Adelle Waldman on Her ‘Nickel and Dimed’–Inspired Novel

The locus of Help Wanted, Adelle Waldman’s new novel, is a big-box store in New York’s Hudson Valley. This is a departure from her usual subject matter. Writing it also required a significant departure from her usual life: Waldman actually joined the workforce at a real Hudson Valley big-box store. Help Wanted draws from that experience—a perceptive, multi-layered novel that gives space to the working poor.

I talked with Waldman about the power and pitfalls of immersive writing.

coverRichard Klin: When I began reading Help Wanted, I couldn’t help thinking of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Was that in the back of your mind as you were about to immerse yourself into this new world?

Adelle Waldman: Absolutely. I’ve always loved that book. It’s so brilliantly written; the message is so powerful. It was definitely in my mind as I decided to get a job at a big-box store. I knew what I wanted to write was going to be fiction—but I definitely took inspiration from that book. Her moral compass is so straight.

 RK: Did you feel any trepidation about your undertaking? 

AW: Definitely. I felt two levels of trepidation. The first was just the nervousness of going into an unknown social environment. I felt nervous when I was applying for jobs. I felt awkward. I’d had similar jobs when I was younger—I’d worked at Starbucks, I’d been a waitress, I’d been a bagger in a grocery store at my first job in high school—so it’s not that I’d never done this. But it had been a long time since I’d applied for jobs that way, where you walk into a store and ask if they’re hiring, ask for an application.

But I also felt nervous in a bigger sense: Is this a crazy idea? I didn’t tell my literary agent I was doing it. I wasn’t feeling particularly interested in writing another novel about the psychological and romantic problems of middle- and upper-middle-class people, and this seemed like a way to broaden my horizons. But I could fall on my face. I could find the job so terrible or so difficult that I’d quit after a week or I just wouldn’t be able to wake up for the early hours.

coverAnd then I got nervous about the larger issues: Is it problematic for this middle-class writer to do a job like this and write a book? Does it seem like I’m an anthropologist, reporting on some exotic tribe? Is there condescension built in? I was so inspired by Ehrenreich and Ted Conover’s Newjack, about his experience working as a prison guard at Sing Sing, that I didn’t think of those issues. I just thought of it like immersive reporting. Later, I started to feel very sensitive to the idea that these are the issues a project like this brings up naturally.

RK: Help Wanted is set among the working poor, who are ignored to a shocking extent. You can drive around and within minutes come across, say, a check-cashing place or something equally visible that signals the United States is a very poor country. It’s like a Potemkin village. To ignore this takes a special kind of denial.

coverAW: I feel that so strongly as well. We’ve made it easier and easier to ignore the working poor. There’s that book The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop, about how we live among people of a similar economic class. I think it’s very easy for a certain type of person to spend most of their time in upscale or gentrified neighborhoods. You drive by the check-cashing places, but you don’t spend much time there. It feels other and far away. And from that perspective, it’s almost easy to think that the country’s doing much better than it is—if you don’t actually make an effort to see that the majority of the country aren’t these cute, gentrified towns that are all full of fancy new bakeries. But if you want to stay in your bubble, it’s quite easy to do. If you look with a little more scrutiny and attention, it’s clear that the majority of the country are not doing that well. I think too many people—and I include myself in this—find ways of staying insulated from that reality.

RK: When the poor do garner attention, it often takes the form of mockery. Help Wanted is a powerful refutation of that. And the characters are so three-dimensional—they’re emphatically not imbued with a fake, salt-of-the-earth nobility. Some of the characters are difficult, some are incredibly kind.

AW: That was so important to me. One of the crucial things was the fact that I got to know people as coworkers. I felt that had I gone about this as a quasi-journalist and tried to interview people, it never would have worked, because in that sense everyone’s performing a role. The journalist or interviewer is the concerned other and the person being interviewed wants to give them what they want—or not give them what they want. They’re playing the part of the interview subject. And it’s a very unnatural part to play.  I’m not saying there can’t be and haven’t been brilliant books of journalism written through interviews. There absolutely can, but I feel for me it was crucial that I got to know people as coworkers.

This is something Barbara Ehrenreich discusses in Nickel and Dimed. When she went into these jobs, she felt stripped of a certain protective armor. By that point in her life, she was a successful and widely admired writer. But when she was Barb, going into her job at Walmart, she was just Barb. I related a lot to that. I certainly wasn’t as accomplished as Barbara Ehrenreich when I went into it, but I was used to being seen as a writer. I had published a novel, I had an education—all these pieces of armor. And when I went into the job at the store, I was just myself and how well I did at the job. It felt like high school. There was a group that I really liked and I wanted them to like me. And at first I kept putting my foot in my mouth—I felt that I’d say the wrong thing. Over time I became friends with that group. I liked them because they were funny; they cracked jokes. One was particularly good at mimicking our boss, who got on our nerves. Instead of me having power—an interviewer talking to “the working poor”—the people I liked at work because they were funny were the ones who had the power. I wanted them to like me.

I feel like that was a really useful way for me to get to know my coworkers: to see them as people in the world, rather than people who were poor. I really wanted to be a little sparing with the sociological background or save it for later in the book. If you read a novel about a lawyer, you don’t immediately have a backstory on page two: How did this person become a lawyer? I wanted to treat them as people who had quirks and personalities and social presence, and then gradually we’d learn a little bit about how they ended up at this store. Only to much wealthier people would that seem like their primary characteristic.

RK: The characters are incredibly resilient. All are struggling to get by under the harshest of economic conditions.

AW: That struck me so much when I was there at the store. And it still does, with my coworkers I’m still in touch with. I felt really moved by their resilience, in the sense of their lives were so difficult. I found the hours we worked difficult, often coming in at 4:00 AM, sometimes doing overnights. But I had all these advantages. I had a car that wasn’t particularly fancy, but it was reliable, it had air-conditioning, power windows. Many of my coworkers didn’t have cars. They walked or rode bikes to work, or bummed rides. If they did have cars, they tended to be older and more beat-up. I had access to all the healthy food I could want, reliable childcare, a comfortable house; I didn’t have constant anxiety about paying my bills. None of those things were true for my coworkers. And still I found the hours hard. And I complained. And I realized at first that one of the ways I put my foot in my mouth was that I complained more than my coworkers. And I realized for them, there was no point in complaining. They took for granted that things were hard, that the way to get through was to focus on humor, getting through the day.

I want to be careful about how I say this, because I admired that so much. And I felt like my regular self and my friends from my regular life—we could have all learned a thing or two about their attitude, about not complaining all the time. On the other hand, no one should have to develop that much resilience. I don’t want to hold that up like we should all strive to be like that. I think we should all strive so that their lives should not entail such incredible amounts of stress and uncertainty and difficulty.

Richard Klin
is a writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley and the author of the novel Petroleum Transfer Engineer (Underground Voices). His writing has been featured on Public Radio International’s Studio 360 and has appeared in the Atlantic, the Brooklyn Rail, the Forward, Akashic Books’ “Thursdaze” series, whimperbang, and many others.

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