My novel, DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, is based on events that happened to my family over the course of years. The novel starts when the three grown children return home to their mother who has just suffered a severe heart attack. While they’re waiting for her to live or die, the novel dives into flashbacks through which we see the three kids’ wacky childhood. The father grows marijuana, the mother smokes marijuana and the grandparents do loony things like examine the pubescent daughter’s dirty underwear and ignore the youngest child who they think of as superfluous. Early in the novel, the mother “quits” being a housewife and leaves the care of the home and her three-year old son to her two daughters (aged 8 and 12) while she works in her art studio and goes to the nude beach. The house becomes so messy that the once-white kitchen floor looks like black sidewalk gum and the back of the family room couch has hardened bird droppings on it (the un-caged pet bird likes to sit on the curtain rod that hangs above the couch). As the kids grow up their dysfunction often rivals their parents: one daughter is compulsively unfaithful to her husband and becomes addicted to sex and drugs, one daughter struggles with identity as her husband has an affair, and the son tries to figure out his sexuality, making a gallant effort on both sides before settling for one.
Most, but not all, of this is true. And when I visit book clubs, the one question I am always asked is, “What does your family have to say about all this?!” People are astounded to find out that every member of my family (even my sister, whose fictionalized scenes shouldn’t be described in a blog post as their graphic nature demands that the reader know and sympathize with the character before reading about her) actually loves the book.
Numerous people have told me that if they reported even a fraction of what I’ve written, they would be banished from the family, never spoken to again! My wish is for all writers, all journalers, all diarists, to feel free to write what they want, how they want. The writing process would probably be much easier for writers if their friends and family understood that although the characters look like them, talk like them, and live lives like theirs, they just aren’t them.
I think of my novel as more of a painting I’ve done of my family than a documentary I’ve made about them. Anyone can look at the painting and see that my dad has the same golden brown eyes that he has in real life. And they can see that my mother, at thirty, has a tiny waist and hips that bloom out like a flower. And it’s clear that my sister is black-haired and dark skinned, I’m freckled and pale, and my brother is a brown-haired mix of both of us. Sure enough, that’s how we are in real life. And yet, the painting isn’t us. We are standing in the room, living, breathing, yakking away, looking at it—and dang that portrait captures this family! My mom might think her hips look too big in the painting, “I’m narrower than that!” she would say, between puffs of her Nat Sherman cigarette. My sister might think her nose looks too small, “There’s just no fucking way my nose is, like, one inch long!” But does it really matter if they let the world know that their measurements don’t quite match what’s in the painting? No, not a bit. The portrait exists apart from the family, in spite of the family, on its own without the family. We will change, but the painting will not as it captures not the people, but my vision of everyone at that moment in time.
My parents, brother and sister all have favorite scenes in the books, moments that crack them up, and even moments that make each of them a little uncomfortable. But, thankfully, they’re all still speaking to me!
Causes Jessica Blau Supports
Baltimore School for the Arts, 826DC, CityLit Project.