Zibby Owens: I'm here today with Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg, the author of novels The Nine and Eden and the winner of the Beverly Hills Book Awards for Women’s Fiction. A graduate of Smith College, Jeanne worked in finance and writing cases for Harvard Business School. I actually wrote one too a long time ago. She has a blog and does extensive travel writing. She's the founder of the Westerly Memoir Project and a board member of the Boston Book Festival and Grub Street. She currently splits time between Boston, Massachusetts, and Westerly, Rhode Island.
Welcome, Jeanne. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg: Thanks for having me, Zibby. I'm so delighted to be here.
Zibby: Tell us what The Nine is about. What inspired you to write it?
Jeanne: The Nine is the story of a boy who goes off to a very prestigious boarding school. It was his mother’s hope and dream to get him into this school. She really is under the impression she's got him all set and he's headed off for a stellar future. When he gets to the school, he uncovers an underground world. The Nine is the name of the secret society that taps him. He uncovers a crime as he's cavorting around with this group. He becomes more obsessed with solving the crime than making his mother’s hopes and dreams come true. Their realities need to reconcile. It’s about a family’s experience as this boy goes off and the redefinition of success for them. The second part of your question?
Zibby: What made you write this book?
Jeanne: I was writing a historical novel that spanned one hundred years and had a lot of edits to do on it that I got overwhelmed with. The Nine was the story that just started percolating in my brain. It was the mistress I kept while I had this daunting editing exercise that I really needed to do.
Zibby: This is your procrastination method.
Jeanne: This was. I had this other idea. If a hundred years of a family’s saga with all these characters is getting a lot of feedback, a lot of objections, I'm going to write a fast-moving, suspenseful, action-packed story with only three characters that lasts four years. I ripped off this first draft. I was at a stage in my life where my kids were going off into the world. It involved a lot of faith. I was also hearing stories in the news about how some of the similar schools and these schools that my kids were going to were mixed up with controversy around coverup and sexual misconduct over the years. Then I also -- I think this was the push. This might sound kind of crazy. I do Torah study once a month with a group at my temple in Brookline, Massachusetts. We were studying the Hannah and Samuel story. Something about it felt -- I’d connected with how Hannah must have felt handing her son over to the priest who had scorned her and the temple when her son was “weaned.” I'm doing air quotes around the word weaned because I felt like maybe at fourteen my son was barely weaned. I was turning him over.
It was something about the fleeting nature of motherhood, how fast things go and how we do our best to turn our kids over prepared for what they're going to face in the world, but it’s unclear whether you're ever prepared for what's going to happen to you. I felt like there was this metaphor, this story of motherhood that's really thousands of years old, of the hope and also the worry. In the end, there's nothing you can do. You've got to let go. I wanted to write something about that moment. In the end, in all the revisions, the book’s really about this relationship and the intrigue and scandal. Running around with the secret society keeps you turning the page. It’s really the scaffolding on which the deeper meaning has to do with how a family evolves over the process of a kid growing up and going off and doing stuff. I won't say what kind of stuff, but just any kind of stuff.
Zibby: We won't give it away. It’s great because you really gave such a good look at the whole dynamic. What happens when the kid’s away? There was all the times in the book where the mother Hannah is wondering what the son is doing, her son. She said, Sam’s mom, she kept a list of topics in her purse so that when she actually had time to talk to him, she could whip through it, of course which he found mortifying. Then she insisted that Sam be on Facebook. Then in the book you wrote, “His occasional posts and tags combined with infrequent texts and weekly phone calls became the data with which I filled in the narrative of his life. I pictured him waking up, going to class, eating meals, swimming, and studying, comforted by the notion that what little else he might have time for was easy to piece together. There was no substitute, however, for seeing him in the flesh.” Tell me about how to glean the most from a picture on a website or a post on Facebook and that feeling like you have to try to extract so much meaning out of some pixels.
Jeanne: I know. I don't think it’s just boarding school moms who try to get glimpses of what's going on with their kids from just little soundbites, little pictures or posts or tags. You might call it stalking, but it’s not really. It’s also getting pleasure out of seeing what they're doing with their friends. When my son went off to boarding school, it was the early days of Facebook. I put a lot more weight in those pictures I'd see every once in a while. Also, he was a shy, quiet kid. I knew if there was a picture out there, it was a big deal for him. It must have meant a lot. Nowadays, there are just constant images and people don't think twice about it. There was a time when I read a lot into these pictures.
Hannah is probably similar. She wouldn't allow Sam to be on social media until he begged when he went away to this boarding school. I know parents who talk to their kids every day when they're away or multiple times a day, lots of texts. My experience with my kids is that we tried to distance ourselves a little so that the letting go and the being let go could be easier. It’s a moment of real discipline to not be in touch, not constantly check in in all the ways we can now, and to wait for that weekly phone call with maybe the list by the phone of the things you want to remember to ask. I feel like that might not be something that's been written about that much. I don't know how to help anyone with that. All I can say is that Hannah goes through it. A lot of us go through it. I tried to be authentic and vulnerable in writing her character.
