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Interview with Jessica Anya Blau, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties

Jessica Anya BlauJessica Anya Blau’s first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, was a fixture on summer reading lists. Part memoir, part fiction, it tells of a 14-year-old California girl with free-wheeling parents. Read Street asked Blau, a Baltimorean who teaches in the Johns Hopkins University’s writing program, about the novel, her book tour and what’s next. Here are excerpts from that interview; for the complete audio, click here.

Read Street: Why not just write a memoir? Is that
something you considered?

Blau: I didn’t consider writing a memoir. And I guess the reason is that when it comes to writing I like to have control over everything and when you write a memoir you have to have an allegiance to the truth. And the truth is harder to write.
I took my brother out of the story because I though an extra kid was too complicated. I switched the dates of things. Making it fiction, I was free to take things that maybe happened over a five-year period and put them into one novel. And the climax of the story, the event after which everything is different, is completely fictionalized.

RS: Your book has sort of a reverse generation gap — it’s the kids trying to deal with parents who are a bit wilder than your average Ozzie and Harriet parent.

Blau: My parents’ generation lived in an incredible amount of structure and rigidity, and when that generation had kids, we were almost like the Ignored Generation. I have friends whose parents didn’t swim naked and they weren’t smoking pot or growing pot in the back yard like my parents were, but they were ignored. So I think there was a generational thing in the 70s, where the kids were sort of let loose to raise themselves. And particularly in Southern California, where I was.

RS: Do friends and relatives see themselves in your book and recognize the line between
fact and fiction?

Blau: I have received a few hand-written letters and e-mails from people in high school who are naming who they think each character really is. And sometimes they’ve been right and sometimes they’ve been wrong. .... The sister is the most sort of exact replica. ... The mother has a lot of fictional elements in her. There’s sort of a mixture of my mother, her friends, my friend’s mother.

Interestingly, people outside our family look at it, including the mother, and think it’s dead on: ‘That’s exactly what your mother was like.’ But my mother looks at it and sees a very fictional character. And so do the other members of my family... People will say, ‘I remember your house exactly, it was exactly like that.’ But our house wasn’t exactly like that. I cleaned the house up and made it nicer in the book. That’s the joy of fiction. I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to give Jamie a nicer house than I had. I’m going to make it cleaner. I’m going to put a cleaning lady in there. We didn’t have a cleaning lady.

RS: Is it hard to write about yourself and your family? 

Blau: The family part I had no problem writing about and I have absolutely no problem writing
about myself. I think it’s probably a flaw in my character, that I just assume that everybody is a weird and freaky as I am. It’s strange but I have felt that way my whole life, like I assume that if I’m having those thoughts, other people must be having them, where I think a lot of people think: ‘If I’m having those thoughts, I’m crazy.’

RS: When we spoke last time ... you said you didn’t intend [the book] as humor.

Blau: I didn’t intend it to be humor, and in fact if you asked me how to write humor, I would say I have absolutely no idea. ... And the moment when it really hit me was the first reading I had in New York City, which ... was packed with people standing all over the place and it was such a huge crowd that I was absolutely terrified. But they were laughing so loud and so long, I was stunned.

RS: Your next novel is a continuation of the story?

Blau: The next novel, which at this moment is called Home for the Heart Attack, is sort of this same family but I put the brother in and it’s almost like the messier, dirtier, grittier version that spans about 50 years.