Three of the most interesting and entertaining writers on the contemporary fiction scene are Jessica Anya Blau, Caroline Leavitt, and Elissa Schappell. Each has a distinctive voice and style, but their fiction probes individual character and cultural shifts with an accuracy and emotional intensity that makes their books particularly satisfying reads. They are smart, funny, and intellectually restless people, and that shows in their work. In this interview for Read Her Like an Open Book, Jane Delury explores the serio-comic writing life with the three East Coast authors. After you read this, you’ll want all of them to be your next-door neighbors. But for now, you’ll have to enjoy their books.
Since you began writing, what has changed from book to book? Are you consciously trying to do something new with each project?
Jessica Anya Blau: I’ve actually tried to do the same thing over again, but when I do that, I feel like a complete fraud and a failure . . . an asshole who has nothing new to say. So, each book I’ve written has been new to me. In that way, each one was difficult in novel ways and with a whole new depth. There’s a general terror in writing—the fear of failure, fear that I’m dumb, fear that I’m not up to the task I’ve set out for myself—which only seems to grow with each project. In general, I write despite my feelings.
Caroline Leavitt: I’ve always tried to do something new, whether it’s setting things in different time periods, or changing point of view, but I seem to do it in twos. My first two novels were in first person, my last two were in the 50s, and then the 70s in third person. Of course, this adds to the terror. Like Jessica, I am on the verge of nervous collapse ALL THE TIME. But I have to share my favorite John Irving quote. If you don’t feel that you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, or losing control of the whole thing, then you’re not trying hard enough. I loved that quote so much, I tracked Irving down and wrote him a letter about how much better his quote made me feel. To my shock, he wrote me back a two-page handwritten letter talking about all sorts of things, and ended with, “But I didn’t say that. Though it sounds like I COULD have.” So, I’ve learned that doing new things, getting more ambitious and complex, equals nausea, terror, shock.
JAB: A two-page letter from John Irving?! That’s amazing. I wrote Alice Munro once and got back a post-card that said, “Jessica, keep writing.”
Elissa Schappell: Clearly I need to start writing some fan mail. God knows I admire so many writers. Anyone got a Ouija board? I’d love to get in touch with Dawn Powell and Jane Bowles, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys…
Every time I start a new project, I think, I want to do something different. With Use Me, the idea that you could write a novel in stories was all new to me.
With my second book, part of a two book contract—a promised novel—I had decided I was going to write a “big” Tom Wolfe-style novel—an IMPORTANT book—socially relevant, with a capital T, Topic. My subject was race—the relationship between white upper middle class liberal mothers and their black and Filipino nannies—it was about privilege and drug addiction, plastic surgery, passionate female friendship, sex… all the hits. I spent almost two and a half years working on that book—working against all my better instincts, slogging through it like I was writing a book report—and it was shit.
At the same time I was writing stories so I wouldn’t stab myself, which saved me. Because when I wasn’t trying to be a good girl and finish my homework (which is what that novel felt like) when I let myself write what I couldn’t say out loud, or say without screaming—when I let myself be angry and bold, when I chucked the map and just felt my way in, the writing wasn’t terrible and every other word wasn’t a lie.
Has the process gotten easier, or harder? Did you know what you were getting into when you chose to be a writer?
CL: It’s always impossible. I have what I call writer’s amnesia. I forget how hard I cried and whined and panicked about the book prior to the one I am writing at the time. I think somehow that being so panicked is something new, and then all my writer friends sigh and laugh, and my husband says, “You were just like this last book. And that’s how I know your writing is going well.”
JAB: Yes, I guess it’s like having a baby. You forget until you remember. And you don’t remember until you’re there, vomiting and pissing on the table, screaming for someone to knock you out and make it end.
ES: That’s exactly my process! Have you tried laying a rubber sheet out on your desk? It really helps quite a lot.
JAB: I’m so going to try that!
ES: As to easier or harder, I think this book I’m working on now is by far the hardest book I’ve ever written, and I’m in a flat out panic. It’s true, I tell my friends and family, I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s not working—I’m lost. And its exactly what Jessica is talking about. They all nod, and say,Yep this is exactly what you said last time.
