Jamie Brenner, BLUSH

Jamie Brenner, BLUSH

“Your wine can never escape its place of origin. As people, neither can we. We can reinvent ourselves over and over again, but we can never change where we began.” Zibby and Jamie Brenner reconnected for a special BookHampton event celebrating Jamie’s latest novel, Blush. The two talked about the research Jamie conducted before setting her story at a Long Island winery, the benefits and detriments of writing books for specific demographics, and the inspiration she took from the dishy female writers of the 1980s. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’s book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here: https://bit.ly/3jdKctA


Zibby Owens: Congratulations, Jamie. I brought some rosé to celebrate you.

Jamie Brenner: Cheers, Zibby.

Zibby: Cheers. I’m sorry we can’t be in person tonight.

Jamie: I know, but thank you for celebrating with me virtually. Because we did do an event together once in person two years ago, I feel like I still have the in-person vibe. It feels like coming home.

Zibby: I feel like we’ve done two in-person events. We did one in Barnes & Noble in New York and one in BookHampton last summer. Two summers ago?

Jamie: Two summers ago,

Zibby: You have so many books. You’re the most prolific author.

Jamie: If I had known that the summer of 2019 was going to be my last in-person for a while, I would’ve done even more events. The last time I saw you was 2019, summer, at BookHampton.

Zibby: Here we are back with Blush, which is so exciting. It even just looks amazing. It looks like you can’t wait to put it down. It’s perfect. What a great story, and of course, your wonderful writing. You develop characters with such a sense of immediacy and familiarity that you feel like you’re watching a movie about it. I can see the glamorous grandmother with her beautiful dresses and this fancy nightgown and whatever you call them. Every character has their own thing. It’s just amazing. In case there’s anyone here who doesn’t know what Blush is really about, would you mind telling them about it?

Jamie: Blush, first of all, is the book I’ve always wanted to write. It just took me some time to figure out how to put this story together. It’s really an ode to the books that I loved reading while I was growing up, Scruples by Judith Krantz, Chances by Jackie Collins, Lace by Shirley Conran, all those really juicy, scandalous, blockbuster best sellers. I had the idea for setting it at a winery. I was messaging you about this. It’s crazy. I was researching a previous book called Drawing Home. I was in Sag Harbor. I was having dinner at a restaurant called Wölffer Kitchen when I realized that all their wines were from their family vineyard, Wölffer Estates. They had a rosé called Summer in a Bottle. I’m like, okay, if that’s not a sign that this is a book waiting to happen, I don’t know what it is. I had the idea, setting a book on a vineyard. Of course, I love telling family stories, and mostly generational family stories. Blush begins with a woman in her fifties who returns to her parents’ winery for summer vacation, as she does every summer. This year, she learns that her parents are in jeopardy of losing it all. At the same time, her college-aged daughter comes out to meet them because she’s dealing with a crisis of intellectual sorts. She has writer’s block for her thesis. She joins her mother and grandmother. While she’s trying to write her paper in the library, she discovers evidence of her grandmother’s old trashy-novel book club in which she and her friends were reading these blockbuster novels from the eighties. At first, Sadie, the granddaughter, has, of course, no interest in lowering herself to read such trash, but she finds herself intrigued. Over the course of the summer, these three women put the book club back together again, the three of them. What they get from these old novels gives them the wherewithal to fight for their family business.

Zibby: Amazing. You even include so many amazing references, especially for people near BookHampton or the North Fork or New York City area to what the area was like and how it’s changed over time, what the family — what their journey was to get there from Argentina to California to the North Fork and all the demands on it from the increased popularity of rosé and them not adapting fast enough as a business to the difficulty of grapes. How did you learn so much about the wine business? Did you just camp out there at Wölffer? Did you pick different vineyards? Tell me about this research. By the way, was it amazing?

