CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper/fiction writer, poet, photographer, & painter. CRC Blog is an INCLUSIVE & NON-PROFIT BLOG acknowledging ALL voices, ALL individuals, ALL political views, ALL philosophies, and ALL religions including Islamism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Agnosticism, Atheism, etc. She has a B.S. in Criminal Justice & completed her workshops required for her Master’s in Creative Writing. She lives in St. Louis.
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
#103 Inside the Emotion of Fiction "The Nine" by Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg
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****Jeanne Blasberg’sTHE NINEis #103 in the
never-ending series called INSIDE THE
EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris
Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction
genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.All INSIDE
THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece.
Name of fiction work? And were there other names
you considered that you would like to share with us? THE NINE. A classmate suggested this name during a workshop and it
stuck!Before that the working title was
“My Boarding School Book”
Has this been published? If yes, what publisher
and what publication date? She
Writes Press on August 20, 2019 (Left: Jeanne in January 2013)
What is the date you began writing this piece of
fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? Started it in January of 2013 and finished
Where did you do most of your writing for this
fiction work? And please describe in detail.Most of the writing happened in my home.I work at my desk every morning. (Below)
I workshopped chapters in class at GrubStreet (Left: GrubStreet logo),
a creative writing center in Boston, over the years.During the winter months, for the most part,
I wrote in Boston and during the warmer months I wrote in Westerly, Rhode
Island.My desk in Boston is in our
townhome in the city and my desk in Rhode Island has a beautiful view – which
sometimes makes it hard to stay put!!
What were your writing habits while writing this
work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and
paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I drink a lot of water, followed by a breakfast
smoothie and then coffee while writing long-hand in my journal.After writing three journal pages, I start
writing on my laptop. I work in Scrivener which allows me to write islands in
early drafts, I also like the ability it gives me to outline and write notes as
I am working on imagery and dialogue and character.
What is the summary of this specific fiction
work? Hannah Webber fears she will never be a mother, but her prayers
are finally answered when she gives birth to a son. In an era of high-stakes parenting,
nurturing Sam’s intellect becomes Hannah’s life purpose. She invests body and
soul into his development, much to the detriment of her marriage. She convinces
herself, however, that Sam’s acceptance at age fourteen to the most prestigious
of New England boarding schools overseen by an illustrious headmaster,
justifies her choices.
When he arrives at Dunning, Sam is glad to
be out from under his mother’s close watch. And he enjoys his newfound
freedom—until, late one night, he stumbles upon evidence of sexual misconduct
at the school and is unable to shake the discovery.
Both a coming-of-age novel and a portrait of an evolving mother-son
relationship,The Nine is the story of young man who chooses to
expose a corrupt world operating under its own set of rules—even if it means
jeopardizing his mother’s hopes and dreams.
Can you give the reader just enough information
for them to understand what is going on in the excerpt? This is the beginning of the novel, so I
believe very self-explanatory…
Please include just one excerpt and include page
numbers as reference. This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you
The first time I
heard Headmaster Williams speak the foreign phrase, I took it as a promise from
one parent to another. Later, I’d learn it was the law, but on that very first
day, when he touted in loco parentis as
one of the academy’s primary responsibilities, I gave the man credit for
comprehending a mother’s pain.
Even though I’d turned Sam over to Dunning
Academy five years prior, I recalled the headmaster’s speech like it had
happened yesterday: the way the Latin rolled off his Brahmin tongue, the way he
pushed his round tortoiseshell glasses high on the bridge of his nose, and the
way his tweed jacket stretched across the remnants of an athletic build. I see
now how clinging to his every word was a little ridiculous, but back then I
craned my neck, peering above the crest-adorned podium, to fully absorb his booming
Even though I’d
packed away my blind worship of the man along with everything else from my old
life, that memory of him was back.
You see, my new life
was only recently planted, hadn’t yet established deep roots, and I was
vulnerable to storms and floods, to the slightest gusts of wind. My safe harbor
was work, and a recent promotion to executive director of the Boys & Girls
Clubs had become an all-consuming endeavor. Thanks to the Internet, however,
even that couldn’t protect me.
I was thumbing
through insurance policies, waivers, and program schedules when my assistant
popped her head through the door. “I’m heading home now, Hannah,” she said.
I looked at her over
my reading glasses, then checked my watch. After conducting story time for our
youngest campers, I’d gotten lost in a pile of paperwork, hoping to make a dent
before the weekend. “Is it that time already?”
