too realistic reminders of men I've dated in NYC). Waldman has been praised profusely for stepping so boldly—and accurately—into a male protagonist's experience.
I hoped to get a better understanding of how she did it—how she created such a complex and real character fueled by so much testosterone and intellectual bravado—but I also wanted to an insider's peek into her personal writing process. How exactly, does someone write a bestselling work of fiction? Is there a secret formula? If so, I want in.
Waldman graciously fielded my nosy questions, sharing her refreshingly candid thoughts on the gritty reality of what it actually takes to write a novel (i.e. how do you really get through writer's block? How do you stay motivated without an agent or book deal? How do you pay the bills while crafting your masterpiece?).
Did you always want to write a novel? How did you spend your days before you started writing this book?
When I started college, I didn’t think I had the nerve to set out to do something like write, which seemed like wanting to be an actress or a musician. I didn’t feel like I was cut out for a life so risky and that required such a willingness to put yourself out there; I didn’t have that kind of confidence. I planned to go to law school. And on bad days, honestly, I still wish I had. (In my fantasies, my alternate life is to be an Assistant District Attorney, like on Law & Order.) What changed for me was that in the middle of college, I became depressed and took time off. Until then I’d always lived on the East Coast, but I moved to Arizona and worked at a sports bar and read a lot, especially at first because I had no friends.
Eventually, I made friends in Arizona, people who weren’t living conventional lives of the sort I was more familiar with from my hometown and college years. That experience is what gave me the courage to admit that I wanted to try and write; one friend in particular, a poet, inspired me. I returned to college, and after I graduated, I turned to journalism as a way to make a living while I tried to write fiction on the side. That was when I was 22. This book, my first, wasn’t published until I was 36, which tells you just what a long and bumpy road it was.
Over the years, I had various journalism jobs, many of which I loved, but eventually, when I became very serious about this novel, I began to work as an SAT tutor. This was a way to make (just) enough money to pay rent, but it didn’t compete as much for brain space with fiction writing as journalism did. I hoped I’d only be an SAT tutor for a year or so, until I finished the book. As it turned out, I was an SAT tutor for six years.
Writing a book is no small feat. In my mind it’s the intellectual equivalent of crossing the finish line of an Iron Man. What were the most challenging parts of the process? Do you adhere to a set writing routine? What is your preferred time of day to write? Do you wear a special pair of socks, drink a certain type of tea or anything specific like that?
I’m flattered—this is the closest I will ever come to finishing an Iron Man! For me, the most challenging part of writing the book was keeping up my spirits in the long years I spent working on it, when I had no publisher or literary agent, and I was working as a tutor. I got married during this time, and honestly I was embarrassed at my wedding when members of my extended family asked what I did for a living. I felt like I was getting too old to be a struggling novelist, and that people thought but were too nice to say that I should be realistic and get a real job, one that offered health benefits and a retirement plan.
Luckily, my husband and friends believed in the novel and encouraged me when I was feeling really down. I’m not entirely sure I would have had the wherewithal to keep going otherwise. As far as rituals, I’m a little strange, I think, among writers, for having almost none. If I have an idea and am energized, I can write anywhere—on buses, trains, in coffee shops, in my childhood bedroom. If there are loud noises, I will tune them out. This amazes my husband, a journalist, who is much more sensitive to environment. The downside is that if I don’t have a project going that has captured my imagination, I’m not very good at making myself write, no matter how optimal the circumstances.
I know you’ve been asked many times about writing from a man’s perspective. It is quite amazing, indeed. Is Nate modeled after someone you know? How did you combat any insecurities about accurately capturing man’s voice/way of thinking?
Oh, thank you so much! Nate isn’t modeled on a particular person. There are parts of me in him—I share some of his literary and intellectual interests, for example. And there are parts of him that I modeled on a type of a person, a type of man that I felt I knew: intellectual, progressive, but with a sense of self-confidence that borders on arrogance, someone who thinks political questions are more important than personal ones. I wanted him to embody traits and behaviors I think are stereotypically male—for example, to have doubts about whether he wants to be in a relationship at all, to do things like go out on a great date with a woman and then fail to call for a week, to become irritable when asked by a girlfriend if something is wrong, even when something clearly is.
What I hoped to do was work out on the page why he did those things. I wanted to be fair to him—not to make him into a villain—but to really understand what was going through his head and how he saw himself (which I figured was going to be different from how women saw him). In the process I hoped to elucidate what may be going through the heads of real men when they behave similarly. One of the reasons it took me so many years to write the book is that this was so hard.
