Lisa Morgan of WYPR’s The Signal chats with two Baltimore-based Shebooks authors, Jessica Anya Blau and Marion Winik, about Shebooks. This truly is the future of women’s e-reading…
Jessica Anya Blau, author of the Shebook Mating Calls, chats with us about real sex, stinky cheese, and the universals of human experience.
What prompted you to write Mating Calls?
Much of my fiction is inspired by real life. Usually something happens in my life that hooks in my mind (imagine my brain is a sea sponge and events are floating debris—some lodge in there, some float by). When I’m spacing out (which I do often), I frequently pick and pick and pick at the memories lodged in my head. I look at events from my point of view and, frequently, I imagine them from other people’s points of view as well. It is this imagining of events from the point of view of others that often sets me off to writing. It is also this imagining that keeps me from watching TV news and reading more than the headlines in newspapers. This projection into other people’s lives can be terrifying and overwhelming with things like war, famine, genocide, and so on.
Are there any themes, characters, or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they, and what is their origin?
People often comment that there is a lot of sex in my writing. I suppose there is, but I don’t think of it as sex writing. Most of the sex my characters have is awkward, embarrassing, uncomfortable, or just downright bad. For me a scene in which a character has bad sex creates a lot more tension and reveals character in a much deeper way than a scene with great sex. Sex is a part of life, and it is a part of who we are and how we interact and connect with people. So it’s something I look at when I look at my characters. When I’m writing sex scenes, I’m never focusing on the act—who sticks what where. Instead, I’m focusing on the internal lives of the people involved in the act: how it feels to be a particular person with a particular other person doing a particular thing.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
Be courageous. It is terrifying to write. It is terrifying to show your writing to other people. It is terrifying to send it out. And then it’s terrifying to have strangers read it. It takes an incredible amount of courage to work hard at something that might never get published. (Every published writer I know has mountains of unpublished work.) In order to write, you have to choose to do it anyway. Do it even if it’s scary (that’s your best work). Do it even if it will never get published (let go of that idea during the process, worry about it when you’re done creating). Do it even if other people hate it. This is your life. You’re going to die. If you want to spend the short time you have writing, then write. Don’t let naysayers keep you back. Also, protect yourself a little by not showing unpublished work to people who don’t “get” you, or people who are envious that you’re doing something so courageous, or people who are afraid of being abandoned when you succeed.
Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?
No. I truly believe that the human experience is universal. We are all afraid, lonely, we all love and want to be loved, we all long for things, we all hate to be embarrassed. If you can imagine your own pain and loneliness, you can imagine the pain and loneliness of anyone else. There are certain things that we might not be able to accurately understand without experiencing them (being in a concentration camp, say). But as writers we can certainly try to imagine what it might be like. And that’s what writing fiction is—it’s the act of imagining what it might be like to be someone else and do things we may not have ever done.
What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
I am a weirdo, so I could answer this question any number of ways. I’ll tell you this: I pretty much don’t like eating any food that smells like a part of the human body (fish, mushrooms, some cheeses). If you can’t imagine the body parts that correspond with particular foods, send me a note and I’ll fill you in!
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a novel inspired by my Shebook The Problem with Lexie.
Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?
One of the things I frequently tell myself is Do more. I have this great fear of running out of time (death), and there is so much I want to do before I go. I know I can work hard enough. I just hope I can work fast enough.
Another mantra I have is this: Just keep moving forward. Whenever I’m stuck or stalled or even being lazy I remind myself that nothing will happen unless I move forward. Even a step in the wrong direction is a step. So, yes, Do more and Keep moving forward!
Jessica Anya Blau is author of the Shebook, Mating Calls
An Interview by Marion Winik
Jessica Anya Blau, author of the best-selling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, recently came out with a sexy new Shebook titled Mating Calls. Here Blau sits down with former NPR commentator and fellow Shebooks author Marion Winik (Guesswork) for a quick and dirty interview.
Why do you like to talk about sex so much?
Well, I didn’t realize that I like to talk about sex so much. I like talking to people. I’m interested in people. And sex is a lot of who they are. So I’m interested in that.
Yes, but you seem to turn the subject to, say, labia, much more frequently than other people I know.
No, I don’t! Do I? But, really, aren’t labia way more interesting than, say, the water commissioner? Or…people’s kids’ lacrosse tournaments?
OK, if you’re not obsessed, then why “The Six Question Sex Interview”? You could be asking people about their protagonists and their metaphors and their literary influences, but instead you’re asking them about their orgasms!
Well, that wasn’t deliberate. What happened was I was interviewing James Magruder, who wrote a hilarious novel about growing up in the ’70s as a gay, horny, kid. And—
Sugarless! I just bought my third copy! I keep loaning it to people who don’t give it back.
