Interview by Carolle Morini
The author Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg was born in 1965 in Philadelphia, PA, raised until high school in Westchester County, NY and then in Newport Beach, California. After graduating from Newport Harbor High School, she came back east to Smith College where she graduated in 1987 before working in finance for many years. Her first novel, Eden, came out in 2017 and her second novel, The Nine, was published in 2019.
Q: How are you doing during this quarantine?
JEANNE MCWILLIAMS BLASBERG: I am one of the lucky ones for sure. Even so, the need to quarantine hit me with shock, then frustration and anger, then sadness and now finally acceptance (as well as a good portion of worry). My family is making donations to those most in need through the Boston Resiliency Fund and I am trying to see the positive every day, making the most of the time and the fact that I am able to be home with my loved ones.
Q: What is your writing process? Are you finding it has changed now? If so, how are you adjusting?
JMB: I am a morning writer and the crazy thing is the quarantine allows, schedule-wise, for an ideal writing life. The worry and preoccupation with the future do not help with the writing life. To combat those distractions, I am grateful for a well-established meditation and journaling practice. I use both these tools for clearing my mind before sitting down to work on my fiction. Having no appointments outside the home means I can sit at my desk for long stretches. I have decided my work-in-progress must incorporate the present moment, so every day of the pandemic and the emotions that go along with it are being channelled into two of my characters' development.
Q: What are you reading right now? Do you find your reading list or tastes have changed, being inside longer?
JMB: My reading over the past month has included: Devotion by Dani Shapiro, Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, Writers & Lovers by Lily King, and Severance by Ling Ma…I love memoir and contemporary fiction—and no, my taste hasn’t changed. I do have a couple of non fiction books about the brain and the body I am dipping in and out of, but basically I am using this time to tackle a very high TBR pile.
Q: What is your work experience?
JMB: After graduating from Smith College, I embarked on a career in finance, working as an investment banking analyst at The First Boston Corporation. While I worked primarily with numbers, I always had an interest in writing. After a stint on Wall Street, in the treasury and strategic planning departments at Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), I wrote case studies at Harvard Business School before turning seriously to fiction. I've kept a journal throughout my life and was inspired by a pervasive theme in those journals around what it means to be a daughter and a mother as I wrote my first novel, Eden. I am a founder of the Westerly Memoir Project, which offers classes in memoir and community readings in Westerly, Rhode Island. I am also a board member of the Boston Book Festival. I am a student and board member of GrubStreet, one of the country’s preeminent creative writing centers, where I wrote and revised The Nine and am currently developing my next novel.
Q: Can you elaborate on the importance of being part of a writing group?
JMB: I have been fortunate to find a community of writers at GrubStreet as well as a writing group. Writing is a solitary pursuit, so having peers to offer feedback makes the work more efficient. I have found that accepting and using feedback is also a very important skill to cultivate.
Q: What were the great struggles of working on Eden? The great joys?
JMB: Being my first novel, the great joys of Eden were that I would write and write with abandon and get lost in the characters and scenery. I loved the writing life and the important themes I was able to express in my fiction. The great struggle came when I first showed the behemoth of a manuscript to an editor and realized it would need to be rewritten—several times! You can say I learned the craft of novel writing on the job. I started taking classes at GrubStreet and went through multiple revisions. Eden took me ten years to complete. In the midst, I was even so discouraged that I started writing another book. That would later become The Nine, my second novel, which came out last August.
Q: Would you like to add anything about The Nine and the writing of it?
JMB: Whereas Eden is a multi-generational family saga, The Nine is a contemporary literary thriller with three main characters set over a period of five years. It is a suspenseful book with a scandal on a New England boarding school campus keeping the reader turning the pages, but the core theme is, again, about motherhood. Instead of mother and daughter, The Nine focuses on the mother/son relationship.
Q: How did you find the Athenæum?
JMB: I have lived on Beacon Hill for 25 years with my husband who has lived on the hill most of his life. We raised our three children on Hancock Street and then Chestnut Street. I first discovered the Athenæum through the children’s story time and children’s library. It was a weekly treat for all of us. The librarians even assisted my children with research papers over the years! When I stopped working outside the home, I used the Athenæum as a refuge—a place to sit and write as well as to borrow many books. I am an avid reader and I absolutely love the collection.
Q: What appeals to you about the Athenæum?
JMB: The environment is like no other. There is a sense of history and tradition and something about the seriousness of study, reading, and research that is contagious.
Q: Any projects on the horizon you're able to talk about here?
JMB: Besides keeping up my blog, and writing book reviews, I am happily working on my third novel, which is set in contemporary New York City. Like my first two novels rich with biblical metaphor, this will be a modern retelling of the David and Bathsheba story. I had intended for this timeless story to be set against a #metoo backdrop and now, of course, it is set in the midst of a pandemic as well.