drinkingclosertohome_pb_cJessica 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

Read “White Bread” on Fictionaut

Line Breaks is a regular feature in which accomplished authors introduce and share their first published stories with the Fictionaut community. Line Breaks is edited by Gary Percesepe.

  1. James Lloyd Davis

    Dear God, this intro is astonishingly hilarious and uncomfortably close to the truth. Who … if you are a serious writer and have exposed yourself to any of the big-name workshops … has not been ruthlessly savaged by people like this?

    After reading this, decided that … if ever I do attend another such workshop, I will leave my gun at home, although I have heard that some Federal prisons have some excellent writers’ workshops.

    Fabulously funny, marvelous intro to a story I simply must read now, immediately….

  2. meg pokrass

    this writer amazes me in every possible way – she is one of the funniest, truest natural writers I’ve come across. Reading her work is so delightful it feels illegal. I love you Jessica.

  3. Jessica Anya Blau

    James, yes, always keep the gun at home. Although people like Wally Lamb teach writing in prison so could be better than some of the MFA programs! Thank you for reading this!

    And, Meg, “Feels illigal.” I love that! Love YOU!

  4. paula

    The sweetest revenge isn’t just success, but being able to forgive your tormentors. You’re the best, Jessica.

  5. Jessica Anya Blau

    Ah, thanks Paula! x!

  6. Eric D. Goodman

    Wow. And I thought these workshops were supposed to motivate, encourage, and support writers! I’m glad you weren’t tempted to revise or trash the story — especially given its success! It would be nice to imagine that Heidi and MacDowell have read it again … in print.

  7. Andi Diehn

    You are a mighty woman to forgive such behavior! We are all lucky you could shake off their comments and keep writing.

  8. susan tepper

    The workshop “experience” brought back some heady memories! Thanks for sharing in such an open, honest way. Enjoyed the humor and candor of this interview!

  9. Jessica Anya Blau

    Eric, Andi and Susan,
    Thank you for reading this. I think we ALL have some memory of some awful workshop experience or writers’ group humiliation. Maybe we should make an anthology of writers writing about their worst experience in a workshop!

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