Interview with Jessica Anya Blau

by Elise Burke

Jessica Anya Blau is one of Baltimore’s most esteemed novelists. She is the author of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (2008) and Drinking Closer to Home (2011), both of which have received immense praise by the Today Show, The New York Post, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Rocky Mountain News. Blau was a Glimmer Train Finalist, a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2005 and has received both a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2007 and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship in 2003.

Fiction editor Elise Burke and Blau sit down and discuss process and form, the road to publication, trends in reading and writing, and what makes a piece of fiction work.


Elise: As a writer whose fiction is often drawn directly from life experience, can you speak to the line between fiction and nonfiction?

Jessica: Well, I think the line is just what you say—you say it’s fiction or you say it’s nonfiction and that’s the line. You write whatever you want to write, and you call it the thing you’re going to put it out there as.

Elise: So you don’t think that the form or process changes at all based on what you aim to create?

Jessica: Not for me. For me, it only changes in nonfiction because you have to have the dates right, the people, right. You have to make sure it happened at the time you said it happened and that it went down the way you said it went down. And I don’t think that’s as much fun as making up the details and heightening the tension. So for me, in the last novel, Drinking Closer to Home, I originally wrote it all as nonfiction and then once I decided to fictionalize it, it was much more fun because I could just rearrange time and have things that maybe happened five years apart happen in the same day—or things that happened in California happen in New York. I changed things in order to serve the story better. It’s all sort-of factually true, but because my allegiance was to making it a good story and not to the truth, I think it turned out better than it would have had I stuck to the absolute truth.

Elise: Do you consider your life experience to be the main source material for your novels?

Jessica: Not really. The novel that’s coming out in summer 2013 is about ninety-five percent not true. The novel starts with the truth, which was that when I was living in Berkeley, I was working at this clothing store that turned out to be a front for a major cocaine dealer. So, the novel starts out with a girl who is working at a clothing store, like I was, and the guy who owns the store, who is the dealer, is always trying to have sex with the girl—it was like that in real life, too. Wait, how much can I say here?

Elise: Go ahead, say anything. 

Jessica: Well, you can edit this, but he was always pulling out his dick. So, the novel starts with that, but then after that opening chapter, it’s all made up. So, it started with this kernel of truth in my life and  then I was like, “Wow, what if when I was working for this cocaine dealer…what if this happened?” So, it started with life, but it zoomed off to not true.

Elise: Does it always start off with life for you?

Jessica:  I think in a way it does; it might be something that I see or remember or hear or dream. It might be something triggered by life. People are interesting, the world is interesting, life is interesting and it’s nice to be alive, so there’s always something out there to set it off. I guess because I don’t write fantasy, it always does start with something I’ve seen or heard.

Elise: As someone who didn’t study fiction until graduate school, can you speak on your decision to pursue writing and your growth as a writer since?

Jessica: Well, I guess I just like doing it! I mean, it’s hard to do. There were times where I was really feeling defeated by sending stuff out and things weren’t getting published and I felt really frustrated and I would think, I’m going to quit! But I never would, so I think the fact that I never did, that I just kept doing it, means that I really want to do it. I mean, I am always thinking of things I want to write. I always think, God, I’m not going to live long enough to write everything I want to write.

Elise: What made you choose to do it? Didn’t you study French as an undergrad?

Jessica: I did. I was always a reader and I always kept diaries—I was a compulsive diary keeper. I had hundreds of them—I don’t know about hundreds but, maybe twenty since I was a kid! Lots of diaries that are gone, lost. I was always reading and, in fact, I was always writing but didn’t realize it. I was always a letter writer, too. When I moved to Canada, I used to write eleven and twelve and thirteen page single-spaced letters to my friends. I’d write actual letters and mail them. And I would get back a postcard, “Love your letters. Send more!” It was never tit for tat—nobody could match my letters! So, I always was a writer but didn’t realize it. I would just write everything, like when my daughter was born—and this is how pathetic and crazy I am—when she was born I kept three diaries. One was what she did, one was what I was thinking and feeling about her, and one was something else—it was just insane! And then when I was in Canada, I couldn’t work and I started writing stories. And when I sent out the first story I ever sent out and it got published, I was so shocked and I thought, “Oh, maybe I can do this.” Before, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could do it or be it or say it when in fact, I was already doing it.

Elise: That’s a good segue to this next question—which is: What was your experience with finding publishers like?

Jessica: With short stories, I’ve always just sent them out. About twenty-five to thirty short stories of mine have been published in literary magazines. And some of them I sent out fifteen times. I suppose I’m sort of relentless. People always say, “Send one out at a time and see what you hear,” and I was like, “No way.” If the answer is usually no, I’m not going to sit around and wait for people to say no. I think twice, maybe three times, a story was accepted at more than one place, but the editors were all very understanding and didn’t go crazy when I pulled a story.

