Why We’re All Talking About ‘Nathaniel P.’

How a debut novel broke through

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.Allie Lee hadn’t actually read the book, but she still referred to a guy as a “total Nathaniel P.” Her friend, of course, got it.

“It’s definitely becoming a term,” said Ms. Lee, a 23-year-old who works in finance and first heard about the book, Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., from a male friend. She defined a Nathaniel P as self-conscious, well-read and “somewhat arrogant,” an intellectual who “has studied feminism in a classroom and thinks he gets it, but doesn’t” and exists largely in neighborhoods like Boerum Hill, where Ms. Lee’s conversation with her friend took place.

You may have your own definition of a Nathaniel P.; seemingly everyone does. One of the hallmarks of Ms. Waldman’s 2013 novel, which comes out in paperback this week, is the vigorous conversation it generates. What does Nathaniel P. say about gentrification? What does it reveal about the modern male psyche and dating mores? Which real-life Brooklyn writers are the main characters based on? Who will play Nate in the movie?

To which one might add: how did a relatively low-key, conventional-sounding novel from a debut author of no particular renown, writing in nothing if not a crowded literary field (yet another novel from Brooklyn about itself), manage to become not just a publishing sensation but a cultural touchstone?

If anyone should know, it’s James Meader, the executive director of publicity at Picador and a publicist at large at Henry Holt, which published Nathaniel P.

“This is the first book I’ve worked on where colleagues from other publishing houses were actually calling me and saying: ‘What did you do on this book? I’ve seen it everywhere,’” said Mr. Meader, who told his colleagues exactly what they didn’t want to hear: he did nothing differently. The only change was that everything he always hopes for with a book happened.

“You always want it to be a Barnes and Noble pick. You always want lots of great blurbs. You always want a broad spectrum of publications to review it,” underplayed Mr. Meader.

Some refuse to rule out the occult (“I don’t know how Holt did it. It was just  . . . magic,” said Maris Kreizman, a publishing project specialist at Kickstarter. “If I knew, I’d be a billionaire”), while others point to the obvious: the book just happens to be really, really good. But as any publisher can tell you, and will if you sign a contract with their house, as a way of lowering expectations: lots of really really good books go nowhere.

So how did Nathaniel P. break out?

Adelle Waldman

Adelle Waldman.

***

Nathaniel P.  was not Ms. Waldman’s first stab at fiction. An earlier novel about a multigenerational Upper West Side family was written while the author, now 37, was in her twenties, freelancing for various magazines and penning a column for the Wall Street Journal. An agent spent a year trying to sell the manuscript before it was shelved. In the aftermath, Ms. Waldman switched day jobs, abandoning freelancing for the straightforward hours of SAT tutoring, and began what would become Nathaniel P.

During this time she also met and married the writer Evan Hughes, author of the 2012 nonfiction book, Literary Brooklyn.

“I don’t think I could’ve written this novel when I was dating,” Ms. Waldman told the Observer over ramen at Gotham West. “There’s no exact Hannah and Nate relationship in my past. But I wanted to take the basic narrative plot and come up with a plausible rationale for behaving in this way.”

“There are many, many books,” she added, “about charming bright guys who have mixed track records with women, and often don’t feel like they have a problem—they feel like women are the needy or emotional ones. I like the idea of giving a name to that. I feel like it’s socially useful to isolate it and make it look less glamorous.”

It took Ms. Waldman three years to come up with a finished draft of her second book, at which point a friend connected her with Elyse Cheney, an agent with a record of developing literary fiction by and about young men.

“I thought that this was a book that Ben Kunkel, Keith Gessen or one of those guys could have written,” Ms. Cheney said. “It’s in the tradition of Roth and Bellow, a coming of age story about a male, except it was written by a woman. It seemed to inhabit the male psyche in an authentic way and answer a lot of questions women have about men.”

Ms. Cheney wrote detailed editorial notes, and Ms. Waldman began to revise. “At that point, if you had told me it would take another year, I would’ve killed myself,” Ms. Waldman said. But now she is glad it did. “Elyse was really good at pointing to parts that seemed kind of cartoonish. And once I started catching [those] myself, it became a better book.”

