“For me, all of life’s drama is contained in the emotional struggle between two people”: A Conversation with Jeanne Blasberg
Jeanne Blasberg’s new novel, The Nine, hot off the presses in August 2019, is a compelling mother-son story and a campus novel and a coming-of-age- tale and a gripping mystery all wrapped up in one. The follow-up to her award-winning debut novel, Eden, Blasberg’s new book was written and revised at GrubStreet. Our artistic director, novelist Christopher Castellani, caught up with her this summer and asked her a few questions about the craft and process of writing The Nine. Don’t miss Jeanne’s launch at Harvard Bookstore on Friday, September 6th at 7pm!
Castellani: Every novel is the end result of a “big bang” – that moment or incident or idea that captured the imagination of its author. What was that for you and The Nine?
Blasberg: My eldest son’s high school experience was an eye-opener. He went to a very demanding boarding school and his time there was filled with ups and downs. We moved to Zurich, Switzerland during his last two years and I thought about him constantly. The school transformed in my mind from picture-postcard-perfect to a cold, grey experience he had to endure. I don’t think I fully processed the impact his experience had on our family until a few years after he graduated. That was about the time revelations started coming out regarding a history of abuse within the school’s faculty, and I became very angry. The first drafts of the book were definitely fueled with indignation. I had really enjoyed Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld about six years earlier, and wanted to try writing a new take on the campus novel that included a strong parental point of view.
Castellani: Your first novel, Eden, moved back and forth between time periods, whereas this novel features a propulsive mostly linear plot that unfolds like a mystery. Did you set out to stick to one generational time period for this book, or is that simply where the story and characters took you?
Blasberg: The Nine was sort of a “mistress” I kept on the side while finishing Eden. I was getting all sorts of feedback on my first novel, that it was overly ambitious for a debut – too many characters, and that the two interweaving time-lines risked confusing the reader. So, I began writing The Nine, a story that was really bubbling inside me, with the intention of avoiding those same objections. Although both books ended up being structured successfully, I was determined to keep The Nine more streamlined and simple.
Castellani: All this talk of structure, time lines and feedback begs the question of how you got started as a fiction writer. And while you’re at it, tell me the most important lesson about craft, storytelling, or “the writing life” that you’ve learned along the way?
Blasberg: I love memoir and have written scores of personal narratives. I took a class for several years where prompts were assigned to trigger memories. In the process of going back over all the various essays I produced for the class, many themes emerged, mostly around parent/child relationships, misunderstandings, secrets, inheritance, and tradition. I shifted toward writing fiction because I wanted to explore those themes more than I wanted to dive any further into my own life - haha. I wanted to invent characters, who, although often seeded in real life, were exaggerated and I wanted to invent situations that would become the scaffolding for writing about meaningful topics. My greatest hope is that my novels spark conversations around important issues.
I met Bret Anthony Johnston at the Iceland Writers Retreat in the Spring of 2017. His advice ranks as some of the most important I’ve learned, or at least it’s advice I remember! He said that if he kept us in a room for about seven hours he could teach us every technical aspect of the novel. We would know everything we needed to know to produce a book. What he couldn’t teach, however, was patience and surrender to the process – those are things one must cultivate. Practicing patience, surrender, and humility is my daily challenge, and attempting to adopt that mindset day in and day out has been one of the most personally rewarding byproducts of the writing life.
Castellani: More craft talk: this story is told in alternating chapters by the heroic mother-son team of Sam and Hannah. Both are very winning and extremely likable characters for whom the reader is rooting for the entire way. Can you talk about the choice to have Hannah narrate her chapters in first person and Sam in third-person?
Blasberg: Hannah is a bit of a loner, older than most of the other moms, with a marriage that is downward spiraling. She is a woman who is in her own head most of the time, and her chapters are loaded with the interior monologue of a person struggling with a trying moment in her life. Maybe her character struck a chord with me because I am a mother of young adults, but it felt natural to write Hannah in the first person. With Sam, however, I didn’t attempt the voice of an adolescent boy. Instead, I opted for a third person point of view which allowed me to paint a picture of the school, its history, and the other characters at Dunning Academy.
