Like many budding writers, Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg kept a journal as a child. But while most children write about imagined fantasy realms or confess secret crushes, Blasberg was more interested in observing and documenting the world around her. In early adulthood, she was drawn to memoir, and as her writerly instincts sharpened, she began writing fiction. “I took a stab at going deeper into exploring family dynamics with long-form fiction,” Blasberg says. “I drew on personal experience while striving for universality. I became a writer because I wanted to make connections with readers and share ideas.”
Blasberg’s second novel, The Nine—out in August from She Writes Press—focuses on a mother’s relationship with her teenage son. The story alternates between the two characters’ perspectives as they grapple with a sexual abuse scandal at a revered boarding school. “I decided to tell this boarding school drama—this archetypal campus novel—partially from a mother’s point of view,” says Blasberg, whose first novel, the award-winning Eden, was published in 2017. “I’ve studied this genre but never really saw a mother’s angst imparted the way I wanted.”
In addition to grappling with the ugly side of prestige, the novel explores the hyper-involvement of today’s parents in the lives of their children. “Quite often, what happens to a child ‘happens’ to the entire family,” says Blasberg, who was focused less on the story’s conflict thanon her characters’ responses, thoughts, and behaviors. “I wanted to build a plot not only around an earth-shattering event but also around the psychological fallout,” Blasberg says. “It’s the fallout that I find most compelling.”
Blasberg says that when she’s creating characters, she’s greatly influenced by the individuals she encounters in life. Additionally, raising her three (now-adult) children—who attended boarding schools—was an instrumental source of inspiration. “While I was inspired by real people,” she says, “I have a true penchant for exaggeration and creating grotesquerie, thus my transition from memoirist to novelist.”
Still, real life often finds its way into fiction, and Blasberg didn’t need to look very far for information about sexual abuse scandals. “I read lots of articles and watched movies and documentaries,” she says. “The Boston Globe ‘Spotlight’ team was uncovering private school scandals in real time as I was revising my novel. Among my friends who are parents of teens in Boston, a feeling of betrayal was certainly in the air. The scandal in The Nine does not replicate one specific event, but it is similar to what’s been alleged and exposed.”
Blasberg also drew on her impressions of the culture of New England boarding schools when writing the novel. “Even before all the stories were in the news, I had personal interactions at boarding schools that left me conflicted,” she says. “They are gorgeous institutions and impressive in so many ways, yet they are also strange. I went to a large public high school in Southern California, so I couldn’t help entering this slice of New England with a bit of awe and, later, disillusionment.”
Another timely aspect of The Nine is its examination of the pressures parents put on themselves and their children around private school and college acceptance. “I wrote this book for parents who are stuck, unable to see beyond the college admissions process,” Blasberg says. “They sacrifice so much happiness and jeopardize their most important relationships just as crucial parenting years are slipping away. The true message of The Nine comes down to acceptance, forgiveness, and love.”
With her second book finished, Blasberg is at work on a new novel that connects the worlds of The Nine and Eden. “Just as Eden references Genesis and The Nine alludes to the book of Samuel,” she says, “this third novel will be a modern allegory of the Bathsheba and David story.” And Blasberg hasn’t given up a time-honored step in her creative process: she begins all of her writing projects by recording her thoughts and observations—in longhand—in her journal.