Why Nick Hornby Loves Jessica Anya Blau’s “Wonder Bread Summer”

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photo by David Grossbach
photo by David Grossbach

Every week, novelist Jessica Anya Blau meets for a working coffee with writer friends at the Evergreen Café on Cold Spring Lane. They crowd around a table and, after a mini gabfest, get down to the very personal business of writing what they’re each writing, sometimes for several hours. Blau doesn’t consider the bustling, plate-clinking café or the occasional bursts of chatter from her friends a distraction — she believes writers should learn to write through anything anywhere at anytime and recommends the act of public writing to beginning writers she teaches.

“At the very least, [writing in public] eliminates the excuse of not having enough peace and quiet to write,” Blau says. “Since I’ve been writing novels, I’ve never had an office or space of my own where I could write. So I’ve always written in the middle of everything: kids in and out, the dog barking, the phone ringing, my husband’s clients coming and going, people continually interrupting me. I can tune anything out. When I write in the café with friends, I just go in the zone, put my head down, and write. It’s nice to look up and see someone sitting across from you, nice to chat between bursts of writing. And it makes it not so lonely an act.”

Blau’s third novel, The Wonder Bread Summer (Harper Perennial), released this week, would seem to prove her always-be-writing process effective. The book, in some ways a modern retelling of Alice in Wonderland, is also a very original and romantic road movie on the page. We follow Allie — a sweet and naive, but also natively intelligent, 20-year-old college student — as she drives California highways and stops for gas and life-saving favors, on the lam with a bread bag full of cocaine. Allie meets a hilarious cast of characters as she descends down the 1980s-set rabbit hole Blau has dug for her, including one Mr. Billy Idol.

Comedic novelist Nick Hornby, in his regular book column for The Believer, raved this month about the novel, saying, “The book that made me happiest this month was Jessica Anya Blau’s picaresque, properly funny, unpredictable, and altogether irrepressible The Wonder Bread Summer; it made me so happy that after I’d read it, in two days flat, I bought everything I could find by the same author.”

Everything else, at the moment, would be Blau’s popular, heavily autobiographical novel pair, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and Drinking Closer to Home. With Wonder Bread, she’s taken a new, wholly invented approach to the novel. Laugh-attack-inducing sex scenes are still her specialty, but she’s flying even faster and freer here with pace and plot arrangement. I talked to the writer about her diligent creative process, her complex lead character Allie, her new work at hand, and whether she’s fantasized about who might play lead roles in a Hollywood road movie version of the marvelous road-movie-moving novel.

I understand that your agent first pointed out the striking similarities between Alice’s journey and Allie’s, and then you underscored them. Could you describe a few “Alice” elements that were already in place in your text before you revised with the retelling in mind? And why do you believe that your subconscious set down these Lewis-Carroll-like breadcrumbs to follow? What has the Carroll book meant to you?

Well, her name was always Allie (Alice) and in every draft she was on the lam with a good luck rabbit foot (the white rabbit) in her hand. She does some hallucinogenic drugs (like the hallucinogenic mushroom that Alice eats), runs into twins (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), and is lost in strange and unfamiliar territory the way Alice is in the book. There’s more, but really there’s too much to list in a single paragraph! When my agent pointed it out, it was sort of astounding. It’s amazing to me how our brains operate without our awareness. Really, most elements were already in place. I just padded them with words. Her mother already was like the Queen of Hearts, but once I was revising with an eye toward Alice in Wonderland, I had one of the characters nickname her mother the Queen of Hearts.

You’ve said that you write novels about female characters who are at an “untethered” point in their young lives… Of course, you’ve also written far more autobiographically before now in your first two novels, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and Drinking Closer to Home. How is this book’s untethered (yet well-meaning) young protagonist, Allie, on the run with her bag of Wonder Bread of pure cocaine, like you and completely unlike you at age 20, in a couple of important ways?

I don’t set out to write books about women who are untethered, that’s just what seems to happen when I write. Allie is very much like I was at 20. She wants to be good and to do the right thing but she hasn’t yet figured out how to take charge of her life and how to act in ways that will protect her. She’s a people pleaser and this gets her into trouble. She also doesn’t understand her own strengths and doesn’t know how much power she actually has in the world. I think by the end of the story she does discover some of that power. I can’t think of any way in which she is completely unlike me. But I suffer from the problem of thinking everyone is like me — I tend to see similarities in the human condition rather than differences. You’re just like me, too!

