Beacon Hill author Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg’s latest book, “The Nine,” explores the life of a helicopter mom, Hannah, and the brutal ins and outs of boarding school—with a biblical twist. Blasberg, who converted to Judaism 15 years ago, talked with JewishBoston about the novel, religion, creativity, parenting and her publisher, She Writes Press, which focuses on female authors.
Could you summarize the plot of “The Nine”?
Well-meaning helicopter mom Hannah Webber enrolls her son in the boarding school of her dreams, and he has no idea what awaits him. Neither of them have any idea what awaits him. And he gets wrapped up in a secret society, which is called The Nine. And that secret society is all for pulling pranks and poking fun at a very paranoid administration.
How did you carve out a writing career for yourself?
I’ve always written. My last professional writing gig was as a research associate at Harvard Business School. I did that for several years, and I loved the lifestyle it provided. That was just when I was starting to have a family, and I thought that writing was something that was flexible and on my time, and it would be the perfect vocation for the amount of time I wanted to be able to spend with my kids.
In order to stay sane, I was taking classes at night at the extension school at Harvard and other places, and was thinking about journalism or memoir writing. I started doing a lot of memoir writing at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I’m just a big believer in taking classes and all of the educational opportunities you get living in the Greater Boston area. I have also been a big reader my whole life, and I got this idea. I wanted to emulate the types of books I like to read, to tell you the truth.
How did you balance writing a novel with parenting?
I had to really learn the craft, and it took me a long time. But I did realize once my kids got older and they were away from home more of the time, you realize how much of your brain power, or how much of the real estate in your brain, is preoccupied with what’s going on in their lives.
In 2009, my youngest was just graduating from sixth grade, and my oldest was an 11th grader. We did a two-year stint in Zurich, Switzerland, and it was a beautiful thing, because every committee or every volunteer obligation I’d somehow taken on over the years, I just handed over. We got on the plane, and we lived in Zurich for two years. And in Switzerland, the mass transit is awesome, and so I wasn’t a chauffeur, either. And I really had much longer spans of time during the day, and I was determined that I was going to come back having made good use of that time.
My husband’s company has a Swiss office, and he was kind of having a mid-life crisis. He’s lived his whole life on Beacon Hill and he was like, “Really? I thought there was gonna be more than this.” It was either a sports car, an affair or a move to Switzerland, so I was like, “OK, we’ll go to Switzerland!” That was such a gift in many ways, and basically just a big, blank slate.
The other gift is that two years later, when we returned home, I really understood the beauty of not over-investing or over-committing to little things. I was always the person that people turned to, and I always said yes. Coming back to Boston, I was very, very picky about how I wanted to spend my time and what I would get involved in. I completely switched over from being kid-focused and kid-activity-focused and community-center-focused to getting more involved in the literary scene in Boston. I started taking classes at Grub Street; I’m on the board of Grub Street. I got involved with the Boston Book Festival, and I’m on the board there. And I started to really try to find my place or just to learn and to have peers and make friendships with people who had a more artistic and creative lifestyle.
Tell us about She Writes Press.
She Writes Press is a small, indie press that actually just won Indie Press of the Year. It’s located in Berkeley, California, and was started by a woman named Brooke Warner, who was with Seal Press. It’s a hybrid publishing model and it’s all female authors; that’s why it’s called She Writes Press. It’s got a feminist leaning. The model is that we make investments in our print runs, and that allows She Writes to accept a much broader range of manuscripts and take risks on unknown people. Brooke’s whole philosophy is that you shouldn’t have to have a huge platform and be famous in order for your story to be out there and considered important and readable. They have a high editorial standard. Obviously your manuscript has to be accepted and up to a certain standard. I worked with one of their editors for almost a year; there’s a coaching editorial component on the path to publication, even if you work with them. I would say that the profile of your average She Writes Press author is that 75% of us are doing an encore career, if you want to call it that. They’re typically over age 50, and typically have a really strong story they’ve always wanted to write.
Let’s talk about “The Nine” and Judaism, and how it plays a role in the story.
I converted to Judaism a little over 15 years ago. I took a lot of classes in that process. I studied texts and studied alongside my children’s Jewish education. And Judaism really provided a beautiful structure in terms of ritual and conversation topics in our family. It really filled a void in my life that I hadn’t had as a younger person growing up—the whole component of study and talking about text as it relates to our lives today was something we just did actively as a family. I continued to take classes with Rabbi Zecher at Temple Israel, a monthly class called “Modern Midrash.”