“Yes, it is,” she
said, with a wink, before rustling her purse from a file drawer. “You should
cut out soon too.” Not long after, her footsteps faded down the hallway, and
the only noises left were the kids’ cheers in the gymnasium. The club served
students who needed its supervised recreation desperately. They didn’t have
mothers waiting at home to greet them after school.
I brushed my unruly
hair into a clip and dug my yoga gear out of the closet. Joy and I had plans to
meet at a six o’clock class and then go to dinner. It had become our standing
Thursday date, one that I looked forward to not only for the companionship but
also for the benefits to my fifty-eight-year-old, deskbound body.
Before shutting down
my laptop, I checked email one last time, hoping for something from Sam.
Instead, a message from his former dorm parent, Shawn Willis, caught my
attention. The subject line read:
Re: Dunning, wanted to
make sure you saw this.
My hand floated back,
seeking the stability of my armchair as my body sank down into it.
Lou forwarded this to me. It was sent to the Dunning Academy community
yesterday. Be glad that it’s all behind you.
My eyelid resumed its
rapid twitching of the prior year, as if preparing for an onslaught of debris.
The email Shawn forwarded was addressed to Dunning families, past and present.
That we weren’t included on the original distribution was yet another sign that
the Webbers had been wiped from the school’s system.
I skimmed the words,
my vision dancing, wanting to take in the email’s whole meaning in one gulp. I
finally focused, drawn to the last paragraph:
As the Board of Trustees, we accept full responsibility for the
failures of those whose duty it was to protect the students. We recognize the
enormous violation of trust and the lasting wounds inflicted and endured.
I couldn’t believe
it. An admission of guilt by Dunning Academy?
My mouth turned dry,
and I reached for the water bottle in my yoga bag. I read the letter again. It
wasn’t signed by Headmaster Williams. He was long gone, and besides, he would
never have conceded such a thing.
That first afternoon
in the Dunning assembly hall, I had been mesmerized by his charismatic Kennedy
style—that toothy smile, his slicked-back dark hair, his wise
expression—welcoming us to some sort of Camelot. His assurances had allayed my
fears as I stood at the sink over the next three years, hands submerged in
sudsy water, my deepening worry lines reflected in the blackened bay window.
Although the thing I loved most about my old, simple kitchen was the doorframe
where I’d etched lines and penned dates chronicling Sam’s growth over the
years, I always remembered myself at that sink. Every Sunday evening, I’d be
scrubbing chicken drippings from a roasting pan and waiting for the phone to
Sam conditioned us
with well-spaced contact, our relationship hanging on a lifeline of weekly
phone calls. I’d kidded myself they were enough, and what a laugh that would
prove to be. I’d carry the phone past the space station model he’d left
half-finished in the family room, so that Edward and I could talk to him on the
speaker. I’d saved up so many topics for those calls and had needed, I realized
now, so much in return. I’d needed Sam’s happy voice to confirm that Dunning
Academy had been the right decision, to lighten the weight accumulating in my
Yoga. I closed the
laptop and left my office. On the car ride over, I recounted a guided
meditation and wondered if I might let my anger toward Headmaster Williams
float away like a helium balloon. It was a visual that had proved successful
over time with regard to my feelings for Edward, but I doubted there was enough
helium in the world to lift my resentment for the headmaster. And I vowed not
to bring it up at dinner either. Joy was a good friend, but I couldn’t burden
our Thursday night with any more of my history.
We’d met at the yoga
studio years earlier, and she’d come to my rescue after the divorce. She’d
pulled me from the deep recesses of my hard drive, a place where I stored
pictures of happier days, when Sam’s voice rang through the house and he needed
me to shuttle him to early-morning swim practice.
I’d fallen into the
habit of sifting through pictures, sometimes all the way back to the day my
miracle baby was born. I’d gotten pregnant right after our wedding, then
miscarried twice. We’d tried for many years before Edward agreed to see a
fertility specialist. Before our initial evaluation, however, I missed my
period. Edward attributed the healthy pregnancy to my leaving the bank, and to
reduced stress, but I was convinced it was prayer.
Sitting at a traffic
light, I wondered if somebody had forwarded the email to Sam as well. I
squeezed the steering wheel with one hand and twisted a loose strand of hair
with the other, recalling the gleeful afternoon when an email from Dunning
signified his acceptance. I’d gone so far as to pop champagne before supper,
celebrating not only his entry into an elite, rarefied world but also my job
well done. It had been I, after all, who had taken him to the library every
week and quizzed him with flash cards before vocabulary tests.
