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The Core of this Story has Been Inside Me All My Life: A Conversation with Author Jeanne Blasberg

Jeanne Blasberg’s debut, Eden, is a sweeping historical novel covering four generations of women in the Meister Fitzpatrick clan. Largely set in an exclusive beachside community, Eden explores what happens when affluence is lost and secrets are revealed. Blasberg gives readers a rare and fascinating multigenerational view of the patterns that are passed on from one generation to the next, revealing the traumas we can heal from and those we can’t. She also deftly shows the disconnect between women living in different generations, generations in which the accepted roles for women have rapidly evolved.

Eden is already garnering wonderful reviews, including this one from Redbook:  “This beautifully written family saga firmly establishes Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg as a rising writer to watch—and it will likely have you liking your family a whole lot more this summer.” In advance of Jeanne's reading at the Harvard Book Store on Friday, May 19thI caught up with her to talk about the novel, what inspired her, and more. 

 

First of all, wow. This is an ambitious book. You cover eighty years of history, four generations in a family’s life, and you tackle big topics from multiple points of view. My first question is just, how? How did you come to this story, and how long did it take you to write?

 

I guess you can say the core of this story has been inside me all my life. I was the product of a hasty marriage, after my mother got pregnant in college. Then, I met someone about my age who was given up for adoption, and that sparked conversations and generated a lot of “what ifs.” What if my mother had chosen not to have me? What if she gave me up? I dwelt on these issues when writing personal narratives. 

Being a reader, I was driven to emulate the kinds of books I like to read: family sagas, works of fiction that span big time periods. I like . My thought was, if I only write one book in my life, why not write a big one? 

It did take a decade!

In the first attempts, I really had no idea what I was doing. They were over-written and way too long. I’m pleased that I was able to whittle down 900+ pages to 340 without losing the essence of my story.

 

Given that there’s a little autobiography here, how did you approach this? Did you talk to your mother about the book?

 

My mother passed away in 1994, so I did talk to her about the premise, but never the book itself.  She wanted me to write this book. Instead of being autobiographical, Eden is more like a collage of real people and real experiences. It’s like looking at life through a kaleidoscope; I’ve made things more vivid and interesting.

For example, I never knew my mother’s mother, but she had depression in a time when depression wasn’t understood, spent time in a sanitarium, and died very young. All I have left of her are my mother’s memories, some of her oil paintings, and my name. In my book, Sadie, the family matriarch, paints while in a sanitarium during a bout of post-partum depression. 

I was just in a workshop where I was told that writers reach maturity once they can take themselves out of their stories. Perhaps I’m not there yet. 

But this is the book I wanted to write. I wanted to write about how you make a name for yourself, make your own life. You have to leave Eden, and the idea of paradise, to find happiness. The irony in the book is that, for  this affluent family, everything looks perfect on the outside, but the family members who clung to the summer home tradition got sucked under by it. The ones who made happy lives for themselves were the ones who went away and returned later, fully formed and able to appreciate it.

 

The very first time we meet Sadie—the matriarch—you write, “she preferred riding her horses than looking for a husband.” Even though she married an outsider, a Jewish man, and she married for love, disappointing her family and betraying her social class, she still winds up living a very conventional life, and ends up feeling trapped and depressed. She has no control over how many children she’ll have; she has no control over her husband’s ambitions. This is a recurring theme in the book and plays out in different ways over generations. 

 

Yes, Sadie’s the one who charts the course. Patterns repeat themselves through the generations and she’s the one who sets it all in motion. She fashions herself a bit of a renegade, but gets swept off her feet by Bunny. Women struggle in the book with a desire to break free of familial expectations, but end up repeating their mothers’ lives to some degree.

Though Sadie’s life looks wonderful on the outside—it’s not the worst life, being married to railroad baron!—she’s not happy. And when her daughter, Becca, comes of age, she also becomes sad and detached, for her own set of reasons. I’ve read a lot about how people carry their parents’ baggage, often unknowingly. Family behaviors repeat themselves. 