Ms. Waldman went back through the story from the perspective of each character to make sure the dialogue and action felt authentic—for example, a scene where, over arugula pizza, Nate’s friend Aurit gives him a hard time about his attitude towards dating. In an earlier draft, Aurit’s monologue prompted Nate to concede her point.

“But that’s not how it would really go,” Ms. Waldman realized during the process. “Nate would be annoyed and use all his ingenuity to prove Aurit wrong.”

(In the revised scene, Nate feels like “the subject of a highly sophisticated type of torture in which the torturer listens to your objections, even seems sympathetic, and then continues to administer electric shocks.”)

After the year of revision, the manuscript was ready. However, unlike her first novel, publishers responded immediately, with Henry Holt executive editor Barbara Jones buying the book in a pre-empt.

“I spent so many years working on the book, and in the end it happened it so quickly,” Ms. Waldman remembered. “I should have been really happy, but I was in this manic state from revising. I hadn’t really slept for like ten days, so I just felt kind of insane.”

But if Ms. Waldman was too exhausted to celebrate, her new publishing house wasn’t.

As soon as the book came in, Ms. Jones gave it to colleagues for their take. The next day, during a meeting in publisher Steve Rubin’s office, enthusiasm was unusually high. Ms. Jones, who had already finished the book, told her co-workers, who hadn’t, the ending. They “literally screamed,” Ms. Jones recalled, when they found out the result of Nate’s courtship of Hannah, the nice-girl object of his ambivalent affection for most of the book. Mr. Rubin called a colleague, who was late to the meeting, for some male reinforcement.

“Unfortunately, this rings true,” the colleague said when asked for his opinion on whether the novel captured the male mindset. One of Holt’s associate editors said she couldn’t wait to talk about Nathaniel P. with her book club. Ms. Jones knew her colleagues’ reaction bode well.

“If [they] aren’t enthusiastic, it should probably be published elsewhere, because it’s a team effort,” she said. “You need word of mouth and you need people to feel like they want to talk about it.”

As an editor, Ms. Jones calls herself fairly heavy-handed, but in this case her input was minimal. Most of the editing had already been done.

A summer 2013 publication date was set, almost five years to the day from when Ms. Waldman began writing it.

In January, Mr. Meader got a copy of the manuscript. Galleys hadn’t come in and the manuscript still had tracking changes.

“When Barbara told me James wanted to be the publicist, she was really excited, but I had no idea what that meant,” Ms. Waldman said. The two met over a productive martini lunch. (Mr. Meader is a fan of the traditional publishing lunch.)

Early reviews in trade magazines were not promising. None were starred, a distinction thought necessary for a first-time novelist to win the attention of book review editors. Kirkus likened Nate’s relationships to a Seinfeld episode and yearned for “at least one mature adult.” Publisher’s Weekly called the novel “pulpy,” and in a barbed compliment noted that the understated ending gave it a “satisfying poignancy.”

Given that Holt was attempting to position Nathaniel P. as a summer 2013 must-read, the reviews were cause for concern. The conventional wisdom in publishing is that men don’t buy fiction, especially when written by women. (Nate himself admits that, while he doesn’t like the idea of being sexist, he mostly prefers books by male authors.) However, “we were keen to get it into the hands of men,” Mr. Meader said. “We did not want it to be pigeonholed as novel by a woman for women.”

At GQ, Holt sent copies to the women in the office, who sure enough began to talk about the book. (A review by Kira Henehan ran in the June issue.) Ms. Jones also had her assistant make a list of nearly 100 assistants at other publishing houses to send copies.

“I decided that from senior editor up, you get a lot of books, so it wouldn’t necessarily be meaningful to get an early copy,” Ms. Jones remembered. However, the assistants read it and passed it around, while chatter grew.

At the same time, Ms. Jones also sent the book to publishing types with college-aged daughters.

“I worked it both ways,” she said. All in all, the editorial department sent out 200 galleys, and Ms. Jones hand-delivered another 50. At one meeting with an agent Ms. Jones tried to pass off a copy (nobody in publishing shows up to lunch empty-handed) but the agent said her husband had already read it and passed it on to their daughter.

“The strategy was like laying out a lot of dry kindling and lighting a fire,” Ms. Jones said. “We couldn’t make all the pieces of wood touch each other, but we could get them close enough.”

