“The problem wasn’t so much that Lexie had taken the Klonopin. And it wasn’t even really that she had stolen them… the problem, as Lexie saw it, was that she had fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin. And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.”—Opening line of Jessica Anya Blau’s new novel, The Trouble With Lexie.
Jessica Anya Blau’s newest book, The Trouble with Lexie, is an intense and juicy work of literary fiction published this year through Harper Collins. It follows Lexie, a counselor at a New England prep school with an impending wedding, a troubled past, and a scandal just as troubling! This past month, I had the opportunity to talk with her about her book, her process, and some of her inspirations and neuroses.
Jacob Budenz: Lexie is uncannily lifelike and relate-able even in the most absurd moments. Without incriminating yourself, or anyone you know, can you talk a little bit about where your inspiration for Lexie came from? Or your process for getting into the head of the character?
Jessica Anya Blau: Oh, I’m always incriminating myself in everything I write! My characters are all flawed in many of the ways I’m flawed. Lexie does some stupid things, and so have I. It’s interesting to me that the best reviews I’ve gotten for my books have almost universally come from male readers. Female readers can be much more critical and they are often critical about the same thing: the fact that my characters fuck up in big ways. But if our fictional characters aren’t behaving poorly, or aren’t getting in trouble, or aren’t making poor decisions, where is the story? We read books to live other people’s lives. That’s the joy in reading—to feel what it would be like to be someone else even if that person’s a fuck up. Or maybe, for me, there is more joy if they’re a fuck up, if they’ve done worse than I have.
I haven’t made any mistakes (yet, knock on wood!) as massive as a couple of the mistakes Lexie makes, but I certainly have thought about doing most of the things she does. In writing about Lexie, it was sort of an act of letting ideas and impulses inside me play out without having to let them play out in real life (where there would be major consequences). There are some ways in which Lexie is me exactly: the panic attacks, the daydreaming. And the ways in which she’s shallow, I’m shallow, too. She wants nice things, good sheets on her bed, that sort of stuff. And I want those things, too. Her parents were created out of stories collected in my mind—the families of people I’ve known. Life is hard sometimes, and a lot of people end up with shitty parents. All the shitty parent stories I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve witnessed many) or heard, have stuck with me. That said, even when I base an idea off someone else’s life, as soon as I start writing it, I take it over and make it all mine: my own version, totally unique and unlike the original from which I may have launched the character.
JB: How would you describe your process for this book? Was it similar for other works of your as well?
JAB: My process is this: I start with an idea for a character in a particular moment or situation. In The Trouble with Lexie it was an image of Lexie walking up on her lover’s bed after she’s broken into his house. In The Wonder Bread Summer, it was Allie finding herself in the fitting room with the half-naked owner of the boutique. In Drinking Closer to Home, it was the three kids sitting in the kitchen at midnight while their mother is in the ICU, maybe dying. And with The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, it was 14-year old Jamie sitting on the steps of the pool watching her parents’ friend, Leo, jump naked on the diving board. With the exception of Lexie, all those moments happened to me in some very similar way. So, I start with that particular person in that particular moment, and then I write from there. As I write, I add, change, develop, and create a person who, so far, has never turned out to be the exact same person I started with. So the character is created through the process of writing the character (I guess it’s sort of an “If you build it, they will come,” situation). Once the character is fully created, I go back to the beginning and write the whole book over again, knowing better who I’m dealing with. I revise a lot. There are 25 start to finish revisions of The Trouble with Lexie sitting in my Dropbox.
JB: I’m interested in Lexie’s use of Yahtzee as a tool for divination—it reminds me most of of a pendulum, where you typically ask yes-or-no questions to the ether but are secretly, ultimately in control. How did you settle on this particular plot device? Where did it come from?
JAB: It seems that you’re asking the questions that lead to me outing myself as a complete lunatic and obsessive! I no longer have Yahtzee on my phone, but when I did, I played it whenever I was in a meeting, or on a tedious phone call, or waiting in line somewhere. Every now and then I made decisions by it—not big ones, like the ones Lexie makes, but little ones like Should I write in Starbucks or should I write at One World Cafe? Now I play Scrabble on my phone and I just use it in that I’ll tell myself I can’t start working until I win a game. I also do the New York Times Crossword puzzle, and sometimes I’ll put off a task or chore until I’ve completed it. I’m nutzo.
