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Jessica Anya Blau's third novel updates 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'

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Talk about tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Jessica Anya Blau is the Baltimore author who memorably mined her experience growing up in a freewheeling bohemian family in her first two novels, "The Year of Naked Swim Parties" and "Drinking Closer to Home." "Swim Party," in particular, made a splash, ending up on a couple of national "best of" lists.

In her third novel, "The Wonder Bread Summer," which is being released Tuesday, Blau explores the Southern California counterculture of the 1980s through the eyes of 20-year-old Allie Dodgson.

If Blau's heroine brings to mind a creation of the 19th-century British author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and a surreal world in which a mushroom makes people first grow big and then small — well, that's strictly intentional.

In Blau's updating, Allie is a straight-laced 20-year-old college student who almost accidentally finds herself in possession of a Wonder Bread bag full of cocaine. With only a white rabbit's foot to bring her luck, Allie goes on the run and tangles in turn with a hit man named Vice-Versa, a paraplegic producer of pornographic movies, a surfer nicknamed Sex Wax and a rock star.

"My novels are all about being untethered," says the 40-something author, who was raised in Santa Barbara. She moved to Baltimore in the 1990s when she was accepted into the graduate writing program at the Johns Hopkins University.

"My novels are about girls who, for better or worse, don't have anyone to contain them or hold them in place. They're about girls who have to figure out on their own how to navigate the world."

Your first two books have been inspired by your own experiences. "The Wonder Bread Summer" doesn't feel as autobiographical.

This novel is definitely fiction. But as odd as the whole story is, most of the characters and events existed in some form in real life. For instance, when I was in college at Berkeley, I stayed in town for one summer, and I desperately needed a job. One night, I went to a bar with my best friend, and we met someone who offered us jobs at his boutique. No customers ever came. Mostly, we tried on clothes and danced in front of the mirrors. He tried to pay us in cocaine, which I wouldn't take. He also tried to talk us into going into the sitting room and taking off our clothes while he [engaged in a sex act]. I wouldn't do it, but my friend actually did it once.

Around that same time, a guy I knew at Berkeley came running into my apartment one day with a bread bag full of cocaine. I said, "Dan, where did you get that?" He never told me, but I had the feeling someone was after him. I didn't want it in my apartment, and I made him leave.

It was a time in my life when I had absolutely no common sense, but somehow I had enough sense not to do certain things. It made me wonder where someone had to be in her head to make horrible decisions. What's going on in your life when you get into a quagmire and you make wrong choice after wrong choice?

So how did you end up channeling the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat and Queen of Hearts?

I didn't intentionally start out to write the novel that way. But, when my agent read one of my drafts, she said, "This is just like 'Alice in Wonderland.' " Once she pointed out all the connections, I ran with the concept. The next time I revised, I began to pull things out and heighten the similarities.

I didn't change a single character, but I changed some of the language around the characters. For instance, my main character was already named Allie, and she already had a rabbit's foot key chain. I just made it a white rabbit's foot key chain.

I really love "Alice in Wonderland," so the idea could have been brewing away for a while underneath the surface.

Maybe what threw me off is that Allie is half-African-American and half-Chinese, and you're not, so this doesn't feel like your story.

I do feel like Allie is me internally. I have some recessive Chinese traits, and I'm — partly Chinese.

It's true that I don't have any African-American heritage. But, when I was growing up, we were the only Jewish family in a very WASP-y town. My sister is very dark-skinned, dark-eyed and dark-haired. She was frequently taken as Mexican at a time when there was a lot of racism.

But I'm much lighter, and I flew under the radar. I wanted to write about what it was like to be out in public passing as someone who is different from who I really and truly am.

Since Billy Idol is a character in your book, I was wondering if you'd met him in real life.

No, I haven't. And one of the first things my editor said when she read my book is, "We have to change Billy Idol's name."

I said, "No, I love Billy Idol." I've watched interviews he's given and read his bios, and he just seems like this sweet, nice guy who likes to have fun. I think of him as one of the heroes of my story.

So we sent the manuscript up to the HarperCollins Legal Department. A couple of months later, I got a note back saying that as long as Billy Idol isn't promoting any drug abstinence programs and if we didn't mention him in the advertising, it was OK for me to use his name in the novel.

How did you become a writer?

I was a quiet kid who sat in a room and watched everybody and was interested in how they operated, what they did and said. My dad would always say, "Jessie can be in the room, and you'd never even know she's there."

I kept diaries, dozens of diaries, from the time I learned how to write at age 6 or 7. I wrote about what I'd done that day, but also this narrative of what I'd seen and observed. I wrote scenes and dialogue.

Now I'm on the board of 826DC, a place in Washington that tutors kids and teaches them writing skills. Some of these kids come from horrible situations, and we try to show them that narrating your life helps you clarify your own story. You write the narrative, and at the end you start to understand what you're feeling.

That's why it's so important to keep these writing programs in the schools.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"The Wonder Bread Summer" will be released Tuesday by Harper Perennial. $14.99, 260 pages.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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