A week after we
celebrated, another email arrived from the school, to Edward’s address this
time, saying Sam hadn’t qualified for financial aid. Truth be told, I was
secretly pleased Dunning hadn’t lumped us among its neediest families. My
parents’ finances were the reason I’d remained in state for college, and it was
nice to think that, in Dunning’s opinion, at least, we had means.
Edward explained it
had nothing to do with our cash flow and everything to do with our balance
sheet. “It’s our zip code, Hannah.” If his parents hadn’t helped with the down
payment, rooting us in one of Boston’s western suburbs, we would never have
owned a home with so much value. I pleaded with him to figure something out.
His parents had seemed impressed when I’d called to tell them about Dunning.
“Maybe they’ll help with the tuition?”
Edward shook his head
at that idea, instead spending several nights armed with pad and calculator
beneath the glow of his desk lamp. He finally jostled me awake, having
determined we could swing it if I tightened things further and worked
additional hours. I wept into the pillow, forgiving him, if only momentarily,
for having never become the provider he could have been.
Edward grumbled when it was time to send in
the tuition deposit, but I shushed him, not wanting Sam to carry any added
pressure. How foolish I’d been back then, thinking our biggest sacrifice was
As I prepared for his
departure, I ignored the naysayers. There were my sisters back in Ohio,
conservative Jews with ten children between them, mystified about why I’d send
Sam away, especially after how hard it was to have him in the first place. They
never understood how things were done in this educated corner of New England.
“It’s Dunning,” I
explained. “When one has an opportunity to attend, one doesn’t decline.” It was
a phrase I’d overheard while waiting for our interview in the admissions
office. What I’d never voice was my premonition that Sam was destined for
something extraordinary and that it was my duty, as his mother, to set him on
the right path.
The mothers of Sam’s
middle school classmates didn’t know what to make of me either; I was a decade
older because of the trouble we’d had conceiving. They never invited me to
their girls’ nights or book clubs, or whatever other excuses they came up with
to drink wine away from their children midweek. Still, their doubting
expressions sometimes gave me pause. I had to remind myself of Dunning’s place
in history, the caliber of men counted among its alumni—Supreme Court justices
and US senators, for goodness’ sake.
inhale, exhale.” The yoga teacher chanted her prompts. “Let go of your day. If
your mind is racing, come back to your breath.” I filled my lungs, then emptied
them through my nostrils, wrestling with the hold Williams had on me. It was as
if he’d looked directly into my eyes the day Edward and I dropped off Sam and
sat among the two hundred other parents who’d bought into a name-brand
education, and delivered a personal message to me.
He’d said his
daughter, Mary, would be a member of the class as well, as if that meant he
would pay extra attention to this crop. He said it was time for us to wean our
children, that, despite our belief to the contrary, they were ready to get on
with their promising futures. It was time to stop helping with their homework
and reviewing their essays. He also pressed us not to fall prey to their
homesickness, their inevitable frantic calls. “You mothers will be particularly
vulnerable to the distress in their voices,” he warned. “But don’t you worry—we
are experts in the business of teenagers. Give us six weeks, and they’ll be
well on their way.”
When he remembered my
name, I was convinced. “Thank you for entrusting Sam to us, Mrs. Webber,” he
said, holding my gaze for an extra beat before Edward guided me out, his hand
on the small of my back.
On the drive home, I
double-checked the literal translation of in loco parentis with
Edward. “In place of a parent,” he told me. Headmaster Williams never
specified, I realized later, which kind of parent—the kind who gets down on the
floor and puts on puppet shows or the kind who forgets her child in an
Not until later would
I recall the way Edward winced when I portioned out the three flutes of bubbly
to celebrate. The problem was, he never articulated his concerns. I chalked up
his lack of enthusiasm to the fact that he’d also come of age in these East Coast
prep schools and couldn’t truly appreciate what a leg up he’d been given. I
assumed it was the money and that he’d miss having another man around the
house. I can’t help thinking now that there was something else he knew,
something I’d have no way of understanding, about the enigma of boarding
schools, how strange they could be. Now that they are in the news day after
day, featured in more stories of misconduct and cover-ups, I wonder what he
chose to keep private.