One of my great questions was when Hannah vowed to God that she would turn Sam over to the priest when he was weaned; how did she feel about that? She wanted a child so badly, but she was going to be satisfied with only holding him until he was weaned. That was also the point when I was starting to turn my kids over to the real world. The institution might’ve been the academy, but in some ways, when you’re putting your trust in a person, a man, an authority figure, a headmaster or a priest or whatever, you don’t know them that well. You have to take a lot on faith. Weaned can be when they’re suckled or when they’re ready to go. I took some liberties with the word “weaned,” but my characters in “The Nine” are Hannah and Sam. Hannah raises this son just like we all do as mothers and parents thinking anything’s possible.
I liked the idea of this very well-meaning, earnest woman who’s from a very modest place in life, hoping to launch her son to do great things. And she’s not a bad person. You’d look at her as someone who’s a helicopter mom today. It’s a little bit of how that label gets put on somebody and they’re stubborn about it. They want things to go a certain way. And for Sam, he goes to this place and he gets caught up in a world. His mom is under the impression he’s going to live out her Ivy League hopes and dreams, and he gets wrapped up into a situation, uncovers a crime and is more concerned with doing the right thing and solving this mystery—and his mother’s plans for him are the least of his concerns. So these two people are operating under a whole different set of assumptions of how this boy’s life is going.
What do you hope readers get out of the book?
You know how you say if you could just summarize the Torah, it would be, “Love thy neighbor?” This is kind of like, if you could take all the parenting books in the world and summarize them, it would be pretty similar. Love your child, but also love yourself. Don’t be so stubborn and accept what’s in front of you and practice some forgiveness. I know those sound like very general terms, but for Hannah, the danger isn’t so much this choice to send her child to the boarding school, but it’s kind of why she made the choice. And the reason she made the choice is to fill this emptiness inside of her, to kind of launch her child to a station that she felt she’d never been supported in as a child. So she was going to go on steroids with her own kid. The lesson really is to have some compassion toward parents. It’s easy to get stuck in these traps.
I wrote this book with maybe thinking of the way I wish I’d been. Maybe when my oldest was 14, I was a little bit of a Hannah Webber. I dedicated the book to my kids, and in a way it’s a huge apology letter to them, and maybe to all of their friends. We held the bar pretty high; we had a lot of high expectations and we also turned them over to a bunch of adults who weren’t always that fair and that nice.
Did your kids go to boarding school?
They went to three different boarding schools. My husband went to a fourth boarding school. I had a lot of crazy stories in my trunk of dinner table conversations. And I went to a big public high school in Southern California, so it couldn’t have been more different than my life, and I think that’s why I paid attention so closely.
Would you say you’re pro boarding school, or is this a cautionary tale?
I just wrote an essay about this. If I had to do it all over again, would I? I would have to say my kids got unparalleled educations, but they also had to grow up, or they had to deal with things without my support that I feel pretty badly about now. But at the end of the day, everybody’s OK. Would I do it all over again? I think without the rose-colored glasses, with a good degree of realism. Nothing’s perfect. Things often look like a beautiful, bucolic setting from a distance and it’s something you aspire to, but it’s just like anything when you’re there: The campus isn’t as beautiful, the faculty has weak links, the leadership is lacking in one way or another. When you put your hopes and dreams into something, there’s always going to be disappointment. If you have children who really want to go and whom you think are mature enough to handle it, and you can offer the support when they’re going to need it, then it’s a good choice. If I could live up to those caveats or those qualifications, I would do it again.
What was it like for you to convert to Judaism?
My husband is Jewish but didn’t grow up in a very religious family, and I grew up basically in a Christian family who didn’t practice any Christianity. And the conversion was kind of funny. I asked our rabbi what was involved with converting, and he was actually surprised I wasn’t already Jewish! I was so committed to my kids being at religious school every Tuesday and Sunday.
What I really do love about Reform Judaism is the liberal values, but it’s also the emphasis on education and that we’re all a community of learners together. I do like the fact that the family is first and the home is a sacred space and my Shabbat table is the altar, and we can practice this as a family.
When I went through the conversion, there were seven or eight steps the rabbi wanted me to follow, one being to keep kosher for a month, learn Hebrew up to a third-grade level, take a class and keep a journal. There were all sorts of steps, and the last one he said was, “And you must visit Israel.” And I said, “You must visit Israel? That’s a huge request. That’s a big trip, my kids are little and that’s expensive.” I was feeling like it might have been dangerous at the time. And he said, “Well, you really should go to Israel. You really have to accept Israel as a country.”
I had the most beautiful conversion ceremony, and Sunday night, the phone rings at the end of this beautiful weekend. It’s the captain of the U.S. Maccabiah team asking if I’d represent the U.S. in the upcoming Maccabiah games, because I’m a squash player. He asked, “Would you be willing to go to Israel this summer to play squash on the Maccabiah team?” And I said, “Absolutely!” I had no reservations. So then I was like, well, God got me to Israel after all. He, or she, just knew that I needed a squash tournament.