Adelle Waldman Takes the Early Shift

Why an author best known for skewering Brooklyn literati wrote a novel about working at a big-box store.

Adelle Waldman at a store near her home. Photo: Erinn Springer
Adelle Waldman at a store near her home. Photo: Erinn Springer
Adelle Waldman at a store near her home. Photo: Erinn Springer

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When Adelle Waldman’s daughter was 21 months old, Waldman would wake at 2:30 a.m. to nurse her, take a shower, then drive from her house in Rhinebeck to the big-box store across the Hudson, arriving early enough to stash her belongings in a locker and clock in before her shift from 4 to 8 a.m. (One time, she got a speeding ticket because she didn’t want to get written up for being late.) She would then join her team in spending the next four hours unloading a truck full of boxes, then dispersing its contents throughout the store. There was one 15-minute break halfway through the shift, and some employees would smoke cigarettes to help them stay awake. As we share American Spirits on the smoke-break bench outside the store one afternoon in late January, Waldman tells me everything else about the six months she spent at this job, the seed of her new novel, Help Wanted.

A stint at a $12.25-an-hour part-time job upstate was a long way from the scene-y events that greeted the publication of Waldman’s first novel a decade ago. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was praised almost universally by reviewers and included on nearly every notable- and best-books list. On then-ascendant Twitter and at media parties, it was, for a time, all anyone could talk about: “Does anyone know who its protagonist, Nate Piven, is based on?” Nate is a Brooklyn-based debut novelist who has total contempt for women yet perpetually attracts them, even though they should be too smart to fall for his bullshit. It wasn’t any one guy, of course. It was all of those guys, and in the character of Nate Piven, Waldman captured them with laser-guided precision and just enough empathy to make readers care.

Help Wanted, by contrast, is much wider in scope and aim. Like The Office in its universal workplace humor and even more like Mike White’s Enlightened in its textured portrayal of how small humiliations and injustices at work inevitably boil over into righteous rage, Help Wanted feels at once familiar yet revelatory in its specificity. Set at Town Square, also known as “the store” — a fictional retailer in a fictional upstate town — the book begins by introducing us to the store’s Movement team, ten very different people united in their desperate need for regular schedules, more hours, and benefits, all of which are denied to them by store policies gleefully enforced by their comically terrible, stripy-highlighted, high-strung boss, Meredith. When Meredith is up for a promotion, the team members’ initial impulse is to do everything they can to tank her chances, until one worker plants a revolutionary idea in their heads. What if, instead of being honest about Meredith’s incompetence, the team conspires to praise her to the skies? That way, she’d be out of their hair, managing the whole store, and potentially clear the way for a more humane supervisor — maybe even one of their own. The remaining questions, which play out over the bulk of 274 fast-paced pages, are about whether all the team members will get onboard with the conspiracy, whether it will work, and which team member (if any) will get their shot at what pathetically passes for the American Dream (being paid fairly to wake up in the middle of the night to supervise people tossing boxes off a truck).

How did the writer of a novel that precisely described the parties and bedrooms of literary Brooklyn transform into the writer of Help Wanted, a deeply political yet highly readable story about the lives of low-wage workers? The answer might be that the novels have more in common than is readily apparent, despite their very different settings; both of them capture a world and a moment in time in a way that has become unstylish in recent history and has a closer affinity with the works of George Eliot and Jane Austen than most novels published today.

Waldman grew up outside Baltimore and attended a Quaker high school before going to Brown, where she quickly became disillusioned with what she describes as “the idea that we were all radical and reading Foucault and critical of power but at the same time we were planning to work in finance or management consulting or at the very least go to law school.” She dropped out for a while and moved to Tucson, where she waitressed in a pizza joint and unexpectedly fell in love with the 19th-century character analysis of Eliot and Austen and Gaskell and the Brontës. After a stint in newspaper journalism in her 20s, she settled into a career of occasional literary criticism, undergirded by SAT tutoring for wealthy Upper East Siders. During the Great Recession, Waldman briefly worried that her tutoring clients’ parents would be immiserated, eliminating that income, but the bankers, of course, turned out to be fine. She tried and failed to sell a book before starting what would become Nathaniel P. in 2008. Eight agents rejected it before Elyse Cheney agreed to represent her. When it sold in 2012 for $200,000, she was 35 and had been struggling for years to find her place in the literary world. The novel’s publication created a seismic shift in Waldman’s life and the way she saw herself.

Waldman is, in physicality and demeanor, an unprepossessing, deceptively neutral-seeming person: white with straight brown hair and an open, pleasant face and manner. A casting agency could place her as a middle-school teacher or an office manager. Over lunch at a tavern near the big-box store that formerly employed her, she describes being surprised and, since she is by nature private and reserved, a little bit concerned by the outsize reaction to her book. She was so afraid of public speaking that she avoided giving any kind of toast at her 2010 wedding. “I feel like I’d go to parties and I was just this quiet person in the back of the room. I had no M.F.A. from a fancy place or done any fancy jobs.”