Jamie: It was. It was sitting there at a vineyard just drinking and eating cheese and taking notes and thinking, this is really a tough job. The truth is, there was a huge learning curve because I knew very little, really, about wine when I started this. Fortunately, there are a lot of really great nonfiction books about wine. The first one I read was called The Vineyard by a woman named Louisa Thomas Hargrave. She and her husband started the first North Fork vineyard back in 1971. They were real pioneers. She chronicles in such detail what that was like. I really mined her memoir for details to try to understand how my matriarch character would have experienced the transition. I had her as a high-society Manhattan girl who marries someone and is whisked off to this defunct potato farm to try to launch a winery. Up until that time, the wineries were all in Napa. They were in California. Who would think to do this on the North Fork of Long Island? These people did it.

As far as the in-person research, around the time when I was really putting this together, I was fortunate to meet the CEO of Bedell Cellars, which is another winery on the North Fork. His winemaker who’s been in the business for thirty years, a man named Rich Olsen-Harbich, super talented guy, he taught a class at Murray’s Cheese in Manhattan. I attended that class. The way Rich spoke about wine made me realize it is a perfect jumping-off point for a family story. He spoke about something called terroir, which is essentially taste of a place. Both wine and cheese have that. In other words, your wine can never escape its place of origin. As people, neither can we. We can move to New York. We can move to LA. We can reinvent ourselves over and over again, but we can never change where we began. I felt that my heroine and the wine and the cheese all has this in common. It just really bolstered my confidence in trying to tell this complicated story. I did spend a lot of time at the Bedell, walking the field with the winemaker, sitting in the tasting room and listening to the types of questions people asked. It was fascinating.

Zibby: Genius move to set a book there. I know you do all this research for all your books. This is fantastic. I still think of you every time I walk by the American Hotel. By the end of our relationship, every place I go to, I will be thinking of you and wanting to send you a snapshot or whatever. One interesting thing you talked about was what Sadie was reading and the availability of so much more YA, middle grade, all sorts of fiction for young girls versus what you and I and Leah had growing up, whereas you and I — we’ve talked about this before. I was reading Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz. I was reading all my mom’s books because I had already blown through all of my own books. There weren’t that many of them to choose from. In fact, I have a lot of them in the closet. I should really pull them out. There’s been this sea change in the availability of fiction for young girls. I wonder, actually, the impact of that on their sexuality because those books that we were reading were pretty explicit.

Jamie: I saw the documentary about Jackie Collins called Lady Boss. In it, her daughter says she was not allowed to read her mother’s books until she was eighteen. I was twelve reading those books, so that gives you some perspective.

Zibby: What do you think the change is doing for kids? Do you think that now that there are so many more things available, would people even be drawn to those? What do they lose? What does a generation lose by not reading some of that stuff? It also was great, as your book highlights over and over again, there are strengths to these books, this escapist phenomenon. Even the wiles of women, there’s just so much in there. What do you think? I don’t know.

Jamie: I think it’s a great question. I think when you package something specifically for a demographic, there is some purity lost to people who just discover something on their own. While there are so many brilliantly written YA books, I don’t know if the experience for a teenager could ever be as raw and as guilty but heightened as the experience we had discovering these books that were not for us and yet somehow spoke to us. If someone had put a teenager on the cover of Chances and basically hand-sold it to me, I don’t know if I would’ve taken it as much to heart. For me, it felt so personal. I found this book. I’m not supposed to read it, but it is speaking to me. Therefore, there’s something for me in here that’s going to take me where I need to go. I’m thankful that, like you said, we only had a handful of appropriate books. We were left to our own devices to fill in the rest of our reading.

Zibby: I guess I could’ve read Dickens. I could’ve gone literary, but I was not going there.

Jamie: No. Who is? Frankly, what is Dickens going to tell us? We needed to hear, as a woman, you can go out and do whatever you want. You can be sexy. You could have relationships on your own terms. Even though I read these books in 1985, I was still not getting that message from the people in my real life. When I told my teacher that I wanted to be a novelist when I grew up, she said, “Well, maybe you can be a teacher.” Billy Ikehorn Orsini was the only telling me, you don’t need permission. You don’t need validation to do what you want to do. You just have to do it.