When you send something out eleven times and it gets rejected, you get a little frustrated. But when you send stuff out and get these handwritten notes, it kind of makes it hopeful. A woman who was on of the fiction editors at The New Yorker when I first started writing used to write me these long written notes. And to me, that was great. That rejection almost never even felt like a rejection. And the guy at The Atlantic used to type me these personal letters that he would sign. And I have still never published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic or Harpers—I used to get personal letters from Harpers, too—and they would say these really nice things and I would think, Okay, I’m going to stick with it. So, it’s always hard, but you have to do it anyway.

Elise: What about with novels—what was that publishing experience like?

Jessica: I had this short story that somebody at Esquire Magazine had read and loved--they had some short fiction contest, and she wrote me a letter that said, “I wanted your story to win, and a bunch of people wanted your story to win, but someone didn’t, so it didn’t win but I’m an editor at Little Brown now”—I think it was Little Brown—“and I want to publish your novel.” Actually, I’m jumping ahead. First, when I was in graduate school, at Hopkins, at The Writing Seminars, some agent came and visited us. I showed her some short stories and she said, “Do you have a novel? I want to represent you.” So I was writing this novel and I had this agent who was this big deal New York agent representing my novel. And she sent it out like eleven times and it didn’t sell. And so that was it—she was like, “Okay, forget it.” Well, at the time I thought, “Okay, well, this novel sucks,” and I didn’t realize that people send out novels, big- selling novels, forty times or fifty times or a hundred times. I didn’t realize eleven was nothing, but I just threw that novel away. Then when the woman from Little Brown contacted me and said, “Do you have a novel?” I said, “I’m writing one now.” So I started writing it and sending it to her, and we were working on it together, and I realized at the time that I was so desperate to get it published that I wasn’t writing what I really wanted to write and was writing what I thought she wanted. And so it sucked. It was really bad. Because I wasn’t being true or genuine—I was writing what I thought she would publish. And when you’re creating art that’s just wrong—it just fucks you over and fucks you up.  And because that was what I was doing, we both sort of gave up. So after that experience, I thought, You know, I’m just going to write a novel and I don’t care if it ever gets published. Actually, I met this editor, this famous editor, at Bread Loaf [Writers’ Conference]. She read one of my short stories and said, “You have to have a novel,” and I said, “Oh, I’m working on one!” But I wasn’t really working on one. She said, “What’s it called?” And I said, “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties,” and she said, “Oh that sounds great, send it to me when it’s done.” And I said okay and thought Oh shit, I better write it. So, when I sat down to write it, I thought, I’m just going to write exactly what I want to write and if I die, there’ll be this box with a bunch of printed papers under the bed and my daughters can go read it and they’ll have this physical thing that I’ve created. I thought, I’m just going to write what I want and there it will be. I did that! Then I met my next agent who sold it.

Summer of Naked Swim Parties

Elise: You’ve started to address this already, but in terms of the editing process, do you have any other feelings about suggestions you took or rejected?

Jessica: The editor at HarperCollins who has done all three books—but I haven’t received the notes on the book coming out in 2013 yet—she’s brilliant—I love her. She gets me. With an editor, you want someone who totally gets you, so when they’re reading it, it feels like you’re reading it if you could jump outside yourself and see yourself objectively. So, when she’s reading it, she understands what I am trying to do and who I am and what I’m saying and how it’s working Her notes are always in line with my idealized version of what I’m creating. The editor you don’t listen to is the one that doesn’t understand the idealized vision of what you’re creating and they’re telling you to do something else. It doesn’t help if you’re writing a story about a family and they’re saying, “Well, what about the dog? Can the dog speak?”’ And you’re like, “There is no dog!” And they say, “But, I think we need a dog.” That just doesn’t help you create your best work. That doesn’t do anything—I guess it helps you create work that someone else wants you to write. Having that editor must be really hard for people because you’re not working toward the same goals. The editor I have wants to read what I want to write, so the feedback she gives me is just dead-on and great.

Elise: Can you speak a little about how your work is marketed?

Jessica: Well, they [HarperCollins] have a marketing team…

Elise: You don’t have much to do with that process?

Jessica: I have to go out and do things, but they have a sales team, a marketing team. When the book comes out, I’ll be in touch with the people who are in charge of blogging, tweeting, Internet, and all that stuff. Then there’s the publicist, and she does radio and interviews, and she creates a press kit. There are other publicists, too—you’re always talking to tons of different people. I don’t know what everyone’s title is. At some point, I’ll be down at HarperCollins and I’ll sit in a room and we’ll talk about who’s doing what and what everyone’s thinking. And there’s the person who does the cover and with my covers, they want them to be sort of similar, so if you see it, you think of the last book. The covers have this sort of thematic stripe thing going on. I mean, they’ve got people who have people who have people who have people. And I’m just willing to do anything. If they say, “Will you go here?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll go here—I’ll go anywhere!” And, also, I like talking to people, I like meeting people, I like traveling. I like people!

