Jessica Anya Blau Wrote the Best Book of the Summer After Being Fired by a Celebrity
It's a quarter to nine, I'm about to sign on for work, but I need to finish Mary Jane. I'm savoring every word, teetering between the excitement of finally knowing how the novel ends and the melancholy of finishing a book I truly loved. When it's over, I'm crying — like crying, crying. And it's not the ending itself that has triggered my emotional breakdown, it's purely the fact that it's over, that my '70s retreat to the Baltimore suburbs with a sheltered 14-year-old tour guide has come to an end.
Jessica Anya Blau's latest is sweet in a way that you rarely see outside the confines of YA and the cultish feel-good fiction of Jojo Moyes. Mary Jane is an empathetic teen who's already an expert at taking care of others, a trait that makes her new job as a summer nanny for a doctor in the neighborhood the perfect fit. The gig, however, isn't anything like what she (or her conservative mother) had in mind. Dr. Cone isn't a family practitioner, he's a psychiatrist; and his clientele includes a world famous rock star, Jimmy, who just happens to be staying with the family for the summer alongside his movie star wife, Sheba. Everything Mary Jane presumes to know about herself and the world is about to be reevaluated.
Blau, who's authored myriad novels over the past decade, found Mary Jane during a period of grief and shame, after she'd been fired from a ghostwriting job by her celebrity boss.
"It was this charming, incredibly lively, spirited celebrity who had no boundaries and would FaceTime from bed with her celebrity husband, and told me all about her sex life," Blau explains over the phone. "[We spent] a week talking about every guy she had had sex with, which was every hot guy in Hollywood."
Despite disclosing information candidly (including the penis size and shape of every aforementioned guy), the celebrity in question rejected Blau's chapters.
"I would write it all up in a chapter, protecting everybody's identity, and she would read it and say, 'I don't want to talk about any of that publicly.'"
The celebrity shared more stories about her life and her family, reading to Blau from the diaries she'd kept since she was young.
"It was just all this really rich material," Blau said, "I wrote over 100 pages, and she just rejected it all. In the end, [she] didn't want to reveal any of this stuff … And then she fired me, and she decided to write the book herself."
Though it was a personal setback in more ways than one — "I was ashamed, I was humiliated. I had lost a job, and I was sort of heartbroken over the friendship, too" — Blau allowed the emotion to fuel her.
"I was so hurt and angry, and in that grief and fury, I was just thinking, 'I'm just going to write what I want to write.'" And so Mary Jane was born.
Though she'd come to intimately (perhaps too intimately) know a famous person, the celebrities in Blau's novel drew inspiration from elsewhere.
"I was thinking of that '70s thing where there would be these celebrities that had these incredibly wholesome appearances, and then there was this whole dark side behind them that was hidden," she tells me, citing the private struggles of personalities like Karen Carpenter and Liberace. "Ben Affleck [goes to] rehab, and we all know he's in rehab. There's just so much less hidden now."
Blau wasn't a Maryland teen in the '70s, but establishing the novel in that era allowed Mary Jane to maintain her naiveté, and Jimmy and Sheba their anonymity.
"To have a believably naïve character, you kind of had to be before the internet and before cell phones," she tells me. "And to have a celebrity hidden somewhere without people knowing, it had to be pre-internet and pre-E!."
For me, someone who writes about celebrities daily and interviews them often (perhaps too often), the sensitivity in Blau's portrait of a famous couple nearly eroded the cynicism that dozens of superficial interactions had instilled in me. And no, the rich and famous do not need my allyship, but this softening is a testament to the prevailing hope of Mary Jane. Blau has created a world with similar tensions to our own, but she (and the 14-year-old narrator) bring such wonder and sincerity to the page. Perhaps this, too, inspired my outsized reaction to the book's ending — I want to live in Mary Jane's head for as long as I can.
"For me, emotionally, writing is the same experience as reading," she explains. When you enter the fictitious world, the real world — and all it entails — just falls away. And Mary Jane's world isn't a bad place to lose yourself.
Mary Jane is available at booksellers nationwide.