Zibby: I love that. It’s true. Sometimes books give us, really, what’s missing in our own lives, whether it’s coming into our own or something deeper. We always look to books. Not having the other ones available — anyway. You have characters, obviously, going through all sorts of different things. You have the middle-aged couple with sort of a reckoning. You have this whole section, I don’t know why I keep going back to all this sexuality talk, but on what it was like for them at the beginning and what happens after you’ve been in a marriage for a very long time. There aren’t always that many books written about, what happens to the married couple a lot later in life? How do you keep that? Do you want to keep that spark alive? Even when Steven wants to help out with the business, what does it do to a woman who’s used to being in charge? Is that actually sexy, or is it not?

Jamie: I really believe that midlife is a fascinating moment in time where you can still look ahead and not necessarily know where you’re going to be in twenty years, but you also have all the wealth of experience behind you. It’s challenging. I think about marriage a lot. I’ve been told, and it doesn’t need to be said, but marriage is work when you change together. No one stays the same. There’s really no way to know when you start out in life if you’re going to change in ways that continue to make you compatible. Also, women go through physical changes that men just don’t have to deal with. The changes we go through are physical. They’re mental. They can really force a reckoning. When your body is changing and telling you things, you cannot ignore it even though we have mastered shutting down our mind when we have to. I really wanted to approach that in some way. I really, in some drafts, went much more into menopause and what it forces us to work on in a relationship or for ourselves. I dialed it back a little bit because I was losing my focus. I think it’s something I still want to continue exploring in future books.

Zibby: Interesting. It’s so funny. I do this podcast now called “SexTok with Zibby and Tracey,” which is sort of a sex education thing. Tracey Cox is my cohost. She wrote a book called Hot Sex After 50. She just said to me earlier today, she’s like, “The sales of this book aren’t as strong as my other ones. Maybe women really don’t want to have sex after fifty.”

Jamie: I think they do, but I think women don’t want to be told about, you should go on hormones, or you should do that. One of the most interesting things to me is just how much is mental and how important it is for us to be okay and happy. When we’re okay, really okay, the rest follows. When we’re scrambling in the child-rearing years and even in our forties, we can kind of get by with not taking care of ourselves. Then I think you hit fifty or so, and the chickens come home to roost. You have to deal with your stuff. When you do, things are fine. I feel better now than I ever have, but you have to work at it. It doesn’t just come to you the way it did when you’re in your twenties.

Zibby: Let’s talk, also, about the glamour that you give to Vivian and her whole aura and how she was on the cover of Town & Country and always shows up in these beautiful outfits. What did you have hanging around her neck? A leopard or something? Some brooch or something like that, right? There was a jaguar. Maybe a jaguar. She’s such a presence. She’s obviously so disgusted by the fact that people are showing up at the vineyard now wearing cutoffs and tank tops and all of that. There is also, not only from the books of that time, but there is definitely a glamour lost from — not to say that the eighties were glamourous, but this whole Dynasty time where things were very fancy. I used to play in my mom’s closet with all her ballgowns all the time. The beading and the shimmers and the furs, there was all this stuff. It’s not like that today. What are my kids going to do, look at my sweatpant collection? There’s just something that’s not the same. What do you think the impact of that is? Have you noticed that and all of that?

Jamie: Absolutely. Everything was so extra. Escada and Nolan Miller and Joan Collins on Dynasty with the — look, I feel like a slob if I’m not wearing makeup and lipstick. Why? Because I grew up in the eighties. That’s where my aesthetic was formed. Just like the books we read as teenagers stay with us, the visual messages we get at that age is very formative. My teenage daughters, they say, “We wish we grew up in the eighties. It looked like so much fun. People didn’t take things so seriously. People didn’t judge each other so much.” I really feel lucky that I got to experience growing up in a time where there were these over-the-top TV shows, the miniseries like Lace where Phoebe Cates waltzes in in her little slip dress and says, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” Now we look at it like camp. At the time, it inspired me. It made me want things. It made me dream. I think that’s what art is supposed to do for us, even bad art. I feel sad for this generation that some of that’s been lost.

