Adelle Waldman originally set out to write a response to all the novels about young literary men coming to New York. For her, there always seemed to be a key element missing from the romantic relationships in these books; The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. and its central character directly addresses the complications of love affairs that are so often glossed over.
Waldman's debut novel is carefully constructed and observed. It doesn't give a sunny portrait of dating; instead, it presents one that is usually bleak. Which isn't to say we weren't warned: Waldman opens the novel with a quotation from George Eliot's Romola: "To give a true account of what passes within us, something else is necessary besides sincerity."
The character at the center of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is divisive. A twenty-something Brooklyn writer on the brink of publishing his first novel, Nathaniel has a brutal intelligence. He is keenly observant and possesses an analytical mind tuned for criticism. While he focuses on his soon-to-emerge literary career, the novel centers on his romantic relationships. Nate creates standards for the purpose of watching everyone around him fail.
Nate criticizes one of his exes, a doctor, for her "lack of literary sensibly, the sheer practicality of her intelligence." Another, a magazine assistant, he describes as having become "another attractive, unhappy single woman who could be seen at certain types of parties complaining about her job and the men she'd been with." And another, a memoirist for not really being a writer, but rather an amusing diary-keeper. Unfairness abounds. The narration consists of Nate defending himself for making these criticisms. The book consciously puts the reader in the role of the judge—a role that's sometimes fun, usually concerning, and often disconcerting.
I met Adelle Waldman at Outpost in Brooklyn—a cafe she visited almost ritually in the process of writing her novel to read through the finished drafts and get a sense of the work as a whole. We parsed through the book, beginning with people's strong reactions to the title character:
I'm always curious what people think of Nate. Some people hate Nate, some people think he's fine.
Not to reduce perceptions about him, but do you have a general sense of a ratio breakdown of people that hate him and people that love him?
I was writing the book and I gave it to friend chapter by chapter and others I'd give a few chunks. And there were reasons, because I had never written any fiction, it made it feel a little more hopeful, it was not just me reading a Microsoft Word document and it made it a little fun.
When I actually finished finished, there were like ten friends. It was a spectrum. One really hated Nate and one, a guy friend, who basically thought Nate was great. To him, Nate was vindication of everything, like "yes, this is why women drive you crazy." And most people felt like Nate is seriously flawed in ways, but he's not totally crazy. But now that it's going out to more and more people I'm getting more of people really hating Nate than I did in my original set.
I just tried to make him feel real and I had a love-hate relationship with him, but I don't entirely hate him, I don't think I could have to spend that much time. I think that he probably has more enemies that friends.
Was this an initial choice when you first started the novel to write from a male perspective?
I've read many books, many of which I really love, by male authors about men that come to the city and have these romantic adventures and I had this feeling about something that was getting lost about the women's experience and about how men treat women and it's sort of like… I could write a book like this from a male point of view and I could draw on years on analyzing various boyfriends of mine and my friends and spent a lot of time thinking about why is he doing something or why is this person who is very smart and sensitive in this way maybe not in this other way? Years of knowledge I can just put this into a novel.
It started as maybe a challenge or a dare, but then it took on a life of its own, definitely. It became more like fun. The first draft I wasn't sure if it would pan out or I would stick to it. Yeah I could write something where I could scrutinize the guy for how he treats women.There turned out to be a lot of advantages writing from this perspective, where I felt that previous experiences writing for fiction were a more direct auto-biographical route didn't quite work as well because I identified too much with the character, didn't have enough perspective or used the character to vindicate myself in some way. Nate is so not me that I felt like I could separate myself from the character, and I found that to be really useful, though it was hard to see the world differently.
The way the novel is structured is from girlfriend to girlfriend. Do you think that this is how Nate organizes his life—by girlfriend? Or by career?
I think he would see his life as struggling freelance writer to more successful freelance writer, because I think that is probably more important in terms of his happiness, not his day-today happiness, but his sense of himself. So that's how he sees his life, rather than the girlfriends and that was partly why I wanted to write the book, because I wanted to show men who treat women this way—it's not that he's an abuser, nothing like that, but his primary interest is his career. But he gets involved with these women and that has emotional repercussions for him and the women. I wanted to spend more time on that than I think men like him do. My interest is his romantic life but I think Nate as a person he wants to think about books, in a way that's self-serving because he doesn't want to think about these awkward situations.
Yes definitely, he considers the women in terms of how they contribute to his ego and status. You said that you wanted to challenge these young literary men novels. Where there any in particularly that set your off or that you wanted to write in response to?
