Jessica Anya Blau didn't know what to think when, five years ago, about 35 students signed up for a fiction-writing course that she taught—and still teaches—at Johns Hopkins University, a class that normally attracted a mere 15. "They were lined up in the hallway," Blau, now 44, remembers. "And it was all these big guys, like frat boys. I convinced them that the class was full, and as they were leaving, one guy turned around and said, 'We read your story online,'" punctuating his comment with a winking, lecherous "heh-heh" chuckle.
Back then, nearly 15 of Blau's short stories had been published in newspapers and literary journals. "I said, 'Which story?' And he said, 'The one in …' and he named a magazine that was obviously like porn or erotica. I said, 'That's not me. I've never had a story printed there.' And then they all turned around and are like, 'Yeah,'" accompanied by more chuckles.
Blau sought out the story on the web. And there it was: a piece of porn written by another Jessica Blau. "I couldn't bring myself to read it," she shudders. "The worst part was that in her bio, it said that 'Jessica Blau practices the erotic arts.' It was horrifying: I'm teaching at Hopkins, I have two kids, I'm married, and I live in Roland Park."
Blau's "frat boys" will be unsurprised to learn that her first novel, published by Harper Perennial in late May, is entitled The Summer of Naked Swim Parties ("heh-heh"). Sprinkled with iconic pop-cultural references—Farrah Fawcett, aura-reading parties, Peter Frampton—it amusingly and insightfully chronicles the coming of age of a 14-year-old girl, Jamie, in Southern California in the summer of 1976.
"I was a lot like Jamie," Blau admits, "and everything in [the novel] happened to me, happened to someone near me, or was witnessed by me."
Like Jamie, Blau grew up in sunny Santa Barbara, a member of the only Jewish family in her neighborhood. "Everyone seemed to have these pristine houses," she remembers, "and our house was just really messy. We were sort of like the Munsters."
Blau came to Baltimore in the early 1990s to attend Hopkins' Writing Seminars program, from which she graduated in 1995. A fiction/poetry-writing teacher at the university ever since, she married, and settled into a Roland Park home, where she raises two daughters (ages 11 and 16) with her film editor husband, David Grossbach.
Four years ago, Blau started writing The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, working on it intermittently until 2006. The book has elicited hosannas from local literati such as Stephen Dixon, Madison Smartt Bell, and John Barth, with the latter calling the book "a delight: a California beach girl's hilariously painful adolescence in the High 1970s."
For her own part, Blau confesses that "When I was writing it, I had no hope that anyone would read it except, maybe, my kids, but now I hope that people will enjoy it and think about their own lives. In my writing, I don't cover things up that much, so it would be nice if people read it and think, 'Oh yeah, you were a freak, too.'"