Jessica Anya Blau, MARY JANE

Jessica Anya Blau, MARY JANE

Jessica Anya Blau joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, Mary Jane, which was written in part over FaceTime with friends during the pandemic. The two talked about Jessica’s journey to becoming a writer, the ways in which her own adolescence figured into motherhood, and how dancing around her empty kitchen to the biggest hits of 1975 helped her write the book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jessica. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mary Jane.

Jessica Anya Blau: Yay, thank you for having me. I love all your multiple platforms and media. I go through it all and listen to things. I think you’re wonderful. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Aw, you are so sweet. Thank you. I’m delighted to have you too. I love your sense of humor that is in this book. I don’t know if that was the primary intention. Maybe we should start with you telling listeners what your book is about and what inspired you to write and all that. You’re so quick-witted. This dark sense of humor, I just loved it. It’s just so funny. Loved it.

Jessica: Thank you. The book is about a fourteen-year-old girl in Baltimore in 1975 who is the summer nanny for a psychiatrist who lives down the street. Over the summer, immediately, she discovers that he’s housing a very famous rockstar and a movie star as the rockstar tries to sober up. They’re hiding on the third floor of this house in Baltimore. That’s it. That was the premise. That’s what I sat down to write. I wrote this book. I ghostwrite sometimes. I had been ghostwriting for a celebrity. She was lovely. She was very fun. We had a great time. She had no boundaries, which, as you probably know, a lot of — I’m from California, so I’m actually used to people who don’t have boundaries. I can deal with it if somebody’s like, hey, no boundaries. I’m like, okay, I’m in. It was FaceTiming from bed with her celebrity husband every night. It was just phoning every day and the entire history of her sex life with every celebrity in Hollywood, which was very extensive and interesting and fun to hear about. I kept writing chapters and writing chapters and writing chapters. Everything she told me, she didn’t want in the book. It was this incredibly creatively frustrating thing where she would spend ten days telling me about every star she’d ever had sex with. Then I’d write a chapter of it. I would hide everybody’s name and try and disguise who they were. Then she, I don’t want to put that in the book. Then she’d spend a week talking about her famous family and this and that. Then, I don’t want to put that in the book. Then we’d spend two weeks talking about movie sets and certain movies she was on. Then, I don’t want to put that in the book. I was trying to write and trying to write. It was like I couldn’t write it. We were kind of at a crossroads. She fired me.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Jessica: We had read her diaries together. We were reading the diaries. They were very smart and funny. They were interesting. I said, “You should just publish these diaries.” Then two days later, she decided she was going to write the book herself and she fired me. It was, of course, that terrible humiliation of being fired and anger and heartbreak. It’s like a guy breaking up with you or a woman breaking up with you. It’s like a lover breaking up with you. It’s like a friend leaving you. It’s the humiliation of losing a job. I was just so heartbroken and angry and upset and frustrated. Then I thought, I just want to write what I want to write without anybody else having veto power or saying, I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to reveal that. It was so hard. I’d ghostwritten for other people before, and I’d never had that problem before. I had ghostwritten a few books. It was a new thing that everything I did was rejected. It was almost like a rage at first. I was so mad. I thought, I’m just going to write what I want to write. I sat down and I started writing Mary Jane. I wanted it to be 1975. I was listening to Billboard’s Top 100 songs from 1975 the whole time I was writing. I’d turn it up at the end of the day and dance in the kitchen and empty the dishwasher. I just was completely liberated. I felt liberated. It felt really good just to have my voice be the only voice and my say be the say of, okay, this works. I’m going to do this. That’s how I wrote Mary Jane.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so great when the person writing the book is going through some of the emotions that are actually in the book. You were clearly on this journey. Not that that happened in the story or anything, but even just that image of you dancing around, that is so great. How can you then read a book and feel anything but that same sense of perseverance and joy and all of that? It seeps in there.

Jessica: It’s interesting. It reminds me of — what was that book? Was it Isabel Allende, the one where they put the tears in the food they were making and you’d feel —

Zibby: — Yes.

Jessica: Was that Water for Chocolate?

Zibby: I was going to say that. Then I was like, no, I’m sure I’m wrong. Yes, I think it was.

Jessica: We both might be wrong.

Zibby: We both might be wrong, but yes, that’s what I think it is too.

Jessica: I love that you said that. That’s so interesting. Maybe it was. Emotionally, I was in such a state as I entered this book. Yeah, maybe it does come out. Maybe it’s like cooking with tears.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so true. My husband cooks a lot. I’m like, “Your food always tastes better.” He’s like, “That’s because I put my love into it. I could give the same ingredients to a chef at a restaurant, and it’s not going to taste the same because the emotion is out of it.” I feel like it’s a parallel to this story.

