COBALT: Much of your work in fiction is a reflection of your own life. What stigmas go along with this? Do you feel that people view you differently through your fiction?
Blau: If there’s a stigma that goes along with writing about your real life, I’m unaware of it. Nothing in my life seems to have changed from writing about my family or my childhood. I published about 25 short stories before I published a novel and many of those stories had stuff from my life in them, so I think my family was already used to it by the time Drinking Closer to Home came out. I do meet people who say things to me like, “Oh you poor, poor child! Are you okay?!” And usually this just makes me laugh. It’s very sweet when strangers worry about me–the world is full of kind people. When I meet those people I try to reassure them that everything, truly, is fine.
COBALT: When teaching fiction workshops, how do you advise new writers on including real-life events in their work?
Blau: I reassure them that everyone is slightly crazy, every family is whacked-out, and everything that’s happened to them has probably happened to many other people, too. We’re all human and we’re all flawed so there’s no point in being embarrassed or ashamed.
COBALT: You recently did a reading of Summer of Naked Swim Parties in front of a “naked book club.” How was this experience?
Blau: It was pretty hilarious. They suggested many, many times that I take my clothes off and go naked, too. There was absolutely no way I was going to read from my book and sit naked in front of them–it’s hard enough doing that with my clothes on. I am very comfortable with other people’s nudity, however, so I didn’t really care that they weren’t dressed. It is amazing how unappealing the human body is while eating room-temperature pizza and sitting in a metal folding chair.
COBALT: Many novelists avoid detailing sexual encounters in their work, often flowering the language or simply alluding to it in passing. In The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, you not only force your reader to examine sex, but do so through the eyes of a very young girl – without fear of words like ‘penis’ or ‘vagina.’ How do you approach sex as a writer, and how do you adapt that to the way a fourteen year old girl experiences it?
Blau: The sex in my novels comes out organically in the story-telling. That is, I never sit down and decide to write a sex scene, they just happen within the story. When I was writing The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, I was in Jamie’s head and thinking like Jamie in the narrative. I didn’t ask myself how a fourteen-year-old would look at the sex or describe the sex, I just wrote it while I was “possessed” by Jamie, in a way. I think writing is a lot like dancing and singing and other arts. At a certain point you don’t want to over-think it, you just have to let it come out the way it’s coming out. As soon as you become self-conscious or overly crafty, your effort is apparent and the whole thing falls apart. So my advice to anyone writing a sex scene would be to not think of it as a sex scene–just think of it as a scene in which your character happens to have sex (or watch sex, or think about sex, etc.). If you don’t trip yourself up with the burden of sex, then it shouldn’t be any more or less hard than writing the rest of the book.
In my novel, Drinking Closer to Home, there are three different points of view: Anna, Portia and Emery. Each of those characters has at least one sex scene and if you read them one after another (skipping the stuff in between) they’re very, very different because the characters are so different. Anna’s addicted to drugs and has sex in the stall of a public bathroom (among other places) so that scene is written with a whole different language and feel than when the very straight and upright Emery loses his virginity while a senior in high school. The sex, I hope, is true to the character and true to the scene. Sex, like dialogue, should always convey character. When it doesn’t convey character and instead conveys simply sex, then what you’ve written is porn. Porn is about sex. Sex scenes in novels and short stories are about character.
COBALT: Where do you write and what attracts you to that place? (This question can certainly be answered in the form of a location or a state of mind.)
Blau: Sometimes I write at the Evergreen Cafe on Cold Spring Road[in Baltimore]. There are a lot of people on computers, and a lot of writers there. I like feeling like I’m part of the bigger world; I like things going on around me while I work. If I don’t write at Evergreen I write at my dining room table. It’s not as much fun as the cafe but it is more convenient. At home I can refill my tea as often as I want without waiting in line and paying for it.
COBALT: You just had an idea for a new book/story/etc. What’s the first thing that you do? The second thing?
Blau: The first thing I do is write it down either on my computer or on a notebook that I carry in my purse. The second thing I do is ignore it. Sometimes, if an idea comes at a time when I can sit down and write, I’ll sit down and just dig into it. I get ideas every day. I write most of them down. I hope I live long enough to get to them all. The novel I’m starting now is from an idea I had about five years ago. Often I’ll meet people who tell me they have a great idea for a book I should write. I’m usually polite and just listen to their idea. But in my head, as they’re telling me the idea, I’m thinking that I have so, so, so many of my own ideas that interest me that the ideas of other people never even make it onto the list.
Jessica Anya Blau is the author of the highly praised novel, Drinking Closer to Home. Target stores featured Drinking Closer to Home in their Breakout Author series. Jessica’s first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, was selected as a Best Summer Book by the Today Show, the New York Post and New York Magazine. The San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers chose it as one of the Best Books of the Year. Jessica resides in Baltimore, MD.