Zibby: You mentioned before we turned on the microphones that your husband had gone to boarding school -- you came from a giant public high school in Newport Beach, California -- and how this world seemed so different to you when you were thrown into it. Then your kids went. What has that been like? Compare it how you grew up.
Jeanne: I'm really excited. In a few weeks, I'm going out to Newport Beach. I'm going to do a talk at a bookstore, Lido Village Books, right near where I went to high school. Maybe we’ll all have a good laugh. Although, now Newport Beach is the home of the Varsity Blues scandal, so maybe everything's changed in Newport Beach as well, which makes me sad. Back then, we were so free. We were so unsupervised. It was a wonderful place to grow up. When I first met my husband and he told me he went to boarding school, I was like, “Oh, man. What’d you do?”
Zibby: Like he was in trouble?
Jeanne: Yeah, “Why’d they send you away?” He’s like, “No, no, no. It was a huge opportunity to be able to go this school.” I'm like, “Oh, okay.” It was an eye-opener. Then when our oldest son was twelve or thirteen, John brought him to a baseball game or an alumni event. We opened Pandora’s box by even letting him see that option. He really wanted it. He had just become bar mitzvah. We'd gone through this whole thing about his independence and his capability. How are you going to say, “No, we don't think you should go away”? Really, it was about me. I didn't really want my children to go away, but when they wanted it, you have to say, “We believe in you.” It then just started this trend in my family that I didn't see coming. It’s not like we had planned on this. Even more so, when I'd show up at these campuses or we'd tour the campuses my kids were interested in attending, I was like, I've got to take notes. These places are amazing. They're also, each of them, a little quirky and weird. You know?
Zibby: [laughs] Yeah.
Jeanne: They're amazing, but there's some strange things. I don't think the story is about a boarding school, but it’s really a rich setting. When my kids’ friends would come home for holidays or we'd have dinners together, I couldn't help registering the anecdotes they'd tell me. I thought, this has got to be the backdrop for my next book.
Zibby: What made you decide to tell it from all the different viewpoints? It wasn't just Sam. It wasn't just Hannah, hockey coach.
Jeanne: That's a great question. The original draft was really a lot of Sam. I told it in the close third person because I also wanted to give some background about the school, some editorialization about the school. The narrator had a little bit of a historical perspective about the school. Then I got some feedback that this boy’s story on a campus -- I had been inspired by a lot of campus novels. I'm really a huge admirer of Curtis Sittenfeld and Prep. I thought, what's going to be different about this book and why I really want to write it is because, what happens to this mother-son relationship? The mom, Hannah, became a very strong point-of-view character. I switched her perspective to the first person. She doesn't have a lot of friends. Her marriage is disintegrating. She's in her head a lot. She is thinking things through way too much. The best way to get her angst across and what she's going through was to be in her head and write in the first person.
Then I included this hockey coach. He was the member of the faculty. He had a point of view and insight that neither Hannah nor Sam could have. It was a big part of the plot points. You needed to see what was going on from the faculty point of view. Also, Shawn is new to the school as well. He's a twenty-five-year-old hockey coach who's just shown up when Sam shows up to be the dorm parent. I've always been intrigued with writing about an institution or a prestigious well-known established place from an outsider’s point of view. Shawn, the hockey coach, was just as much an outsider and new to the school as Sam and Hannah. I saw it as the three of them navigating this place, one from a parent’s point of view, one from the student’s experience, and then one from a faculty member’s experience.
Zibby: Tell me about the process of writing this book. Especially, how does it compare to Eden, which came out first?
Jeanne: As I alluded to, this first draft ripped out of me as I was procrastinating the work on Eden.
Zibby: Give me a picture. Were you at a coffee shop? Were you at your desk? Were you wearing slippers? What time of day?
Jeanne: What time of day? When I started taking myself seriously as a novelist, I decided I would use my most creative, energetic hours to write. That was a real flip for me because mornings used to be for exercise, friends, running around the city -- I live in Boston -- getting stuff done. Then I'd write in the afternoons, if and when I felt like it. Once this became my job, I flipped everything around. I wake up in the morning, dog walking, breakfast, a few bills paid. Then I turn off the internet. This is when I use my hours of greatest energy. Being over fifty -- I'm going to turn fifty-four on Saturday -- I get tired in the afternoons. I do like to write in the morning. I try to work for three to four solid hours and then leave the afternoons for all those other things that are important as well, appointments and things like that.