I spent hours and hours thinking about how Nate might think and feel in any given situation because it was so different from what I would think or feel. But with time and practice I did slowly gain confidence in my ability to channel his voice. Key to that was having two male readers whom I trusted. My husband and a male friend read the book chapter by chapter from the beginning. They are very different types of guys, and I felt if they both agreed that it rang true than I could feel fairly comfortable.
Who are your novelist inspirations? Were there any specific mentors that you leaned on during the writing process? How did they help?
Ever since I spent time in Arizona, and befriended the poet I mentioned above, I have been passionate about 19th century novelists, particularly Jane Austen and George Eliot, but also Stendhal, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and Flaubert. Their emphasis on character analysis, characteristic of so much 19th century fiction, taught me so much about people.
I spent years trying to emulate not their writing style, but their scrupulous, clear-eyed and fair way of analyzing their characters. As for actual living people, I relied, during the writing process, on my husband and the male friend I mentioned, as well as several female friends who were also kind and supportive early readers (in spite of the fact that my first draft was, in retrospect, a mess). But I really didn’t have any formal mentors. I didn’t know many novelists. Because my background was in journalism, most of my friends were nonfiction writers.
How close is Nate’s world—his circle of friends, his Brooklyn stomping grounds—to your own Brooklyn existence?
In many ways, Nate’s world and mine are very similar. I too have a circle of writer friends and probably went to more parties than I should have during certain years, when I might have better spent the time writing. But in many ways, my experience was different from Nate’s. I imagined Nate as having more status than I did, to be a sort of hot commodity in his insular little world.
That was never me. I was a shy person who was a fly on the wall at many parties. Part of Nate’s status, in my mind, derived from his professional success as a journalist. Part of it I think is tied to gender. I think Nate benefited from the fact that as a young white male who graduated from Harvard, he fit the world’s idea of what a successful intellectual was like. I think that might have smoothed the way for him in certain ways and made people—not just his close friends, but acquaintances—believe in him even before he’d proved himself.
How did/do you get through days when you just don’t feel like writing? Do you have techniques for breaking through writer’s block and/or general inertia?
Oh no, I’m terrible! I usually just don’t write that day. But sometimes the situation becomes dire enough that I have to force myself. I had a period of about six months when I reached an impasse with this novel. I simply didn’t know how to continue. I knew where I wanted it to go, but I couldn’t figure out what scenes would take me there. At the point in the book I was working on, Nate had started a relationship with Hannah. I wanted to show the relationship, previously very happy for both, turn slightly, become less happy, but I wanted this pivot to be very subtle, so much so that neither Nate or Hannah could be sure it had really happened until time had passed and the change had truly set in.
I think this is often what happens in real relationships, but I found it very hard to dramatize something so subtle. I forced myself to try various approaches, but they weren’t working. I wrote many scenes that I threw out entirely. Finally, I put it aside entirely for a couple months, while I focused on getting ready for my own wedding. Then my husband and I spent a month driving across the country for our honeymoon. I was terrified what would happen when I got back and had to pick up the novel again.
I thought there was a good chance I’d have to put it away, give up on it. I spent a few days forcing myself to sit at my chair and try things; amazingly something finally clicked. I found a way to combine bits and pieces I liked from previous attempts into something workable. It probably helped that by then I had so much on the line psychologically—I’d already spent years on it, I’d told everyone I knew about it—that I had incentive to make myself see it through. I would have felt like a total failure if I had given up on the book.
The book has had great success. Congratulations! What do you think makes it so accessible to readers? Following Nate on his quest (or rejection) of love? The bird’s eye view of young intellectuals struggling to find purpose and meaning in NYC? Something else?
Oh, wow, that’s hard. (And thank you.) I honestly saw the book as being more about relationships and dating dynamics than about Brooklyn writers. I hoped those issues would resonate with people outside the literary milieu. The reason I set the book in Brooklyn among writers was largely to make the task easier on myself. I figured that if I was going to be writing from a man’s point of view, that was hard enough—I might as well place him in a world that I know well. What I didn’t know is that the setting would become so much part of the story. Nonetheless, as an author, I still hope people who don’t care about writing at all can relate to aspects of the story. (As a person, I think maybe it’s better if they don’t relate as much. Too many women have had the experience of dating someone like Nate. It might be better if his type were less common.)
I know that many successful authors feel pressured to produce a second work fairly quickly? Do you feel this pressure? Can we expect anything new in the next few years?
Well, it took me years to write this one, and I have yet to start a new one. I think it might be a while. I do feel a certain pressure, but I’m not sure that I’ll be able to go any faster as a result. I think it will just make me more anxious.
Photos: Lou Rouse