Due to computer poltergeists, a portion of the conversation was lost. You’re coming in mid-chat here after Brad has admitted that he’s from Indiana.
Jessica Anya Blau (JB): I don’t even know what Indiana is. I can’t imagine it.
Brad Listi (BL): It was bleak. A cultural void. Terrible weather. Bad sports teams. (Which have since improved.)
So here’s a question from Art . . . .
Art Edwards (AE): J, do you ever pine for the freedom to write”entirely-made-up” fiction that doesn’t involve uncomfortable conversations with family members afterward?
JB: The new book that I’m working on is all fiction. But since I fictionalize memoir I never worry about the truth anyway.
BL: What’s the new book about?
JB: A girl, some cocaine, a dealer, Berkeley and Los Angeles. It’s about getting in trouble. Big trouble. And how to get out of it.
BL: Nice. I love cocaine!
JB: It’s based on when I worked for this cocaine dealer in Oakland, CA.
BL: Wait — seriously?
JB: I didn’t know he was a coke dealer when I got the job.
BL: Ah. What was the job? You can tell us, Jessica. You’re among friends here.
JB: He had a dress shop as a front. My girlfriend and I met him at a bar and we needed jobs. So we sold clothes at his shop.
BL: Perfect. So mobstery.
JB: No one ever came in. He was just dealing coke. We’d listen to music really loud, dance in front of the mirrors and try on clothes all day. He paid in cash. Although, another girl who worked there took her pay in coke. Not me!
BL: I just learned the other day that there’s a bakery here in LA that sells Valium. When you go to the counter, you’re supposed to say “medicine.”
JB: Can’t people just get valium from their family doctors or their shrinks? Where does the bakery get it? Mexico?
BL: God only knows.
JB: The coke dealer I worked for got a little scary in the end, so my girlfriend and I both quit.
BL: How was he scary?
JB: He was trying to have sex with us. Whenever I worked alone in the store he would try to convince me to let him perform oral sex on me. And he kept pulling out his dick when no one was in the store. I was nineteen. It seemed way easier to get a new job than to manage his harassment.
BL: So not the best job you ever had?
JB: Well, it was easy work at the time. Essentially we were getting paid to hang out and make it look like real dress shop. And that seemed fine for a while. Until the penis came out.
BL: Jesus. Was this around the time you stopped drinking?
JB: I stopped drinking after getting drugged by a stranger in Paris and almost dying.
JB: I’m so sober now, it’s funny. I barely do aspirin. Although I do hit the Tylenol PM on occassion.
BL: So wait. You’re in Paris…
JB: We ran out of money because my girlfriend had, when naked, fallen off a bunk bed in a hostel and jammed the bed post into her labia so that it blew up like a giant peach. It was James and the Giant Peach labia style. So, she was in the hospital for a week, they took all our money when she checked out, and we were penniless for a while as we waited for her mother to wire some funds. We didn’t have a sou. Then we met this guy who said he’d buy us dinner. But before dinner there were drinks at his place just off the Champs-Elysees.
BL: So you went to his house?
JB: Yeah, we went back to his place — it was one of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever seen. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I think about that house and how great it would be to live in it (not with the bad guy of course!). Floor to ceiling windows, a fireplace you could stand in, a bathroom like a mausoleum.
BL: Okay, so what happened?
JB: We ended up drugged, unable to walk, vomiting, being bathed, ultimately in his bed unable to speak. Then his friend came over, realized we were in trouble, and insisted that he take us to a nurse across town, out in the burbs in some giant, highrise apartment building.
JB: And she stayed up all night with us. Not doing anything, just sort of keeping us awake and making sure we didn’t die. He slept in her bed during all this. We were all in the bed, it was very dream-like. Then at some point, as always seems to happen when you’re nineteen, they both tried to have sex with us. We batted them away with weak arms. They didn’t persist. Eventually she fell asleep, too, and my friend and I were able to sort-of walk at this time — we snuck out as if were escaping from prison. We were terrified, so maybe it was the adrenalin that allowed us to walk. We found a Metro station and took the train to the Gare Du Nord, where our bags were in a locker. By the time we got out at the station, we couldn’t walk any longer, so we collapsed on the ground and lay there for hours like two homeless drunks.