Elise: You were talking a minute ago about blogging and tweeting and all the things that the Internet is changing about publication. Do you have any thoughts on online journals and eBooks versus traditional print?

Jessica: Well, I have a NOOK so I read electronic books. I’m going to Paris tomorrow, so I have it charging at home—I’ll take five thousand books with me. So I think it’s cool. I also like print—I like holding books, I like touching them. I like the smell of books. I like book jackets. I think they serve different purposes. There’s just so much stuff out there, more stuff out there than ever, and it makes it hard to sort through it all. It doesn’t mean you can’t sort through it all.

Elise: Do you think printed publications are on their way out?

Jessica: You know, I have no idea. I don’t know any more than you.  I just don’t know who would? Statisticians who look at sales? But, you know, reading is reading.

Elise: I don’t have a NOOK or a Kindle so I don’t know even how you turn the page.

Jessica: Well, I have to say that I like holding a book better and I like looking at a page better. But, just for traveling—in the age of not wanting to check your bag, I prefer the NOOK or Kindle. When you didn’t have to pay to check your bag, people would bring these gigantic suitcases and stuff them with books. Suddenly suitcases are smaller and you can’t travel with twenty books.

Elise: Do you have any tips for producing fresh, exciting work for submitting writers?

Jessica: Yes, I think people should just write exactly what they want to write and not try to please somebody else. I think if you’re true to yourself than you’re artistically pure and you’ll have greater success. Everybody can see a phony. I mean, you’re reading manuscripts, Elise—you can probably see it in the first sentence, right? And nobody wants to read a phony just like nobody wants to talk to one.

Elise: In terms of your writing process, do you have a schedule or routine that you follow?

Jessica: I just try to write a couple hours a day. The last couple of weeks have been horrible—I’ve barely written in the last two weeks and it bugs me. I hate it. But I just try to get a couple hours a day in whenever I can. Sometimes it’s the morning, sometimes the afternoon, sometimes it’s after dinner. It’s just whenever I can. I write at the dining room table, everybody talks to me, they come by and ask me questions. The phone rings, the dog barks. So, I just try and get two hours in. The only time I really don’t is when I am physically unable to sit down.

Elise: Are there any facets of fiction writing that you find particularly challenging? Craft or otherwise?

Jessica: No, not really.

Elise: It’s just so easy for you!

Jessica: No, it’s not that easy. It’s just the thing I want to do. What did I have to write the other day? Oh, a friend of mine had a reading at the Pratt Library downtown and he asked if I’d introduce him, and I said sure. But sitting down to write a one-minute introduction took me two hours. That was my whole writing time that day—I could not figure out how to write an introduction. So to me, that is unbearably hard. That and writing a bio. I have a story coming out in a magazine, and the editor just sent me a note asking me to write a contributor’s note, and I was just thinking, there are so few things I would less rather do. I just don’t want to do that. So that’s hard for me. But writing fiction—it’s fun! I mean, it’s hard but it’s a fun hard.

Elise: Do you get stuck?

Jessica: I’m stuck right now. I’m revising for a fourth novel, and I’m trying to figure out how to navigate the revision. 

Elise: Are there any exercises you find especially helpful when you’re stuck?

Jessica: I just plod ahead. I say to myself, it doesn’t matter, it can just be some dumb, horrible piece of shit, just keep writing. So I just plod forward and write anything. 

Elise: What was the best writing advice you ever received?

Jessica: Wow, that’s a good one. I’m trying to think. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any writing advice!

Elise: What about specific advice for your work? Did you ever have anyone say something that opened your mind up?

Jessica: I mean, just workshopping, being in graduate school blew my mind open. That was life changing for me. I was home with a baby, pulling weeds, hanging out in the park, and pushing a swing. And suddenly I was in grad school talking about writing. That was monumental. But the advice—I don’t know! I feel like I’m always collecting advice. There are always little things like you have to have a good first sentence or be authentic or write every day. And I’d guess that all the advice I give, I’ve probably read or heard from someone else. I think the things that affected me more, just looking at grad school, was being with these great workshop people like John Barth, Francine Prose, Madison Smartt Bell and Stephen Dixon—these brilliant writers. So being with these amazing people, working with them and just talking to them was huge for me. And reading is really big—I’ll read something that’ll blow my mind and I think, wow, they did this? And then that inspires me. I also like reading interviews with writers and seeing what they say, too.

Elise: Lastly, in your words, what do you think makes a piece of fiction work?

Jessica: If it’s totally compelling and you enter the dream world and you don’t come out of it the whole time you’re reading, until suddenly you awaken.