Jessica Anya Blau is my new best friend on Twitter, but I told her I couldn’t go with her to the Naked Book Club reading in Baltimore last week, and boy was that the right choice. Because thirty guys showed up and the place smelled like a boy’s locker room and one guy had a boner and another neon green public hair. Hairy men asses on chairs with one guy who had actually read the book. The author was fully clothed and apologizing. If you think this sounds like a scene from a Jessica Anya Blau novel, or a dinner party at her parents’ house in California, go to the head of the class.
Meg Wolitzer observes that when she reads fiction that is breathlessly funny, it almost always has another strong quality attached to it, which might be, say, melancholy, or self-deprecation, or fury. In Blau’s case, I would describe the other quality as a kind of exquisite longing. Both of Blau’s novels — The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, and her just published Drinking Closer to Home — have me rolling on the floor laughing one minute, then curling up fetal in the next. There is an indescribable longing for domestic order in the comedic chaos which Blau’s fiction creates. Because she is writing very close to home indeed, it makes it all the more poignant.
Blau gave what surely qualifies as the most antic, screwball, hilarious interview ever, talking about her two novels. I love that we come into the interview in medias res. It’s like a madcap Platonic symposium on speed. You can read it here.
I love Blau’s Author’s Note, accompanying her story. We dedicate this issue of Line Breaks to those of us who have suffered through a writer’s workshop from hell.
The Age of the Asshole
Just about everyone goes through the Age of the Asshole. It’s the period of time when you’re still young enough to feel invulnerable, but old enough to have achieved something of worth (graduate school, a first published book, medical school, etc.). You think that you’re important and what you say should be heard.
I went through my Asshole stage early, in my mid twenties, when I first moved to Canada. Most people go through it in their early thirties. Knowing that it’s temporary (in most cases), and having humiliated myself in this way, too, makes it easy for me to forgive the two Asshole people I met at the Sewanee Writers’ Workshop in the summer of ’05.
She: Thirty-something, clever banter, pigtails like the storybook Heidi, zaftig in a fuck-you-I’ll-eat-what-I-want way.
He: Thirty-something, one book published in England, a tissue-worn MacDowell tee-shirt, gym-arms, fitted jeans that were definitely tried on in a dressing room and decided upon, not just picked up.
Me: terrified of writers’ colonies, always worried that everyone will think I’m the worst writer in the room.
The opening day of workshop, my story, “White Bread,” was first up. Heidi opened her mouth and gave a monologue that included vocabulary words I later had to look up (copromania, teutsche, fecus). The story was worthless, she said, a narcissistic, solipsistic, repugnant waste of time. The moment she needed a breath, MacDowell took over, reiterating her caustic analysis, although with a more accessible vocabulary. When they were done, there was absolute silence in the room. People appeared to be terrified to say anything lest they, too, be ridiculed as absurd, hackneyed shams. In fact, the subject was dropped, as if “White Bread” weren’t even worth discussing. I felt boneless, shapeless, like a blob of fat and oil you’d want immediately wiped up from your kitchen floor.
When I got home from Sewanee, I didn’t revise “White Bread” (I couldn’t bear to look at it that closely). Instead, I changed the opening sentence and sent the story to The First Line. They took it immediately. And later that year, the story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
I have no idea where Heidi and MacDowell are today, but chances are they’re no longer in the Age of the Asshole. Surely something’s come along to remind them that we’re all dorks, we’re all vulnerable, and we’re all afraid.
-Jessica Anya Blau