“A Certain Type of Male Thinking”: An Interview with Adelle Waldman

by David Shapiro

On a Monday afternoon in May, Adelle Waldman is drinking an S. Pellegrino at a coffee shop on the south side of Fort Greene Park, wearing pronounced Warby Parker glasses, shifting a lot in her seat, nervously cutting herself off, pausing to think about what she’s just said, jumping through topics. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., her debut novel, came out in paperback on May 6, and tonight, Warby Parker is throwing a party to celebrate its release. On the day the book came out in paperback, she also released New Year’s: Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of His Friend Aurit, a Kindle Single whose title is helpfully literal.

I felt exposed when I read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. There are some things in it that I didn’t think men would admit to themselves or their therapists, but especially not to a woman. After I read it, my then-girlfriend nervously asked me if it was all accurate. My mom said she hated all of the characters. Who were the men she spoke to for research for the book who were spilling my secrets? How could a woman read this book and be comfortable with me or any man who resembled Nate? So I wanted to ask her about that and some other stuff.

What kind of research did you do for the book, like in service of Nate’s inner life?

Research? I guess I didn’t really do any — I thought that the kinds of issues I wanted to explore were ones I couldn’t ask men about and get straight answers. The kinds of things I wanted to ask were, like, “Why did you lose interest in this woman?” The problem is that the answer would be, “I don’t know.” I think interviews can be good for a certain kind of reporting when the information you’re seeking is straightforward, but this wouldn’t have worked like that.

And I knew what Nathaniel’s external behaviors would be like because I knew that the story I wanted to tell was about a guy who, after initial wariness, really likes a woman, but then slowly starts feeling cold. He gets bored when things go from the dating vibe to the normal relationship vibe, and it freaks him out a little, and she senses it, and they start magnifying each other’s insecurity.

I knew what that looked like, but it took a long time to come up with what I thought would be the thinking that would underlie that kind of external behavior. Whether or not the book rings true, I knew I was going to do what I wanted to do — I was willing to take the chance that men would say, “It sounds like a woman wrote it.”

But I did learn some “guy facts” from speaking to men. For instance, from a friend of mine named… Lou? He said…

Did you make that name up? He could just remain nameless if you want.

[Laughs.] No, it’s Lou. But I’ve embarrassed him before so I had to think about it. Anyway, my husband goes to a writing space every day. He says he’s in a better mood if he just goes someplace, but Lou said he goes to a writing space so he can’t look at Internet porn all day. In a thousand years, I would never have thought of that! Men have a different relationship with Internet porn. But so in the book, Nate says something like, “at a coffee shop I can’t look at porn.”

Does the fact that you and your husband are both writers make your relationship competitive?

Well, first, he’s not a fiction writer, so that’s really big. Beyond that, it’s great in a lot of ways but it has a lot of problems. [Pauses.] We met when we were both freelance book reviewers. I was also making money as an SAT tutor, but I was reviewing books for the New York Observer and I was excited to meet someone else who was so into books. He actually encouraged me to start writing Nathaniel P. I met him during the year I was depressed about not having my first book published. I made him read the first book after it had already been rejected — we’d been dating for like a month, but it was, like, a precondition to continuing to date me because it was just the central facet of my inner life. [Laughs.] He had to read it and pretend he liked it to continue dating me. [Laughs.]

He’s my best reader. I feel like my work has benefited in so many ways from him. My strengths as a writer were in the psychological, but I feel like when you’re so closely involved with another person who’s also a writer, you get the benefit of their own fixations. For example, he’s a great reader for cutting out unnecessary words — he’s so sensitive to it. And to things exaggerated for no reason, like instead of writing, “It was a really cold February,” writing, “It was an ice age.” This is not something I’ve ever written, but I came across the phrase in a book a few months ago and it made me think of him because he is so sensitive not simply to cliché, which is obvious, but to casual exaggeration. He read Nathaniel P. more times than anyone, and so now, his aesthetic preferences have taken hold in my head.

But eventually he got sick of reading drafts and sick of hearing about Nate and Hannah. After a while, we would joke that if he had insomnia, all I had to do was start talking about Nate and Hannah and he would fall asleep.

Tell me about your first book, the unpublished one.

Oh, it’s about a family on the Upper West Side with four adult children — one gets arrested in Peru and charged with terrorism-related crimes. It’s… a psychological drama. [Laughs.] It will live in a drawer forever. I was 29 when I wrote it, in just a few months — the next one was half as long and took five years to write. I’d always wanted to be a novelist but all the fiction I wrote in my twenties sucked.