Zibby: That’s true. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of today. I love, also, your male characters in the book and how from the second they come on the scene, so to speak, the whole thing is so visual. There’s just this intrigue. What’s going to happen with this guy? Wow, he really went to Stanford, and the son. You’re just so great at creating these question marks. What is going to happen next? It’s all about these guys and also needing to look elsewhere if the business really is about to be sold and all of that. Tell me a little bit about how you create your characters and how you went about this book in particular, figuring out who everybody was and how they would all get along and how this whole plot unfolded and got written into this book. It’s a roundabout way of asking.

Jamie: I always start with — my female characters are my bedrock. I figure out whose point of view it’s going to be. In this book, it’s all three. I tell it from the matriarch, Vivian’s point of view, her daughter Leah’s point of view, and the granddaughter Sadie’s point of view. I reread Chances and Scruples and Lace before I wrote this book. It was really eye-opening to read it at age forty-eight, forty-nine. I experienced it very differently than I did as a teenager. I’m like, okay, how do I convey these different perspectives? The three women had to be differentiated. We have the matriarch who wouldn’t be caught dead out of her glam on the vineyard floor. We have the middle generation who’s more like us. She has a job. She’s grounded. Then we have the twentysomething who’s idealistic. She’s super progressive. She’s a feminist. She’s no nonsense. In some ways, she’s not very fun initially. Each woman has her counterpart. The men, we still need to work with in terms of conflict. Every relationship has its internal tension. I found, in truth, that there’s a lot of discrimination against women, traditionally, in winemaking. They were not even allowed around wine that was fermenting in the barrel at a time because it was believed women could turn the wine. It was really not a jump to make Leonard chauvinistic. It was not a jump to have him marginalize his daughter in preference for his son who was much less savvy and much less interested in even having a hand in the business, but because he’s male, it was given to him. Then for Sadie, when you’re in your twenties, you don’t really know who you are, let alone who’s the right partner for you. It’s always fun to write a twentysomething grappling with their love life because they really are just clueless. It’s so easy to have them wandering around lost until you bring them to an understanding or a moment of connection. That’s where I was with these characters.

Zibby: It’s so funny. You wish you could do that with your own kids while they wander around lost, know that you could just pull them out. When you’re ready, boom, there you go.

Jamie: I know. I think so much of writing, for me, is wish fulfillment. Yes, wanting to be able to neatly wrap up my child problem in one summer or having this mother or this sister, that is so much of my creative engine.

Zibby: Once again, just like in Drawing Home, you have such a strong older woman protagonist as one of the main characters. You always do. She’s particularly vivid in my mind after our conversation about it. I think that the way you instill this extra layer of dignity on the elderly, if you will, is just amazing to see in fiction and something that hopefully people will take the reverence that you show and the multidimensionality of the characters — they’re not just forgotten older women. They actually have the most interesting stories of all.

Jamie: Absolutely. I think it’s a real shame that our culture doesn’t exalt our older generation. Think of how much more you know now than you did twenty years ago. Then imagine what a richer person you’re going to be twenty years from now. My grandmother was the most nurturing, interesting, supportive person I ever knew. I miss her every day. Like I said, it’s very much bringing her back in these characters. Fortunately, with social media and Instagram, I’m having so much fun looking at these amazing older women with their silver fox Instagrams. I really love looking at Linda Rodin and the way she dresses and carries herself, Iris Apfel being in these advertisements in her nineties. I think we’re entering a really interesting time for older women. I’m thrilled to see it.

Zibby: Yes, good timing for us.

Jamie: Exactly. You just have to keep it going for another two decades.

