Saturday, December 7, 2013
Opening With the Penis, Stealing Time, and Other Tips for Writers: an interview with Jessica Anya Blau
Interview by Jane Delury
My friend Jessica Anya Blau keeps her head down and the words flowing. Her hard work has paid off. She’s had three books come out in the last six years, and has published more than 30 short stories. Her most recent novel, The Wonder Bread Summer, was featured on summer reading lists by CNN, Oprah, NPR, and Vanity Fair. Nick Hornby gave it a rave review in The Believer. The book was recently optioned by Hollywood. Recently, when the two of us were writing together in her dining room in a hundred-year-old house in Baltimore, I asked Jessica a few questions about writing, motherhood, and being productive.
I wasn’t thinking about the book opening with a penis or not. I wanted it to open with an intense moment of crisis. And that moment is when he pulls out his penis. But it didn’t occur to me not to open there because there’s a penis. I was writing with some friends in a café a few weeks back--I think you were there--and I pointed out that a woman who works in our local bookstore took offense to the page one penis. And the other writers at the table all pointed out other books that have penises on the first page. They came up with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York....I can’t think of the rest, but there were several of them. I’m not comparing myself at all to those writers, but I do think that an exposed penis adds an element of tension and clearly I’m not the first person to use that element of tension.
It’s a point of tension because Allie, the woman in The Wonder Bread Summer who’s looking at the penis, doesn’t want to see it. Plus, the penis belongs to her boss, Jonas. When Allie then takes Jonas’s drugs and hits the road is she running away or claiming some kind of power?
That’s a good question. Those aren’t the kinds of questions I ask myself when I’m writing. When I’m writing I’m simply writing down what I see in the movie running in my head. Once it’s done, I can look back and figure out what I’m doing. I think that through the act of running away she is claiming power. The guy hasn’t paid her for her work. He cornered her in a fitting room. He’s pulled out his penis. She’s empowered herself by running off. But in taking his bag of drugs, she’s also taking some of his power. His power doesn’t necessarily come from his dick. It comes from his store, his cocaine in the stockroom. She runs away with some of his power and empowers herself.
This incident in the book is based on something that happened to you when you were younger. Do you think you were claiming some kind of power over the incident when you wrote that scene with Allie?
I think the act of detaching oneself from one’s stories is a way of taking control of them. You lessen the hold they have over you. To be a writer is to be the director and producer of the narrative and if that narrative is taken from one’s childhood or one’s life in general, then to write about it is to take control of it. To own it. So, yes, my boss pulled out his dick and started masturbating when I was working for him in a dress shop when I was 20. It may have been shocking and a little terrifying then. But now it belongs to me, and I make of it what I want. What I wanted to make of it was an entire novel of a 20-year-old girl who deals with that and then takes over and comes out on top in the end.
You are a great mother but you write about mothers who are hands off to the point of neglect. Could you talk about that?
I think most of the mothers in my writing are based more on my experience of my own mother than on my experience of mothering. I love my mother. She’s a wonderful person--so smart and interesting. But she wasn’t really concerned with mothering when my brother and sister and I were growing up. We were sort of left to fend for ourselves. And when I was around 7 she officially “quit” being a housewife. She sat my sister and me down and said, “I quit.” That was that. She no longer cleaned house, got us up for school, packed lunch, drove us around, etc.
Well my entire writing life has happened concurrently with having children. When my girls were small, I wrote while they napped. And then when they stopped napping, I put them in morning nursery school so I’d have two or three mornings a week when I could write for two hours. When they started elementary school, I could write during school hours. I used to only write short stories. And then, as I had longer periods of time to work, I wrote longer works. Now I mostly write novels. I could, I suppose, have hired someone to take care of my kids, although I didn’t always have the money for that. Also, I wanted to be the one taking care of them. I like mothering—it’s fun and the girls crack me up.
And next year your youngest heads to college, so there’s no imagining how much you’ll get done. What’s next?
I’m writing a kids’ novel that might be a complete and total piece of shit, but I’m finishing it anyway and I’m praying that’s actually good.
Don’t be such a girl.
Ha! Yeah, I know. Most male writers I know don’t really doubt themselves or their work. But I think that’s all a bunch of bluster. They’re probably just as quivering and insecure as I am, but they’re too afraid to admit it. It’s a front. Women are braver in some ways. We expose our vulnerabilities to each other and then we connect through them and form webs of support. We make each other stronger. To isolate oneself with hubris and bombastic superiority is to set off on a very rough and lonely sea. I find much more strength through my connections with other people than through some false confidence I might try to pull off. As a mother, though, I’m pretty confident. It feels very natural to me and I rarely doubt myself there. Although if you interviewed my kids maybe they’d say I’m a total freakcase, nutball, lunatic and all I’ve done is given them decades worth of fodder for their own novels.
Last question. When we write at your house, you sit on an exercise ball. Why are you on that thing?
Well, hell, it’s better than sitting flat on my ass in a chair all day. I bounce when I’m thinking, and I move around a lot. I’m not very still: I get up and walk around, I make tea, I go to yoga classes. Also, the shifting, rolling fitness ball keeps me more alert.
I’ve exposed the secret to your productivity. That and the bar of dark chocolate.
Yes, dark chocolate is good. Chocolate, friends and family, loads and loads of laughter. Oh, and listening to music and dancing. There aren’t too many things in life that are better than singing really loudly while dancing.
Jane Delury’s fiction appears in publications including Narrative, The Southern Review, and The Yale Review. She’s on the faculty of the MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts at the University of Baltimore.