Jessica Anya Blau‘s second novel, Drinking Closer to Home, is coming out January 18th. Her first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, was chosen as a Best Summer Book by the Today Show, the New York Post, and New York Magazine. The San Francisco Chronicle, the Rocky Mountain News and Barnes and Noble chose it as one of the Best Books of the Year. Currently Jessica is living in Baltimore and teaching at Goucher College.
Q (Meg Pokrass): What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…
I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but for me having mentors, specifically my teachers in graduate school, was hugely important to me. I had no confidence, no idea that I could actually “be” a writer, and here were these people–Madison Smartt Bell, Stephen Dixon and John Barth, specifically–who seemed to have faith in me and to like what I was doing. It changed everything for me. If they were going to take me seriously then I had to write seriously, that is I had to do it no matter what the outcome, and do it the best I could.
What was your path to being a writer all about? Let’s hear about that road!
I was in the buyer training program for a high end department store in San Francisco when I wrote my first story. It was written on my day off. When I gave it to a friend who was a newspaper journalist he said, “It made me want to throw my typewriter out the window,” meaning he was jealous. An exaggeration, for sure, but enough of an encouraging response to think that maybe I was on to something. Then, when I moved to Canada with my then-husband the conditions of my visa didn’t allow me to work or go to school. I got a dog. I had a baby. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. As long as I wrote a couple hours a day, I felt like a productive person. Productivity is important to my happiness.
What is a key element to successfully writing about sex in fiction?
Hmm. Well I’ve noticed that bad sex is far more interesting than good sex because it conveys character. Good sex usually just conveys sex and therefore feels like pornography. But good sex that conveys character can work, too. Writing sex scenes is like writing dialogue. You don’t want it to be expository. It should never explain what’s happening. Instead it should reveal the inner-workings and emotional territory of the characters.
Suggestions for making characters live… Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing? Do you already know these people?
I sense them internally. If I’m writing about them, I feel them the way an actor “feels” his/her character. I’m sort of possessed by them at the time of the writing. I think people should only write about characters that they feel that way. So if you’re basing your character on someone you know, you have to take him/her over and create a character that’s like the person but isn’t really THE person. If it’s THE person you can’t really know everything and you’ll end up with a flat, unbelievable character. If you recreate him or her into your own version of who they are, then they belong to you and you can write them out in an organic and natural way.
Tips in general for fledgling novelists?
Oh goodness, I have no idea. I’m not an expert on anything. Except maybe sunblock. I do loads of research on face creams and sunblock! I guess every writer should try to make it interesting. Don’t be boring. Don’t be dull. Don’t show off and try to broadcast information about yourself that you think will impress people. Just make it interesting.
What are some sustaining practices/ habits for a writer to develop?
Doing it in spite of the failures and rejections. Doing it no matter what criticism you may receive. Doing it over and over and over and over again. Accepting that the first few drafts will be pretty shitty and that you simply have to keep revising. I think a lot of good writing comes down to perseverance. We all start out the same: hopeful, willing, with an idea. The ones who finish are the ones who just keep going.
What is the best writing advice you ever got?
Try again, fail again, fail better. Originally Beckett, but then repeated to me by Lynn Freed.
How autobiographical are your novels?
The first one, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, has a lot of autobiographical material. Drinking Closer to Home is almost all autobiography. And the novel I’m working now has very little autobiographical material.
What is next for you?
Well I’m starting another revision of a novel I finished. I sent it to my agent, she read it through and then we had a two and a half hour conversation where she laid out everything that was wrong with it. And she was right about all of it. Or almost all of it. She’s an excellent reader. This will be the fifth full revision, although the first half of the book has probably been revised about ten times already. Writing is revision. Once you accept that fact, you can write.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday — and over the holidays, every Saturday — Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” will be out in February from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.