Naked Truths

Jessica Anya Blau explores her unconventional childhood with hippie-era parents in her debut novel

June 16, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

A pool full of naked adults - naked and laughing, naked and smoking, naked and jiggling.

Such a scene would leave an impression on most anyone. Particularly if they're 14. Extra particularly if they're 14 and two of the poolside jigglers are their parents.

It made such an impact on Jessica Anya Blau that 30 years later she got a book out of it.

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, just published, is the first novel for Blau, a creative writing teacher at the Johns Hopkins University. Both the Today Show and the New York Post included it in their summer reading lists.

Though The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (Harper Perennial, Trade Paperback, $13.95) is a novel, Blau bases the plot on a chapter in her own life - the hedonistic summer of 1976 in Southern California.

It's one of those books that's "loosely based" on the author's life. But in this case it's considerably more than loosely - liberally seems more accurate.

As Blau puts it, when her 16-year-old daughter was reading through, asking if one scene was true and then another, "It ended up a 'yes' to everything."

"It's all sort of a mosaic," Blau explains. "Like tiles of truth and things that happened in my life, but rearranged and scrambled."

The novel is set under the Coppertone-scented backdrop of suburban Santa Barbara.

The 1976 time frame, coincidentally, matches that of Swingtown, a TV show that recently debuted on CBS. The show's writer, David Kelly, told the Chicago Tribune that his vision for the world in which the men sport steroidal mustaches and the women find earrings that aren't theirs when they vacuum the bedroom comes from pictures of parties his parents hosted during the 1970s in suburban Chicago.

In The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, the main character, 14-year-old Jamie, like Blau at the time, is awkwardly exploring her first sexual inclinations and struggling to accept the quirks of her pot-smoking, often naked and largely absentee parents.

The book grew from a sentence Blau wrote at a writers workshop in Vermont, a vivid memory about a male family friend jumping nude on a diving board, a full-bodied description that's a little too full-bodied to reprint here.

(The line, however, can be found in Chapter 2.)

Though Blau has lived in Baltimore for about a decade, the 44-year-old still has a touch of California girl about her - could be the long, brown hair, maybe the choice of vitamin water instead of diet soda "because it's so horrible for you."

She had realized she might be a writer in her 20s, when she was living with her first husband in Canada. With a degree in French from the University of California, Berkeley, writing, until then, wasn't even a hobby, let alone a career objective.

She has boredom to thank for it.

Visa issues prevented her from working or going to school, leaving Blau with no creative outlet beyond cooking dinner and doing laundry.

"I was like a great housewife, and I was kind of losing my mind, she says. "I realized if I wrote for an hour or two a day, I felt like I had done something."

At 27, she published her first short story in a Canadian literary magazine.

When that marriage fell apart, she moved to Baltimore to attend Hopkins' graduate writing program, where she now teaches part time.

Blau's never had a problem writing about the extremely personal. She seems to prefer it, in fact.

Lucky for her, her family provides bookshelves of material.

She wrote a short story, for instance, about her English professor father's stint as a "voluntary mute," when he stopped talking for a semester because, with writer's block, he felt as if he'd already lost his voice metaphorically.

"None of my friends had this kind of wacky life," she says. "It was a whole different world. There were naked people getting high and jumping on the diving board."

The Blau family had a name for regular moms: Martha Mothers. Blau's sister pined for a Martha Mother, wishing to trade in her no shaving, no bra-wearing, artist mom for a more traditional model.

Though Blau says her family situation left her anxious, embarrassed and insecure, she considers her childhood a happy one.

When she travels to California this week for a series of readings, her mom might be the one in the audience, clothed these days, clapping the loudest.

Bonnie Blau sees "a lot of truth" in her daughter's portrayal of the family. She's quick to point out that she didn't cook topless like the book mom does, but that aside, she recognizes a lot of herself in the novel.

Still, she doesn't see any big deal with naked pool parties or with smoking marijuana. "Here in California," she says, "It's sort of what people did ... Maybe I looked like a hippie, but in my heart I was a parent."

Yet when Bonnie Blau read the book and realized the stress her behavior clearly put on her daughter, she felt bad.

"I thought, 'Poor little Jessica, I should have paid more attention to her. I didn't realize she was so sensitive. She seemed so self-contained, peaceful and content. There was a lot going on inside her I didn't know about."

These days, Blau seems pretty much over it. She's raising two daughters in her own, more involved, way. And she's giddy that her career as an author seems to be taking off.

She recently had a thrill, noticing someone lazing by the Roland Park Pool, reading her book.

Blau said she wanted to grab a camera to preserve the moment, like someone sneaking a snapshot at a nude beach. But she held back, deeming the move "too perverted."

"I just sat there and stared," she says. "It was an incredible moment for me."

If you go

Jessica Anya Blau will read from The Summer of Naked Swim Parties at 7 p.m. July 2 at Borders, 170 W. Ridgely Road., Lutherville.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.