Sunday, May 23, 2021

Jessica Anya Blau

Jessica Anya Blau was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. Her novels have been featured on The Today Show, CNN and NPR, and in Cosmo, Vanity Fair, Bust, Time Out, Parade, Oprah Summer Reads and other national publications. Blau's short stories and essays have been published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies. She co-wrote the script for Love on the Run starring Frances Fisher and Steve Howey. She has taught writing at Johns Hopkins University and The Fashion Institute of Technology. Currently, She lives in New York.

Blau's new novel is Mary Jane.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Mary Jane is the name of my new book and the name of the title character. I came up with the name immediately. The book takes place in 1975 and Mary Jane’s family is conservative and sort of emotionally locked down. The double name, and the Mary in there imply both those things to me. I should point out that I love the name Mary Jane and almost want to have another baby just so I can name it that!

In the book, Mary Jane gets a job as a summer nanny for a doctor and his wife who live down the street. Her mother approves of this job, as working for a doctor, in her mind, means it’s a respectable house. It turns out the doctor is a psychiatrist and he has cancelled all his patients for the summer save one: a world-famous rockstar who moves into his house with his movie star wife so the rockstar can get sober. Once she’s embedded in this house, Mary Jane learns about sex, rock and roll, love, marriage, parenting ... she even goes to group therapy. And she learns about Mary Jane, AKA marijuana. So the name has a double meaning in the title.

What's in a name?

Oh, everything! Mary Jane, as explained above really has to be a Mary Jane. Right? The movie star in the house is named Sheba. I wanted her to be a star who was so huge she only went by one name. There’s immense power in being a one-named star. Few people can rise to that. The one-named stars usually have a somewhat unusual name: Cher, Madonna, Liberace, Kanye, Beyonce, J.Lo., etc. I made up the name Sheba. It sounds feminine and powerful. To me, at least! The rockstar is from the South and so I gave him a good-guy Southern name: Jimmy. The shrink is always called Dr. Cone in the book, because the story told from Mary Jane’s point of view. But the fact that she can’t not call him Dr. Cone, even when he tells her to call him by his first name, is telling. It shows how Mary Jane is following the rules, and would be hesitant to go against the wishes of her parents. The same is true for Mrs. Cone. Their daughter is named Izzy. I wanted give her a fun, playful name. And I love the sound of Z names. They’re fizzy.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenager self wouldn’t be surprised by the content, though surely interested (sex, drugs and rock and roll!). When I was a kid, we had a living room with wall to wall bookshelves. My father used to walk up the bookshelf, pluck out a book, hand it to me, and tell me to read it. I read whatever I was given. I think he rarely thought about my age and only took into account that I loved to read. So I read many books at an age when most other kids’ didn’t: Portnoy’s Complaint before I knew anything about boys or their ways. The Painted Bird at an age where I really wasn’t prepared to think though The Holocaust, etc.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Definitely endings! I have an editor who is a genius, Katherine Nintzel, and she has redirected me with all my endings. None of my books have the ending I originally wrote. And most of them have an ending that doesn’t even resemble what I originally wrote. Kate and I will have discussions where she’ll bring up feelings, or where you want to end up emotionally. I’ll send her something and then she’ll send it back and the conversation will continue until I’ve nailed it. The ending of Mary Jane is maybe the fifth one I tried?

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

All my characters are a version of me. Mary Jane doesn’t do things as I did when I was her age. She’s in Baltimore in 1975. I was in Southern California hanging out at the beach and spending the summer barefoot. But internally she is a lot like me. It’s me if I were in a different place/time/family!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

When I was growing up, on the coffee table in the living room, was a Diane Arbus photo book. The one with the twins on the cover. I looked at the book so much I had the titles memorized. Also, we were taken to museums often. I think paintings, museum shows, art had a lot of influence on me. As a young girl, framed prints of Calder’s circus people hung along the walls of my pink, flowery, wallpapered room. It’s a strange thing to put on a little girl’s wall: line drawings of naked circus performers. But I didn’t think of it as strange and just stared at them and looked at the lines and thought about things. So I suppose the answer is art. And great TV. In this book, I’d have to say that my love for Soul Train had an influence.
Learn more about the book and author at Jessica Anya Blau's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

Coffee with a Canine: Jessica Anya Blau and Pippa.

The Page 69 Test: The Wonder Bread Summer.

My Book, The Movie: The Wonder Bread Summer.

The Page 69 Test: The Trouble with Lexie.

My Book, The Movie: The Trouble with Lexie.

The Page 69 Test: Mary Jane.

--Marshal Zeringue