Allie is one part Chinese, one part African American, one part Jewish, though this ethnic mix isn’t obvious by looking at her. “You’re like the bleedin’ United Nations in one bloody girl-package, are you not?” Billy Idol asks her. What literary significance does the main character’s mixed race-ness have for you in the story? Or: Why do you emphasize it?

I wasn’t really trying to emphasize it as much as I was trying to let it exist and let her deal with it. I think what I was thinking of more than race was authenticity and the act of accepting who you really are and where you come from. We all tend to reinvent ourselves once we get far enough from our families of origin and are able to create a different narrative of our lives. But as you get older you realize that although you can publicly create a different story of who you are right now, the reality is that your past and your family are an integral part of your present no matter how much you separate yourself from them. The act of Allie outing herself racially is, to me, an act of trying to live authentically and openly. Just being exactly who she is.

Wai Po, Allie’s Chinese grandmother, offered Allie lots of advice in unforgettable sayings before she died, like, “Law control the lesser man, right conduct control the greater one,” and “Have mouth as sharp as a dagger, but a heart as soft as tofu.” Some of it is very funny. Some of it’s just plain wise. Were you inspired by recorded sayings of some actual kind? How did you create Wai Po, and what kind of tweaking/editing was involved in the creation of these memorable aphorisms?

I love Chinese proverbs and was spending a lot of time reading them online. They get across a lot of smart, useful information with very few words. In a very, very early draft of the novel, I had Allie (who wasn’t really Allie yet) run into a Chinese restaurant and meet Wai Po. I loved the character so much, I just made her Allie’s grandmother so I could keep her throughout the book. There was no real tweaking/editing around the proverbs. I had lists of them printed out and when I got to certain points in the story, I stopped and scanned the lists to see if any of them applied. Sometimes I’d end up googling something like “Chinese proverb about a broken heart” to see if I could find one that would work.

Billy Idol is an extremely funny addition to the cast of characters Allie encounters on her cross-state race for her life in her borrowed Honda Prelude with “Cal Girl” plates — so is Jonas, her sadistic/exhibitionist employer, and Roger, the coke-craving quadriplegic, to name only a couple… Did you set out to make this book “funny” and edit with an eye toward increasing the humor, as standup comics painstakingly add jokes to movie scripts, or did the comedy come pretty naturally? Please describe your way of writing comedy on the novel page… (By the way, thanks for reminding the world that women are funny!)

I never set out to write something that’s funny and I usually don’t realize that what I’ve written is funny until I do a reading, or someone says something to me, or something’s written about me in a review. I do think that most things in life are pretty hilarious, so if you’re simply recording life as it is, it usually comes out funny. Even horrible things can be hilarious (and, of course, I realize there are many things that are just too horrible to ever be funny). My wacked-out, often mean and bullying, racist grandparents seem funny to me when I think of them. And my mother, who embraced a method of un-mothering when I was kid (she just said to me yesterday that the idea of having to help one’s kids with homework makes her want to puke!), seems hilarious to me. The songs I created for Mighty Zamboni, the band that Allie’s mother joins when she abandons the family, weren’t any more ridiculous than actual songs that have made it to Top 40 radio. “Weency Willie,” for example, a fictional song in the novel, was inspired by “One Tin Soldier,” a hit song from 1970 that is so lame it cracks me up.

It’s so easy to imagine this rollicking story becoming a film. Can’t resist asking this one. Who would play Allie? And Penny, her musician mom, and her restaurateur father, Frank?

Yikes! That’s a hard one. I can’t even think of any 20-year-old actresses, or actresses who could play 20. Rashida Jones, if she were 17 years younger, would be perfect (I adore her, love her voice). I just googled Asian actresses to find someone for Penny, Allie’s mother, and saw Maggie Q who looks just right. And Will Smith, if he were a little younger, would be perfect for Frank, Allie’s dad.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m starting a new novel but I have no idea where it’s going and only a vague idea of what it’s really about.  I have a character, though! And I’m revising a kids’ novel that I’ve already finished. I’ve been told it’s way too dark and I need to lighten it up a bit. It doesn’t seem so dark to me, but then again, I’m the woman who laughs when her mother says she’d puke before she’d help her kids with homework.

 

All are invited to the joint launch party/book signing for Blau and our very own Marion Winik at the Ivy on June 14, 7 p.m. Winik’s new book, Highs in the Low Fifties, features many favorite Fishbowl columns brought to larger life. 

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