Zibby: Keep it very on trend. When you were doing the plotting of this whole book, did you have it all outlined out? How long was the thinking about it versus the actual putting words on the page part of it when you were writing it? How much time do you spend making the sentences nice and pretty versus just getting it all down?

Jamie: Not enough. I don’t think I spend enough time making them pretty. I spend a lot of time outlining. I always think, oh, my god, I totally have this down. Then I hand in a first draft to my agent, Adam Chromy, and he tells me it’s basically not working. I’m always like, what? Then I go and rewrite. I fix it. This book was really challenging because I was done, except I was missing the penultimate scene. I was missing that thing that was going to bring everyone together, that thing that was going to give everyone their final moment of realization. I said to him, “I don’t see it.” We sat down and we went through my research. He was like, “This is what you should be using in that scene. This is where that belongs.” This was literally three weeks before everything shut down. That was the last piece of the puzzle of the book. There’s always something in a book that isn’t clicking and that makes me panicked and that I have to talk to someone about, talk to my agent about because he’s always my first reader. Then the sentences, I’m not a literary writer.

Zibby: Still, though, you have to focus on the sentences or it’s not —

Jamie: — Yeah. The thing is, I really want people to be able to see what I’m seeing. I feel like if I’ve done that, if you can see Vivian, if you can smell the wine in the barrel room, and if you can see the flowers, then I feel like I’ve done my job.

Zibby: Yes. I think you’re selling yourself a little short, but that’s okay.

Jamie: Thank you.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Jamie: I have a book coming out next summer, which is called Gilt, G-I-L-T, which is a similar story of a family dynasty — this time, it’s a jewelry company kind of like Tiffany — a jewelry family that sort of became synonymous with engagements and the diamond engagement ring. Of course, none of the women in the family have had any luck in love, ironically. It’s what happens when the cast-out heir to this jewelry dynasty comes back to reclaim what’s hers.

Zibby: That sounds good.

Jamie: It was a lot of fun.

Zibby: This one, you just got to go try on diamonds all day?

Jamie: The research was definitely dangerous.

Zibby: Your next book should be about spas.

Jamie: I probably should write one that’s set in a gym so I can finally exercise and stop just eating and buying jewelry.

Zibby: Okay, make it gym and spa.

Jamie: Gym and spa, yeah.

Zibby: Gym and spa so you can feel a little more virtuous part of the time.

Jamie: Done.

Zibby: Actually, that would be really interesting, especially over the years with the changing of all the fitness trends. You could have someone sort of stuck back in those ways. I’m sure you have plenty of other — you must be writing the book after that then now, right?Jamie: I just started putting thoughts down for the book after that. I used to be way, way ahead of the curve. Now I’m just on pace. I just handed in .

Zibby: Now you’re a slacker.

Jamie: Yeah, basically. I lost all discipline during the pandemic.

Zibby: Did you end up writing at all during the pandemic? How was that for you?

Jamie: Yeah, I wrote the book for next year.

Zibby: The whole Gilt?

Jamie: I wrote the whole thing. I was in Provincetown for six months. It’s the first time I wrote a book in the place where I’m setting the book. My next book’s set back in Provincetown. I’ve already written a book there. This time, that was my home for six, seven months, which actually made it harder. I always thought if I could live in Provincetown, I’ll write even better. Oddly enough, visiting a place and then going somewhere else and writing the book gives you some distance. It gives you the ability to translate it. I found while I was living there, I was not conveying it as clearly on the page.

Zibby: Oh, that’s interesting.

Jamie: It was very interesting.

Zibby: Somebody is asking this one question. We don’t have to go full-on to question and answer, but because this has been here a while, somebody is asking how — you mentioned Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins and that you had also mentioned Norma Klein. She wants to know, Caroline, do you keep these authors and others in mind when conceptualizing or writing your books? She also wants to know, what do you hope that readers are inspired by in your book?