Jessica: That’s sweet. Then a lot of this was written during COVID. All I wanted was to go to a dance party. All I wanted was to hug people and touch people and just snuggle with somebody in a bed. I have kids too. I started having kids in my twenties, so they’re out of the house now. In the book, I definitely was putting in the things I need, like Mary Jane holding Izzy or getting hugged or dancing. The communal togetherness, feeling physically and emotionally connected with someone was such a fantasy just because of COVID and lockdown. Definitely, that was coming out in the book as well.

Zibby: I love it. There’s the scene at the end, I’m not giving anything away, but when she euphorically jumps in the car. They’re all so excited. Mary Jane, you’re back! They’re all together again. I felt like it was a scene from Almost Famous. It had that same rock band, the gang’s together again excitement to it. I could see that.

Jessica: Just being part of a group. I am such a pack animal. COVID has been so hard on me. Just being part of little pod — I like to be in a litter. I would love to be with six people in a litter.

Zibby: Come on over. I have four kids and a — there are at least six people in the house most of the time.

Jessica: I really wanted six kids. I had two, but I wanted six. I just thought it would be so much fun.

Zibby: I don’t know.

Jessica: You’re doing great. You’re doing an amazing amount of things for four kids back there.

Zibby: I’m kind of cheating. My son’s at boarding school. He’ll be back in a couple weeks. It’s like three and a half at the moment. There’s a lot in the book about, obviously, addiction. There’s the psychiatrist. Jimmy is there for treatment. That’s the premise of the whole thing. I love this quote from Sheeba. She said, “Well, we’re all addicts of some sort. Part of being alive is figuring out the balance between what you want, what you need, and what you have with what you don’t want, don’t need, and don’t have.” Then she says, “I mean, Jimmy, man, you are so not alone here. This whole family, each of us, we’re all addicts in one way or another.” Tell me a little bit more about that and the addiction to other things, how we’re all kind of addicted to something.

Jessica: I do feel that. I do feel that in life. It really is like, how do you find the balance? How do you let go of certain things? Everything, love and hate, even being angry, people get hooked into being angry about something. There’s so much that we need to let go and so much that we need to grasp and maybe not grasp as much. It is such a part of life, just balancing all this. It’s interesting because COVID also, a lot of it has been letting go, a process of letting go and acceptance and just being where you are and accepting where you are and that kind of stuff. As far as addictive behaviors, I’ve certainly had mine, but I’ve also been with people and have family — I’ve had a lot of it. I think we all have, haven’t we?

Zibby: Everybody’s got a story.

Jessica: We all have people in our lives and families and all that stuff. I think maybe the difference between people who are writing, you’re either willing to talk about it or you’re not. How do we talk about? Do we talk about it? Certainly, everybody doesn’t need to talk about anything. I don’t write memoir. I write fiction. In all my fiction, my internal life is being processed through there. Mary Jane, one of my daughters read the book. She’s like, “Mom, Mary Jane is exactly you. It’s just you.” Then a close friend read it. He was like, “That’s not you. You were making out on the beach and drinking beer at fourteen.” I was like, I was making out on the beach and drinking beer. I grew up in Southern California drinking beer. Internally, as my daughters know me, that is me. I love organization. I see your bookshelves. They’re color — so are mine. I love alphabetizing and color. I love purity and cleanliness and order. I love singing and dancing. I love Broadway musicals. There’s just so much to love in the world. Really, internally, it is me. Although, at fourteen, I was a little more — I mean, I was in Southern California. You couldn’t help it.

Zibby: Here in New York, everybody was very buttoned up, I’m sure, in comparison.

Jessica: New York and California, everywhere in between. In Indiana, they’re taking a truck out to the cornfield.

Zibby: This is why I’m terrified about having twin teenagers at the moment.

Jessica: How old are they?

Zibby: I’m like, I know what I was doing. What are they going to be doing? They will be fourteen very soon.

Jessica: Boys or girls?

Zibby: Boy/girl.

Jessica: Oh, wow. I do find in motherhood, because I had so many — I was never completely off the rails. I never stole. I tried not to steal or cheat or lie, do terrible things. I’d sneak out my window at night and go out with a boy, go to the beach, and try and sneak back in at four in the morning and stuff like that. I don’t know if you’re finding it with kids. My daughters would do things and it’s like, eh, I did that. Am I really going to care or get — you want them to have boundaries. You want them to be contained and feel like there’s some safe netting around them so they don’t totally go off. It’s almost like everything they did was pretty forgivable because I did it too.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about your writing process in general and how you got your start. Tell me about your first published book and how you became a writer.