When Nathaniel P. hit — it has sold about 90,000 copies — Waldman found it hard to suddenly be a public entity. She remembers sitting in the cab on the way to her book launch thinking, “If I could trade places with a person who’s in jail for ten years right now, I would do that to not have to go through this.” She dealt with the anxiety back then by picking one section of the novel, rehearsing studiously, then reading the same thing at each event, feeling herself improve with every repetition.

The circumstances of life in early-2010s literary Brooklyn — a climate in which it was okay to be an asshole as long as you could expound fluently on Tumblr about exactly what kind of asshole you were being — created the fictional Nate P. and so many real-life others like him. What Waldman did in that book was preserve him in amber for later historians to find. In the wake of its success, Waldman was at first thrilled that her lifelong dream of being a novelist had come true. Doors opened to her that had once been closed: She was writing literary criticism for The New Yorker instead of The Millions. But the fly in the ointment was that she was having no luck at getting back to the actual novel-writing part of “being a novelist.” She wrote a substantial chunk of another novel from a male perspective, about a lawyer in his 50s, but stalled out because of how tedious and pointless it felt to research the historical detail involved in reconstructing the lawyer’s past — college in the ’80s, etc. She was staying in the same milieu that her beloved 19th-century novels and Nathaniel P. had occupied, that of middle-class people and their inner lives, and still living in the Brooklyn world she had already thoroughly described. When she gave pages of the new book to her agent to read, her response was unambiguous. “She’s like, ‘Boring. That’s it. That’s the word I was trying to find.’ It was kind of harsh, but at the same time, it was useful,” Waldman says. She abandoned the book permanently.

Around this time, her husband, the journalist Evan Hughes, grew tired of living in their cozy apartment in Fort Greene, surrounded almost exclusively by friends who were writers, agents, and critics. He was sick of the noise, and he wanted to live in a house rather than the apartment they had bought, propitiously, in 2009 (and still own). Waldman and Hughes experimented with other locales, spending a month in Montana and then two months in Austin, Texas. They loved both but felt too isolated and missed their friends. Moving upstate, to the storybook-cute commuter town of Rhinebeck, was a compromise — they’d have a house, and space, but they’d still be able to take the train into the city to see old friends whenever they wanted to, which Waldman assumed would be about once a week. She had resisted the move initially — she was happy in Brooklyn, happy with most of her life except the crucial detail that she felt incapable of writing fiction. But gradually, she came around to Hughes’s plan. Perhaps it would help her writing to meet people who did things other than write for a living.

Shortly after moving, Waldman got pregnant and gave birth to her daughter. Eleven weeks later, Donald Trump was elected president. Before the election, “I thought that writing novels about middle-class people’s personal lives seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I had this notion that we lived in a fairly just society, fairly decent times. There were problems, but they were manageable.” She jolted awake. “I just went to this place of panic,” Waldman says. “It’s just like Germany in the ’30s. What are we going to do? My daughter — I don’t want her to grow up in this world.

Writing another novel of social observation was now definitely no longer an option. But what options remained? Waldman had to do something to have an identity. She wanted to feel that she was “busy as a writer and not a ‘novelist’ who sat at my desk and looked at Twitter all day.” She also needed more income: The Nathaniel P. money, which for years had been trickling in steadily in the form of foreign-rights deals and an option for a movie that was never made, was tapering off. “For a few years, I was just thinking like, Oh yeah, I’m okay even without a job. And then all of a sudden it was like, Oh no, this is drying up. I’m going to have to do something else again.”

She toyed briefly with the idea of becoming a high-school English teacher. But in the back of her mind was a thought that had been percolating for a while, that she’d even written down at the very bottom of a list of potential projects. It was “Go work at a minimum-wage job for a while and see what happens.” “That one’s a total hassle,” she remembers thinking. “But I felt like I had no choice.” She started by walking into every retail establishment on the commercial strip near a decrepit mall and asking if they were hiring, and she filled out applications at Starbucks, McDonald’s, and the big-box store. There, she walked in and immediately interviewed with HR. A few weeks later, she started her new job unloading boxes.

Photo: Erinn Springer

She made a few rules for herself, and the first one was that she wouldn’t lie. She thought that having Brown on her résumé would look unusual but figured it would stand out less, at least, than a more recognizable Ivy like Harvard or Yale. And fitting in at a job where she’d have to wear a box cutter on her belt and a polo shirt of regulation color wasn’t too much of a stretch for someone used to hanging out at the edge of the party. She was surprised, though, by how desperate she felt to impress her colleagues and how hard it was to connect with them at first.

