Adelle Waldman first got serious about writing after she dropped out of Brown University for a year and became a waitress at an Arizona sports bar. To pass the time, the Baltimore native read everything she could find and started writing short stories, all of which she admits are now embarrassing to reread. She went back to Providence, R.I., graduated and moved to New York City, eventually earning a journalism degree from Columbia and landing newspaper jobs, including one as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal in New York. More important, she began writing a novel.
It took Waldman, 36, five years to finish and publish her debut, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” The book has been widely praised as an incisive and witty piece of social criticism focused on contemporary dating, with clever nods to writers such as Jane Austen and Dorothy Parker. Before a scheduled visit to Politics and Prose Bookstore on Monday, Waldman spoke with The Washington Post’s Rachel Lubitz about inspiration, relationships and the challenges of creating a “real” and possibly unlikable protagonist.
It sort of seemed like a dare. I started thinking about how many books I had read by male authors about this young guy who comes to the city and conquers it with his intellect and charm and covers a wide swath of the female population and it’s all very charming. I thought that there was something missing in some of these books. I think what happens with a lot of these books is that there’s a truth about the man in the center that’s being edited out and glorified. It just seemed really interesting if I could focus on the aspects of the character being mean and I don’t just whitewash over the ugly, daily, minute details of rating women and things that I think a person wouldn’t write if they were trying to write a more self-glorifying account.
I tried really hard to not think about whether I or others would like Nate but the thing that I thought had to be my guiding principle was for it all to feel real. I thought of guys that I had dated and my friends had dated and guys who would be a jerk in some way and then there were guys who could be mean but also admirable at times, and I just felt like that’s what I’m going for. I want Nate to seem like a person that I had met or could have met that’s hard to categorize. I didn’t want to analyze. And I thought that sometimes he’s not the nicest of guys and maybe people don’t want to read about this guy, but I shut that off because I really wanted to write about him.
Well, I love Jane Austen. I think she is really analytical about personal life that I was always extremely drawn to. And I think her books often follow a woman character trying to figure out how to evaluate other people. I think it’s easy to think Jane Austen is writing these light comedies, but I think there’s a lot that’s morally useful and smart about her analysis of her characters that I look to while writing. I’m still struck whenever I read her books every few years that they’re so brisk and intelligent and there’s cultural and intellectual criticism in every line. Every time I read them I find new lines that are just so completely witty that I have no recollection of having read before. And it’s always great finding them again.
I feel like I had done the research throughout years and years of my own dating experience and my friends’ dating experiences. There’s something really gratifying about that, that all those conversations talking about these guys and girls and everyone’s relationships that they turned out incredibly useful. It wasn’t like I could ask my male friends what Nate’s problem was, but I could talk to them about dating. And I understood that Nate doesn’t mean to be mean; he’s not trying to hurt people. But there’s the combination of lack of empathy and selfishness at the same time.
One book that comes to mind is the book “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys. It’s a story told by the crazy woman in the attic, and I think that’s one case of a book written from an unlikely perspective that really worked.
I really like [Jonathan] Franzen and I turned to “The Corrections” more than a few times because of the structure of it. “Revolutionary Road” [by Richard Yates] I turned to more than a few times. Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Middlemarch” by George Eliot, which I didn’t necessarily turn to for a structure or tone but certain insights about relationships. I just felt that Eliot did a really good job of writing a character that is very smart and admirable in certain ways but has blind spots in terms of his personal life.
I want people to grapple with Nate and to grapple with what they like about him and what they don’t like about him. In some ways I want to say, “Don’t think that Nate is representative of all men.” That’s important to me. [But] as much as I think there are aspects of him that are typically male, there’s this warning to avoid people who lack a kind of desire for meaningful connection and to seek people out who really like you.