The following is a transcript of a conversation I had with Jessica Anya Blau and Matthew Norman, whose superb novels The Trouble with Lexie and We Are All Damaged, respectively, are now available at better bookstores everywhere.
GREG OLEAR: Okay, so we have Jessica Anya Blau and Matthew Norman, two of my favorite writers. Both of you have a novel out this year in time for summer beach reading. So let’s start there. There is, I would imagine, a lot of overlap between your respective readers. Both of you are tall and good-looking, both of you have posses, and both of you live in Baltimore. Is there, like, a rivalry between you guys? Do you smile and shake hands and plot to kill each other, like Avon and Stringer Bell? Will there be a knife fight at your reading? Is there sexual tension?
JESSICA ANYA BLAU: Yes, my posse consists of my blind dog who spontaneously bleeds out of the hole where there used to be an eye and, well, Matt Norman. Matt is in my posse. I need him to protect me because he is the only tall one between the two of us. (I wear high shoes. Extremely high shoes. I’m fake-tall.) And if this were a TV show, maybe there would be sexual tension. But in reality, Matt finds writers to be very unattractive. He’s said that to me. Straight out. Gotta take a man at his word.
MATTHEW NORMAN: Jessica, I think you should write a collection of essays called “Fake Tall.” I bet it’d be good. I certainly couldn’t write it, you know, on account of how gloriously tall I am. Also, I’ve never mentioned this before, but I think it’s cool that you have three names. I’m thinking of getting a third name, too. Matthew Franzen Norman. Matthew Cheever Norman. Matthew DanielleSteele Norman.
JAB: What about Tall? Matthew Tall Norman. Or make Tall your first name. Tall Matthew Norman.
MN: No. I think Matthew DanielleSteele Norman is the way to go. I just ran it by my agent. She’s on board.
GO: How about hyphenation? Matthew DanielleStelle Tall-Norman has a nice ring to it. I was joking about you both having posses, by the way. Only Jessica has a posse.
MN: I’d never join a posse that would allow a person like me to become a member.
GO: I mentioned Baltimore, and you’re both, at least in my mind, part of what is a pretty excellent literary scene down in Maryland. But neither of your new books are set in Baltimore. Why are these books not set in Baltimore? Is Baltimore not good enough for you?
JAB: One of the greatest things about Baltimore is that it’s good enough for everyone. No one is an outsider here–everyone fits in. (That should be the city motto: Good Enough for You!) I never seem to write about the place where I am. Maybe that’s part of the process for me, just being somewhere else. But people should write about Baltimore, it’s a wonderful, weird, place. I was in a Zumba class yesterday and I looked around to sort of survey the people in the class and I thought it was almost magical that the class represented city so well: African American, white, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, old, young, fat, thin . . . can dance, can’t dance, can move her hips, can’t move her hips . . . It was like Sesame Street but in real life.
GO: I’m going to resist the temptation to make fun of you about Zumba. You have The Wire, which is the best TV show of all time, set in Baltimore. And Edgar Allen Poe. You win.
MN: Agreed. Baltimore is wonderful. I didn’t set We’re All Damaged here because the book is about a guy from Omaha who runs away to the northeast after a very painful divorce. I chose to have him go to NYC because the contrast between Omaha and New York is so dramatic. I wanted that tension. I’m writing a book now that’s set in Baltimore, though. So far so good.
GO: Jessica, yours is set in what I think is a fictional Massachusetts boarding school town. As far as I know, you’ve never set foot in such a place, much less lived there.
JAB: No, I’ve never lived in a boarding school. But, I was born in Boston. And my ex-husband was from Wellesley, so I’ve spent a lot time in Massachusetts. That same ex-husband went to Exeter in New Hampshire, and my daughters went to a private girls’ school, though not as boarders. So, though I’m not part of the world of big money, million dollar donations and legacy families, I’ve seen it close enough to write about it.
GO: And Matt, yours mostly takes place in Nebraska, which calls to mind the Gene Hackman line from Unforgiven: “I wasn’t dead. I was only in Nebraska.” Are you from there originally? Or do you just fly over it en route to LA?
MN: God, you’re such a New Yorker, Greg…referring to my homeland as flyover country.
GO: I’m from Jersey. State law prohibits me from making fun of where anyone else is from.
MN: Yes, I am from Omaha, or O-town, as people who are awesome call it. I moved east when I was in my early 20s. When I started writing the book, I was actually worried that I’d treat Nebraska unkindly or like some kind of punchline. But, by the end of the book, I remembered that I freaking love the place.
GO: That comes through in the book. I felt like I wanted to go there. Not badly, but a little. Jessica, you’ve always been known for writing very candidly, and also very funnily, about sex. We’ve come to expect that from you. And yet this latest book is, I think, your sexiest book yet. It may well be called The Trouble with Sexie. You’re also known for writing a lot based on your own experiences. So I gotta ask, is it based on your experiences?
JAB: Ha! It’s so strange because I never think of myself as someone who writes about sex and I never think of my books as having a lot of sex. But, yes, my characters do have sex. . . I suppose that’s because people (many, certainly not all) have sex. And as far as autobiography goes . . . well, Lexie goes to places I’ve only thought about.
GO: Oh, and thank you for basing the Daniel character on me.