But I can’t cast the
blame on Edward. When I put my mind to something, there’s no stopping me. I saw
the Forbes ranking of the best high schools in the
United States, and I wouldn’t settle for anything less than Dunning Academy for
When the yoga class
ended, Joy and I dressed in the changing room. I followed her car to the
restaurant, and when we entered, she cast animated eyes toward the active bar.
It wasn’t until we were seated that she furrowed her brow with concern. “Okay,
what’s going on?” she asked. “You’re in another world.”
A server stopped at
our table. “You ladies want the usual?”
“I’ll need a minute,”
I said, holding my menu. When she moved along, I said to Joy, “I’m sorry. I got
an email before leaving the office.”
“Just let me see.”
Joy held out her hand for my phone, as if she’d be able to read it, decipher
its meaning, and categorically dismiss whatever was bothering me so we could
get on with our evening.
“No, it’s okay. I’m
fine.” I couldn’t explain that it was Dunning and the headmaster again; it was
the damned hypocrisy.
“Fork it over,” she
I felt around in my
purse, knowing she wouldn’t back down. Pulling out my phone, I noticed Sam had
texted: “Call me when you can.”
The hairs on my
forearms stood straight up. It wasn’t Sunday. He must have seen the email too.
“I’m so sorry, Joy. I
need to go out to the parking lot to return a call.”
I navigated the crowd
at the bar toward the exit, dialing Sam’s number en route.
“Mom?” He picked up
“Sam? Are you okay?”
My heart cratered at
his crackling voice, at the distance between us. I leaned against the hood of
my car and asked, “Did you see the email?”
He cleared his
throat. “Yeah. That’s why I texted.”
“Shawn forwarded it
to me. I read it briefly on my way out of the office.” I couldn’t predict
whether he would feel angry or vindicated. Likely both.
“They’ve hired a special
counsel and set up a process where victims can come forward to make reports.”
“But not you?”
“No, Mom. Nathalie
and Astrid and some of the other girls in Bennett want to.”
Why was this an
acceptable time to come forward? Just a year earlier, when Sam had had
something to say, it had stirred up a tsunami.
“Right. Of course. Of
course they should make a report. Absolutely,” I stammered. “But…”
“I worry about you.
Opening old wounds after you’ve come so far.”
“I know, but it’s
time for the girls to seek justice.”
I put my hand to my
temple, remembering how, not so long before, Dunning’s lawyers had browbeaten
us. Would they really receive Nathalie and Astrid any differently?
“I might be called on
to make a statement.”
“And the Crandalls?”
After a brief pause,
Sam chuckled. “I never thought I’d live to hear you concerned about them.”
Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a
writer to write? And can you describe your own emotional experience of
writing this specific excerpt? I was inspired to write THE NINE by my childrens’ experience
at boarding school and the blind faith I assumed “handing them over” to an
austere institution.Even though I am
very different from Hannah Webber, I used my emotional memory of betrayal and
disillusionment when writing which definitely struck a chord of personal regret. (Left: clip from a film teaser on The Nine)
Were there any deletions from this excerpt that
you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up
rough drafts of this excerpt. The first chapter was the last thing I wrote.I went through a zillion iterations of the
beginning… I knew I wanted to tell the story as a retrospective, but I had a
hard time figuring out how far in the future it would be.
Other works you have published? EDEN (She Writes Press, May
Jeanne Blasbergis the author ofEden, winner
of the Beverly Hills Book Awards for Women’s Fiction and finalist for both the
Benjamin Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Fiction and the Sarton Women’s
Book Award for Historical Fiction.Edenwas
released in May 2017 by She Writes Press.
After graduating from Smith College, Jeanne embarked on a career in
finance. Even as she worked primarily with numbers, she always had an interest
in writing. She made stops on Wall Street, Macy’s, and wrote case studies at
Harvard Business School before turning seriously to fiction. She has kept a
journal throughout her life, eventually taking inspiration from her childhood
writings to pen her first novel,Eden.
Jeanne is the founder of the Westerly Memoir Project as well as a board
member of theBoston Book Festival. She is a student and board member ofGrub Street, one of the country’s pre-eminent
creative writing centers where she wrote and revised her second novel,The Ninewas released byShe Writes Pressin August 2019.
Jeanne and her husband split their time
between Boston, MA and Westerly, RI. They love to travel, hike, ski, and spend
time on the water. She caught the travel bug during a three-year stint in
Europe. She’s found that her power of observation is the strongest on foreign
soil, providing ample inspiration for her personal essays and travel writing.