Monday, June 3, 2013

My First Time: Jessica Anya Blau

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Jessica Anya Blau, author of the just-released novel The Wonder Bread Summer (which was previously featured at the blog here).  Her novel Drinking Closer to Home was called "unrelentingly side-splittingly funny."  It was featured in Target stores as a “Breakout Book” and made many Best Books of the Year lists for 2011.  Jessica’s first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, was picked 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 co-wrote the screenplay for Franny, a film staring Frances Fisher and Steve Howey.  Franny is now in post-production in Los Angeles.  Jessica’s short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and have won or been nominated for many awards including The Pushcart Prize.  Her essays appear in The Huffington Post, Salon, Baltimore Style Magazine, the AOL homepage, The Nervous Breakdown and Red Room.  Several of Jessica’s stories and essays have been anthologized in books such as The Prose Reader: Essays for Thinking, Reading, and Writing; Dirty Words: a Literary Encyclopedia of Sex; and The Beautiful Anthology.

My First Naked Book Club Reading

There are ways in which I’m fearless (although I’m struggling to come up with them now) and there ways in which I’m a complete coward.  Reading my work aloud terrifies me, but I am always willing to do it as I don’t believe I can just silently write (in my mind, at my dining room table, in the cafĂ© down the street from my house) and expect my writing to take off and enter other people’s heads without me spewing it out into the world somehow.  Before my readings, I feel slightly nauseous and woozy.  I drink a lot of water, eat peanut butter sandwiches (they calm me down, I swear), and then I just go for it while reminding myself that no matter how bad it is, I’ll probably, A. Be alive at the end.  And, B. Still have all my limbs and the use of my hands so I can continue to write.  In spite of my fears, I usually end up feeling great after a reading—not because of what I’ve done, but because of the fact that any single person actually showed up to hear me.  Here’s a summary of three readings that were each my first time in one way or another.

1.  My First Naked Book Club Reading.  Each time I mentioned the upcoming Naked Book Club reading to one of my friends, they claimed they wanted to come with me.  By the time the night arrived, I had four girlfriends and two guy friends in tow.  When we walked into the Naked Book Club, which was being held at a health/swim center in Maryland, it was like a movie scene that you wouldn’t have believed had you seen it on the screen.  The main room, with gym equipment from wall to wall, was filled with naked men working out (not a woman in sight).  And they weren’t the men of CK underwear ads or gay porn, they were regular every day men: pot bellies, strangely-shaped and oddly-sized penises, patches of facial hair.  You know, human.  There I stood with my girlfriends, three blonds and a Venezuelan—perfumed, eyelashes fluttering like butterflies, heels that you have to train yourself to walk in—staring at the room full of sweaty, lumpy bodies.  The face-off was hilarious.  It was like the men had conjured up this group of women and suddenly we existed.  There was a strange bee-like commotion as they swarmed toward us, and then numerous offers to escort us to the ladies’ locker room so we could remove our clothes (we all declined).  Hilariously, not one person asked my guy friends if they wanted to remove their clothes.  The reading went well, I stared intently at my book and barely looked up.  The nudists were a generous and kind crowd.  Although, I found it interesting that of the twenty or so men there, only one of them had my book!

2.  My First Reading in Los Angeles.  I walked to the bookstore from my hotel early in the day just to make sure I knew where it was for that night’s reading.  There were event signs all over the place and giant posters of me where I looked far better than I look in real life.  There were also posters of David Sedaris who would be reading the night after me.  When the manager took me upstairs to the cavernous space where I’d read, I asked her if she really thought I would fill all those seats.  “This is a destination bookstore,” she said.  “It doesn’t matter who you are, we fill up every event.”  So when I showed up that night at five minutes to seven and saw one single person there (a man sitting in the center seat of the front row) I wasn’t sure what to do.  I approached the man, prepared to tell him that David Sedaris was reading the following night.  But then I saw he had my book in his hand.  “Did you come here to see me read?” I asked.  He nodded.  “Do you mind if we wait a minute in case some people I know in L.A. show up?”  He nodded again.  There was a podium and microphone set up on a small stage.  I wasn’t sure if I could actually stand up there and read to just one man in the center seat of the front row.  Eventually a handful of friends appeared (they were all late because of traffic) and took their seats in the near-empty room.  My friends lovingly heckled me during the reading, laughed uproariously as if my book were an inside joke, and then applauded so enthusiastically, I could have cried.  After the reading, I sat beside the man in the center seat of the front row.  “Do you want me to sign the book?” I asked.  And he nodded again.

3.  My First Reading at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.  I was thrilled to be there, and especially thrilled to be reading with my friend, Ron Tanner.  The room was packed and people were even lining the stairs that went down to the other floor.  I had eaten my peanut butter sandwich, guzzled water and done all the necessary anti-anxiety rituals but I was still shaky-nervous when I stepped up to the microphone.  I could barely look out at the crowd so kept my face toward my book, even though I’d almost memorized the pages.  Ron read after me, and then we both stood at the podium to answer questions.  Someone asked what I was working on and I said that I was in the middle of a book about a girl, a Berkeley student, who somewhat accidentally steals a bread bag full of cocaine.  I was no longer hiding my face behind my book and that was when I spotted him.  A guy I knew in college but hadn’t seen or spoken to since.  In fact, he was the guy who once showed up at my tiny, grubby apartment with a bread bag full of cocaine.  That strange afternoon, he had run into my place, panting, as if someone were chasing him.  He removed the wire twisty from the bag and then let it spin open to show me what was inside.  I didn’t do any of the coke (not my thing) and instead banished him from my apartment.  The bag had scared me.  It seemed too strange, too odd, too valuable.  I expected people with guns or switchblades to run in, slit both our throats, and then leave with the cocaine.  After the reading, I approached the old college friend.  “Do you remember when you brought the bread bag of cocaine to my apartment?” I asked.  “Of course,” he said.  “Was it almost full?” I asked.  “Because in my memory it was almost full.”  “More like three-quarters full,” he said.  “You refused to tell me where you got it,” I said.  “Yeah, I think I got it from a cousin,” he smiled and winked.  And I knew I was better off not knowing the real story, better off having turned it into fiction.

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