I really like Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow, I love both, but I wanted to do something different, but they're definitely those. Or guys I knew who were writing novels. There were all of these books by men about this and they're just not getting something. I don't think most women I know would really see their own experience in these books.
How did Nate and the other characters evolve through your writing?
All the characters were developed throughout. Initially they were all more cartoonish and one-dimensional. I went through and wrote the novel from the perspective of each character—Elisa, or Aurit or Jason and just making sure that I knew what their inner life was like. I wanted to be fair to each of them and to make sure they were thought through. I'm sort of fond of all them, I'm a little biased because I've spent time with all of them.
Nate too. He was… people reacted to him so differently. He was worse the first draft! He was more obnoxious and pretentious. I think I was trying to prove something that I could write this character and I think I over did it to make him super smart in a pretentious way. I think I overdid it, he was a little too insufferable.
There was one turning point in the book for me where he's describing Elisa, she's now one of this attractive unhappy women that goes to parities and is publicly unhappy about men and her profession life. This is beginning to smack of misogyny…
Totally. I felt like I wanted to be true to how I think someone like Nate might think and I think that there are things that men can't actually say in their novels because they would be accused of misogyny, but I can say them.
I feel like he says things about women's writing that there is no way a male novelist would… or about their appearance. And sometimes it was upsetting to me or troubling to be in his head and I'd get upset and I'd get mad my husband for just being a guy… and he would think it was kind of unfair for something I made my imaginary character think. But what I want it be honest about what I think someone like him might think. And it might be uncomfortable but once it's out there we can talk about it.
How did you get at that?
One of the reasons it took me so many years was just trying to create the world from Nate's point of view. There were just moments with various men I know where I thought that's interesting, I would think that way. You have to think in such a different way to recreate someone that. I was always throwing stuff out that didn't seem right. Like "oh I'm being too hard on Nate. I'm not trying to turn him into a caricature of a sexist asshole," or "no that's too sentimental, this is how I think but Nate would not be so tenderhearted." So I was trying stuff and I would try to get it have this ring of "oh this sounds right," and get it close to having a ring of truth.
You mentioned Roth and Bellow, but were there any books you were reading at the time that you looked to for a specific voice or structure?
The ones I turned to the most were The Corrections and Revolutionary Road and Goodbye, Columbus, those were ones I read lots of times. Also for me as a person, 19th century writers—George Eliot, Jane Austen. I learned a lot about psychology through those books. They were really smart about how people work and also maybe too about recreating—George Eliot does a good job of showing people that are so different form her. Spending so much time reading those books in my twenties was useful, not so much stylistically, because I can't live in a different time period, I can't write a novel with a omniscient narrator. It seems a little dated and it would be so pretentious and stilted taking that voice. But I definitely felt like I learned so much about people from those books. And Franzen is a great psychological novelist and so is Yates, but I was looking to those for things I couldn't look for in George Eliot like structure and how to organize a contemporary novel.
Are you ready to get started working on another book?
I so look forward to the days of working on another novel… I loved being in the imaginary world of this novel. But it's just amazing to me how distracting it is to look into this other world. I have an idea for this other novel but I just cant write it while simultaneously having all these emails back and forth with my editor about how do we arrange the blurbs on the marketing thing. It's such a different mindset but I miss that some. But the idea I have in mind is not from the perspective of a guy.
Besides being female, do you want to write a character that is more similar to you in terms of personality?
I think I want to write something slightly nicer? I don't know. I wanted some aspect of women's experience to come up in this book, but there are ways that… Maybe nicer isn't the best world. This novel spends a lot time on trying to convey aspects of the writerly world and status consciousness and I hope it's fair. It makes fun of worlds like Harvard, suburban Baltimore. It was fun to write about these world, but maybe there was some insecurity of a first time novelist: "I want to get everyone's attention and make them laugh so maybe I will fill it with a little joke every second about the writing world."
What is the most important part of the novel to you?
There is something I wanted to say about dating: that it's important and it's fraught in the way that emotions matter. And that matters to me and I wanted to write about it seriously and the issues are so near and dear to my heart and talking about how novels historically have done this. Do novels that deal with relationships tend to be labeled chick lit?
I mean definitely there is a part of me in writing the book that I was conscious I am a woman and I know this world… I don't want to exaggerate sexism, but there is a way in which men like Nate think they're smarter than most women they know.
There was a way in which the book was a response to a certain type of perception I had as a woman that there are these guys that aren't consciously sexist but take for granted that their intellectual peers are other men, that other men are the ones they're competing with. Writing a book is a way to challenge that.
The interview was edited for length and clarity. To contact the author of this post, please email, email@example.com.