Gary Busey (GB): You guys party harder than I do!
JB: Yeah, it was crazy. Eventually we met these two British guys and we gave them the keys to our lockers. They fetched our bags, put each of us over a shoulder and dumped us on a train headed to the top of France, where we could take a ferry to England. We slept all night on that train and weren’t really better until we woke up the next morning.
JB: After that I just stopped doing stupid things that put me in danger. Realized what a dumb fuck-up I was.
Gloria Harrison (GH): Well, kudos — some people never figure that out.
BL: So was drinking a problem for you? Or was it just this one isolated incident that made you decide to move on?
JB: No, I’m allergic to alcohol or something. One drink and I’m SMASHED. Two and I’m stupid and foolish. Three and I ALWAYS vomit. Sometimes I vomit at two. It’s ridiculous. In college I knew every bush, bathroom, nook, to vomit. I was a fool. A dumb, ridiculous fool. My past self embarrasses me. But it is there. It exists. So I need to accept it.
BL: Weren’t we all fools?
JB: Were you that dumb?
BL: I could probably win a stupidity contest with most people in this chat room. That’s why I’m the moderator.
GH: You’re on, Listi
JB: So how stupid were you?
BL: I used to wear flannel pants on a regular basis.
JB: Great! SEXY!
BL: I used to take the date rape drug recreationally.
JB: No way? Really?
JB: But when you took the date rape drug could you remember your own night?
BL: No. And I almost always failed to rape myself.
JB: Would you wake up with a zucchini in your hand or something?
JB: Fun stuff!
BL: Ah . . . memories.
GH: Did you ever huff Pam (the cooking spray)? No? Score one for Gloria.
BL: “Pam” was Gloria’s roommate.
BL: Gloria and “Pam” were drunk…it was an experimental phase.
GH: Now when I cook veggies, I just sneeze.
JB: I don’t get huffing. Don’t even know how it works.
GH: I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it right.
JB: What did it feel like??
GH: It’s always the boys. I only did it because Mike B, who was so dreamy, was doing it.
JB: You know I did so many dumb things for boys. Boys were like a drug. I was overwhelmed with boy craziness.
GH: That’s what I’m saying.
AE: It’s always Mike B’s fault.
Dos Pueblos Mom (DPM): The weather in Santa Barbara and Southern California is an enabler for stoopid stuff. (Don’t need to wear a lot of clothes — ever.)
GH: That’s exactly why we would kick Listi’s ass at this game.
JB: DP Mom is TOTALLY right. I got kicked off the tennis courts at D.P. (my high school) because my ass was showing.
DPM: Not anymore you wouldn’t.
JB: Is that tennis coach still there? Woman? Hardnose. Sort of funny. She said, “Blau, you’re outta here!” Why are P.E. teachers the only ones who call girls by their last names?
BL: During a tennis match?
JB: No, during tennis class.
J.F. Bannister (JFB): Now, there’s a site, JAB ;).
GH: Kicked out just that once?
JB: I didn’t have shorts that didn’t show my ass.
BL: Me neither.
BL: Still don’t.
JB: I seriously just laughed out loud!
BL: I can’t imagine growing up in Southern California.
JB: Hey DP Mom, does the nude beach near More Mesa still exist??
GH: Jessica, does your mom still go to the nude beach?
JB: No, she doesn’t even go to the beach now.
BL: The other day I had the thought: What percentage of the human population looks good naked, in sunlight? It can’t be very high. I mean, I realize it’s subjective. But human nudity in bright sunlight is almost always a bad idea.
JB: Everyone under 25 probably. Although sometimes that bright light can wash away flaws.
BL: Not me. I’m pale and freckly.
JFB: I burn first then color…..even with SPF 50 — Coppertone Sport.
AE: I live in Portland. What’s sunblock?
JB: I’m always aware of lighting!
AE: Zero people look good naked in bright light! We’re all silly, fragile creatures nude, which is why we’re lovable.
