Interview: July 19, 2013
Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P., chronicles the affairs of the titular hero (who is also sort of an anti-hero) as he makes his way through life and love in the Brooklyn literary scene. Nate is neither romanticized nor vilified as he goes from one relationship to the next, and Waldman deftly keeps him grounded in details that are almost painfully relatable. Naturally, The Book Report Network’s Nicole Sherman and Emily Hoenig jumped at the opportunity to interview the author about getting into a thirtysomething guy’s head. Here, Waldman discusses how she was able to so expertly channel the male psyche, how she feels about inevitable comparisons to HBO’s “Girls” --- the current reigning champ of Brooklyn coming-of-age --- and which of the NATHANIEL P. characters she identifies with the most. And, of course, she has lots of insightful things to say about navigating relationships, both romantic and platonic.
The Book Report Network: So many women naturally write from a female perspective, what made you choose to write from a male perspective?
Adelle Waldman: I wanted to write about modern relationships, and about some of the experiences I, and many women I know, have had in terms of sex and dating and breaking up. I’m not sure why it was that, for me, the best way to do this turned out to be to tell the story from the perspective of a male character. Perhaps because this was a way I could explore what women sometimes encounter? In a sense, the reader of my novel is “dating” the main character --- trying to figure out how much to trust him, whether to sympathize with him, whether he’s a good guy or not.
I also felt I’d read lots of books that lovingly chronicle the adventures of young men who come to the big city and cut a wide swath through the female population while they make their way professionally. (I’d include books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, as well as more recent ones, in this mold.) The category I am referring to includes many books I love, but I think in some of these novels, the authors give their male heroes a pass for how they treat women. I wanted to write a version of this story that scrutinized the guy’s relationships with women more closely.
TBRN: Is Nate P. an abstract creation or is there one guy (or several) who was the inspiration for Nate P.?
AW: He is very much an abstract creation. I drew on experiences I have had dating and experiences that my women friends have had dating in a general sense, but Nate is very much his own person. To be honest, there is a lot of me in Nate as well.
TBRN: How did you channel the 30Something male psyche? What was your “research?”
AW: I read a lot, and certainly I’ve learned a lot about psychology and human behavior from books, particularly 19th-century novels with their strong focus on inner life. THE RED AND THE BLACK by Stendhal, for example, is full of breathtakingly incisive, though often uncomfortable, observations about love and ego.
TBRN: Do you identify with any of the girl characters? Which one and why?
AW: There is nothing that any of the women characters do in the book that I can’t relate to, to some degree or another (as a result, it was often painful for me to write from Nate’s perspective and to see just how brutal his take on them could be).
TBRN: You write so compellingly about the literary scene. How much of this is based off of your own experiences?
AW: I’m a writer, and I spend a lot of time with other writers, so in that sense there is a parallel. But this is fiction. There are certain broader aspects of Brooklyn’s literary scene that I tried to capture, but the specifics are all made up.
TBRN: THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. is sure to invite comparisons to a show like “Girls.” What's your take on shows that offer female perspectives on dating, relationships and sex?
AW: I don’t have HBO, and I’m behind --- I’ve only seen the first season --- but from what I’ve seen, I think “Girls” is great. In a lot of ways, I think I was trying to do something similar in NATHANIEL P. I wanted to write honestly about the lives of young people, treating their relationships and friendships seriously and writing candidly about sex in all its potential for awkwardness. I also wanted my book to be funny, which “Girls” certainly is.
TBRN: What advice would you give for those of us navigating male/female platonic relationships?
AW: I think one thing to keep in mind is to be understanding if one friend develops romantic feelings for the other. The easiest way for most of us, male or female, to be a jerk is to withhold empathy, and sometimes we do that when a friend feels something inconvenient, such as romantic interest that we don’t reciprocate. The other person’s feelings make us feel guilty and uncomfortable, so instead of dealing with the situation sympathetically, as we ought to, we blame the person for putting us in this position.
TBRN: How did you juggle the biggest relationships in your life --- the one with your husband and the one with Nate P.?
AW: I am incredibly lucky. My husband is the most supportive person imaginable, and I couldn’t have written this book without him, not only because he is an incredibly talented editor, who has read the book countless times over the years. I spent four years working on it before it was sold to a publisher, and for most of that time, I had no agent. The book wasn’t even a book in a certain sense --- it was just a Microsoft Word document. My husband always believed in it and always treated it as the most important work I could be doing.
TBRN: What advice would you give to 20Somethings who are still navigating the Nate P.s of the world?
AW: It’s so hard when you are stuck on someone, but no matter how great he seems --- no matter how smart, funny, charming --- if you are with a guy who is checked out of the relationship, it’s not going to work. You can play hard to get if you want, but it will only put off the inevitable. If you really like him, eventually your true feelings will show through in spite of your best efforts, and if his response is to back away, then you are right back to where you were before you started to play it cool. The good news is that you can do better. At some point after you’ve shaken off this one, you will meet a guy who is equally great and who truly wants to be in a relationship. You won’t have to have endless conversations with your girlfriends about why he does this or that mysterious thing or how you should act in response because everything will be so much easier: He will be kind and understanding and wanting to do 50 percent of the work to make the relationship succeed. That’s the guy you want to be with.
TBRN: What advice would you give to 20Something guys who are dealing with the Hannahs, Aurits and Elisas of the world?
AW: Too often in situations where we have more power --- because someone seems to care about us so much --- we behave badly. We stop making an effort to be kind and understanding and allow our worst, most irritable and selfish impulses to take over. Only later, once the person has finally had enough and walked away, do we realize what we’ve done and wish we could take it back. In retrospect, we often can’t understand why we behaved so badly. Try then to be nice --- not to be a sucker, but to be kind, even when you don’t have to be. I promise you will have less to be ashamed of later.
TBRN: Is this the end for Nate P., or do you have more in mind for him?
AW: This is the end.
TBRN: If not, what are you working on next?
AW: A novel that is not told from the male point of view.
TBRN: And we have to ask, what is your best/worst/most embarrassing breakup story?
AW: Well, as I said, there is nothing that the women characters in this book say or do that I can’t relate to some extent or another. But that’s probably as personal as I want to go. I decided to write fiction, not a memoir, so I wouldn’t have to write about my personal life.