Since this is my debut as a blogger for the library, I’ve been thinking about the inspiration for “Sloppy Firsts,” my first novel published nearly twenty-one years ago.
I was born and raised on the Jersey Shore. (Pause for a fist pump.) When you grow up being told you reside in the armpit of the nation, you have to learn to laugh at yourself. As a teen, I joked with out-of-staters about my brave defiance of classic “Joisey” stereotypes. I wasn’t related to any charismatic mobsters, for example. I didn’t murder the pronunciation of the word “water.” And I never sprayed my bangs into a parabolic claw that could take even the most jaded high school geometry teacher’s breath away.
There’s a reason why “write what you know” is an enduring piece of advice for aspiring authors, especially when we’re starting out. It’s no coincidence that Jessica Darling–the protagonist of “Sloppy Firsts” and the four books that follow–also uses a sarcastic sense of humor as a defense mechanism. She snarks about coming of age in a “strip mall wasteland” before anyone else can beat her to it.
Hailing from the most densely populated state is certainly a mixed blessing. Yes, it can be overcrowded and gridlocked, but the throng is an incredibly diverse one. New Jersey is jam-packed with fascinating characters, making it an ideal setting for storytelling. New Jerseyans are often portrayed as flawed underdogs striving for a better way of life. Consider Phillip Roth’s literary alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, or Tracy Flick from Tom Perrotta’s “Election” and its newly-published sequel “Tracy Flick Can’t Win.” These anti-heroes aren’t the traditional champions readers root for, which makes their struggles all the more fascinating to follow.
Back in 2001, I never imagined my novel about a bored sixteen-year-old toiling at a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Heights boardwalk would go on to be translated into German, Japanese, Hungarian and eleven other languages. Evidently, readers from all over the world–even those who’ll never understand the difference between the parkway and the turnpike–can see themselves in stories set here. And that relatability guarantees the great Garden State will continue to inspire first-time authors for generations to come.
From the beaches to the pine barrens and the McMansion sprawl in between, check out this list of classic and brand new debut novels set in New Jersey.
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