 

It’s scary to think about what we’re doing to our kids.

 

Yes, but you can stop bad patterns by shining a light on them. That’s the lesson, I think. The characters in this family never talked about the important things. They kept a lot hidden—pregnancies, rape, epilepsy. 

But once you make your children aware of what is going on, that’s how to prevent the legacy from continuing. 

Once Becca introduces Leah—the child she gave up for adoption—there’s fall out, yes, but you have the feeling that everything moving forward will be better. Fresh air makes its way into the house. Honesty about the family also gives future generations courage to make their own name, their own life. To my mind, this is the most important thing parents can give their children.

 

I hate to admit this, but I kind of found myself judging Sarah, Becca’s daughter. 

 

Why did you judge?

 

She seemed spoiled.

 

Yes, but each of these women are the product of what came before them. Readers have reacted strongly to each of my characters.

 

I’m sure my judging her says more about me than her!

 

Well, none of my characters have handled their situations well. Sarah is clueless. She falls in love with an older guy and the relationship isn’t really going to go anywhere. She’s an optimist, though, who mainly wants everyone to get along.  She feels that if she can bridge the gap between her mother and grandmother, everything will be ok. 

What you’re likely reacting to is how little she knows about the true cost of her life, because she’s grown up in affluence. When the affluence dries up, you have people who can’t really cope. That’s who she is. She’s struggling to glue and tape it all together. She’s doesn’t yet understand what her future—especially with a child—will require.

By the end, I think she’s benefited from real conversations with her family and is a little more tethered in reality. 

 

Eden, the grand house that Bunny builds in Long Harbor Rhode Island, is the setting for so much of the novel.  I loved the way you described it and found myself wishing I could visit.  Is Eden based on a home you know?

 

No.  It’s based on the archetype of a home. I can picture the stretch of beach on which it sits, but it’s not one particular home.

My father’s home is the one where everyone gathers after the hurricane. (That actually happened in 1938)  That’s the only home that’s a real place, replete with maid’s quarters, huge fire places, big thick walls.

I was fascinated by the stories of the family who built my father’s house. It was built by a steel baron from Pittsburgh for one of his daughters. Her brother was Henry Kendall Thaw, the jealous husband who shot and killed Standford White. Legend has it, he hid out in that house before his arrest and what William Randolph Hearst would call the “trial of the century.”  

Eden is set in Long Harbor, which is a fictionalized version of the summer community I’ve spent the last twenty years in. I’m not one of those who is third generation there or anything. But the culture fascinates me. There’s so much that’s positive there, but also the shortcomings of a small town mentality can be present.    

 

Can you talk about ties your novel has to the Book of Genesis?

 

One more complexity I’ve layered in! Obviously, there’s the Garden of Eden. I made the Butterfields the serpent. Glamorous and childless, they seduce Bunny and Sadie into a fast lifestyle. Getting wrapped up with them is the beginning their undoing. 

I planted many other allusions as well. I intended for the hurricane to be a flood, an opportunity for renewal and a fresh start. 

Ruth is the dutiful daughter-in-law, modeled after the Book of Ruth. Even after her husband dies, she remains loyal to her in-laws. In fact, the names of my characters, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, are the names of the four matriarchs from the Torah. Just like the Book of Genesis, fertility is a major theme throughout.

With the biblical references, I am trying to communicate the timelessness of stories. From the beginning of time, the same stories—of our struggles as parents and as women—have repeated themselves. In a way, it’s comforting because it helps remind you that you aren’t the one idiot not getting it right, but it’s also disheartening. It shows what we’re up against when it comes to human nature. 

 

One aspect of the novel I found especially poignant and painful is the exploration of lack of control and the lack of voice Sadie and Becca both face. Sadie is left at an asylum with post-partum, and it’s up to her husband and male doctors to decide when she can leave.  Her own protests fall on deaf ears.  Similarly, Becca is raped and yet she doesn’t even register that fact, because she hasn’t been given the vocabulary or understanding to do so and she too is shipped off to have her baby quietly at a home for unwed mothers.  She has no choice but to give her baby up for adoption. 