Castellani: Though novel-writing is never easy, which chapters – Sam’s or Hannah’s – did you find less challenging? How?
Blasberg: When early readers characterized my manuscript as largely male-centric, about a boy’s coming of age, I revised with the aim of giving Hannah more weight. I really hoped to achieve a novel that was just as much a mother’s journey. While Sam’s chapters deliver much of the plot and suspense, Hannah’s chapters do much of the emotional work. Always easier for me to get the emotion right! I have been known to write four hundred pages of ‘interior conflict’ between characters (first draft of Eden), where it took my first editor to point out that there was hardly any action. For me, all of life’s drama is contained in the emotional struggle between two people.
Castellani: Take us through the drafting process for your novels: what do the earliest versions of your books look like, who reads them, and how do you know when you’re done?
Blasberg: The earliest drafts of my novels are scene and character sketches. With Eden I wrote in solitude in Switzerland, but with The Nine and my current WIP, I workshopped early chapters in writing classes at GrubStreet. I love the instantaneous feedback and reaction to what is working and what isn’t. I write long hand and then transfer work into Scrivener because it allows me to re-order my chapters and fiddle with the outline while I am drafting. I like to get feedback from trusted readers after a second or third draft is complete, especially from my husband whose impression I really trust. My editor is helpful in knowing when something is just about done, and after reading the manuscript successfully aloud to my husband, I can also feel confident it is ready.
Castellani: You write very convincingly – with lots of compelling detail – about daily life in a boarding school from the perspective of a young man. What, if any, research did you do to make sure your portrayal was as accurate as possible?
Blasberg: My husband went to a boarding school north of Boston and my three children graduated from three additional boarding schools in New Hampshire and Massachusetts… putting four data points at my fingertips. My research really was made up of years and years of conversations with my children and their friends. Once they heard I was writing a book, they were inspired to tell me more. It was as if the project and my desire to understand all that had happened to them was a way of connecting and healing some of the hurts. Their anecdotes made a big impression on me because I went to a large regional high school in Southern California which couldn’t have been more different from their experience.
Castellani: Given this book’s solid and convincing family dynamics, I’m not surprised that your writing process involved conversations with your family. You’re also a mother – of two sons and a daughter. What aspects of your own experience, if any, did you bring to the character of Hannah?
Blasberg: Seeing each child off on the brink of adulthood always came with a measure of pride, but also its own little dagger to my heart. For me, being a mother was all-consuming and when I was in the thick of everything, I never saw an end in sight. But the day came when they each left. At the same time, many of my friends were facing similar loss. It’s a time in a woman’s life that gets little attention in literature and I wanted to explore it. I also wanted to dive into the complications around a mother’s loss after sending a child off at a premature age. This is not the type of woman who typically finds sympathy in the real world, but I hoped the reader might get a glimpse of her good intentions find sympathy for her.
While the story was coming together in my head, I was in the process of studying the biblical story of Hannah and Samuel with my midrash class at Temple Israel Boston. Torah study always generates more questions than answers and I left wondered why the lines of text offered no commentary on Hannah’s feelings upon her turning her child over to the priest. To me, that was the most compelling part of the story. In addition, Hannah’s societal worth was largely dependent on being fertile and bearing a son, and on the righteousness of that son. The thinking from that class also contributed greatly to Hannah’s character in The Nine.
Castellani: It’s interesting that you mention the Bible. The Nine is, in some ways, about the dangers of putting faith – especially blind faith – in institutions and traditions. At first, Hannah seems unwilling to question this faith. Would you say the book has a larger message about this?
Blasberg: Absolutely, I wanted to touch on that universal fear of not knowing who to trust. And it’s an archetypal plot… The Nine is an allusion to the Hannah story in the bible where a barren woman, desperate for a son, fervently prays to God, vowing to turn a future child over to the priest in the temple once he is weaned. Not only do the biblical Hannah and the mother in my novel entrust their precious children to men they know only from afar, but the act of doing so becomes their greatest sacrifice.