GH: Only the vampires look good — the ones that glisten like diamonds
DPM: My husband says the nude beach at More Mesa is still around. It’s driving him crazy about the location of Flapper Alley, which appears in your book. Near the water by the pier?
JB: Yes, Flapper Alley was on lower state when you had to stop there at a red light. The bouncers let in ANYONE who looked like they wanted to have fun.
DPM: There are so many more places now on State Street for college kids to party. It was pretty limited back then.
BL: So here’s a book question…
JFB: JAB, I love Drinking Closer to Home. The PS was awesome at the end of the book — but was your family really that accepting of your portrayal of them, or did they truly understand that it was a work of fiction?
JB: Yes, they were that accepting. They’re very cool with everything.
Bl: I find that this tends to be the rule, rather than the exception, with writers writing about their families.
JB: We’re a low shame family.
BL: Which is great.
JB: And if you do feel ashamed, you’ll be ridiculed out of it quickly. Everything gets pointed out. It’s hard for other people sometimes. Like my husband.
BL: It seems like the tendency is to believe that writing about friends and family members will lead to catastrophe. In my experience, that has rarely been the case.
JB: Yes, you’re right. No one in my family even minds their sex scenes. My brother doesn’t mind his (which are gay and straight). And my sister doesn’t mind hers (which often involve more than one person, and drugs).
BL: I think, deep down, people like to be written about.
JB: My dad’s girlfriend doesn’t want to be written about, but she’s not in the book.
BL: She’s the next book.
JB: My parents separated after the book was written.
JB: Yes, isn’t that sad. After fifty years.
GH: I’m troubled by this as if I knew them personally.
JB: That’s sweet.
BL: The genesis for this story involves your mother — this terrible story from her early childhood. She was left in the back of an open convertible overnight and almost froze to death. What happened?
JB: Her parents were out drinking at an inn and left her in the back of the convertible, in a bassinet, while they were at the bar. The story as my mother heard it her whole life was that they got trashed, checked into the inn and forgot about her. My mother never discussed it with her mother, it was the verboten subject! But after the book came out, after my grandmother read it, she said that my grandfather was too drunk to drive home so he pulled the car over and they all slept there. When they woke up my mother was frozen and almost dead.
BL: Lord. How old is grandma now?
JB: 92. Strong. Walking her dog. She fell out the attic hole a couple months ago and cracked her arm open.
JB: Went to the hospital, got stitched up, but didn’t take her pain pills. Had her nightly beer instead.
BL: So this image — this story about your mom in the back of the convertible — this is what got you going on DCTH? I’m always fascinated with how books begin.
JB: Yes, that’s how it started. It was sort of the story of what happens if you get to live and more people come out of your body and they live, too.
BL: A question from Don Pueblo’s mom…
DPM: Did you think that the Steins were abusive parents? I guess I’m really talking about the time when they pretty much left the kids to raise themselves.
JB: Well, SO many reviewers say they were! But I don’t think of them that way. They were neglected and ignored but they were loved and adored. Buzzy’s always kissing all three kids. Louise stands up for Portia when Buzzy doubts her. Everyone looks out for Emery.
But, I do realize that many, if not most people, see this as a very abusive childhood, and that’s okay with me. I understand WHY they see it that way. Makes sense.
BL: And here’s a question from JFBannister…
JFB: Unless it’s a “romance” novel, people can’t really weave in sex scenes with fiction that well and make it readable for a male. Did you feel like you *had* to add sex scenes to keep the male reader’s interest?
JB: No, I didn’t put in sex for the male readers. I never think about my reader.
BL: Interesting. You just think about…?
JB: People say that you should write for a reader, but I just write what interests me. Sex interests me. I think it interests most people who aren’t trying to repress something or who aren’t hormonally non-functioning.
JB: My editor asked for Emery’s two sex scenes — his gay one and his straight one. Originally those weren’t part of the book. But they weren’t put in to add sex, in particular, they were put in to help illuminate his character, his struggles, and his identity.
JFB: See, I was going to add that as the second part of my question — do you write it for you, or for what your editors say, “HEY THIS WILL HELP SELL BOOKS.”