 

The punch to the gut happens in the beginning, when Sarah says to her grandmother, you just don’t understand, whatever I do will be my choice. Just imagine what it feels like for Becca to hear this when she didn’t have any choices.

I think that contrast is the whole book in a nutshell. 

This evolution in the role of women has always interested me. I was an American Studies major at Smith College. I’ve always been interested in the chasm of experience between generations of women in the 20th century. There is so much difference between just two generations, sometimes resulting in resentment.

 

You’ve been doing your research and trying some really cool ways to promote the book.  Anything you want to share with other aspiring authors? Any hot tips?

 

Yes! I’ve learned that in order to go the indie route (which I have), you have to be creative in how to find your readers. I’m looking for people who have might have experience with the content of the book, like people who have been touched by adoption. There are lots of niches to explore.

 

What’s an example?

 

It’s about really targeting the right people. You go onto listserves. I’ve found adoptees, birth mothers who have given up babies for adoption. I’ve found people who like television shows like This is Us or Long Lost Family. People love stories of families being reunited.

I also am trying to connect with people who have ocean homes or love shingle style architecture and old seaside residences. If I can get readership and word of mouth in smaller towns, then maybe it will spread. 

I can’t say enough about SheWrites Press. They are my publisher and they provide inspirational weekly talks, webinars, and there’s a great secret Facebook group of authors. Everyone is offering great advice and support. We share and retweet for each other. I feel so lucky that I landed there, and that I have the control I do. It’s been a really good fit for me. 

 

I saw you scored an amazing blurb from Anita Shreve.

 

This is another example of just going for it and not being afraid to ask! I wrote to her and asked her to blurb it and never heard back. Though I know her through Grub’s board, I didn’t want to pressure her and wondered if I should mention it at a board meeting. My husband encouraged me to ask her politely if she’d seen my e-mail. The whole board meeting, I thought: I can’t do it, I can’t do it. And finally, I saw her standing there. Her face lit up when I approached her, and she told me that she meant to reply. I handed her my book—which I had with me! She wrote a few days later, had read it in all in one sitting, loved it, and agreed to blurb it! Anita is incredibly generous and her book, The Stars Are Fire, just launched on April 18th. I can’t wait to read and share it.

 

What are you reading now?

 

I am addicted to Amor Towles’ ouvre. I loved A Gentleman in Moscow, and now I’m listening to The Rules of Civility. I was just in Iceland at a writer’s conference and had an amazing session with Bret Anthony Johnston, a most incredible teacher. So now I have Remember Me Like This in my hands. 

There’s something about my connection to GrubStreet, where I’ve met authors in the flesh. It’s the coolest thing to have insight into the people behind the books. I just can’t get over it. 

 

Having begun her career in finance, Jeanne Blasberg is now a writer and active GrubStreet student. She is currently working on her second novel, splitting her time between Boston and Westerly, RI. She is a nationally ranked squash player who served as the first female board chair of US Squash, the sport’s century old national governing body.  During her tenure at US Squash, she oversaw sweeping governance changes and led the organization’s first strategic planning process, creating a platform for financial stability and increased fundraising. She is a volunteer squash coach at SquashBusters, an urban youth squash program located on the Northeastern campus. In addition to coaching there, she has co-chaired the organization’s major annual fundraiser numerous times. Jeannie loves adventure travel especially with her husband, John, and their three grown children.

 

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About the Author

Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse known for artistic excellence, working to democratize the publishing pipeline and program innovation. An active partner to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Eve was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston and securing chapter 91 space in the Seaport to build a creative writing center. The Barr Foundation recently named her a 2019 Barr Fellow in recognition of her leadership. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on the future of publishing, what it takes to build a literary arts center, and the intersection of arts and civics at numerous local and national conferences. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve serves on the Advisory Board of The Loop Lab, a new Cambridge-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing representation in the Media Arts. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.

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