JAB: Yes! You invented that “signature move,” right?
GO: The one where you write that it’s a signature move of older guys? That made me spit my coffee I laughed so hard. Mostly because I thought, “Wow, I was a precocious young person.”
JAB: I’m sure you were. And your wife, on Facebook at least, looks like a very content woman.
GO: What is the Trump line? “There’s no problems at all with that. I guarantee.” I don’t want to have any spoilers, but sex plays a pretty important role in your novel, too, Matt. (Public vomiting also plays an important role). How much “research” did you do for that aspect of the book? And did you delete your browser history afterwards?
MN: Wait, are you suggesting that there’s sex stuff on the Internet? I should check that out. Seriously though, you’re right, it’s tough to talk about that without giving too much away. But, I was really interested in how the Internet and “certain aspects” of the Internet are really fueled by loneliness…particularly male loneliness.
GO: Now for some general questions. I have a few people I know from high school and college who have been pretty successful as writers. Like, I sort of consider them my rivals, although they don’t consider me a rival, because they’re too damned successful. I’m 43 years old now, and it’s only very recently that I can read something nice about one of these people and feel genuinely…well, happy is too strong a term…let’s just say I can read it without it sending me into a death spiral of self-loathing and self-pity. Do you guys have rivals like this? How do you feel when someone you know does well?
MN: None of my “old” friends are writers. Among the crowd I grew up with, I’m truly an anomaly. I’m “The Writer.” Several of my “newer” friends have done well and have had some nice successes. I’m genuinely happy for them, and I mostly don’t want to punch them.
JAB: That’s a great question. If I like the person (and I tend to like most people) I feel jealousy while also being genuinely happy for them. It’s a big world, a big life, and there is room for more than one person to do well (and I truly believe we’re all in this writing world together–we need to support each other in every way we can). If I’m not fond of someone, it’s pretty easy for me to detach and ignore their news. I think that has been my survival mechanism my whole life: floating outside myself, detaching to the point of not giving a shit, or to the point of finding it funny. My great dream is for me and all the writers and friends I love to have massive success at the same time. . . or, since I’m a big dreamer, over the same many decades.
GO: Name one book published in the last, say, ten years that you wished you had written. (Mine would be Station Eleven. God, I loved Station Eleven).
JAB: Oh, there are so many great books in the world. I wish I’d written all of them.
GO: Oh, come on, pick one. Stop being diplomatic.
JAB: I wish I’d written the TV show VEEP. And I wish I’d written the TV show Catastrophe. Seriously. I have that thought every time I watch those shows.
MN: Catastrophe is brilliant. There’s a lot of great television out there now. But…books. I wish I’d written Where’d You Go, Bernadette. As I was reading it, I was like, “Damn her. She took funny and made it truly literary.”
GO: That’s Maria Semple. She’s so good it doesn’t count. Also, I think she has a new book out this month, too. Hey, are you guys good at Cards Against Humanity? I bet you’d both be great at Cards Against Humanity. As would Maria Semple.
JAB: I’ve never played. Should I? I love games. I’m into Scrabble and cribbage. . . anything.
GO: Yes. Yes, you should.
MN: I’ve only played it twice, and both times my mother-in-law was playing, too. That…well, that changes the way a guy plays Cards Against Humanity.
GO: Let me amend my previous statement: Yes, you should, but not with your mother-in-law. Or really any members of your family. So we are living in a country in which one of our two political parties is about to nominate Donald J. Trump as its presidential candidate–a reality TV huckster who would, after calling for a nuclear missile to be shot towards North Korea, look at the thing flying through the air and go, “You’re fired!” He has been called Hitler, but he’s more like the Charlie Chaplin Hitler from The Great Dictator. What fictional character does Trump remind you of?
MN: I kind of feel like he IS a fictional character, if that makes sense. Like, if I was reading a Tom Wolfe novel and one of the characters was Donald J. Trump, I’d probably criticize Wolfe for being too over the top.
GO: Bonfire of the Vanities II.
JAB: I love that you’re asking this question in a book interview. Hmm. . . you know he’s very coral-pink and sherbit-orange, He’s like the wallpaper from the house in Golden Girls. It’s an early 80s nursing home palette. Can I take out the word “character” and just say what he reminds me of? Donald Trump visually calls to mind a Florida senior home which has been “professionally” decorated by a guy in a blond toupee and a turquoise seahorse-print ascot.
GO: Yes! And that’s exactly who we want commanding the US military. Last question. Because this is called a “threeway,” and we don’t want to disappoint our readers. Especially the ones who have read until the end. If you could have a threeway…or, if you prefer, if you were forced to have a threeway or else the world would end…with any celebrity couple, active or inactive, living or dead, who would it be?
JAB: Wow, you really go for it with these questions! OK . . .I think Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle. Or Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore in The Kids are Alright. What about you?
GO: I’m going with Mia Farrow and Satan in Rosemary’s Baby.
JAB: I’ve heard Satan can be mighty devilish in bed!
GO: [hits snare drum and cymbal]
MN: Oh, man…I’m way too neurotic to have a threeway. Plus, I’m from the Midwest. I’d spend the whole time apologizing to everyone and asking if they wanted iced tea.
GO: I’d love some.