Interview with Jeanne Blasberg, Author of The Nine

Jeanne Blasberg’s recently released second novel, The Nine (She Writes Press), is a compelling modern-day tale inspired by the biblical story of Hannah and her son Samuel. In The Nine, Hannah wants nothing but the best for her only child, Sam. Prestigious Dunning Academy will open doors to an Ivy League college and more.

However, sending Sam away to boarding school at age fourteen is painful for Hannah, who wants to be privy to every aspect of his life. What Hannah doesn’t know is that Sam has been invited to join a long-standing secret society, the Nine, which gives him a sense of belonging. But the Nine is also his avenue to discovering and attempting to get to the bottom of an insidious campus sex scandal and, thus, potentially threatening his mother’s dreams for him.

The Nine skillfully crosses genres, providing readers with a coming-of-age story, a campus thriller, and an exploration of a poignant mother-son relationship.

Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men, calls The Nine “one of those suspenseful, highly addictive novels that keeps you saying, ‘Just one more chapter,’ until suddenly you’ve stayed up all night to finish it…”

Dead Darlings is pleased to interview Jeanne at the start of her busy launch of The Nine.

I noted that you participated in GrubStreet’s Novel Generator program and that you worked on The Nine during that program. How did that program help you write your novel, and how did your process for writing The Nine compare to your process for writing your first novel, Eden? What are a couple of key learnings from the program that have changed the way you write?

I think the biggest benefit of the Novel Generator was feedback from instructor Lisa Borders as well as an introduction to a great group of students. I continued to meet with some of those students in a writing group after the nine-month class, which is when I finally got the draft finished. Lisa helped me figure out where to start the action and gave me great suggestions regarding pacing with flashbacks. When I was writing Eden, I was basically alone in Switzerland and wrote without any feedback. The key takeaway for me since enrolling in classes at GrubStreet is that feedback early and often from trusted readers helps me to work more efficiently. I also got invaluable suggestions in classes with Sophie Powell, Henriette Lazaridis, and Michael Marano.

Readers and writers are always interested in where authors get their ideas. Two important threads of The Nine are Hannah’s over-parenting of Sam and Sam’s discovery of a sex-related scandal on campus. To what extent did current events influence your choice to write about these subjects and/or inform your evolving narrative?

Current events certainly influenced the narrative, making a covered-up sex scandal on a boarding school campus very plausible. While researching scandals on New England boarding schools, I found hardly one that came away unscathed. The betrayal of trust these revelations has caused between families and schools is very painful, and, I must admit, a certain measure of indignation inspired my writing.

While my children attended boarding school, speculation floated around our dinner table about secret societies, underground passageways, and even faculty who met in fraternity-like settings. My imagination took it from there. I was obsessed with juxtaposing a bucolic academic setting with its sinister underground. Similarly, I wanted to contrast an invested mother’s impressions of her son’s education with what was really going on. Portraying the helicopter mom was not difficult because these are the women I have parented alongside. I may have even been guilty of hovering at times.

Another theme that is not as prominent but still important to the novel is economic class difference. What was interesting to you about this theme, and what were you trying to illuminate by including this aspect in your story? 

My fictional Dunning Academy became increasingly diverse as girls were first admitted in the 1980’s, need blind admissions practices were established in the 2000’s, and more and more international students were admitted after the financial crisis in 2007. There still existed at the school, however, a class of student who was a legacy, having siblings or parents and grandparents who attended Dunning. There are families who aspire to have their offspring attend Dunning Academy, and then there are others who take it as their birthright. Sometimes differences are lost on the kids when they are in the classroom, but at other times it is glaringly apparent – on spring break, or with clothing brands, for example. Exposing the deep roots of privilege is important and something I really like to write about.

I am a sucker for a compelling plot, which The Nine delivers. But The Nine is also very character driven. Tell us a little about how you tried to balance plot and character development and what the challenges were.

When my first novel, Eden, was out on submission, I got feedback that there was too much interiority, too much emotional drama. So, I set out to make The Nine action-packed. After reading an early draft, I decided it was absolutely terrible and that my forte as a writer is in describing the nuance of character and portraying the struggles in relationships. Therefore, I beefed up the Hannah character and wrote her in the first person. The book became much more about the evolution of a mother/son relationship, and the sex scandal plot became secondary as far as I was concerned. I think it was a lot of revising and analysis of the structure that created the right balance in the end – and probably a good portion of luck!

Point-of-view (POV) is something many authors both struggle and experiment with. The Nine is written with three different POVs: Sam’s, Hannah’s, and Shawn, Sam’s dorm parent, with much greater emphasis on the first two. What made you decide to tell the story from all three people’s POVs? What do you think including Shawn’s POV adds? Your other key POV decision that intrigued me was to write Sam in the third person and Hannah in the first person. Why did you choose to do that?