The fact that she had a car, for example, set her apart from many of her co-workers, who walked or biked or caught rides from friends. By contrast, Waldman arrived for her shift in a 2015 Toyota Prius. And at first, she says, she just kept putting her foot in her mouth. One of her earliest flubs was trying to bond with her co-workers by making fun of the store itself, which she quickly realized was a serious misstep. “You think you said something witty, and someone just gives you a pity nod and then turns to talk to the person on their other side.” It turned out that many of her co-workers took a certain pride in working at a well-known store, not that they would ever come out and say exactly that. Waldman was also notably clumsy, especially when it came to steering the big jack used to lift pallets of boxes off the truck. She spent a lot of time cringing at her own awkwardness as she adjusted to the job and its physical and social requirements.

But eventually, her co-workers came around. In her second month there, she brought in home-baked banana bread, which did a lot to break the ice. And soon she began to feel comfortable enough to be herself more. “I got very into the midterm elections that were happening. Because this was 2018 and I started bringing in voter-registration forms and getting people to vote. By then, we were all friends, but they thought it was dorky, but in a cute way, that I was so into voting.” The novelist Sheila Heti, whom Waldman was exchanging long emails with around this time, tells me that she got a message from Waldman during this phase of her new job expressing relief that she was finally being accepted by her co-workers. With Waldman’s permission, Heti read me the email: “She says, ‘I’m so pleased because for a while, I thought my co-workers thought I was nice, but dumb as a brick. But in the past week, people have been complimenting my proficiency at working the line.’” Heti stresses how much Waldman cared that her co-workers thought well of her: “If anyone complimented her, it seemed bigger than any compliment she could have gotten in any other context.”

At this point, she was almost ready to open up to them about her true identity as a writer. That happened sort of accidentally. She promised to buy a round for everyone who voted and then told them over drinks about having written a best-selling novel, not that she’d really concealed it before; she just hadn’t mentioned it. After that, it became easier to do things like have her new friends over to her home across the river in Rhinebeck, to throw a small Christmas party, and pay for meals and beers after work.

When she first started working at the store, she had thought she’d meet one person with a crazy life story and maybe get novel fodder out of that, but what wound up happening was more complicated. She was shocked, even though she had arrived with some awareness, to see up close how blatantly unfairly her co-workers were treated and by how hard and how reliably they worked. “It’s a brutal system where there’s not only no way to rise, but it’s also just impossible to make a living with any consistency because hours are unstable,” she says. “Everyone I worked with signed up for as many hours as they could. They were always willing to work overnights. They just worked so hard and got so little back in return.” Within weeks of taking a job at the store, for the first time in years, Waldman “felt passionate that there’s something worth writing about.”

Waldman crafts her characters’ endearing and off-putting qualities with absolutely zero condescension, a change of pace from Nathaniel P., which sometimes leaves the reader slightly confused about whether Waldman is mocking or merely describing the people in its pages. Reading Help Wanted, we root for everyone, even horrid Meredith. We want all the characters to get something at least a smidge better than the hand they’ve been dealt. But the underlying truth — that the game is rigged and that real movement is as Sisyphean as the characters’ daily unloading task — is on every page of this book. It creates a problem for the reader, who may never be able to shop at a big-box store again without a sickening pang as she recalls how the sausage is made.

Waldman is still friends with several of her old co-workers — they hang out, and the co-workers are amused and happy about the prospect of their workplace being fictionalized. Aside from volunteer work and continued political advocacy, Waldman admits, her day-to-day life has changed little since working at the store. She still shops there, albeit at a different location a town over to avoid running into the co-workers she has fallen out of touch with. She still feels a bit guilty for having a comparatively easy job.

Toward the end of Help Wanted, Waldman allows herself to go a little broad with her characterization of the management consultants who swoop in to determine who’s going to run the store. At one point, one of them says to a store manager, “It’s worth remembering that the people who work these jobs aren’t like you and me. We’re people who value stability, who worked hard to achieve it for ourselves. But our store-level employees often react better to change than you or I would. They’re accustomed to it.” Since we’ve just spent a book with the “store-level employees,” who certainly value stability as much as anyone with a college degree does, the evil in this banality feels downright enraging. But to whom should our rage be directed? No individual company is the problem, Waldman tells me, as we put out our post-lunch cigarettes and head back to the parking lot. “This change has to happen at a legislative level.”

For her next project, which she’s just beginning to conceptualize, she thinks she’ll write about characters with differing political views — “that whole narcissism of small differences thing” — but she’s also excited by the opportunity to write more directly about the intractable problems she encountered at the store, which Help Wanted has given her the platform to do. These assignments are a big change from the kinds of articles she wrote when promoting Nathaniel P., which she describes as “‘What I Learned About Dating by Writing From a Male’s Perspective,’ ‘Five Guys to Date But Not Marry.’” Recently, she published a New York Times op-ed about corporations’ reliance on part-time workers as a way to cut costs. “I have all these things I’ve been waiting to say about work and low-wage work,” she says. “But I felt like no one was going to give me a chance until this book came out.”

Adelle Waldman Takes the Early Shift