Jessica: I married my college boyfriend. We had a baby right away. He got a job in Canada. We were in Toronto. In Toronto, part of the thing was I wasn’t allowed to work or go to school. They wouldn’t give me a permit. I suddenly was home. It was kind of going crazy. I’ve always been a reader like you, just reading like mad my entire life. I was home. He brought a computer home from work, and I just started writing stories. I was lonely. I didn’t know anyone. I was in the middle of Toronto. We moved there in the fall. It got cold really quickly. I was lonely. I was alone. I got a dog because I thought, that’ll help. I found that if I wrote every day I felt like I was okay. I would clean the house. I was a balabusta, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, just taking care of everything. I felt so pointless. I felt so useless. I noticed that if I wrote every day, I felt okay about myself. I was just writing and writing and writing. I spent a year writing every single day. It was a secret. I didn’t tell anyone. In fact, I was home in California and I ran into an old friend. She said, “What have you been doing up in Toronto?” I said, “I’ve been writing every day.” She said, “You have? Do you have your own horse?” I said, “No, no, not riding.” She couldn’t even think. It was so secret. At the end of that year, I had a bunch of short stories. Actually, the truth is, I had them on a disk. I gave them to this husband. I gave him one to print off. He printed it off. Then I had a year’s worth of work on a disk. I gave him the disk. I said, “Can you just print off these stories on this thing?” He actually ended up losing the disk. It was ten years’ worth of work.

Zibby: No!

Jessica: It was just completely gone. You know, I figure it was my teaching myself how to write. It was probably garbage anyway. I got one short story printed. I mailed that short story out, and it was published. I was so shocked. At the time, I just thought, oh, that’s really — I hadn’t told anyone I was writing. I didn’t show anyone anything. I just mailed out this story. I remember thinking, I almost — not almost. I really couldn’t believe it. I thought, they’re going to publish this. Then I thought, maybe I’m doing an okay job here. Maybe it’s okay. I thought, maybe I should apply to graduate school. I applied to graduate schools, and I went. Then went I got in, I was like, okay, now I think I can say it out loud. I still almost didn’t want to say it out loud, that I’m writing. Then I went and I just was publishing short stories and all that. Then I was at Bread Loaf. Do you know what — it’s this writer —

Zibby: — I do, yeah.

Jessica: I was at Bread Loaf. Lynn Freed was there, the South African writer. I love her books so much. We were in this workshop. She told everybody to write one short story. In her South African voice, the word write sounds like rat. She said, “Everybody just rat one line, one sentence. Just rat one good sentence. Everybody rat one good sentence.” I thought, I got to rat a good sentence. What am I going to rat? I rat one sentence, just one sentence. It was a memory of being a kid in Southern California. My parents and all their friends would swim naked. They’d have these big naked swim parties. The kids, we’d all have our bathing suits on. They were always naked. It was a memory of sitting on this — this was in the seventies and stuff — just sitting on the steps of a pool and watching one of my parents’ friends, a man, naked, jumping up and down on a diving board and instantly understanding male anatomy in a way that I hadn’t before. I had thought things were farther apart from each other. I didn’t realize they were . It was this bizarre moment where I was like, oh, wow, weird. I wrote this one sentence about that observation.

Lynn Freed, whose writing I love and I adore, she was very complimentary, and so I felt really good about it. Then later on at Bread Loaf, I was talking to this sort of famous editor who has since died. She had read a short story of mine in a magazine. She mentioned that she had loved this short story. You get so anxious writing. I was like, “You read that story? You liked that story?” She said, “Yeah. Do you have a book? You need to have a book.” I said, “Oh, I’m working on book right now.” She said, “You are?” I wasn’t. She said, “What’s the name of the book?” All I could think of was that one sentence I had written Lynn Freed. I said, “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties.” She said, “That sounds great. Let me know when you finish it.” Then I thought, I better go write that book. Then I went and wrote that book. That was my first book. I guess I was always a writer because I was somebody who kept diaries and filled them and filled them and filled them. I have diaries. Really, I had been practicing writing since second grade, writing in a diary every day. I just didn’t realize it. By the time I was writing, I didn’t realize I really have been practicing it for a while. That’s where it started. That was the first book.

Zibby: Wow. Then you said wrote part of this during COVID. That just happened. This came out so fast, then. Tell me about the process of that. After you got over the breakup with the movie star, did it all just come pouring out of you very quickly?

