Writing Seminars alum talks about her new novel, identity in the '80s, Billy Idol

Jessica Anya Blau's third novel, 'The Wonder Bread Summer,' chronicles misadventures of a California college student in the early 1980s

School's out for summer, and Jessica Anya Blau's has penned an entertaining saga of one undergrad's time between terms. The Baltimore writer, who earned an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars in 1995, has previously explored an acerbic interpersonal realism with her previous two novels—her 2008 debut The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, about coming of age in late 1970s Southern California, and the autobiographically drawn Drinking Closer to Home, which was reviewed in the summer 2011 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Jessica Anya Blau

Image caption: Jessica Anya Blau


For her new The Wonder Bread Summer (Harper Perennial), released this week, Blau churns out a funhouse-mirror version of ordinary 1980s excess. Allie Dodgson, an undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley in the early '80s, flees the Bay Area with a cocaine dealer's stash and heads to Los Angeles, where she can't find her father, who operates a burger joint, chases after her absentee mother, who plays tambourine in a cartoonishly awful band, and receives something close to sage advice from, well, bleach-blond MTV heartthrob Billy Idol. (A short review of The Wonder Bread Summer appears in the forthcoming summer 2013 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine, which is due out in June.

At the online literary magazine The Nervous Breakdown, Blau occasionally conducts entertaining Six-Question Sex interviews with authors when their books come out. We decided to borrow the format and caught up with Blau by email to talk about her new novel, race and identity in the 1980s, and, well, Billy Idol.

The 1980s as seen in the book are in many ways similar to the time period as represented in movies and TV—the music, the cars, the clothes, the almost naïve drug use—but the particulars are much more lived-in and idiosyncratic, making it a place familiar but all its own. I realize part of that is the medium, writing doing things that televisual media cannot, but I've also read plenty of writing set in the 1980s that creates a world that feels like it was created through the nostalgic filter of a John Hughes movie. Could you talk a bit about writing about time periods that have been so heavily codified like the 1970s and 1980s, how you effectively, accurately, and uniquely evoke a sense of time and place?

When I'm writing, I never set out to illustrate a particular time. What I want to show is a character who comes out of a particular time. When I wrote The Wonder Bread Summer I was thinking of Allie, my character, in a very specific place (Berkeley/Oakland and then Los Angeles and Santa Barbara) in the summer of 1983. I pretty much just wrote it as I saw it in my head; I wrote the place from memory. So the book doesn't necessarily convey the '80s in America as much as it conveys what the '80s were like for me. I don't think I have a nostalgic point-of-view as much as I'm somewhat astounded by the things that went down back then. It wasn't shocking at the time, but it shocks me now to think of how often I was offered cocaine, or how often I was asked to have sex (with couples, with men, with professors, with women, and even with a quadriplegic and his wife who wanted to film it—I said no to them, in case you're wondering).

On that idea of capturing a time and place, Allie is biracial, and I appreciate how it is and isn't a big deal in the novel. People—well, dudes—react differently to her when they learn of her heritage, but the book isn't this plunge into talking about identity. But for the life of me I can't recall how race was/wasn't depicted/felt like during the decade, and I can't decide if that's because I'm remembering the 1980s as this fugue state sandwiched between the Electric Company and Soul Train of the 1970s and the multiculturalism of the academy in the 1990s, or just because I wasn't smart enough to be aware of race and ethnicity as socioeconomic forces as I lived through the 1980s. Could you talk a bit about making Allie a woman who is part African-American, part Chinese, part Californian, and entirely American?

Her multi-racial identity came to me as I was writing the novel and not before. One of the ideas I was thinking about—in my life and in the life of Allie—is authenticity and what it means to be authentic. At a certain point it feels foolish to pretend you are anyone or anything other than what you really are. I think young people can often get caught in wanting to be someone other than who they are, they want to have come from a different family, or a different background. And going away to college has always provided the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself and decide you are someone else. Of course it's entirely sane and great, even, to decide you're going to be the kind of person who volunteers, or makes art, or anything. But what you often don't realize in college is that the creating and recreating is a reaction to where you've been and what you come from, so your past is always part of your present even when you don't acknowledge it.

When I was growing up we were the only Jewish family (that I knew of) for miles and I was the only Jewish person that my high school friends knew. (There was one other Jewish family in the area, this was frequently pointed out to me, but I never knew them.) My dad is clearly Jewish and was very different than the other dads. My mother had hairy armpits, smelled of patchouli, didn't wear a bra, read compulsively, and did etchings of naked fat women having their toes sucked. But when I left the house, I was able to be someone else and be from something else—I was able slip under the radar and go undetected as the Jewish girl from the unconventional family. The older I got, the more I realized that accepting your origins is an important part of authentically being who you are right at this minute. So I let Allie, my character, learn that lesson quicker than I did.

