Adelle Waldman on Bribing Herself to Write, Waking Up In a Panic, and Reading Online Reviews of Her Novel

author photo by Lou Rouse

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is one of my favorite novels of 2013. It’s so witty, observant, and beautifully written that when I reached the end, I immediately turned to page one and started reading it again. I interviewed Ms. Waldman by email about her novel, her favorite authors, and writing habits (which involve ice cream!).

As all the reviewers say, your novel is an incisive comedy of manners and a brilliant character study. It’s also a page turner. I couldn’t go to sleep until I’d found out whether Nate would mess things up with Hannah. Was it important to you to create suspense? How did you go about it?
I’m so glad to hear that! On the one hand, the plot of the novel is very simple. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want anything out of the ordinary to happen—there are no police chases or natural disasters or earth-shattering revelations. But I hoped that the novel would create its own momentum for just the reason you cite—because readers would come to care about the characters and how their relationships played out.

Many Goodreads reviewers complain that Nate is unlikeable. This drives me bonkers. I don’t understand why people insist on liking characters—what does likability have to do with literary merit? Do you have any theories about why some readers can’t cope with realistically flawed characters?
It’s funny to me because I think of myself as a pretty moralistic and judgmental person—and I certainly have a pretty extensive moral critique of my protagonist Nate. Still, as a reader, I often like, and identify with, characters that others see as anti-heroes, such as Julien Sorel from The Red & the Black, or the Lamberts in The Corrections. To my mind, we are all more flawed than we like to think—subject to bouts of pettiness and vanity that we don’t even recognize as such. Our egos exert a lot of energy trying to convince us that we are almost always right and the people who disagree with us or make us feel bad are the ones who are wrong. So, while I do think Nate has some real and serious failings (and it was partly in order to explore his limitations that I wrote the book), I don’t think he is wholly unlikeable. But to each his own, I suppose.

What’s it like to read online reviews of your books? Do you try to stay away, and then find yourself binge-reading at 3 a.m.?
Yes! I’m starting to get a little more used to it, but at first, each new Goodreads review was an event. It’s a brand-new experience for me, as a first-time author, to go from having this Microsoft Word document that I could choose to show or not show to individual people when I wanted to the book being a thing, something that is out there in the world for all to judge. And of course, I asked for it—I chose to publish the book—so I certainly can’t complain. Nonetheless, it’s an adjustment. Still, I’m mostly just grateful that people are interested enough in the book to read it and write about it at all.

Personal life aside, Nate’s work life is admirable. He’s driven. He works on his book even when he doesn’t feel like it. Are your writing habits like his? What’s your routine?
I am a little bit more regular in my habits than Nate. At one point in the book, I describe him staying up all night to read and review a book the night before his piece is due. I used to do that sort of thing in college and to a degree, in my twenties, as a freelancer. But over time I’ve evolved into the sort of person who drinks coffee every morning around 7:30 and sits down at my desk during regular business hours, and I’m usually far too nervous to leave something until the night before it is due. There were times, when I was writing the novel, where I’d stay up very late or wake up in the middle of the night to add or change something, but that was just because I was in the throes of a new thought or idea; it wasn’t my routine.

How do you keep from falling down the rabbit hole of cat videos and Facebook?
For me, reading novels is still the biggest potential distraction. I get very caught up in books I’m reading and want desperately to find out what happens. And at the beginning, it was hard for me to focus on my own when I could be passively reading novels that others had already done the work of writing. I had to bribe myself to sit and write scenes. But I found at a certain point that the book took on a life of its own and became more compelling to me. After a while, I didn’t have to come up with such elaborate bribes. That said, I still vastly prefer revising and editing to writing things out for the first time. The blank page is daunting.

What did you bribe yourself with to make yourself write?
Nothing very original, honestly. A bowl of ice cream. A glass of wine. Just a treat of some sort once I had written the scene. And usually what I’d do, in such circumstances, was write a really rough version of the scene just to get my reward. But that still helped because, as I said, I so prefer editing to writing that even a very rough version is a big step forward for me. The other thing I did was use the stick—that is, if ice cream and wine were carrots, running was the stick. I run a lot, but I kind of hate it—I always dread going even though I feel so good after. Many times, I’ve put on gym clothes and said to myself that I have only two choices: writing or running. So writing became a way of putting off running until later. I got a lot written that way.

Which contemporary writers do you think deserve to be more widely read?
I love The Millstone by Margaret Drabble, a book about a single woman in London who gets pregnant from a one-night stand. It’s very sly and very smart, and is as much about liberal guilt as it is about pregnancy. But that’s from the 1960s, so maybe I should get more recent? One contemporary author I think everyone should read is Gary Sernovitz, who has published two excellent novels, Great American Plain and The Contrarians. Great American Plain impressed me so much for its empathy—the book follows three struggling young people whose paths cross one day at a Midwestern agricultural fair, and is touching and heartbreaking and very sharp about its characters’ emotions and about class in the American heartland. Sernovitz’s second novel, The Contrarians, is also very smart, and it’s great book about being young in New York. It’s set in the world of finance and describes the lives of ambitious analysts a couple years out of college. Like Great American Plain, it is full of much very sharp—and funny—cultural observation.

I imagine that as you were working on this novel, you thought about how you might feel when it got published. How closely has the reality matched up with what you hoped for, or predicted?
I don’t think I had any idea how anxious I’d be! I’ve definitely been having trouble sleeping. I wake up around five most nights (mornings?) in a panic about an email I haven’t returned or something like that. As for whether the overall experience conforms to my expectations, it’s hard to say. I tried really hard to keep myself from thinking too much about what might happen. That was just a matter of self-protection. You have no idea how your book will be received or to what degree people will be interested in it. I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment.

Meg Wolitzer has written about the way literary fiction by women gets saddled with ultra-feminine cover imagery (laundry on a line, feet on a beach, the back of a little girl’s head). The cover of your book is beautiful and doesn’t scream, “I am a novel by a woman! Stay away, men!” How did the cover come into being? Do you think the design was influenced by your protagonist’s gender?
Wolitzer’s piece definitely influenced my thinking. When I was asked by my editor about ideas for my book’s cover, it was the first thing I brought up. Luckily my editor and cover designer were all on the same page. We wanted a cover that would appeal to both men and women. But I should add that I wish this weren’t such an issue. I think the perception that books written by women are for women is a problem. I suspect my book has benefited because it is told from the perspective of a male protagonist, but that’s obviously problematic. There are, of course, many excellent books by women about female protagonists. Women shouldn’t have to write from the perspective of a male character in order to be read by men.

Being married in Brooklyn is (blessedly) different than dating in Brooklyn. Any plans to tackle married life in your next book?
The thought of the next book makes me sigh. I miss working on a novel—my life feels a bit lonely without Nate and his friends taking up so much room in my head. But in the past few months, I’ve been so distracted by and busy with promoting this book that I haven’t had a chance to start the next one. I do have an idea, though, and marriage plays into it, although I’m not sure it’s the subject.

Have you read this wonderful novel yet? What did you think of Nate?

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