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December 11, 2023

Naked is best for Writing Sems' Jessica Blau

By NATALIE BERKMAN | September 24, 2008

Writing Seminars professor Jessica Blau takes a Nike approach to writing: "Just do it," she said. "You have to do it in spite of what anybody thinks, or what they say, or how you think they might criticize you, or whether you think they'll hate it, whether you feel like you're humiliating yourself and your family. You have to do it in spite of everything."

Following her own advice, Blau just did it this summer, as her first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties was published by Harper Collins (a heavy hitter that has published works by authors such as Michael Crichton, Lemony Snicket and Janet Evanovich). After an extensive book tour this summer, Jessica Blau is back on campus to read, write and teach.

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties begins in California during the summer of 1976. "1976 was a great year because it was the American bicentennial," Blau explained. "It was this gung ho, Jell-O mold, American flags and stars-and-stripes cakes. Everything changed for the bicentennial." She took a nontraditional family that did some eccentric (and slightly un-American) things and created a story where everything changed for them. Fourteen-year-old Jamie, who "imagined death first and humiliation second," is struggling to find out who she is while her parents are constantly setting a bad example.

This is the summer of self-discovery for Jamie, who struggles with friendship, love, and life - and of course, dealing with her parents throwing naked swim parties. "After all, it was the seventies," Blau said.

Blau classifies her debut novel as semi-autobiographical. "I took all these things that happened over many years and put them all into one summer, and some things didn't even happen to me," she explained. "Things happened that didn't necessarily happen to everyone in real life, but they were all things I knew intimately and a lot of it is just exactly how it happened." Some say that to write is to put oneself out for the entire world to see, and Blau certainly was not afraid to do just that. "Even though maybe everybody else's parents didn't swim naked, everybody knows what it's like to have your parents doing something that made you feel uncomfortable. I just assume that everyone is as strange and bizarre as I am. I forgive everybody for all their eccentricities. I assume they'll forgive me for mine."

The novel was born with a description of a naked man jumping off a diving board. From there, Blau says she just wrote. "I was remembering things that happened to me or to people I knew. I didn't know where I was going when I started." As the novel progressed, she changed things around, reordered events and added one truly fictional moment in what would turn out to be the climax of the novel.

Blau fondly remembers the search for a publisher that followed. "Harper Collins has this cool office in Manhattan and when you go, there are books everywhere," she recalled. "Everyone has piles of books in their offices, and there are stacks of books in the hallway, and there are just books, books, books, books! When you walk through, it's like shopping at Barnes and Noble for free." In addition to publishing her novel, Harper Collins created a Jessica Blau publicity machine, complete with a Web site, a MySpace page, a Facebook profile and a book tour. "They're just so cool. And they're all strangely kind of hip and good-looking there too. It's like this is where the cool people work. Cool people work in publishing!"

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties was named a top-10 summer book by Today on NBC, the New York Post, and New York Magazine. Part of what makes the book so enjoyable to read is the detached tone of the protagonist. Even though thousands of personal and slightly embarrassing catastrophes were happening to her, Jamie remains somewhat unemotional throughout the novel, which heightens the humor. According to Blau, this is a trait taken from her own personality. "I've always been both a participant and an observer of my own life and often when things are happening to me, whether bad or good, I'm simultaneously thinking about them and rewriting them in my head," she said.

This frame of mind is prevalent in Jamie's character in the way she rewrites her experiences with her boyfriend, Flip, to tell her friends later and in other instances throughout the book. "So, I think the tone is just the tone of my entire life. I mean, I'm not a sentimental person, and my feelings aren't easily hurt because everything sort of seems funny to me."

Blau has always been observing, writing and telling stories, so writing seems to be her perfect profession.

She just didn't always know it: "I didn't actually think I'd be someone who was writing because I didn't think I was smart enough or good enough or interesting enough." How could a book entitled The Summer of Naked Swim Parties be anything but interesting?

Now that the school year has started again, Blau is settling back down in Baltimore after a fun summer. She is back to teaching Writing Seminars courses at Hopkins and has begun work on a new novel.

"The next book is called Home for the Heart Attack. It starts in 1939. It actually starts with my mother's birth. My mother was left in the back seat of a convertible overnight in the snow and almost died. It starts there and moves forward about 50 years." She added that her family is very supportive of her writing.

So as a successful, published novelist, what advice can Blau offer to aspiring scribes? "The only advice I have is to forget about everything else and just do it. Don't edit yourself because of what you think others might think," Blau said.

For her, writing is a sort of escape. "I think just going into that zone where I'm not aware of time and my head is somewhere else. When you do any sort of creative pursuit that takes you to that higher, floating place, you're not present in a way.

There are so many ways for people to go to that place and feel that feeling. I'm in that floating zone and when I come out of it I feel like I've actually done something."

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