Jessica: The fastest book ever. Yeah, pouring out of me really fast. I had been living in Baltimore when I started the book, actually. That was right before COVID. In Baltimore, I used to go to cafés. I would sit in cafés with other friends who wrote. We would sit there and we would write. You’d say, okay, we’re not going to talk until — you pick a time. Then we’d write. Then we’d look up. You talk for a few minutes. Then we write. I’d just write in these cafés. Then I’d get in the car, put on seventies. Come home, put on seventies music, dance around, listen to music. Then in the end of December, I moved here to New York City. Then COVID happened in March. Then I was here in New York and trying to write in cafés, but I didn’t know anyone, and just sort of writing by myself.

Zibby: Aw.

Jessica: It was sad. It deserves an “aw” because I was so lonely. I joined a gym. They had a little workspace in the gym. I could sit in the workspace at the gym. I’d at least see other people. I would write there. Then once we locked down, I started FaceTiming with friends. We would write together. You get on FaceTime. I’d be like, “Okay, we’re not going to talk for…” Then we’d write. Then we’d look up and talk, and we’d write. I just am not an isolation, alone person. I wrote through all that stuff. Then all of the second drafts and the editing and the — the car scene that you mentioned, the driving off, that’s actually where I originally ended the book. It wasn’t exactly as it is when you read it. It was slightly different because it was the end of the story. I was thinking sort of like that — do you remember the movie Thelma & Louise?

Zibby: Mm-hmm.

Jessica: That beautiful freeze-frame at the end in the car, I had this vision of this liberation, even though I think they were going to kill themselves in the movie. Definitely, nobody’s killing themselves in this book. It was just this liberation moment, freeze-frame car. My editor Kate was like, “No, you can’t end it there. No, this is crazy.” I don’t know because I’ve lost sense of time in COVID, but I feel like it was maybe three months or four months of me writing an ending, sending it to Kate, her rejecting it, writing an ending. Then we’d be on the phone discussing it. She’d be like, “We have to feel it.” Just thinking about it and trying to process it and get in my head and get the right feel and the right emotion. Emotionally, where do you want to end up? How do we end up there? The end was just a lot of work, all here with somebody on FaceTime, talking to myself. I’m always talking to myself. What? Never mind. Myself.

Zibby: When everything is back to normal, I’m also in New York, so you can come over here at some point.

Jessica: I’d love it, when all the kids are there. I want the chaos of kids.

Zibby: Or other writers so you’re not alone. There’s ton of writers everywhere in this day, I feel like. Are you working on a new book now?

Jessica: I’m working on a new book now. I think it’s due in June. I’ve been doing so much other pre-pub stuff and all this stuff, so I think it might be a little late. I’m usually really good at deadlines. There’s just been a lot of chaos and upheaval, as you know.

Zibby: Can you say anything about it?

Jessica: Um…

Zibby: You don’t have to.

Jessica: Okay.

Zibby: Forget it. How about, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jessica: Yeah, I think I do. I always need to take my own advice too because I’m such a nutjob. What do they say? Know your reader or write for or whatever? I’m sort of the opposite. It’s like, ignore your reader and liberate yourself. There’s so much fear and anxiety and fear of a perceived reader and fear of, is my mother going to read this? Is my husband? Will my kids read this? Of course, you don’t want to shame people. Other than taking care of the emotional needs of the people you love in the world, even writing the simplest thing, people are so scared, myself included. The best advice for me is always this. Let go of fear. Let go of fear and follow your heart. Following your heart means following your true artistic impulse and not the perceived things. Oh, everybody wants a vampire book. I’m going to write about a vampire. Everybody wants this. I’m going to write about this. People say to me, it seems like everybody likes blank, so I’m thinking of a book where blank, blank, blank. It’s like, is that really what you want to write? Writing is hard. How can you do it perfectly unless it’s really what you want? If you think of painters, was Jackson Pollock thinking, you know, I think splatter art would be in next, I’m going to just — you have to really go for your true individual point of view, your heart, your soul, and your very, very particular point of view, which is the only thing that great art is. It’s one particular person’s point of view in anything. To do that, that’s why it’s scary, because it’s so personal. It is your particular point of view, even when it’s fiction. My advice, to bring it all back, would be just to accept that you’re afraid and do it anyway. Let go of the fear. Accept the fear, and just move straight through it.

Zibby: I love it. Awesome. Thank you, Jessica. Thanks so much for coming on my show and for getting to chitchat today. Thank you so much.

Jessica: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Take care.

Jessica: Bye.

Jessica Anya Blau, MARY JANE

MARY JANE by Jessica Anya Blau

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