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July 28, 2008

Jessica Anya Blau: The Questions I Am Most Often Asked by Reading Groups

Posted by carol
Sometimes an intriguing title is enough to get readers buzzing about a book. Such is the case with Jessica Anya Blau's debut novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, which is the story of a 14-year-girl, her unconventional family, and the memorable summer of 1976. Here Jessica talks about her inspiration for the novel and some of the questions she's often asked by reading group members.

I'm often asked how I came up with the title of my book The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. The answer is that I picked it off the top of my head before I wrote the book but when I knew essentially what I wanted to write. I didn't think the title would cause such a stir. But it did. And I'm happy for that. When you write a book, it's nice to have things stirring up around it.

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is about a family in Santa Barbara, California, in 1976. The 14-year-old daughter, Jamie (who is loosely based on me), is trying to figure things out about life, love, friendships, and families. Her 16-year-old sister, Renee (who is not loosely based but rather exactly based on my sister), finds the family deeply embarrassing and wishes she lived with a different family and that she wasn't even related to her own family. And the parents are busy with their own lives --- smoking pot, hosting aura readings and throwing naked swim parties where the grownups drink, eat, dance and even jump on the trampoline naked, while the kids hover on the steps of the pool, fully suited. The mother in The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, Betty, also cooks for her family while she is naked. Or, mostly naked in her cut-off shorts and apron.

Because the story is loosely based on my experiences growing up, most people ask me if this or that moment in the book was true and really happened that way. And the question I am most often asked is this: Did your mother really cook naked? And: What about grease splatters?!

When I wrote the scene in the book where the mother is cooking naked, I never thought about the fact that it would be surprising or odd. I just wrote it the way I saw it, as if there were a movie running in my head and I was simply jotting down what I was viewing. My first realization of the strangeness of cooking naked came when my editor, Kate Nintzel, said, "You have to put shorts on her. No one would believe that she ever cooked naked." So I put a pair of cut-off denim shorts on the mother. It went with the character --- my mother often wore cut-off shorts, and I remember a summer when she wore them for weeks as she painted the house.

The truth is my mother did not cook naked. BUT, and this is a big but (and not a big butt!), one of her friends who often hosted naked swim parties did cook naked. And she was often at the grill making pancakes, flipping things over with a spatula, her very large breasts resting on either side of her apron bib.

When I was writing the book, I stole things from other families and put them into this fictional family. The mother I created for the book was in some ways like my mother, and in some ways like my mother's friends (but not at all like my friends' mothers --- they all had very "straight" moms, the kind of mothers that my sister always wished she had!).

My mother did swim naked and still, today, she doesn't own a swimsuit. I never told my mother that people often ask me the question about cooking naked, so I didn't realize it was something that stood out to her until the Baltimore Sun interviewed me and then called my mother to get her perspective on things. The first thing she told the reporter, before she was even asked a question, was this: "Let me set something straight here. I did not cook naked."

In regards to some of the other stuff Betty does in the book, well, I'll put it this way: my real mother knows what color her aura is.

---Jessica Anya Blau