A Realist Who Exaggerates a Little: Jessica Anya Blau
Jessica Anya Blau’s first novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, was chosen as a Best Summer Read by the Today Show, the New York Post, and New York Magazine. Barnes and Noble, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other major newspapers chose it as one of the Best Books of the Year. Jessica’s second book, DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, pubs today, January 18th. Currently, Jessica is teaching at Goucher College in Maryland.
Michael Kimball: We’ve known each other for a couple of books now and have been sharing pages for years. Plus, I wrote your life story (on a postcard), so I know that you use a lot of your life in your fiction. Of course, fiction can be about anything, so tell me why you have chosen to use autobiography so much in your fiction.
Jessica Anya Blau: I used to not write about my family or myself at all. Everything I wrote was completely made up. And then I went to a shrink and one of the first things he said to me was, “Tell me about growing up in your family.” And I said something like, “Oh, it was all good. There’s no story there.” Then, the further I got into the therapy, the more things about my family would come out and the shrink and I would sort of crack up looking at this stuff. He continually reminded me of what I had said in the first session. But the truth is, I was happy. I am happy. I had one friend whose mother left her to be the tambourine girl in a band. When she visited her mother, the mother’s various boyfriends and husbands (there were about five) all molested her to some degree or another. That seemed fucked up to me. That seemed like a bad childhood. And I had another friend whose wonderful mother tried to kill herself. That also seemed fucked up. The stuff I lived with—bird shit on the couch, marijuana plants in the backyard, a grandmother poking through my dirty underwear—seemed like nothing. Like life. And in a way the stuff of my childhood and my family isn’t really that strange—or maybe it is—but the thing about my family as opposed to any other strange or crazy family (which would probably encompass all families) is that I’m willing to write about them, and they understand that it’s a fictionalized version of the truth and don’t really care what I put down on the page.
Anyway, you asked me why I put so much of them in my writing and I guess it’s because they interest me and my past interests me. Families are fascinating—just like prisons are fascinating and schools are fascinating. Any place where you enclose a particular group of people is interesting—I love seeing how people play against each other, who has the power, who takes what role, and what people bring out in each other.
Kimball: Let’s talk more about the fictionalized version of the truth. I’m curious about the details that you decided to fictionalize. Why did you make the fictional father a lawyer rather than an English professor, as your real father is? And why did you make your fictional sister an undercover cop, which I assume she isn’t? Said another way, what is gained in the fiction by making these choices rather than using real life?
Blau: My sister was an undercover narcotics cop. It’s funny I never told you that—I feel like we’ve talked about so much family stuff in the past. She went to Bennington, was pre-med, got out and took some money she came into and invested it in a restaurant. The restaurant was really successful, made loads of money and she had a great time working there. Then, at some point she grew restless, as she always does, and she decided to be a cop. She was top of her class, as Anna is in the book. And she went quickly out of uniform and into undercover because she looked very young, like an eighteen-year-old girl. She also looked (and still looks) Hispanic, and they (the police force) liked to play her off as a young, Hispanic girl. So, that stuff is all true. She sent me pages and pages of emails describing her time as an undercover cop and I used information from those pages to create that chapter.
I made the father a lawyer because I wanted him to be a little more conventional in contrast to the mother. My own father always said if he hadn’t become a professor he would have become a lawyer, so I just gave him his alternate career-life. I made it a small firm with three rooms and a single receptionist/secretary so that the family would be in the same socioeconomic tier as a professor at that time. There really isn’t much in the book that is totally fictionalized—it’s more that I rearranged time, compressed events, and moved events into different geographic locations and different years (my brother lost his virginity, for example, in Santa Barbara and not while at Haverford, as in the book). Portia’s husband is mostly a fictional character. There are two reasons for that. 1. My ex-husband is the father of my older daughter and I don’t want her to ever read something I’ve written and to feel like she’s discovering previously unknown things about her father or our marriage. Whatever her experience of her father is (all good, by the way), it belongs to her and shouldn’t be informed by any story I might create from my past relationship with him. 2. The actual break up of that marriage isn’t very interesting. Or maybe it’s just not very interesting to me.
Kimball: I have to say that I still don’t believe that your sister was an undercover cop. I also don’t believe that your divorce isn’t very interesting to you (see your note on your therapist, above). I don’t believe that two people could get married and then divorced and that not be interesting in some form. Or, why would you have the character who is modeled after you, Portia, going through a divorce through after walking in on her husband having sex with another woman? If the fiction can be anything, why make it that?
Blau: Oh, come on Michael, you really don’t believe that my sister was an undercover cop?! She was—it was cool. She has the thrill-seeking gene (there actually is one) and police work definitely satisfied her need for thrills. Now she does hot yoga—it’s a little more tame.
Whenever I fictionalized something in the book, it was because what I was making up was more interesting to me (and hopefully to the reader) than the truth. I’ve thought about my divorce so much that it no longer interests me. There wasn’t much “wish fulfillment” in the fiction. The made up stuff was generated more by things I’m afraid of—I’d picture events and then figure out how I might handle them. I do that in daily life, too. I can’t stand following anyone in a car because I always imagine watching the person I know, and usually love, having some horrible accident while I’m driving right behind them. I tend to go to the worst place, mentally, and then see if I can find my way out of it while maintaining sanity and some sense of normalcy.
Kimball: In a Paris Review interview, Michel Houellebecq described himself as a “realist who exaggerates a little.” Does that describe you too?
