Arts & Culture

Jennifer Blowdryer: How to Write the Great American Novel While on Food Stamps

Jennifer Blowdryer revels in those truths about ourselvesthat we’d rather not hear. While that is ostensibly the job of every writer, few do it with such grace, aplomb, and lack of restraint. Part Emily Post andpart Morton Downey, Jr., Blowdryer’s subjects … Read More

By / February 12, 2009

Jennifer Blowdryer revels in those truths about ourselvesthat we’d rather not hear. While that is ostensibly the job of every writer, few do it with such grace, aplomb, and lack of restraint. Part Emily Post andpart Morton Downey, Jr., Blowdryer’s subjects are punk-rock Artful Dodgers andMalcom MacLaren-worthy bastards, lovable and loathable in equal doses, peoplewho take a free drink when they’re given one and scam one when they’re not.

The protagonist of her latest book, The Laziest Secretaryin the World, is named Latoya (she’s white). She’s alternately pathetic andbrilliant, a powerhouse at drinking, social analysis, and anything thatinvolves the bottom-most echelon of pop culture. Latoya could write for McSweeney’sbut instead makes fun of tabloid celebrities. She daydreams of the limitlessvariety of frozen dinners, having an unlimited cash flow, and of beinginterviewed on a daytime talk show, answering difficult questions with, "Merv,even if I had a million dollars, I would still buy Butterfingers and M&Ms.I mean, what could possibly replace them?"

Blowdryer's restless youth: as lead singer of new-wave band The BlowdryersWhen Laziest Secretary begins,Latoya is a secretary for a has-been manager who produces a slowly decayingbrass band and the world’s worst production of Annie. She would be afixture at the local bar, except that all the barflies are terminally hittingher up for a drink, and vice versa. Before long, Latoya trades one form ofservitude for another, and she’s on a plane to Seoul,bound to marry a man she’s never met, with the prospect of being richer thanshe’s ever been.

It doesn’t take long for the scheme to blow up in Latoya’sface, of course, and Blowdryer does a credible job of playing with tension anddanger and intrigue, although, like everything else in Latoya’s life, thethreat of being arrested pales next to the greater threat of breaking her cool.We caught up with Ms. Blowdryer at her improbable, tiny-but-certifiably owned EastVillage walk-up.

What was it like to write Latoya? She’s a combination ofa lot of things — the person who says the things that everyone’s afraid tosay, craftiness, and utter sloth. She’s also constantly critical of her weightand her own slovenness. How much of her is you? How much of her is the type ofperson you despise?

I was in my mid-20s when I originally wrote Secretary,full of piss and vinegar. There’s this window of time that it is best to bereally snarky, from maybe 15 to say, 34. I’ve always been blessed with nothaving an internal censor, so I had no problem taking the worst aspects ofmyself and blowing them out of proportion.

She’s an antihero, bragging about her size and sloth, tryingto get by with a minimum of effort. I read a lot of satirists growing up,writers like Peter DeVries, Vonnegut, and the early National Lampoon crowd, andthey had no problems lavishly rolling around in what we’d call "characterdefects" nowadays.

I don’t despise Latoya. I had times when I was a greatbeauty, times when I was fat and poor and not considered viable for non-gaymale attention. In real life one knows that one is supposed to view one’sfellow beings with compassion and depth, not as instruments to use forappetizers, but I’ve certainly been around enough flaming junkies to know thatthis is not always how one conducts one’s business.

I know Laziest Secretary has a crazy publishinghistory, but what happened exactly?

I was in Columbia’swriting MFA program, something nobody would admit to for many years due to the"I suffered MORE" phase of Caucasian cultural development, which is hopefullycoming to a timely close. Kim Wozencraft, author of Rush,was also there learning how to write fiction-because she couldn’t writenonfiction about a crime she’d been convicted for, due to the Son of Sam laws. Shehad done some time, and was forced to write literary fiction in order todescribe it. She was also working as a temp, and while she was at DC Comics sheput the book on the desk of Mark Nevello, who was running an imprint called The Laziest Secretary: Down with her job..He thought my manuscript was really funny, and got in touch with me.

