jmww web designer Phuong Huynh flexes her contributor muscles to talk with author Jessica Anya Blau about her latest novel, Drinking Closer to Home, the fine line between truth and lies, family dysfunction, and more!
Phuong Huynh: One of the things that really drew me in to your new novel, Drinking Closer to Home was that it was not just a story of a family’s life, but the story of your family. You’ve said that by fictionalizing certain elements, while retaining some of the described events, you were able to write a more interesting story. Besides this, what was it about telling the story in this way that worked for you?
Jessica Anya Blau: I didn’t want to have to stick to the truth in any way. You can’t control the truth (unless you’re a politician, I suppose!), it is what it is. And I guess I don’t want to give up control of the story. So to fictionalize it gives me total control—people say what I want them to say and do what I want them to do. For me, that’s one of the great things about writing—I get to be “the decider”!
PH: I know you somewhat personally through the literary scene in Baltimore. Though you are the most fascinating (to me), if I didn’t know you as Portia’s doppelganger, I’d think the character, Louise, based on your mother, was the most compelling. She is unconventional and complicated and spiritual, but sometimes cruel. Was there something about your mother’s complexities, real or imagined, that made you decide to write about her life (and death) through the recollections of the family?
JB: The whole idea for the novel came to me when I was thinking about my mother’s childhood and how, as a small infant, she was left overnight in the back of an open convertible and almost froze to death. She was hospitalized for two weeks and survived. That story set me off. She survived, and now we’re here—we being me and my brother and sister. So the framework of the story was something along the lines of: a woman is born and later she dies—what happens in between? For me the answer was WE happened.
PH: But, by acknowledging the little truths that really happened, by including at the end of the book a formal interview of your real-life family’s good-hearted reaction to the novel, you’ve only half-avoided a danger foreseen—unintentional harm. Are there any members of your extended family who have chosen to remain silent?
JB: You know, everyone’s pretty cool with it. I come from a family of voracious readers. And I think people who read a lot get the fiction thing and think of a story as a story even when it’s based on them. But I have had many people tell me that if they did something even remotely like what I did, their family would never speak to them again. I’m grateful for my understanding family—and incredibly lucky that they all take it in good humor.
PH: What would your response be to any criticism about how you’ve presented the story, or to anybody else who questions your intentions?
JB: You mean my response to anyone who accused me of exploiting my family—their neurosis, addictions, affairs, foibles, etc.? No one’s ever questioned this, no one’s ever said anything along these lines to me. I’m sure I would just ignore it. I think that if my family is okay with it, and they all are, then it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks about it.
PH: Were you surprised as much as I was about how frequently people referred to the Steins as being a dysfunctional family? That they are a postmodern family, having a nuclear landscape and more or less remaining intact, seems much more accurate, and personally, less deflating of mood.
JB: Ah, you’re sweet to defend them! I wasn’t surprised that they were called dysfunctional—I mean people are having affairs, furniture is thrown down the stairs, and one person ends up in rehab—but I was surprised by how frequently people referred to Louise as abusive and the children as survivors. The whole family was surprised. Everything that happened in my life and the in the lives of my family, seems sort of funny in the end. I mean, we’ll even laugh about the times when someone was threatening suicide. I realize suicide isn’t funny. But if you don’t do it, and you keep on living (which is what I would hope for all people who feel the urge to end it all), then life can be pretty darn funny.
PH: Yeah, I’m a pretty firm student of the camp that views dysfunction as subjective, laughter as coping mechanism for survival, sanity, etc. So, how was writing Drinking Closer to Home different than when you wrote The Summer of Naked Swim Parties?
JB: It was actually a harder book to write. It’s more complicated, there are more point-of-views, and the scope is larger—it covers a few decades rather than just one summer. So I struggled with it a lot more. But I did have help. My writers’ group was good about looking at individual chapters and seeing what was going on with them. And my agent and editor were great at seeing the larger picture and organizing the book as a whole.
PH: When do you write? You are a mother and partner, a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, keep a running blog at the Red Room, and you also teach. And, you’re amazingly approachable. Is it Baltimore, which is a very approachable town in itself, or is it you? A combination? Would it be the same way if you had moved to New York or DC?
JB: I try to write two hours a day. It doesn’t always work out like that. Right now, even though I have a completed novel that I really, really want to get to in order to revise, I’m not writing at all and just teaching, doing readings, touring, and other stuff to, help get DRINKING out there. Yes, Baltimore is a great place for a writer. You and Jen (Michalski, editor of jmww) are definitely two people who make the writing scene happen. I appreciate that writers show up for each other’s readings, talk up each other’s books, and show support. We’re in it together—I really feel that, and it’s a great feeling. I don’t know if a writer can get that in other cities, although (writer and memoirist) Marion Winik has said that it was like that in Austin (Texas) for her (before she moved to Baltimore).
PH: If what you mean by “making the writing scene happen” is showing up, I’d say I do that part well! My proximity to Jen aside, there are so many great people on the scene, truly awesome people, who also happen to be writers whose work I love reading. What are you working on now?
JB: The new book is 99 percent fiction and it’s been great fun to write. It’s about a girl in Berkeley who gets into some crazy-ass shit and has to get out of it. There’s a bit of thriller/mystery in the novel, too.
PH: You started writing somewhat later in life. What did you actually want to be growing up, before you realized you wanted to be a writer?
JB: Oh, Phuong, do I really have to say it? Okay, okay, I will. I wanted to be a mother. That was it. I just wanted to be a mother—it seemed like the absolute most fun thing ever. And for me it has been, but I know it’s not fun for many, many people. Oh, for a while I wanted to be an actress. But doesn’t every girl want to be an actress? Isn’t that like wanting to be a vet? I never wanted to be a vet. What did you want to be?
PH: I guess I wanted to be a space traveler, a crew member on the star ship Enterprise—as in Star Trek.
Speaking of the film industry, the fantastic filmmaker and visual artist Luca Dipierro animated the book trailer for your book, which is of course very exciting conceptually. However, the scenes in your novel have a cinematic feel to them. Has anyone approached you about writing a screenplay for a movie?
JB: Luca is an amazing artist. And that trailer is brilliant. But it’s such a strange trailer because it doesn’t really show what the book is about. He took the smallest details and illustrated them, stuff I never would have even thought to have shown as a teaser. It works anyway, I love it.
No one has asked me to write the screenplay but of course I would! I do see things cinematically. When I write, I see the movie of what I’m writing playing in my head. All I have to do is describe what I’m seeing. I even see black outs, fade-to-black, and jump cuts!