Right, it’s a great, funny book. And when I was interviewing Jim, the subject kept turning to sex, and somehow it worked its way to a story he told me about being a young gay man and having some guy stick a candle up his ass—
Because Jim Magruder is that rare person who likes to talk about sex even more than you do. He’s told stories like that candlestick one in front of my kids at the dinner table!
Ha ha! OK, yes, so he’s willing to say anything anywhere. And I’m always willing to talk about other people’s sex lives. I don’t talk about my own sex life because I’m sort of shy about my personal life, and I have two kids. Anyway, I finished the interview with him and I titled it “Six Question Sex Interview with James Magruder.” The editors loved it and have kept it as a regular thing on the Nervous Breakdown ever since.
The Wonder Bread Summer begins, literally, with a large, exposed penis. I’m sure most readers will wonder, as they did with the ickier sex moments in your previous works, if there is an autobiographical basis for that. Did that, or anything like that, ever happen to you? How have you handled unwanted or scary male attention in your own life?
The opening scene happened in some version to me. I was working at a little boutique on the Oakland-Berkeley border, and as the summer progressed, I eventually realized that the boutique was a front for cocaine dealing. The owner of the shop seemed like a nice, cool guy. He dressed exquisitely and he wore a beeper. At some point in the summer he started pulling out his dick. No one was ever in the store, so he’d just unzip his slacks and whip it out.
It was sort of terrifying, and I was only 20 and wasn’t sure how to respond. He liked to talk about his dick while he was holding it out, and since I wasn’t sure how to act I did stupid things like laugh and say, “Oh, you should put that away because customers might come in.” You know, silly things like that. I found that from puberty on, there was a continuous stream of attention like that that I never quite knew how to handle.
It was a different time. We weren’t raised with the “unwanted touch” lessons that my kids have had. And it was rare to report that kind of stuff. I think that most women of my generation and all the generations above mine dealt with this stuff for a number of years. You deal with it until you become wise enough to look someone in the eye and reduce their power, their power over you.
So you’ve pretty much always been able to neutralize the ray guns?
Well, no, I was always fumbling and terrified, and I would laugh or make a joke or something. I mean, there was the teacher in high school who pushed his hard-on into my ass before class started and whispered in my ear, “I can’t wait until you’re 18, Blau.” I rushed away and never came to class early. And there was the teacher in college who showed up in my room when I was in bed sick and lunged at me on the bed, and I pushed him off and said something about having bronchitis or being contagious, oh and something about him being married, and he said, “My wife doesn’t mind!”
There were the numerous penises that came out—a housemate’s brother’s, for example; while talking to him alone in a room, he just whipped it out. I remember that it was extraordinarily pink. And he was a great-looking guy, someone I probably would have hooked up with until that moment. When he pulled his dick out, I just laughed nervously and then lied about having a boyfriend.
My God, there was the guy who delivered pizza to my friend’s house when her parents were out of town when I was only 13. He was 24 or 25. He sat next to me on the couch and whispered in my ear all night, and I was terrified but transfixed. He used words I’d never even heard up to that moment.
Eventually I did figure out how to neutralize these unwanted encounters. The people who do these kinds of things choose well; they don’t choose people who are onto them. And after experiencing and studying people for so long, you can figure out who’s who pretty quickly.
I can see how those experiences played out in the development of Allie, who has a sexually abusive boss and an emotionally abusive boyfriend. But, you also give her one off-the-charts amazing sexual experience.
Well, yes, because great sex is great, right? She has sex with Billy Idol, and it is purely joyous sex. And he doesn’t force it on her, he asks her. And, of course, she says yes. Wouldn’t you? I think sex can be incredible with anyone who is genuinely interested in you as a complete person. Great sex is one of the biggest joys on earth. I mean, don’t you feel better and happier when you’re having sex? It’s a wonderful way not to think, a way to eliminate neurosis and self-centeredness, eliminate the me me me me me from your consciousness. It’s great to be out of yourself.
Yes! But does great sex have to be with a rock star? Doesn’t great sex make us all rock stars?
Absolutely! And when you’re in love, the person you’re in love with is like a rock star. In the book, Allie has great sex with her boyfriend before he dumps her. But that sex is in the past—it happened before the start of the book, she only remembers back to it. Maybe the best thing about sex is that it is all equal. There’s nothing about being a rock star and going on world tour that makes you any better when it comes to sex. What’s wonderful about Billy Idol and Allie is that they both see the experience for what it is. She has no illusions of running off and marrying him, and he has no illusions of being worshiped. Yes, she’s starstruck at first, and even during the event, but each of them is coming to it in a totally genuine and honest way.
This interview originally appeared on the Nervous Breakdown.
Jessica Anya Blau is author of the Shebook, Mating Calls