Faux ‘Ruxton Academy’ Sets the Scene for Local Writer’s Latest Novel

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The Trouble With Lexie book jacket

Baltimore Writers’ Club is an occasional series introducing new books from Baltimoreans.

Jessica Anya Blau fans — a significant voting bloc in Baltimore —will be found on their pool lounges this summer with another of her high-spirited, racy novels in hand. As usual, it’s a triple fudge sundae with sex, drugs, and money on top. This time, we’re at a fictional East Coast private school called Ruxton Academy, where guidance counselor Lexie James, 33, has gotten herself in a heap o’ trouble.

Like Blau’s other novels (The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, Drinking Closer to Home, The Wonder Bread Summer), the first paragraph starts with a bang:

The problem wasn’t so much that Lexie had taken the Klonopin. And it wasn’t even that she had stolen them. … The problem was, as Lexie saw it, that she had fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin. And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.

Lexie has fallen prey to the charms of the handsome, wealthy and suave Daniel Waite, an older man who is the father of one of her favorite students at Ruxton. Unfortunately, he is married, and Lexie lives with her fiancé, a dear, sweet, guitar maker who dotes on her and cooks her crock-pot dinners.

Lexie’s supporting cast includes a gaggle of strong female characters: her best friend, the school nurse Amy, a Southern gal who is anything but a debutante; Dot, an elderly teacher with a foul mouth who understands Lexie better than she does herself; Janet Irwin, a tight-assed school administrator; and Mitzy, Lexie’s trailer trash mother, a lifer waitress at Heidi Pies with a carousel of rotating boyfriends and the maternal instincts of an earthworm.

Jessica and I have been friends and neighbors ever since I moved to Baltimore, so she agreed to this insider interview.

Jessica Anya Blau. Photo by David Grossbach.
Jessica Anya Blau. Photo by David Grossbach.

I know you didn’t go to boarding school, girlfriend. So how did you learn so much about dorm proctors, dining hall protocol and the drama of college admissions?

My first husband went to one of the most exclusive boarding schools in New England. We were together in college, so he told me a lot of stories about life there then. I also called him during the writing of this book and got more details. And, I went online and downloaded the handbook from one of the boarding schools, and read some blogs written by kids at the top boarding schools. My editor went to a New Hampshire boarding school, so she knew the setting when she read through the book.

My daughters—before they started high school at The Baltimore School for the Arts—went to a private girls’ school in Baltimore. Boarding does change things a lot, but the general population of these private day schools is pretty close to the population at the boarding schools, so I know the parents, the relationships of certain parents with certain schools, and how the whole legacy thing works, too. I occasionally subbed English classes in the upper school at my daughters’ school. I was completely undercover as my girls were in the middle and lower schools—few upper school teachers knew I was a parent. I loved sitting in the teachers’ lounge listening to the faculty talk. The thing that was most fascinating to me was how they talked about the students—gossiped, really. And how they seemed to universally dislike the same students and universally adore the same students. The popular/unpopular thing was played out in a whole new arena with a whole new set of rules. I fictionalized what I observed in that teachers’ lounge when I wrote about the teachers at the Ruxton Academy.

Of all your protagonists, I think Lexie is the closest to you — her anxieties, her face yoga, her preference for chocolate over actual food, her opinion on flesh-colored pantyhose, her childhood among pot-smoking adults, her tendency to wonder about people’s genitals and sex lives the second she meets themdo you agree?

Ha! Yes, she’s totally me. She doesn’t look like me at all. It’s me but taller, prettier and with blond hair. And me messing up in a big way. She acts on things I’ve only thought about. My impulse control is pretty good (I hope). My ability to project into the future and see how things might be totally unhinged if I made certain decisions is also pretty good (again, I hope). Lexie is more gullible than I am, maybe more dreamy (although I spend a good chunk of time daydreaming). And certainly she doesn’t anticipate how things will spiral downward for her whereas I imagine death at the end of every journey.

Like Michael Chabon’s, your descriptions are stuffed with metaphor and simile. This novel contains fingers like leaping crickets, a stomach like a bubble of mercury, stockinged toes like the crotch of a Barbie doll, skin like glittering waxy taffy, a face like cross-hatched elephant skin and under-eye skin like old, round teabags. Talk about how and when this comes in your process.

Hmm, I think that’s just how I think. How my brain works. My mind automatically goes to simile and metaphor when looking at or thinking about things. I remember my kids when they were little doing the same thing. Maddie, my older daughter, once described a boy in her nursery school class as “like a lake, so calm,” and I was astounded. But maybe it’s not that astounding—that must be how I talked to them.

When I read The Goldfinch, I became convinced that Donna Tartt must have had a Vicodin problem at some point in her life, because Theo’s addiction is described in such minute detail. Something similar is found in Lexie, except here it’s Klonopin. “She took a deep breath and reached into her skirt pocket for the Klonopin she had tucked in there before leaving her office. Touching it, knowing it was nearby, made her feel better.” Everybody knows we’re not supposed to think this way about fiction writers, but we do.

Yeah, listen, if Klonopin weren’t addictive and if Coke Zero weren’t full of toxic chemicals, I would drink three Coke Zeros and pop a Klonopin every single day. I have a rule about the Klonopin, and that is that I only take it when I’m really, truly, in a state of panic (I get panic attacks). And the Coke Zero, well, I come up with random, rotating rules for that one. The current rule is that I can only drink it when I’m out of town. Also, I have to be far enough out of town, that I flew to get to the new place (so New York City, Philly, and DC currently aren’t on the free-to-drink-Coke Zero plan).

So do you think Coke Zero is better than Diet Coke?

Absolutely!

(Just another of our many profound differences… sigh…) There’s a lot of emphasis in the book on class: Lexie’s background is at the other end of the spectrum from the Ruxton student population. Why is that important?

Living in Baltimore and having kids in private school and then in public school has put the issue of class more in my face, in my lap, than it ever was before. My one daughter, when she was at private school, used to complain that we had the smallest house of anyone in her class (we had a house in Roland Park). Then when she went to BSA, we suddenly had one of the larger houses. I think a childhood awareness of class changes how you see yourself in the world as an adult. It seems that many of us are adjusting, or sometimes faking it, or striving to compensate for feelings of being less-than as a kid. I wanted Lexie to come from a place of far-less-than while being faced with extreme wealth. I wanted her to have experienced so much deprivation that the wealth was unrelentingly alluring and almost too hard to turn away. If she had been as wealthy as the students at the school, she wouldn’t have been so dazzled by what she saw and her vision might have been a little clearer when looking at the parent who ultimately seduces her.

The Trouble with Lexie seems totally camera-ready: after we read it, my daughter and I spent lots of time casting it. All your preceding novels are at some phase of development for the screen. Can you share some morsels of info? Has there been any Hollywood interest in Lexie yet?

My Hollywood agent is reading it now, so I don’t think she’s sent it out yet. But, yes, she did a great job with the other three books. The movie/TV thing is so strange—there are about ten massive steps between the books being optioned and the stories being on the screen. It’s all IF this, THEN that, and IF that, THEN that-that-that and that. I spend a lot of time praying!

The Baltimore launch for The Trouble With Lexie is at the Pratt Library on June 29th with Matt Norman. More information here.

Marion Winik

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody for the Baltimore Fishbowl on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "First Comes Love", "The Glen Rock Book of the Dead" and other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik

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