To get the burn going, Ms. Jones focused on getting the support of a few well-known authors. Above all, she was determined to somehow get the novel into the hands of Jay McInerney, and sent copies not only to the author and his agent, but to acquaintances and even family members.

It worked. Although he apparently had no idea how he wound up holding the book, on June 24, three weeks before the publication date, Mr. McInerney tweeted, with the sort of majesty that may have caused floors in the Flatiron building to buckle:

“In Monte Carlo waiting for rain to stop. Just finished very good first novel by Adelle Waldman, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”

* * *

By that time, Mr. Meader already knew the book was hitting, at least in the media. Mentions from authors such as Jonathan Franzen had come in, as well as – trades be damned – photo requests from long-lead glossies.

The novel ultimately went on to appear on at least 16 year-end best-of lists. People put it on its summer reading list. Glamour ran pieces on it twice. Cosmo and Vogue, as well as GQ and Grantland, wrote about it, and it appeared multiple times in both The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review. Jennifer Weiner railed against it. Washington Post books editor Ron Charles didn’t just write an extremely positive review, but publicly offered to pay his daughter’s college loans if she read it. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan pitched it to the tote bag set (“Before I read [the book] I had about as much interest in reading about the hip, young literary types who’ve colonized Brooklyn as I do in watching Duck Dynasty,” she wrote, before uncorking a gusher of praise.)

“None of these things are significant in and of themselves. They wouldn’t have helped get the conversation going,” Mr. Meader said. “But when you have enough of them working together in tandem, it sends the message that something is in the zeitgeist and worth a reader’s time.”

One reason the book went beyond mentions in magazines and book reviews is that its characters were identifiable types.

“I think it took me about two pages into it where I was like, fuck, this one is going to cut deep,”  said a male journalist from Brooklyn, who in true Nathaniel P. fashion  asked for anonymity to avoid sabotaging future dating prospects. “I mean, there’s no shortage of books about young struggling literary types in Brooklyn with nebulous romantic success, but Nathaniel P. was the first one I’d seen capture that sort of emotional indecisiveness in such a specific way.”

Of course, the fact that Nathaniel P. elicits strong reactions makes it a book people want to talk about, and recommend. Even people who dislike the book, and there are many, end up judging the characters like real people. As a result, issues like modern love and gender division became the conversation, not just the writing. Identifying with the characters, both by Nathaniel P. types and those who date them or avoid dating them, made the book into something larger.

“My mom always told me to go for the nice nerdy types because they’ll treat you right,” said Ms. Kreizman. “Nathaniel P. shows that that isn’t always so. It’s a really smart book that happens to be fun and gossipy.”

The gossipy element did not hurt, of course. But according to Ms. Waldman, while she was careful to make sure the main characters were not based on people she knows, it didn’t occur to her that people would make connections between peripheral characters and people in the literary world, mostly because she didn’t imagine the book becoming so successful.

“I so wanted to write something that felt true in a deeper way without it being a gossipy thing about real people, so I do feel bad if people made a connection to real people,” she said. “In retrospect it seems obvious, but of all the anxieties I had before the book was published, it seemed crazy to take for granted that people would even read my book.”

* * *

In mid-December, five months after the publication date, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spawned a flurry of think pieces when he used Nathaniel P. to explain why fathers of daughters become conservative. If the book wasn’t already slated for inclusion in year-end best-of lists, the piece secured its place.

And the long tail continues: for Valentine’s Day, at Washington Post books editor Ron Charles’ request, Ms. Waldman wrote a short piece imagining Nathaniel P. trying to navigate the Hallmark holiday. Meanwhile, for the paperback release, the author brought back the characters again for an e-book prequel of sorts, told from Aurit’s perspective.

The challenge now is to transmit the book’s resonance beyond New York literary circles. Picador, the paperback publisher, wants it to be a book club book and is sending Ms. Waldman on a national tour of hipster enclaves, something they didn’t do for the hardcover. So far, according to Holt, the book has sold 40,000 copies combined e-book and hardcover, large numbers for a debut novel.

“The key for the paperback is to see if this ‘cultural touchstone’ idea will hold, and if the book becomes a perennial seller,” explained Publishers Marketplace news editor Sarah Weinman. “It’s great to hit bestseller lists immediately, but if the book sells several thousand copies fifteen years from now, then we know the ‘being part of the culture’ goal will really be hit.”