The Asian thing ... well, I have several recessive Asian traits (I won't list them all, but two are Mongolian spots on my back and an inability to drink without turning red-faced and vomiting) so I'm pretty darn Asian. I was in Berkeley in the '80s—so I couldn't have been in a more liberal, progressive place. But even in a place like Berkeley, race is never entirely ignored. I had a black girlfriend at Berkeley who frequently dated white guys and the white guys she dated were often these black-girl-obsessives who fetishized black girls. So the surfer, Mike, in The Wonder Bread Summer, is inspired by a white guy my friend dated.

Allie's mother has pretty much abdicated the motherhood role by joining Mighty Zamboni—which, by the way, is a fantastic name for a past-its-prime band. If I remember correctly the mother in Drinking Closer to Home actually says she's quitting the whole motherhood thing, and in Summer of Naked Swim Parties Betty isn't absent so much as she and Allen have their own vibe going on. What I appreciate about these women is that however their parenting or lack thereof complicates their relationships with their children, they make decisions because they want to pursue something that matters to them—and your depictions of them don't pass judgment on them, though some of the characters might. Could you talk a bit about your exploration of 1980s womanhood in the The Wonder Bread Summer, because while the book is about Alile, through her eyes we see her old high school friend Kathy, Consuela, and her own mother, which are different examples of who a woman might choose to be.

Geoff Becker, the writer, came up with Mighty Zamboni for the band when he read an early draft of the novel. He gets all the credit for that great name.

It's funny to look at mothers in my books—what would a shrink say? My own mother did "quit" being a housewife (her words, "I quit.") when I was little and didn't show her great love by packing a lunch, or doing laundry, or changing the sheets on my bed, or driving me somewhere, or going to my shows at school, or even reading my report card (I'd try to force them on her but she just didn't care). She loved talking to me, my brother, and my sister, and she loved cracking up about things, so that was how the relationship went. In The Wonder Bread Summer, Allie's mother totally abandons her. One of my best friends in high school and college had a mother who abandoned her like that and it always seemed brutal to me. Compared to my friend's mother, who was entirely absent and uninterested in her daughter, my mother who wanted to hear the stories of my day/life, was utterly amazing. I don't pass judgment on the mothers or any of the other characters in any of my books. I don't think it's the writer's job in fiction to judge anyone. The writer's job is to splay the character out, reveal him or her as completely as possible and then just let them lie in their own truth. The readers can do the judging.

This is just me being a curious dork: so why did you go with Billy Idol? Because he makes such a fun cameo, and in some ways is one of the first grown-ups in the novel that behaves like an adult and treats Allie like one. So given all the potential 1980s popular musicians who could've filled that role, why go with the man born William Michael Albert Broad and give him such a playful role in the story?

Wish fulfillment. I had a mad crush on Billy Idol when I was Allie's age, so I gave her the crush, too. And, of course, back then I would have loved nothing more than to hook up with Billy Idol. So I had to let Allie have sex with him. He doesn't seem like an asshole so I made him sort of a hero in the book. Who would you have picked for Allie? Prince is too flowery. Huey Lewis is too American. Jackson Browne's too surfery-mellow. Mick and Keith are way too bony and are, and were, too big for her to have had access to them. Michael McDonald was too bushy-bearded. Billy Idol just seemed perfect for Allie. And, you know, British guys with those accents are pretty darn irresistible.

Summertime can have this built-in sheen of being a carefree, easygoing few months, and in two of your novels now you've used summer as a time when young people start to see the world as almost-adults, and I'm just curious if you're playing against those summertime cliché types in The Wonder Bread Summer. Because if this is what summer is like in your novels, if you pen a winter's tale we might be striding through bleak Russian play territory.

Yeah, I can't deal with the bleakness of winter. And when it's beautiful outside, I can't even bear to watch movies or TV shows that have snow in them. (I was at a movie theater in the summer after my first winter in Canada and the opening shot in the movie had snow on the ground. I started choking back tears—it was like I had post-traumatic stress disorder from the unimaginably long, brutal winter.) So, yes, a story with all the tensions that are necessary to create plot would be unbearably tense for me if winter were involved.

Since I'm modeling this on your Six-Question Sex Interview, I should ask at least one question about sex—especially since you're very good at writing sex scenes. And by good I mean the sexual experiences in your novels are always about more than sex—they're awkward, funny, mortifying, etc. Sex in your novels seems to be another way of drawing out a character. So given Allie's sexual misadventures in the book, could you talk a bit about what she is in the process of finding out about herself?

I'm glad you call it "misadventures," although the sex she has with Billy Idol is pretty great. Yes, when you're not writing erotica or porn (and I never have written erotica or porn) sex isn't about the sex, it's about revealing character. In life that's how it is, too, right? If someone tells you about their sex life, or how they lost their virginity, or how they no longer have sex or don't want to have sex, they're revealing who they really are. And at 20 when it sometimes feels as if you are sexually objectified by every person you meet, it's hard to figure out what you want as opposed to what other people want from you. So that's one of the things Allie's working on in the book. She's identifying her own needs and desires and trying to filter away the desires of others, that can sometimes mislead us (especially when we're young girls) into thinking that our greatest desire is to make everyone else happy.