It was a thin novel, illustrated, and was sent only to comicbook stores. They used my real name, which nobody knew, and I wrote my ownauthor description, which mainly said that I was a parolee. I thought that wasfunny for some reason. Poor Mark didn’t know enough to correct me. It was alsoabout 13 bucks, a lot for a slim novel written by an unfamous person found onlyin comic shops. It tanked.

Did it kill you to see-or hear about-the print run beingdestroyed?

It kind of sucked to learn that all the copies of my bookhad been pulped. I always wanted to reissue the book, because it seemed likewhen people who didn’t read much got a hold of Secretary, they reallyliked it. I met with Andy Helfer, who was brought in when Mark was fired. Andyhad a better idea of what to do with a DC imprint and started Vertigo. He wasalso kind, and after gently telling me that all my books had been pulped, hereversed the rights so that I could do whatever I wanted with my own text.

What was the process of working with an artist like? Didit freak you out to hand over your work to someone and just hope they didn’tmess it up?

When we decided to reissue Secretary, I got Beppi todo it. She is amazing, intuitive, and works with her sister Mary Knott. Theyboth live in Baltimoreand have senses of humor. They had a comic called Pretty Beaver and theseamazing t-shirts…Mary would come up with the phrase and Beppi would draw it.I’d walk down a street in Londonand have people praising my t -shirt, so I had the utmost respect for her.

I’m pretty happy with these drawings. There is no way tomake a profit on this book, but I just always wanted people to be able to readit and to have a low price. It’s hard to get it in bookstores, as there is no distributionand no budget for publicity or reviews. This is kind of standard anyway, booksjust don’t make money, even big publishers don’t know how to deal with it. Itwas still nice of Zeitgeist to do it, and I love a lot of their books.

The next book I’m doing is going to be translated into atleast German and Japanese, because we of the Americashave ceased to be a book buying public.

Are any of the barflies (or the heroin dealer) based onreal people?

The barflies, junkies, and even the guys on the JerseyShore are based on realpeople. I was socially raised by people who were constantly getting kicked outof places.

Did they ever see the finished product?

Yep, Diet Popstitute read it, so did the junkie, and so didthe leather guys in Jersey. One of them wascalled Mike Dragon, and his elderly mother read it as well, and raved about it.That’s when I started to think that it had a broad appeal that classypublishing types had no idea of. My friend Juggernut, who never reads, just readthe [reprinted] Zeitgeist copy twice, really slowly, and loved it to death.What a WASP editor finds beneath contempt, an average mistake-making,hard-living American finds to be utterly true.

Onstage, you routinely offer tips to collect SSI and you hypethe virtues of not having a day job. What’s your philosophy about money?

I have a disconnect with money. I like stuff, but I’mhorrible at business. For years I had a crippling depression coupled with somekind of neurological logic challenge, and had to drop out of society except forworking for thuggish women now and then. For some reason they were able toregard me as a trustworthy Girl Friday, which I really am, but they were theonly ones who saw it that way.

I believe that FDR created what the Republicans areominously calling "Entitlement Programs" when he created the New Deal. It wascreated so senior citizens didn’t starve during the Depression, but it also wasbased on the idea that society should take care of people who can’t take careof themselves. I’m in favor of SSI and SSD, and Food Stamps. The craziest andmost physically disabled often don’t have the tools to deal with bureaucracyand get the help they need. They’re too inconsistent, or missing a leg, orparanoid, and they need tips on how to get help. I figure if I’m fun and verypublic, and show I’m not ashamed to be, um, mentally interesting and oftenparalyzed, I can take some of their shame as well.

I see money only as a way to keep a roof over my head andget more stuff. I mostly just want cheap stuff anyway. I prefer it. JoanCollins said that the best jewelry is either very expensive or very cheap.

Do you think "Laziest Secretary" has a moral?It kind of feels like a really twisted Aesop’s fable….

Nah, there’s no moral, just exaggerated realism and Americana.Similar to my tattoo choice, a Chai sign, because I lost the gold Chai signnecklace my grandma Palley gave me. It’s on my back, along with a logo for someband I never saw.