"Saint Mazie" - In Conversation with Jami Attenberg

A little over a week ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Jami Attenberg, author, most recently, of Saint Mazie (Grand Central Publishing, 2015), an engaging read that is centered around Mazie Phillips-Gordon (a.k.a. the "Queen of the Bowery”), who devoted much of her life to generously giving to — and looking after — those in need of help. Read on to see what Jami had to say about her inspiration for the book, her influences and more.

Jami Attenberg (Photo: Michael Sharkey)

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): What was your inspiration for the book? When did you know that you wanted to write about Mazie and her family?

Jami Attenberg (JA): Well, I learned about her from a friend of mine. Then I read about her in the Joseph Mitchell collection, Up in the Old Hotel. I almost instantly thought I could write a book about her. I just found her fascinating and there wasn’t a lot of information about her out there. There really was just the essay about her and a couple of other things. So, I felt really intrigued by her and inspired by her story. She seemed to be a really flawed but compelling person, and a caring person who helped a lot of people.

AD: It really is surprising, given how much good she did, that more hadn’t been written about her. 

JA: Yeah. I think that there probably are a lot of Mazies out there that are unsung heroes. So, this is just one. I think that there are probably a lot of people doing great things out there.

AD: And I think that the format of the book is an interesting choice as well. It helps us have more context in terms of what was going on — helps us get a more complete perspective — and it’s just so interesting to really see her story from all these different points of view. 

JA: I think that part of it was my not having all that much information, and I just decided that I wanted to have access by creating these characters who would talk about her. 

AD: As you say, it is based upon a real person and the work that she did, so I was wondering what it was like to do the research for it. 

JA: I was initially resistant against doing research because I’m not that interested in history. I’m not somebody who reads a lot of historical fiction or someone who studies history, but I ended up being really captivated, fascinated and inspired by the things that I learned about her and the era in which she lived. I’ve lived in New York City since 1998 — I’m originally from the Chicago area — and I don’t think I ever knew the city so well until I wrote this book. 

AD: And as much as all of the good that she did, helping countless homeless individuals over the years, I think it’s interesting that we also get this look into the family and into the dynamic that existed. For instance, I think that when Rosie goes off to pursue her own interests once she gets older, and she’s kind of disconnected from the family, there’s a little bit of this resentment that’s palpable. 

JA:  I think that’s a fair read of it. I wanted to show how some people could be trapped in a family life and some people can be free, but as a woman there are these constraints on you because of society — particularly in that era.

AD: Yeah. It does seem like there was this very narrow definition of what a so-called “respectable” woman was supposed to do — or was expected to do — back then. Unfortunately and unfairly, if you didn’t fit into this neat little box, it seems as though you weren’t exactly looked upon favorably.

JA: Right. All of them are sort of these renegades. They never really had an opportunity to have a conventional life because of the family background. Coming from an abusive background, they really were on their own from a very young age. So, they’re kind of steering their own ship as best they can, with as much agency as they might have had as women, which was limited in that era.

AD: Another thing that I found interesting is that in spite of all the good Mazie does, it seems as though she has this really negative self-image.

JA: Yeah. She’s somebody who has layers of guilt, but at the same time she’s an incredibly confident person. That’s just kind of why I found her interesting, why I found her to be so complex. I don’t know if she was that way in real life. Obviously, this is my fictional version of her. She definitely has her struggles in life.

"Saint Mazie" by Jami Attenberg, out now from Grand Central Publishing

AD: Which is part of what makes what she did all the more remarkable. Despite having gone through many difficulties — lots of trauma — she still seems to care very much about the plight of others and about the well-being of others. She saw the importance of helping them, rather than judging them.

JA: She was a really great person. That was the thing I admired about the real Mazie — her commitment to helping people — although it didn’t seem like she always thought that it was that big of a deal. She was committed to helping her community and serving the people around her. 

AD: And in your book, at least, she even questions what the point of having money is. Is it so that she can buy another dress? She has a closet full of them. The idea being that the ultimate use of the money is using it to help someone else, someone in need.

JA: She was just this truly charitable person. Certainly, when I sat down to write this book, I had the intention behind it that once they had read it, it would inspire people to be more charitable. There’s a certain morality to the book, which is maybe not a particularly contemporary thing to have, but it was how I felt about her. I felt inspired by her, so I wanted to share that.

AD: Apart from helping the homeless, it seems like it was also important to her that they’re not just this nameless, faceless mass of people, easily forgotten. She wanted to give them a face and a voice.

JA: Absolutely. She didn’t want them to become lost in the streets of New York.

AD: Who would you say are your influences, literarily speaking?

JA: I have a lot of influences. My peers influence me. I would say Grace Paley is somebody who influenced me. I think she was my biggest inspiration for this book. There are a lot of wonderful writers out there, and so many great books, but I really love her a lot.

AD: Any book recommendations you might have?

JA: So many great books just came out this fall. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is wonderful. Chinelo Okparanta's Under the Udala Trees is about to come out and that was really great. Judy Blume’s new book [In the Unlikely Event] is really great. Lindsay Hunter — who’s also from Chicago — is really wonderful.

 

Jami Attenberg is the New York Times bestselling author of The Middlesteins, Instant Love, The Kept Man, and The Melting Season. She has written for the New York Times and numerous other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is originally from Buffalo Grove, Illinois. For more information, including upcoming events, visit her website. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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