Jamie: Norma Klein, first of all, was one of my favorite writers. I feel like she doesn’t get enough attention. She was a contemporary of Judy Blume. She died at age fifty after writing maybe fifteen, twenty groundbreaking novels. She was censored. She was as raw and honest as you get. I wish so much she’d had more time to write more books. Mom, the Wolf Man and Me, I could go on and on. I don’t model my books after these writers I admire because I can’t write like them. If I tried, it would just trip me up. I can only pay tribute to them in the best way I can. As far as what I would like my readers to take away from my book, I think the most important thing, and I’ve explored this in many of books, is it’s never too late. Life is full of second and third acts if you have the courage to reach out and create them. I really believe that. That’s something I want to keep hammering home as I write future books because I don’t think we see it or hear it enough. I certainly didn’t see enough growing up. I dreaded getting older. I thought fifty was the end. Now I feel like it’s literally just the beginning. Judith Krantz didn’t publish Scruples until she was fifty. I’m super into this time. I love younger readers too, of course. Twenties is great. Thirties is great. There is still something to be said for taking everything you’ve learned and all of your relationships and all of that foundation and doing something with it.

Zibby: Love it. Let’s talk about the cover too because the cover is so, as I said at the very beginning, so enticing and beautiful and visually appealing. It’s just awesome. Tell me about that. Did you have input? How did that come to be?

Jamie: I love this cover so much. There was an earlier cover that wasn’t quite there. Luckily, my team at Putnam are so hard-working. There was such great communication. I was saying to my publisher, Sally Kim, “I’m not just feeling it. I’m so sorry.” She said, “Okay. I have an idea. Let me put some thoughts out there.” Then they came back with this. There’s this moment where they send you the cover and it’s downloading. You have to wait. It’s the longest thirty seconds. It opened and I was just like, that is perfection. I really love it. I’m so grateful to the thought and care that went into it.

Zibby: Wow, that gave me goosebumps. If you don’t want to discuss, we don’t have to, but how did you end up at Putnam versus Little Brown with your other books?

Jamie: I did four summer-read beach books with Little Brown. It was great. I love those books. I just felt like I wanted to keep trying something a little bit different. It gave me a new angle on storytelling to be with a refreshed team. Sometimes it’s just good, artistically, to have a change. When you’re with the same people, it’s hard for them to see you through a different lens if you want to do a slight left turn. Overall, it was just what I needed to keep progressing and growing with my storytelling.

Zibby: Interesting. I like it. Somebody wanted to what inspired the shift in this. Why did you write this now? I guess is a better way of saying — not a better. Sorry to Stacey M. Why did you go in this slightly different direction now? I know you said this is the book you always wanted to write. How did you see it as, oh, no, this is a totally different type? What was the main point of differentiation? What inspired that piece of it?

Jamie: My previous four novels were very much driven by a sense of place. I set each of them in different beach towns: Provincetown; Jersey Shore; Sag Harbor; as you mentioned, the American Hotel. I would just be at a place, and it would grab me. I’d have to set a story there. This time, the idea of paying homage to these old novels is what got me going. I was looking for a way to match it to a setting. The beaches weren’t clicking for me. When I thought of the vineyard, when I had that idea, the vineyard, the wine, the books, it just came together in a way that the story made sense. As I mentioned, I’d wanted to tell this book before. I just didn’t have all the pieces in place. I didn’t say, oh, I don’t want to set this book at a beach. It’s just that the setting and the story have to work together for the book to really click. Once I had these two pieces, the direction showed me. It all came together. I just followed it.

Zibby: Got it. So it was more grabbing onto the inspiration as it hit, versus, now is the time in my life that I’d like to try this?

Jamie: Yeah, it was like something had been brewing, and it just came together. This was how it came together.

Zibby: I see Patty popping up in the corner here.

Patty: I think we’re winding down. I know you’ve got another event coming up. Good luck. Congratulations on pub day. Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much.

Jamie: Thanks so much. Thanks, Zibby. Bye, everyone.

Patty: Thank you, everyone. Buh-bye.

Jamie Brenner, BLUSH

BLUSH by Jamie Brenner

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