A new coming-of-age novel takes inspiration from 1970s Baltimore
By PJ Feinstein
Jessica Anya Blau might not have written “Mary Jane,” her new coming-of-age novel, if it weren’t for a chance conversation at a small gathering a few years back.
“I was talking to a woman who told me that she (had been) the summer nanny for a psychiatrist in upstate New York, and that a celebrity and his celebrity wife were living on the third floor secretly for the summer,” said Blau, who is Jewish.
Blau pressed the other party guest for details: “Did you have dinner with them?” “What did you talk about?” To her astonishment, the woman could hardly remember anything about her teenage experience. That’s when Blau knew she’d have to make up the story herself.
“I had to create it because I wanted to live it. I wanted to have been her and have done that,” she says. “I had to create that life for a character.”
In Blau’s story, the summer nanny is a sheltered 14-year-old named Mary Jane, and the celebrities are a Keith Richards-like rock star trying to get sober and his movie star wife. Working for a progressive family in 1970s Baltimore and seeing firsthand a world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, Mary Jane’s eyes are suddenly open to a different type of lifestyle than she had ever considered for herself.
“We all remember [age] 14, when you realize that the way things are in your house really aren’t the way things are in everybody else’s house,” Blau said. “It’s when you start to figure out who you are by what you like.”
Music plays a key role in helping Mary Jane discover who she wants to be. For inspiration, Blau listened to Billboard’s Top 100 songs of 1975 as she wrote, enjoying old favorites from the Bee Gees, Joni Mitchell and Earth, Wind & Fire.
“I love music from the ’70s,” Blau said. “I like the time period. I like the music, and I even like the clothes.”
When Blau was deciding where “Mary Jane” should take place, Roland Park was an easy choice. The West Coast–bred writer moved into the well-established planned community during graduate school, then stayed in the area for 20 years — writing books, teaching creating writing at Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College and raising a family.
“In Southern California, it was such a beach culture that to go to these old neighborhoods that have rules and bylaws, it’s a big difference,” Blau said. “The private school, country-club world was interesting to me.”
Setting her story in Roland Park, and namedropping neighborhood mainstays such as Eddie’s of Roland Park, was also a way for Blau to honor one of her all-time favorite authors.
“I loved Anne Tyler’s books, and many of them take place in Roland Park,” she said. “I have characters in Roland Park going to the same market that her characters go to, so there’s this way in which I’m just paying tribute to her.”
This originally ran in Baltimore Style.