I probably came home with red marks all over the Eden manuscript, which is 100 years of social history. It’s about four generations of women in a family and the changes in reproductive rights and how that really affected each generation. It’s a real family story, but it’s set against the backdrop of American history. It’s set in a summer community. It had a whole bunch of points of view. Talk about my three points of view, I must have started out with eight or nine. My first novel had all these allusions to Genesis in the Bible. It was this big family. People were like, “This is way too ambitious for your debut novel. The main character isn't the right character. It’ll be good because you're a good writer. You can write a good scene. This house and these people are very vivid, but I think you need to totally rewrite this whole thing.” I was okay with that, but I'd already been at this for five years. It just seemed overwhelming.
Then I had, like I said, this other story percolating. I'd sit at my desk, nine o’clock. I'd look at all the red marks on the Eden manuscript. I said, maybe I’ll a write a book that doesn't have the two timelines, that doesn't have the characters, that answers all these objections I'm getting about Eden. I take a lot of classes at Grub Street in Boston. A teacher who had seen both manuscripts suggested I try to get The Nine published first. Then I felt like the girl who wasn't going to go home with her prom date. Eden took me to the prom. I didn't want to leave with somebody else. I felt like Eden deserved to get across the finish line first. Then I put The Nine away. Luckily, after Eden had some success and my publicist said, “You need to come out with another book,” I was like, “I actually have a manuscript that's pretty far along.” That's why I'm in this lucky position of having a novel come out two years after my first. It did take me six years to write on the side. It’s following with a not-too-long period of time.
Zibby: Now you have to get another one.
Jeanne: I know. I have another in the works. It’s not going to be as fast.
Zibby: It’s so funny. I feel like there's so much pressure now. I ask everybody, “What's coming next?” I feel like I'm adding to everybody's pressure. Think about all the authors who maybe they wrote one amazing book and that was it. Today, you can't do that. You want to write a book, they're like, “What are your next four books going to be like?” There's so much pressure to keep producing. Do you feel that way?
Jeanne: I know. I got into this hoping maybe a hundred people would like Eden. It’s been received really well. I feel like my definition of success might have been more modest than some other people’s definition of success. I have to keep reminding myself that I've already connected with people. I've already shown up for myself and published two books. In a lot of ways, this is success. When I do feel like, oh, my god, I've got to get the next one done, I have to say, that is the most ungrateful attitude. Wind it back. Your dreams have already come true. You get to spend every day writing. This is such a privilege. The commercial stuff, you can get wrapped up in it. Obviously, you don't want to totally ignore it. I'm not that type of person. I do want my book in my people's hands. I already feel like the rest is just gravy. The high holidays are coming up. I referred to a few Jewish things. It’s like the idea of dayenu, right?
Zibby: Totally, yes.
Jeanne: It would've been enough to just have Eden. Now to have The Nine, dayenu. Who am I to think I'm going to be able to just keeping giving people great stuff every two years? I need to really make sure it’s worthy.
Zibby: I had something similar with my husband the other night. I was feeling so stressed by all the emails and scheduling and whatever else. He's like, “You're doing this to have fun, remember? You having fun? Are you enjoying yourself today? Remember, you're trying to enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun for you.” [laughs] It is fun, but it’s hard with the inbox. All these external things can make what you're doing seem more time-sensitive than actually it needs to be.
Jeanne: I agree.
Zibby: Wait, tell me about -- you're on the board of the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Jeanne: Not Brooklyn, Boston.
Zibby: I'm sorry.
Jeanne: [laughs] I wish.
Zibby: Sorry. I just went to the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Jeanne: This weekend, as I did.
Zibby: It’s on my mind. Sorry, Boston Book Festival, tell me about that. I've haven't been to that yet.
Jeanne: This wonderful woman, Deborah Porter, started it ten years ago. It’s relatively new compared to other major city’s book festivals. It’s a weekend in October where the entire Back Bay turns into like a college campus with all these public spaces including the library and churches and event spaces having wonderful readings, just like many book festivals. We've tapped in on the great literary culture in Boston, both nonfiction and fiction, both academic and very entertaining works. Debbie asked me to be on the board about eighteen months ago. I'm actually the treasurer. I do have that background from Wall Street, not that it’s really helped with understanding the QuickBooks of the Boston Book Festival, but I'm learning. I just love being involved. One part of this writer’s journey was becoming part of the literary landscape and community in Boston and meeting these people and finding mentors and finding new people and learning from people. I said, “Yes, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.” I get to go to cocktail parties and go to events and meet amazing people and pick their brains and hear them speak about their books. It’s an amazing opportunity.
Zibby: There aren't that many communities you can join as adults. Being able to write a book and enter in, or enter into this literary community in any way, is a blessing. You get it through your kids’ schools maybe, or if you don't have kids, through work or the temple.