JB: I’m not even sure if my editor thinks along the lines of “this will sell books.” I have the feeling she thinks more like, “this will make this the best book it can be,” which is how I think when I’m writing. It was funny that I hadn’t put any sex in for Emery. I think because I was seeing my little brother as I was writing, and I didn’t really want to see his penis.
In order to write those scenes I wrote my brother an email and asked him to tell me about his gay and straight losses of virginity.
BL: What did he say?
JB: He wrote back two very long and funny letters. And then I wrote the scenes, changing much. I just needed the gist of it, the feel of it, what it would feel like to be gay and have sex with a girl. And what it would feel like to be gay and finally act on it.
BL: I have gay friends who are TERRIFIED of vagina.
JB: Yes, I know guys like that. My brother’s a very straight-seeming guy. Women are ALWAYS trying to pick up on him. He’s not afraid of vaginas. He has two sisters and his mother went to the nude beach!
DPM: Was the gay bar in SB The Pub?
JB: I can’t remember what it was called, maybe. It was right next to the railroad tracks on this dark, dark, alley. And speaking of dark alley bars, we used to go to Mel’s in Santa Barbara, because they’d serve twelve-year olds!
BL: Good ol’ Mel.
JB: Yup! Alcoholics and teenagers drinking in one dark room!
BL: “Serving 12-Year-Olds Since 1976.”
DPM: Hey, my husband once got left by his friends under the pool table all night at Mels!
GH: Did Vera and Alice work there?
JB: Kiss my grits!
AE: “Vera, get back to work.”
JB: Y’all crack me up!
AE: Gloria beat me!
BL: So a couple more questions, and then it’s on to the Lightning Round. First one’s from Gloria…
GH: The closeness of the characters (the family members) in DCTH defies all logic. Like DP Mom said about it sounding abusive, I, too, can see how, if tilted, this could be a much gloomier story. What accounts for the love and overall good nature of these characters?
JB: Well, they crack each other up. They all see the humor in everything. And they love each other deeply. The kids may have been neglected but they could count of love. Everyone could count on love.
BL: Name a favorite author of yours, Jess. An author that you’ve read entirely — all of their books.
JB: Read ALL of their books . . . Lordy, I’m reading Patricia Highsmith now. Love the Ripley books, and I think I’ve read them all. Or most. I’ve read all of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but that was in graduate school and was required of me. I’ve probably read all of Kundera, but most of it in my twenties.
BL: At the club in Paris.
BL: You were actually reading Kundera when you met that freaky guy?
JB: No, not really. I just meant that Kundera is a guy you have a mad crush on and want to have sex with as you read him in your twenties.You know how that is. You read a book and you want to be with the writer.
BL: I loved the The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
JB: Yes, me too.
BL: Who was the first writer you read that made you want to be a writer?
JB: Well, I never had faith or confidence in myself. So I never even IMAGINED I could be BE a writer. But I always read lots and lots, from a young age.
JB: Everyone. Jerzy Kosinski. Salinger. Everyone. My father would hand me books and tell me to read them, and I would. He never asked about them, just handed them to me at a very young age.
BL: Did you know that Jerzy Kosinski was supposed to be at Sharon Tate’s house the night of her murder?
JB: NO, really?? I just read a Manson family book that was great! (Madison Smartt Bell’s newest.)
BL: Yes. His flight got delayed in New York.
JB: Wow. And he killed himself by plastic bag over his head, right?
BL: Something like that, yeah.
JB: I’ll have to look it up.
BL: So how did you become a writer if you never thought you could become a writer?
JB: I was writing privately, almost secretly. Then I sent one story out to one place and, miraculously, it got published. I was truly stunned. When my marriage was falling apart, shortly after that, I applied to graduate school for writing.
BL: You published a story and had to leave a marriage at the same time?
JB: Yes. So applied to grad school. And when I got in, that’s when I started to WISH I could be a writer. I was in Canada at the time, and left Canada for Baltimore where I’d never been and couldn’t even imagine, beyond DINER and Ann Tyler novels, maybe.
JFB: Did publishing help you get through leaving your marriage?
JB: It gave me enough confidence to think that maybe I could be something other than a wife and a mother.