I think I’ve already described why Hannah is written in the first person – to highlight the fact she is a loner and is struggling. She is often in her own head without many friends. I chose the third person for Sam primarily because I needed to describe the school, its surroundings, and the other students in his orbit, and I wanted to use bigger strokes than a first person POV would allow. I also didn’t want to write an adolescent boy in first person POV because I wasn’t comfortable with the language he would use and was concerned that his perceptions would be too limiting. There is a portion of the school’s underground that is unknown to Hannah and Sam, and that is where Shawn Willis comes in. I made him a POV character so that I could reveal certain realities of a teacher’s life. He is, after all, the dorm “parent,” the actual human being Hannah hands her son over to. And make no mistake, she finds him a disappointment – he’s practically a kid himself – a twenty-five-year old hockey coach, brand new to the school.

What were a couple of the biggest changes you made in The Nine as you revised, including any “darlings” you had to kill?

Hannah was a bit crazier in earlier drafts. I was in love with a scene where she hijacked the microphone at a college counseling meeting and began singing like it was a cocktail lounge. She did a few other inappropriate things on campus that my editor found quite disturbing. I thought I was adding that unexpected quirky ingredient to my character. She convinced me it wasn’t quirky; it was just weird.

Sometimes it’s the details that can make or break a novel. What kinds of research did you have to do to make The Nine feel authentic, including what you had to learn about equipment used to spy on others?

Good catch – the boarding school details were easy to come by…it was the details about robotics and spyware I had to research a lot. I read a lot about porn sites and the dark web and played a host of video games. I researched the MIT Robotics tournament and used the internet to look up different types of cameras. In the end, I asked a smart techie to proof the book for any glaring mistakes.

As someone who likes to write different kinds of stories, I love that The Nine is quite different in its focus and even its style from your first novel, Eden, which is more of an historical novel covering several generations of women. What might draw those who loved Eden to also enjoy The Nine, other than the fact that they were both written by you, and how are you positioning The Nine to appeal to that same audience?

You sound just like my agent, who has concerns about this topic! They are different books in terms of timeline and numbers of POV characters. In the end, I believe the books are both about motherhood and what happens when societal pressure butts up against maternal instinct. Both books have strong female characters who are struggling to do the right thing. Both books examine the ugly underbelly of a privileged class. They both have prevalent allusions to the Bible. The Nine is an allegory of the Hannah story in the Book of Samuel, and Eden has many references to Genesis.

As a second-time author, what lessons did you learn from marketing and promoting Eden that you can apply to The Nine? What did you decide to do differently this time around and why?

I was pretty happy with the way things turned out for Eden, and so I am in the lucky position of just hoping to execute on the same plan. I do have a better idea of how things are done now, which eases my mind – I can get in a constant state of hectic mind chatter, which isn’t as bad this go-round. I have met a lot of people in the last two years, and that makes things easier as well. I am not cold calling all the time. Maybe I’ll drive to a few less far-flung locations, but, really, I am loving this journey, and I will just keep saying “yes” to the opportunities.

Some writers find it difficult to write while they are a promoting their recently published work. You are someone who seems to manage both. Could you share your secrets for staying productive during those times?

I try to keep writing, even if it’s a few sentences or a paragraph on my WIP, first thing in the morning. Promo obligations generally occur in the afternoon or evening, and I usually can reserve the early morning hours to generate new work. In order to stay productive during very busy times, I make an extra effort to take care of myself. I drink less alcohol and caffeine, and I try to get to bed by ten p.m. I find if I’m well rested and able to get up around 6 a.m., I can get a ton accomplished. This might sound a little dorky, but it’s something basic that I can control. I have also invested in a part-time assistant. At first, it was somebody to help with social media, and now that I am in book promotion mode, my assistant helps with a host of tasks. As a hybrid published author, I evaluate such an investment as any entrepreneur would.

Finally, The Nine joins the pantheon of coming-of-age novels. What are a few of your favorite coming-of-age novels, especially any that may have been a part of your inspiration for The Nine?

I like to think of The Nine as joining the genre of campus novels and is definitely a category from which I garnered much inspiration. I even thought about Harry Potter with Hermione and Ron at Hogwarts when I fashioned Sam Webber having allies in Nathalie and Grabs. One of my favorite campus novels is Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld in that it touches on the underground goings-on at a school and what it means to leave home at an early age. I also really love This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman and Testimony by Anita Shreve in that they both featured strong maternal voices and the shitstorm that is created during a school scandal. The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy and Dead Poets Society by N.H Kleinbaum are also beloved classics that feature secret societies.

Jeanne Blasberg is a novelist, travel writer, and adventurer. Her debut novel, Eden, was the winner of the Beverly Hills Book Awards for Women’s Fiction as well as finalist for the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Fiction and Sarton’s Women’s Book Award for Historical Fiction. Blasberg sits on the boards of the Boston Book Festival and GrubStreet, one of the country’s preeminent creative writing centers. She and her husband have three grown children and split time between Boston, MA and Westerly, RI. You can learn more about Jeanne, her writing, and her upcoming events at www.jeanneblasberg.com.

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