Jeanne: Or your gym. It’s not the same.
Zibby: It’s not the same.
Jeanne: There's another group in Boston that I need to give a shout-out to which is called Grub Street.
Zibby: Yes, sorry. I was getting to that.
Jeanne: It’s the creative writing center. That's an amazing community of teachers and learners. You can sign up as a student. They touch thousands of people every year with both paid and free classes, both adults and teens. That's where I've found people who really helped me get Eden across the finish line, really gave me encouragement on how to structure a book. I could write a scene, but I didn't understand the craft of what a novel needed to look like. Then people who give you advice on finding an agent, how to get a book published, and then potentially blurbing your books, it’s just been amazing, so many generous people. It’s taught me about how to be a generous artist. I was a competitive athlete before where if somebody won, the other person lost. In the writing world and in the world of publishing, I've learned that if one person wins, we all win. If someone else wins, it doesn't mean you lose. We can all rise up if more people read and there's good books out in the world and people know about them. I've loved changing my outlook on life from one that's a zero-sum game to one that we can all lift each other up type of game.
Zibby: I interviewed Will Schwalbe, the author. He's on a campaign to rebrand reading as radical listening. You're really listening, but you can't talk back when you're reading versus everything else we do in life. I thought that was interesting.
Jeanne: I love that idea.
Zibby: What kind of athlete were you?
Jeanne: I'm a squash player. I still dabble. I still compete and play. I played in college. I really learned in college. I hit my stride as a Master’s squash athlete and when I turned fifty, won the national championship in my age group.
Zibby: That's amazing.
Jeanne: I've got to start training for the fifty-five, so I don't know. [laughs]
Zibby: That's awesome. I has this one moment where I was playing a lot of tennis. I was like, maybe by the time I could be in the sixty and up, you never know. What if I train for twenty years? [laughs]
Jeanne: You totally can. At this stage, it’s a war of attrition. If my knees and my hips last longer than everyone else's, I could do it. I could do it again. That's another thing where we’re all hoping we can all keep showing up at these tournaments and be the old, eighty-year-old ladies playing squash. It’s a great community of friends I've made through that as well.
Zibby: That's awesome. Tell me briefly about the Westerly Memoir Project.
Jeanne: Grub Street had something called the Boston Memoir Project. It was replicated in Nantucket with a lot of people writing about that place, a place that really evokes a lot of love and emotion as setting for people's lives and a lot of memory. Westerly, where I spend half the year, is a similar type of place. It’s South County, Rhode Island, right on the ocean. It’s the very opening of Long Island Sound. There are people who go there for the summers and have a family tradition of spending just the warm seasons there. Then there's a lot of people who've -- it’s an important town year-round as well.
I created this writing program to bring people together from all parts of Westerly to write personal narrative and share their stories with the idea that we would publish an anthology of essays. I haven't really gotten a lot of people wanting to work on their essays to the point where they're publishable. We do have these amazing readings every six to twelve months at a bookstore there. Just the process of twelve people taking classes together and meeting each other -- these are people that would not be hanging out together otherwise, may not cross paths. It’s building bridges. We all have similar stories. We all have the same hopes and dream in our lives, to be loved and connected and accepted. It’s been really great. It’s turned into just summer months classes to now, spring, summer, and fall. It’s been going four years. It actually has allowed me to be a teacher. I just taught some of the classes this past fall. I'm looking forward to being a teacher as well.
Zibby: Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors? I know you've woven in a lot throughout our conversation.
Jeanne: I think everybody is creative. If you feel like your creativity wants to come out with words on the page, then just start writing. I really did not know what I was doing when I started this. I took a lot of classes. I got the help of a lot of people. Writing is just like any kind of muscle that you want to tone or any type of craft you want to learn. People who are gifted writers are -- I'd say you can learn this. Yes, there are people who are amazingly intelligent and gifted. That might be evident in what they put out. This is something you can really learn and work on and improve by reading and editing and workshopping. So many people say, “I always wanted to write a book, but I can't do it.” It’s the type of thing where just one foot in front of the other seems daunting. Eventually, it can get done if you put in the time. Also, don't accept the negativity. If people are discouraging, I would just move on and figure out -- I'm a story of a million rejections and just making this happen for myself and figuring out how I could get this done. I had no MFA, no big writing credentials before I got my first book published. It’s not impossible. It’s very hard, but it’s not impossible. Even if you don't get your work published, the process of showing up for yourself every day and being creative and doing what you want to do, it’s really a gift to yourself.
Zibby: That's true. Awesome. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.
Jeanne: Thanks. Moms will have time at some point, but maybe not at your point. [laughs]
Zibby: Yes. Moms have to make time to read books.
Jeanne: That's right. Thank you so much.
Zibby: Thank you. Bye.