AE: There’s a new girl in town, and she’s Jessica Blau.
JB: I never really told people I wrote until after my first book was out.
BL: Fascinating. They must’ve been surprised.
JB: I mean, strangers, really. It was this secret in a way. Because the few times I did tell people they would say, “Where are you published?” And when you name some lit mag. they just don’t care anymore. It’s sad. Because lit mags have some of the best writing around and are generally hard to get into.
BL: “The Nervous Breakdown…”
JB: YES, THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN!
BL: People, generally, are electrified at the mere mention of it.
JB: I know. It makes them HORNY.
GH: Are you kidding? I’ve even made TNB business cards to hand out. Woot!
JB: Send me one — I want to see it! Woot woot!
JFB: WOOT WOOT! Indeed…..I love TNB! For me, it started with The A.D.D. Blog and evolved to TNB, thanks to Listi, Rae and Blau.
JB: THANK YOU, Jorge! Nicest guy on FACEBOOK, I swear!
JFB: . . . awww, thanks!
BL: Alright, Jess — you ready for the Lightning Round?
JB: I’m ready!
BL: Alright — so the way it works is, we ask you a bunch of either/or questions, rapid-fire, and you respond as quickly as possible,in one word or less. And so it begins….
GH: Tarantino or Lynch?
JB: Tarantino! Le Royale!
GB: Phil Collins or Genesis?
JB: Neither. Okay, Phil.
DPM: Santa Barbara or Goleta?
JB: GOLETA ROCKS!
GH: I think I love you.
JB: I love you, too!
JFB: East Coast or West Coast?
JB: Oh, both. WEST! Yes, I feel like I’m with my people! But I love the East Coast pace.
BL: Carver or Salinger?
JB: Carver mostly.
GH: The Stones or The Beatles?
JB: STONES. But Beatles if I’m cleaning house. Stones if I want to sing in the car.
AE: Halen or Hagar?
JB: Yikes! I don’t know who those people are!
BL: One word answers, please.
JB: Help me!
JB: Oh Van HALEN!
BL: You mean David Lee Roth?
JB: No, wait, is that Van Halen?
BL: Well, there was Van Halen with Roth and Van Halen with Hagar.
JB: I’m thinking of . . . shit, Stairway to Heaven guys. Led Zepplin! I’m a girl, remember! Those are boy bands.
BL: Lord of the Dance or Lord of the Flies?
GH: Tampons or pads?
JB: Pads with those giant belts from the 70’s so that it’s like you’re wearing scaffolding and hanging a bath towel in your underpants. If not that, then wads of toilet paper from some public bathroom stall. Kidding. Tampons. Always.
DPM: Mels or Joes?
JB: Joes! Love Joes!
BL: Howard Stern or Ron Howard?
JB: Ron Howard. Although he’s often a little schmaltzy for me. And Howard Stern, when I hear him, can crack me up.
AE: Free market or public option?
JB: Free market?
GB: New Testament or Old Testament?
JB: Old. Or FSM.
JFB: Nolan’s Batman, or Burton’s Batman?
BL: Disciplined writer or binge writer?
JB: Disciplined for me. Binge for everyone else. I like smokers. I like procrastonators. But I don’t do any of those things myself.
BL: Alright, Jess.
JB: Alright, Brad.
BL: I think that about does it.
JB: That’s it?
BL: I wanna thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us tonight!
JB: This was fun!
BL: You rocked.
JB: Thanks for moderating , Brad. YOU rock!
DPM: Loved the book. Loved the Santa Barbara/Goleta connection. Could just picture the Fairview entrance of the 101 when the Stein’s were deciding whether to go to see their mother in the hospital (Cottage I take it). Thank you so much.
JB: THANK YOU ALL for reading the book and showing up!
FJB: Thanks for moderating, BL.
GB: Best chat ever!
JB: THANK YOU all! And D.P. Mom, I’m reading at Chaucer’s on May 17th. Please come!
JFB: Jessica, thank you so much for taking time to chat!!! You– and your book — rawk my skull!
JB: XXX to you! And XXX to everyone else here!
BL: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for being here. A good night to all!