Although no one has suggested this means the work is going well. It’s more, Buckle up it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
I didn’t think about what I was getting into—I never thought about a career as a writer. I thought I was going to be a painter, or an actress or a veterinarian, or a DJ (yes, really—I was that far gone) writing was just what I did. I have no other wage earning skills, and certainly not at this age. I could tell you all about my checkered employment history but it would just make you sad. Three words: Balloon delivery girl.
However surprised I might be that I became a writer—no one else, not my parents, or my friends from childhood or college seemed surprised. I was so disappointed at my 20th high school reunion, here I thought I was finally going to out myself as a writer—show them my true face, and instead they nodded at me…. “Oh, yeah”, smug little fortune tellers, “We all saw that coming. You were always a writer. Except for one woman who said, “I thought you’d be a toll booth operator.”
JAB: I ran into a high school friend once and when she asked what I was doing, I said I was writing. she said something like, “Oh that’s cool you’re riding. Do you own your own horse?” I said, ‘No, I don’t own my own horse.” And that was that. My father said to me (and this is a near-exact quote): “You were a beach bunny, I thought you’d grow up to be a wife.”
CL: No one thought I was going to be a writer except for me. My mother wanted me to be married and have a man take care of me (writing could be my little hobby) and my dad wanted me to be married and to be JEWISH-married.) I had a high school teacher who sniffed at me, “Sorry, you don’t write that well.” A Brandeis writing professor told me that I would never make it, that he could see me as a Montessori nursery school teacher because I was such a “sweet little girl.”
I had no idea what I was getting into when I sold my first novel. I was so scared, I threw up a lot. Then, when the book took off, I thought, oh great, this is my career, every two years I’ll write a book and it will do as fabulously as this one did. HA. HA. My second book didn’t do as well and my publisher folded (not because of me, though!). The next publisher folded just as my novel came out. Then, I got a three-book deal with a BIG publisher who did absolutely nothing for me and refused to take my calls. I got another three-book deal with a different big publisher, and guess what I’m going to say? By then, I had a great new agent (I was always terrified of my first agent and had to pretend to smoke—I have never smoked in my life—to make myself feel brave). Even with my new agent, my ninth novel was rejected by the big publisher as not being special enough. Algonquin bought it and made that ninth book a bestseller the first month it was out. The editor who rejected it as “not special” sent me an email the day it made the NYT bestseller list, only she meant the note to be for her gynecologist, and it was really, really graphic! I let it go, but she emailed it again, so I had to tell her that I was not her doctor. She said, “Fine, how are things?” I told her, and she never wrote back.
How do you feel about the pressure put on authors to promote themselves now? When you release a new book and go on tour, what gratifies and bugs you the most?
CL: It’s tremendous pressure. Most writers I know are socially awkward, scared, nervous, and the ones who aren’t drink or drug themselves to be outgoing. What I love about being a writer is being able to write, to be in my house with Jeff, my husband, who also works at home. I actually love social media because I don’t have to leave my house to do it! I can go on twitter and Facebook and feel that I have been given a shot of human interaction and then go back to my day. And I’ve made and met real friends there—people I never would have met if I just awkwardly approached them! I haven’t figured out how to do Instagram, yet.
JAB: Yeah, you’re actually great at Facebook. You’re real. Authentic. It’s like everyone’s your best bud—the kind of bud you talk to on the phone while you’re emptying the dishwasher. I like seeing your stuff. And Elissa’s great on Facebook, too. Elissa’s political and says all the things I would say if I weren’t afraid and too shy to say them. I feel a little embarrassed promoting myself but I accept it as part of the package—I want my books to be out the world so I’ll do whatever needs to be done. The very kind marketing woman at HarperCollins just set up an author page with me—the whole thing made me nervous—I was worried no one would tap that like box. I also recently started Instagram but was told by several people I was “terrible” at it because I kept posting pictures of my diapered, fishy-smelling, one-eyed dog. One of my daughters has my Instagram password now and she randomly goes in there and deletes the photos she thinks would turn people off. She also randomly posts pictures, too.