But writing the first book really helped me — writing a novel that had a beginning, a middle, an end, and a cast of characters. Before it, I thought of myself as a person with a day job, but in my mind, I was a novelist, and after I wrote it, I really was a novelist. That was important for me. After I finished, I sent it to agents, and the response wasn’t great — it took about a year before I realized it wasn’t going to be sold. I reread it recently and it’s not so bad that it could never have been published, but now I’m glad it wasn’t published — it’s nice that it can stay in the drawer.

Do you wonder if the dispiriting things about Nate might be true about your husband?

There were times I wrote things that rang true as I wrote them and I would come out of my office and be mad at my husband for them. [Laughs.] He would be like, “I didn’t do anything!” But mostly, writing the book was a complete subjugation of my internal ego — I wasn’t trying to think, like, “If this is how Nate feels about Hannah, is this how my ex-boyfriend thinks about me?” I couldn’t write a book like that.

Do you think about how the book affects single women? Not that, like, I can speak for them, but I guess if I learned about women what the book puts on display about men, I don’t know if I could function in some ways.

Well, I hope the book is “true” in the sense of being representative of a certain type of male thinking. I do get why that’s depressing for women, but I think it’s better to know what we’re dealing with than to be deceived. It can be comforting to imagine that every time a relationship ends, it’s because “the guy has commitment issues,” but that’s not true.

On the other hand, I feel bad when women tell me it makes them feel bad about dating. I was a woman dating once! I guess Adelle, the person, personally feels bad about the book being depressing because I do think it’s hard to be a single woman — our society doesn’t make it easy by imputing desperation to women just based on their gender and singleness. But as Adelle, the author, all I want to write is what’s true, regardless of how it makes anyone feel.

Is there one particular person Nate is based on? People say, you know, or think, you know…

I didn’t mean for him to be a particular person. The person who I’m generally asked if Nate is modeled on is someone I don’t know/ barely know — the type is someone literary/ intellectual who felt, plausibly, like someone I could meet in Brooklyn.

Some early readers read it and said they saw a resemblance. Others said they didn’t see a resemblance. I think it’s just because of a few obvious characteristics that people thought there was a match between my character and this specific real-life person.

I worried about a lot of things before it came out — whether or not it would be reviewed or not because people thought it might be chick lit, whether I’d offended a book review editor at a party seven years ago, whether the book was true on a deep emotional level. But I didn’t really worry about resemblances, although I don’t want to do harm to any actual people, especially people I don’t know who I have zero grudge against! I guess, if there’s one thing I regret about the book, it’s that it might have caused some actual person to feel hurt or exposed, but it’s weird to say “exposed,” because how could someone be exposed if I don’t know them?

What are you working on now?

I just wrote a story from the perspective of Aurit — it came out as an eBook from Picador. I mentioned to Picador that I had a lot of material about all of the characters that didn’t make it into the Nathaniel P. novel. The publisher, Stephen Morrison, asked if I’d be interested in putting some of that material into a short story. Originally I was hesitant because I saw the novel as an aesthetic whole — this wasn’t something I’d intended to do. But the idea also intrigued me because there were issues I was interested in exploring. I decided to give it a try and see how I felt.

When I sat down to write from Aurit’s perspective, the story took on a life of its own, and I became fully invested in it. Writing from Aurit’s perspective gave me a very welcome opportunity to write a counterpoint to Nate’s constant pronouncements about women’s appearances. In the novel, I wrote from the perspective of the objectifier, and it was liberating for me to write from the perspective of a woman who is aware of being objectified and who has a range of complicated feelings about that, from disapproval on feminist and ethical grounds to also wanting, on a visceral emotional level, to be seen as attractive. I see this as the flip side to what was for me one of the most important strands of the novel, about how gender plays out in the real world among middle-class, well-meaning people.

Plus, it was nice to write fiction again after doing, you know, publicity.

I’m going to start another novel this summer. My life is better when I have a fictional world to retreat into because it takes the pressure off my real life — it’s like a source of excitement and drama that’s kind of… Contained?

Do you ever get tired of the book? Like, doing publicity for it, talking about it, etc.?

I feel like it makes me feel really narcissistic and self-involved if I say I’m not tired of it, but I spent a long time on this book and became so interested in this guy’s psychology. He feels like my brother. I’m still so interested in peoples’ reactions and I really like having conversations about whether Nate is culpable, whether he wound up with the right person, etc. It still hasn’t exhausted my interest. But I find that embarrassing! It would reflect better on me if I were sick of it. [Laughs.]

David Shapiro wrote Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. He has this book coming out in July.