JB: What’re some of your more “nutzo” habits as a writer? Do you do anything like set your alarm for 3 AM, write only with red fountain pens, perform bloodletting rituals before a long editing session, that sort of thing?
JAB: Other than having to win a scrabble game, I really don’t have any nutzo habits except that I will write anywhere. I carry my computer with me and write when I get a pedicure, I write in airports, I write at my neighborhood pool, I’ll write in the car when I’m waiting for someone. Sometimes my life is so full of responsibilities that I have to snatch my writing time in bits and pieces. Often I won’t have time to write all day, and then I’ll sit on the couch with my husband at ten at night and he’ll watch Bloodline or something like that, and I’ll write for two or three hours, until one in the morning. I’m more of a late in the day writer than an early morning writing. I go to yoga in the morning when I can. Recently I ghost-wrote a memoir (it’s coming out with HarperCollins in October) and I had very little time to finish the whole book (nonfiction and memoirs seem to work on a different schedule than fiction) so I was writing in the morning before yoga, after yoga, during lunch, at dinner, at night . . . I just did it all the time, everywhere I was. It was a manic schedule and I felt a little manic. The dream day for me would be yoga, lunch with friends, writing in the afternoon, dinner and then hang out with my husband. But that rarely happens.
JB: Peter’s El Kabong moment was one of the most surprising acts of impulse in the book for me. What motivated this particular act, this particular brand of destructiveness?
JAB: I think there are two times when people consistently act out of character. One is when they’re broken hearted—I mean truly devastated. And the other is when they are madly in love. (It is called MADLY in love, as if one has gone crazy and lost one’s senses from it.) With Peter, he was such an easy-going, gentle, sweet guy I wanted the reader to see how devastated he was by Lexie leaving him. When you destroy your own stuff—in this case, the guitar he had hand-made—that’s when you’re bottoming out, right? I wanted the reader to witness his bottom because it’s not that bad a bottom compared to what happens to Lexie later in the book. Most people I know have done something destructive or just plain stupid as a result of a broken heart. I certainly have.
JB: Also, what is this business with the dress? Why would Peter destroy the wedding present but keep the dress? Not to mention that he gives it to his new girlfriend. Why would someone want that reminder? Did Lexie really see her wearing the dress at the bar? That moment was so surreal I was wondering if it was some Klonopin-induced hallucination.
JAB: Initially I just forgot to put it in the pile of stuff Lexie picked up. Then, later, I had the idea that it would be truly brutal for Lexie to see Peter’s new girlfriend in it. In one of the many revisions, I inserted the dialogue about Lexie and Amy looking for the dress in the driveway. Wedding dresses are so iconic (for most people, not for me) and Lexie is a bit of a romantic, so the dress—though it wasn’t a traditional dress and could be worn out again—would have had some meaning to her. Putting the dress on Peter’s new girlfriend was a way for me to throw another painful moment in Lexie’s way—a way to unhinge her further. Lexie is a smart, kind, and good person. Things had to be profoundly messed up for her to do what she does in the end.
JB: I have to ask–do you and the other writing professors get together and decide who the MILF (Most Irritating Little Fucker) is?
JAB: Ahahaha! No, I’ve never gathered with other profs. and named the Most Irritating Little Fucker. Certainly we’ve had conversations about students who are less than pleasant, just as we’ve had conversations about students who are a complete joy to teach. And, truthfully, most students are a joy to teach. You get to know people pretty well in writing classes and once I know people the way one knows them through their writing, it’s hard for me to dislike them.
Jessica Anya Blau’s previous novels, The Wonder Bread Summer, Drinking Closer to Home, and the nationally bestselling The Summer of Naked Swim Parties have all been optioned for film and television. Jessica’s stories and essays have been widely published and anthologized. Recently Jessica ghost-wrote a memoir, which is coming out with HarperCollins in October. Jessica is from California and lives in Baltimore.