ES: I understand that social media makes some people queasy. I also think that when a writer says, I don’t understand it, or, It’s not my thing that they sound a bit like an old codger complaining about newfangled technology, What do they call it, TV? It’s nothing more than radio with pictures. Just a fad!
My publisher told me, or let’s be real, threatened me, “You have a choice you can make a Facebook page, or we will set up a Fan Page for you.” That did it. I didn’t like it, but I did it. In the beginning I didn’t say much but posted videos of bands I loved and whatever nice press I got. It felt artificial to me, but obviously I got over that. Now I really dig it.
It’s good to have a place to hype the things you love and hyperventilate over the things that make you insane.
I agree with Jessica. Caroline is great at Facebook. She’s a natural, very open and intimate—you feel like you know her and you like her. And Jessica’s page is sly and beautifully curated. In both cases, you can see how the work grows out of each author’s unique sensibility.
I am much more political on my page then I am in my fiction. What is more tedious for a reader then to turn to a book of fiction and find instead a diatribe about the venal, blood-and-money-drunk radicalized Republican party’s depraved indifference to the lives of ordinary human beings, particularly people of color, women and the poor?
What about touring?
JAB: I love touring. I love meeting people at readings. I love staying in hotels. I love watching people in airports. I’m so grateful for my publisher, so happy that they’ll send me on a tour.
CL: I don’t like the plane wait, the plane ride, and the plane descent. I do love having a hotel room and getting room service (though on my last tour, I was obsessed with bed bugs, and I kept having to look at every bed until I simply was too tired to bother about that.) I love speaking to large crowds (lunches! Dinners! Organizations!) because it feels exhilarating and I love to talk. I always want to be paired with another writer at bookstores because I worry less that no one will show up, except two people who heard there was going to be cake.
JAB: I showed up at a reading once where there was one guy. Front row. Center. Holding the book.
ES: I know that guy! The guy in the tinfoil hat! I am always so grateful for his presence. Sometimes it’s just him, the bookstore owner, and whomever they could rustle up in the bar next door. If it’s cold maybe we get a couple of guys who were just standing around a trash can warming their hands. Books can throw some serious heat.
I had a panic attack on my first tour. I ordered room service—roast chicken and a bottle of Evian—and the bill was something like $50. I flipped. I called my husband, literally hyperventilating, and gasped, “I ordered a $50 chicken… I am in so much trouble…” I thought I should return it, or at least the ten-dollar bottle of water, it seemed reckless and like I might be taking advantage of the company’s largesse. He talked me out of it. Can you imagine?
CL: I love speaking to readers. I worship indie bookstores and book clubs. The only thing that bugs me is if people get my name totally wrong (okay, this happened only once, but I was introduced as Mrs. Harriet Lev. COME ON!)
JAB: Is there a writer named Harriet Lev?
ES: I agree with what Caroline said. Indie bookstores are the lifeblood of book culture. The people who work in those stores—no, who work in those temples—the folks who hand sell books, they may be our last best hope of saving the culture from the nincompoopery of the mass industrial entertainment complex.
JAB: Agreed. Hooray for indie bookstores! Down with nincompoopery!
Jane Delury’s stories have appeared in publications including Narrative, Glimmer Train, The Yale Review and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She’s an associate professor of writing and literature at the University of Baltimore.
Jessica Anya Blau’s latest novel, The Trouble with Lexie, is out June 28th, 2016. Her previous books are The Wonder Bread Summer, Drinking Closer to Home, and the national bestseller The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. Recently, Jessica ghost-wrote a memoir that is coming out with HarperColllins in the fall of 2016. Jessica grew up in Southern California and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. You can learn more about Jessica’s new book and all things JAB at www.jessicaanyablau.com.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author (she wants to tattoo that on her forehead because she still fears it was a mistake) of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You–and 8 other novels. Her new novel Cruel Beautiful World will be out October 4th and she begs everyone to please buy it, read it, and spread the word—and if you want to be her best friend, she also insists that everyone buy and read the work of Jessica Anya Blau, Elissa Schappell and Jane Delury. More fun facts at www.carolineleavitt.com
Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is the former Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and co-founder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.