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Into the future with Jami Attenberg

If you get a chance to meet Jami Attenberg when she visits Miami next week, and midway through the conversation the novelist begins to look at you funny, don’t worry. It won’t be because of anything you’ve done. At least not yet.

“I have this thing when I meet people, and I’m talking to them for a while, my head very naturally just goes to this place where I try to figure out who they’re going to be in 20 years,” Attenberg says by phone from her home in Brooklyn. “My imagination just goes to that place. … I have to create a whole world around this person. It’s just a fun, imaginative thing to do. But then, of course, you think, ‘Well, I already know when you’re going to die.’ ”

Attenberg’s private parlor game has served her well not only at dinner parties and literary gatherings, but also in her fourth book, and third novel, “The Middlesteins,” first published last year to wide critical and commercial acclaim and released this week in paperback. In the book, which tells how members of a suburban Chicago family fall apart and come together while attempting to save the morbidly obese wife and mother Edie Middlestein from herself, Attenberg pulls off a neat bit of foreshadowing in which she, using only a few sentences and sometimes just a few words, reveals her characters’ fates long after the action in the novel has ended.

Attenberg expects roughly half the people who will show up to see her on her current book tour, which stretches into October and will bring her to the Coral Gables’ Books and Books on Monday, will already know what happens to the Middlesteins, and will arrive primed to talk about them. “I found with this book, and it’s so much different than my other books, people are really attached to these characters in a specific kind of way. And so they also just want to come and talk about how they feel about the characters, which is great. And I’m trying to figure out how much we’re going to talk about it, so it doesn’t spoil it for other audience members who haven’t read the book.”

As on her initial tour to promote “The Middlesteins,” Attenberg expects to spend much time talking about the book’s central character, who at 300-plus pounds is in miserable health, heading for divorce and unwilling and unable to cease her self-destructive behavior. Yet Edie Middlestein, an involuntarily retired lawyer, is also kind, loyal, funny, fiercely intelligent, and not so despairing that she’s closed off to pursuing a new romance when the opportunity arises. The empathy that Attenberg displays for Edie has proved to be contagious.

“One of the most-common things that I’ve heard is, ‘I know someone just like Edie,’ ” Attenberg says. “I haven’t met anyone who said, ‘I am Edie.’ Although I’ve met people who’ve said, ‘I have food issues,' or ‘I’m in the process of working on it,’ or whatever. I haven’t had anyone come who’s in the same place that she’s at, but it seems that everyone knows an Edie in one way or another."

As relatable as Edie’s story may be, Attenberg maintains that she is no authority on weight issues, the food industry or nutrition. She is not the Michael Pollan of literature.

“I’m definitely not an expert. It’s fiction. And it’s a book about all of the Middlesteins, not just the one Middlestein,” Attenberg says. “So when I was sitting down to write it, I wasn’t thinking that I was an expert in any way at all. If anything, the book is really about encouraging people to communicate with their loved ones, which I don’t think you need to be an expert to understand the importance of communication. That was what I was thinking about more than anything when I was writing the book, just wanting to get people to talk to each other about health issues, or things they were concerned about.”

Although Attenberg says she is excited to resume this discussion with readers on her book tour — on the morning of this interview, the author was an hour or so away from heading out to her first stop in Boston — she’s also “really anxious to get back to writing.” Attenberg is more than 100 pages into her next novel, “Saint Mazie,” which is based on the life of Mazie Phillips, a woman she says “was this boozy, bawdy broad who ran a movie theater on the Bowery in New York in the 1920s through the 1940s.” But while she’s on tour, don’t be surprised if you see Attenberg’s byline popping up in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Rumpus, Salon or any of the many other publications and web sites to which she contributes essays and interviews. All she does is write.

“If I’m writing a book, I’m doing about a thousand words a day, which could take me all day, could take me a couple of hours a day. I’m usually working on a book in the mornings. I get up pretty early. I kind of sit at my desk all day,” Attenberg says. “Now, I’m not married, and I don’t have kids, and I don’t even have a pet, so this is basically all I do. I don’t have a ton of hobbies or anything like that. I have friends, and I ride my bike, and I go to yoga, but it’s not like I’m doing much more than that. Whenever people say that I’m prolific, I’m like, ‘I don’t do anything else.’ It’s just my job to just sit there and just do that. If your job was to just sit there and work in a factory and just bang out toys all day, you would bang out toys all day, because that’s your job. I just sit there and do it until I don’t have any ideas left.

“There’s just so much going on in the world,” she adds, “I don’t know how you couldn’t constantly be writing.”

Jami Attenberg will appear 8 p.m. Monday, June 10, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Call 305-442-4408 or go to

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