Blau: Great description! It certainly describes what I’ve done in DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME. The events in all the chapters (with the exception of two) happened. But if you were to dive into certain details of each chapter, you’d find that many of those details are made up. When I wrote the book initially, I started with the birth of each of my parents and went forward. My mother’s beginnings were story-worthy: as an infant she was left out overnight, forgotten, in an open Buick convertible and almost froze to death.
My father’s beginnings weren’t interesting at all. He was born in Trenton, New Jersey to Orthodox Jewish parents. In order to balance those two chapters, I “exaggerated” his beginnings within the realm of truth. I know that in an Orthodox bris the rabbi sucks the blood from the wound (where the foreskin is cut from the penis) with wine in his mouth and exchanges blood for wine. It happens quickly, most people don’t even notice it happening. My father certainly had an Orthodox bris, so surely the rabbi sucked the wound. In my crazy exaggeration, I imagined a slightly off rabbi, someone perhaps a little drunk, going down repeatedly and happily on the wound. Over-sucking, in a sense. It seemed necessary to the chapter. Something bigger than the standard cutting had to happen to make the scene worth writing. Both of those chapters were cut from the final draft, by the way, although each of those stories is still told at some point in the book.
Kimball: Since we just talked about exaggerating the truth in fiction, let’s turn that around and talk about the next-to-last page of the novel, where Portia, the fictional Jessica, says, “This has to be an honest story.” Why does it have to be, and how is it, an honest story?
Blau: I’m never really sure what I’m thinking when I’m writing. I tend to write in more of a dream state and then when I wake up, I can see what I’ve done. When I look at that line now, I think it was about Portia being able to tell the story of their mother without editing it the way people do in things like obituaries and Christmas letters where they hit on the highlights and leave out all the bad stuff, a lot of the interesting stuff, certainly all the sexy stuff! In fiction, the stuff you want to see is the stuff that wouldn’t make it into the Christmas letter. Fiction is compelling in part because of the truths it reveals about the characters, about life, about the world of the story. And Portia, who had experienced a lot hidden truth in her marriage, wants only what’s real.
Maybe I should point out that I come from a family where the truth is sometimes hidden temporarily, but eventually it is flung around the room like a hacky-sack. If you go to rehab, everyone’s going to talk about your rehab. If you have an affair, we’re going to talk about that affair (or write about it!). When I spend time with other families, I’m often astounded at how much truth can go unsaid. I was once with a family where there was no way anyone would dare bring up what was oozing beneath the plastic exterior (the fact that the father had left for a work trip twenty years ago and never returned, the fact that one of the brothers was keeping a mistress, the fact that the money that was supporting the household was not coming from the person everyone pretended it was coming from, the fact that there really was no money although they were living in a Beverly Hills type of neighborhood, etc.). I adored these people, but I felt like a detective with them and spent a tremendous amount of time digging for the truth, which I eventually pieced together (over years). The funny thing is people sense what they don’t know and when the truth is revealed it’s often more of a relief than an anguish (although certainly there are many, many anguishing truths).
By the end of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, everyone’s truth has been tossed out onto the page: we know what Emery and Alejandro want, we know what Portia’s dealing with and what she needs and wants, we know what Anna’s been through and what she wants. Also, we know the secret Buzzy’s been hiding and, finally, we have Louise’s complete story. None of the bad stuff has been expunged. Of course, the characters will live on (in my imagination) and new secrets and stories will occur, and then something new will happen that will blow it all open again. The truth is like battery acid. It eventually burns through and comes bubbling to the top.
Kimball: This is a spoiler, kind of, so stop reading this interview now if you don’t want to know how the novel ends. OK. Why did you kill your mother at the end of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME? Your real mother seems so crazy nice that I kept thinking that you were going to save her.
Blau: My mother is “crazy nice” to people she likes. She’s a bitch when she doesn’t like you. She loved your book, DEAR EVERYBODY, by the way, so if you ever meet her she’ll definitely be crazy nice to you!
Now for the answer to your question: When I started the novel, I wasn’t going to kill the mother. I was afraid that if I killed her, my real mother would die. That’s totally irrational, I know. So, maybe for about a year into the writing, she was going to live. But then, when I got to the end, it seemed like the right ending for the story. Like it should happen that way. Also, I wanted to bring all the grandparents together because I love the idea of seeing all my grandparents in one room (that never happened in real life; I don’t think they ever met).
Also, I think writing the scene was, in a way, practice for when she really dies. A few years ago, my mother had a massive heart attack like the opening heart attack in the book. We all rushed out there to be with her, just as the kids do in the story. And when I was saying goodbye to her after those few days, I started sobbing really hard. And so did she. I thought I’d never see her again—that she would die before I returned. Well, she didn’t die, but I have worried about it every day since. I call her each morning at seven her time (ten here) and if she doesn’t answer, I start thinking things like, “Oh shit, Mom, you can’t die now, I’m too young to have a dead mother, and my book’s not out yet—you haven’t even seen it, and you need to stick around to see how my kids turn out!” Or some days I’ll think, “Fucking A, man, I’ve got to teach this week. I need to help Ella with all her school stuff. I’ve got a revision to do and there’s no way I can deal with a dead mother now.” My mother is hilariously funny and loads of fun. And she knows I worry about her dying and exploits this fact to make herself laugh. Her latest joke is to call me on the phone, talk with muted, impeded speech and tell me she’s had a stroke. The first few times she did it, I almost vomited I was so upset. Now I just start laughing.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”), is now out in paperback. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. His books have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages and Tyrant Books will release his novel US in May, 2011. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), I WILL SMASH YOU, 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES, and the 510 Readings.
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