Hannah Webber in The Nine makes the decision for her son, Sam, to attend Dunning Academy based on its prestige and is under the assumption it sets him up well for future success. She puts blind faith in Headmaster Williams to mold her boy into the brand of Dunning graduate she’s read about: business tycoons, senators, Supreme Court justices. It is within the first pages that the reader knows that she’s set her family up for a big fall.
She also grew up in a religious household, yet she compromised her Jewish foundation in order to assimilate into the WASPY tradition of Dunning Academy. It’s ultimately her faith in her son and not her dreams of his Ivy League education that lead to her redemption.
Castellani: Tell me what question – about writing, reading, or publishing – you always wish someone will ask you, but they never do.
Blasberg: People often ask me how hard it is to publish a novel, but nobody asks what the most fun part about publishing is. With The Nine the answer would definitely be the audiobook! I love listening to audiobooks and I always have one going, so this version of the novel is very important to me. The agency that took on the production for Blackstone consulted me about choosing narrators, and I knew the story demanded both a male and female narrator. The female voice would be the same that narrated Eden and for the male reader I suggested somebody in the style of Ari Fliakos, a narrator I love – he read Here I Am by Jonathan Safron Foer as will as The Nix by Nathan Hill. He is smart, dry and sarcastic, with great delivery. The producer’s response was, “Then why don’t we just get Ari?” I was floored by the possibility and then over the moon when he said yes. I have listened to the completed audiobook and it is awesome. When I hear Ari reading my words, my heart rate speeds up. It is crazy.
Castellani: Are there any “deleted scenes” or storylines that didn’t fit into the final version of The Nine? In other words, what darlings did you have to kill to get here?
Blasberg: I love this question, because for a while my Hannah was a little bit off her rocker. I had her doing some pretty embarrassing stuff while visiting the Dunning campus. I wrote scenes where she did really unexpected things like hijacking a college counseling meeting by taking the microphone up on stage and singing. I also had her entertaining some romantic thoughts about a young teacher. Anyway, even though I thought it was amusing and provided moments of surprise, my editor found it slightly disturbing. Whoops. We had some great laughs about it all, and eventually I agreed she was right and reeled poor Hannah back in.
Castellani: It’s a wonderful book, and your efforts to get all the details right have paid off tremendously. Congratulations!
Christopher Castellani is the author of four books, most recently The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story, a collection of essays on the craft of point of view in fiction. He has published three novels: A Kiss from Maddalena won the 2004 Massachusetts Book Award, was a Top Ten BookSense pick, and has been published in five countries and three languages; The Saint of Lost Things was long-listed for the IMPAC/Dublin award in 2005 and was also published abroad; All This Talk of Love was a New York Times Editors' Choice and a finalist for the 2014 Ferro-Grumley Literary Award. His short story, "The Living," was recently published as a Ploughshares solo.
In 2014, Christopher was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Level One Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for his fourth novel, Leading Men , which will be published in January 2019 by Viking Penguin. Leading Men is the result of exhaustive research into the relationship between Tennessee Williams and his longtime partner, Frank Merlo, and the alchemy that helped to create Williams's great plays.
Over the years, Christopher has contributed essays on creative writing to numerous anthologies, including Naming The World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis, and Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, edited by Elizabeth Benedict.
Christopher has been involved with Grub Street since 2000, when, upon graduation from the MFA program at Boston University, he was hired to teach his first fiction workshop. He has since held many positions at the organization, including head instructor, board member, and Executive Director. In his current role as Artistic Director, he helps to develop new advanced programs, advise on pedagogy, and serve as a resource for the program team.
When he's not at Grub Street, Christopher is a sought-after teacher and speaker. He is on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College, which is frequently ranked as the top MFA program in the country. He has given readings and presented on numerous craft topics at dozens of writing conferences, colleges, and universities, including Swarthmore, Harvard, Tufts, UConn, Allegheny, CUNY, Brown, AWP, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the YoungArts Foundation in Miami.
Christopher holds a BA in English from Swarthmore College and is ABD in English Literature at Tufts. In 2015, he won the Barnes & Noble / Poets & Writers "Writer for Writers" Award in recognition of his service and contributions to the literary community.See other articles by Christopher Castellani