The Virtue of an Open Heart/Jami Attenberg, author of the acclaimed new novel "Saint Mazie," is expert at revealing the underlying grace in the wreckage of hard lives.


MANCHESTER, NH, N.H., June 11, 2015 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Among many other things, Jami Attenberg is a faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program, the author of the just-published and already acclaimed "Saint Mazie"—and a crime victim.

The Brooklyn resident had returned from a concert at Madison Square Garden to find that her bike—left chained near a Williamsburg subway stop—had been stolen. The next morning she went on Craigslist in search of a cheap used bike and found her own bike advertised by someone living a few blocks from that subway stop.

Attenberg called the police, who set up a sting involving Attenberg herself meeting the seller. He arrived with the bike, and several cops waiting in ambush made the bust.

"It was now 11:30 AM and we had made some justice happen in a very short time," Attenberg wrote in her blog. "One of the cops said, 'A lot of people get robbed in this town, but very few get their stuff back. You're very lucky.'"

In fact it's just that—the rarity of such favored outcomes, the lack of such how-it-ought-to-be—that has commended the power of imagination to this novelist. "We write things because we want to see them exist," she said tellingly in a recent interview with The Rumpus.

But that hardly makes Attenberg a dewy fantasist. "The Middlesteins," published by Grand Central in 2012, concerns a family whose members are as self-destructive as they are luckless—and yet, at the same time, they possess grace, generosity, and love.

"In the near term, the tragedies that befall this suburban Jewish family break it apart," wrote The New York Times, "but the longer-term effects are different: parents and children find mutual understanding, siblings comfort each other, warring parties find common ground in grief, and those who approach the world with an open heart receive love in return."

In her new novel, Attenberg has a protagonist who really did exist, a woman memorialized in a 1940 New Yorker piece by Joseph Mitchell. Mazie Phillips, wrote Mitchell, had "the roughest tongue and the softest heart in the Third Precinct."

Attenberg's Mazie is an extrapolation of the woman Mitchell described. For example, in Mitchell's essay, when someone asks Mazie about her romantic status, she replies, "Do I look like the sort of girl who can't get a date?"

Attenberg takes that thread and embroiders it into her portrait of a woman sexually bold for her time, one "admirable in her forthrightness," Attenberg told The Rumpus. "I just really wanted to write a character who owned her sexual choices."

But the novel is also faithful to the known facts about a woman whose rough childhood led to 13-hour days selling tickets out of the booth of the Venice Theater, near the southern tip of the Bowery—and whose soft heart led her to nights visiting the destitute men sleeping on Bowery streets, passing out quarters and bars of soap, paying for flophouses and summoning ambulances.

Attenberg is also the author of "Instant Love," a collection of stories, and the novels "The Kept Man" and "The Melting Season." "The Middlesteins" was her breakout work, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a New York Times bestseller, and widely translated. 

"Saint Mazie"—which appeared on nearly every list of the summer's most anticipated books—may prove even bigger. "Full of love and drink and dirty sex and nobility and beef stew," said The New York Times, adding that Attenberg's  heroine "truly is a wonder."

"A boisterous, deep, and provocative novel," said the Boston Globe. And Canada's National Post: "It takes millions of Mazies to build one great city, and that means millions of remarkable stories left untold. It's a shame Attenberg can't tell them all."

"We're all excited about the success of this new novel," said fellow novelist Benjamin Nugent, director of Southern New Hampshire's MFA program. "And of course we feel privileged to have a writer of Jami's depth and accomplishment working with our students."

Oh, and that guy arrested with her bike? He was a heroin addict on the lookout for ways to feed his habit.

Attenberg knows all about how tough the world is, how rarely things work out right. But she knows about the points of light that lurk within every soul as well, and one has to suspect that this addict, approached with empathy, may one day end up in one of her open-hearted fictions about this great city.

Photos accompanying this release are available at:

attenberg-jami attenberg-mazie cover

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