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A Middle-Aged Coming Of Age In 'All Grown Up'

Is it possible to write a coming of age novel when your main character is 39 years old? Jami Attenberg attempts just that in her new novel All Grown Up.

Protagonist Andrea Bern is about to turn 40 — she lives in Brooklyn, working as a graphic designer in advertising. She's a failed artist, and she's trying to figure out a path to happiness.

"I don't know who made these rules, who made this list of milestones ..." Attenberg says. "It looks something like: being married or partnered up, having a kid, owning a home, knowing what your career is and what direction you want to be going."

These trappings of adulthood have remained elusive for Andrea.

"Sometimes those milestones aren't of interest to people or available to people," Attenberg says. "How do you figure out what it means to be an adult if you haven't achieved those traditional milestones?"

(Ed Note: Speaking of adult, there are some adult subjects referenced in the highlights below.)

Interview Highlights

On knowing she always wanted to be an artist and writer

I didn't have anything else figured out, but I knew that I always wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to be an artist. ... I think that if you can figure out what you want to do with your life you're one of the luckiest people in the world because I know so many people that struggle with that.

On how she wrote the book

I wrote it really quickly. ... I wrote three chapters in the book as short stories and then I put it away for a year because even though the character isn't me, I was going to have to think about being an adult and being a grownup, and look at my own life so that I could understand how to write about it in somebody else's character.

I showed [a novelist friend] some of the stories and he was like: I don't understand why you're not writing this book. ... I just went on a real tear and I think I wrote it probably from beginning, to middle, to end, within a six-month period.

On not holding back in her writing

The old saying is: You have to write as if your parents are dead ... that's an oldie but goodie. You have to just speak the truth even if you're writing fiction, right? It's that there's an emotional truth to it. So in all areas everything that I'm writing I'm really trying to be as bold and brave as possible.

On writing Andrea's sex scenes

All sex scenes to me are entertaining. ... I usually try to write really positive sex scenes but this one ... I think that at one point I describe her as achieving an orgasm in a minor key which really entertained me. Bad sex is still good. It's still interesting from a writing perspective — you get to know about characters in that way.

On how she hopes people will read the book

I like the idea of somebody buying it in an airport ... and then finishing it by the end of the trip — and sort of sobbing on the plane, too, that would be a little fantasy of mine as well.

On where we leave Andrea

I think she's getting to a place where she ... comes to a place of understanding. Where she's a little bit less self-involved and a little bit more understanding of the rest of the world around her. I think she's certainly making adult decisions by the end of the book.

Barrie Hardymon, James Delahoussaye and Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.