Last February I wrote an article entitled "It's Not Britney, Bitch," in which I discussed Britney Spears's apparent waning enthusiasm for her own career and the fact that her formerly-estranged father had managed to wrangle a court-ordered permanent "conservatorship" over his daughter which granted him complete legal control over her life, indefinitely. "Conservatorships" exist for and are traditionally only granted to caretakers of severely ill individuals who lack the mental capacity to make their own medical decisions, such as elderly people with dementia. Yet somehow the temporary conservatorship that was granted in the wake of Britney's public meltdown had been extended, and extended again, and eventually made permanent. Essentially, her father is legally able to treat his daughter as a money-making machine indefinitely, which is exactly what he was doing. She had no free will. I felt this was a feminist issue that was being overlooked, and despite my general aversion to and disinterest in the private lives of heterosexual celebrities, Britney Spears has always felt strangely close to my heart. If you didn't read that article at the time, you should read it now, and then come back here. I'll wait.
Okay, so — when the publicist for Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Krauss wrote to say that Emma & Nicola had really liked my article and asked if I'd be interested in their new novel which "re-imagined the private journey" of how "Britney Spears, one of the world's highest grossing celebrities and Mom of two, is legally controlled by her father and future husband," I was like, OBVIOUSLY! You might know Emma and Nicola from their first novel, The Nanny Diaries, which I really enjoyed because it managed to be entertaining without being stupid (unlike a lot of other women's fiction that came out at that time).
Here's the novel's pitch:
In Between You And Me, twenty-seven-year-old Logan Wade has built a life for herself in New York City, far from her unhappy childhood in Oklahoma. But when she gets the call that her famous cousin needs a new assistant, it's an offer she can't refuse. Logan hasn't seen Kelsey since they were separated as kids; in the meantime, Kelsey Wade has become one of Fortune Magazines most powerful celebrities and carrion for the paparazzi. But the joy at their reunion is overshadowed by the toxic dynamic between Kelsey and her controlling parents. As Kelsey grasps desperately at a "real" life, Logan risks everything to try and give her cousin the one thing she has never known — happiness. But when Kelsey unravels in the most horribly public way Logan finds that she will ultimately have to choose between saving her cousin and saving herself.
All our feelings about celebrities are based on the packaged image we're sold and all its accumulated meanings. Between You and Me picks one of those packaged stories and digs underneath it to tell a new story that fits right in, even though it's often quite different than the story it was inspired by.
The thing about privilege is that although it can alter one's ability to feel sympathy for the privileged person's situation, it doesn't alter the fact that the privileged people are human beings with hearts and feelings and stuff too. I mean, they actually are human beings. I think we expect celebrities to be super-human, that somehow wealth should make heartbreak easier. And it does, in some ways (mostly I'm thinking about being able to afford a lot of massages, xanax and whiskey). But hearts all break the same way. Life isn't just money. Life is also people.
What turns me off about celebrity culture is how cruel it is to women, and how brutal and judgmental people can be about someone they don't know and will probably never even meet. Between You And Me does a great job of telling the story of what it's like on the other side in a really authentic humanizing way. The novel is fun and engaging and both slightly indulgent and surprisingly smart — it's the epitome of a perfect beach read.
The week before their book debuted (June 12th!), I talked to Emma and Nicola for over an hour about the novel, Britney Spears in general, the chick lit thing, The Nanny Diaries, the slings & arrows of being a young woman in a big city in your twenties, their writing relationship, writers they admire, and so much more! I couldn't include the entire interview here because it would be longer than the novel, but I did include most of it. So let's go!
First of all, I really like the book a lot. I read it in like two days.
Both: Oh my G-d.
Yeah, I know. I wasn’t expecting to finish it in one weekend, but I did. I even read it during a concert.
Emma: It must’ve been a terrible concert.
Well, it was an orchestra concert, so.
Nicola: It must’ve made for dramatic reading.
Yeah, it was definitely a different kind of score to the story than I imagine you had anticipated. So when did you guys decide to write about this? When did you decide this was a story that you wanted to tell?
Nicola: It started a couple of years ago. We talk every morning at eleven to check in and make a plan for the day — what we wanna accomplish that day, anything we've read — and we're lucky enough to do it in person. We kept coming back to this conservatorship, and once we started researching what the legal requirements for conservatorship was, it really blew our minds! It didn’t seem like Britney [Spears] fit the criteria in any shape or form. We got curious and started doing research. The more we delved into her family history, the more it seemed like her father was the last person who should be in charge of her indefinitely. We thought, "that’d be a great book."
There’s a scene where somebody looks up “conservatorship” on Wikipedia and I felt like I’d been through that same scene when I was doing research for an article I did on Britney's conservatorship. I was just stunned. And the article I wrote about it for our website ended up being like our most popular article of the year. And I was surprised that nobody knew about it.
Nicola: Yes! You wrote that article!?
Yes, it was me. [laughs] I was so surprised by the response to the article, that nobody seemed to know that this was happening.
Emma: It was spectacular. It was the only article we came across ever that addressed those issues. I think you really kept to it. It was the only piece looking at it through a feminist lens.
Nicola: Boys go through this kind of breakdown, like, Charlie Sheen was getting custody during that whole thing. We forgive the boys, and we let them get on with it, and we vilify girls. We just want to tear them apart and beat them until there’s nothing left!
Emma: As a culture, we’re so conflicted about female sexuality, period.
Nicola: Yeah, and we’re particularly conflicted about adolescent female sexuality, like the moment of becoming a woman — so when there are conference tables of people packaging that moment, it’s like throwing gasoline on the fire. It sells a lot, but it conditions the person at the heart of it to be receiving these conflicted, unresolved, strong emotions from a lot of the community! And it’s such a set-up, and so that’s something we’ve been wanting to write about for a long time.
We were also pulled into this idea when we found out that a lot of these young women have close family members as their assistants. It seems that when they have this unfortunately inevitable break of some kind as they struggle for their independence, however graciously, frequently their cousins have been their assistants. So, what would it really be like to be completely wrapped up in this — it wasn’t just something you were reading about, it was your own family? To have a deep understanding of what was going down, but no way to talk or do anything about it?
So how did you decide to tell the story through Logan [Kelsey’s cousin and newly-crowned assistant], that that was the voice you wanted?
Emma: When we started outlining we discovered that to tell the story first person from Kelsey's perspective would be unbearable. She’s going through these changes, she’s not a reliable narrator for her own life anymore. What would that be like for somebody who is just slightly outside of it — but can look at Andy and Michelle in an unvarnished way? She’d be a much better tour guide for the reader than Kelsey herself. It was challenging to have the protagonist just slightly outside the story, but we loved exploring this relationship and the idea that Kelsey would have an ally that would stand by her through this, no matter what.
Nicola: A huge part of the story that had really captivated us but was not being told was the story of a girl having her children taken from her. We felt this preceded her perceived breakdown, and it was so bizarre. It was really presented in the media that her children being taken away would resolve all her behavior. When we really looked at the timeline of what had happened, our theory strongly is that the breakdown that occurred was much more a response of a mother, and, we felt — a completely justified one — to having your children taken from you. She couldn’t be alone with her children for more than a few hours without someone observing them the entire time, and it’s so interesting that the world was so ready to see her as a crappy mom. She lost her children! She lost her son at a very young age!
Kelsey comes off as really sympathetic, that worked really well. Obviously, Britney Spears’ experience is pretty singular in terms of how much attention is paid to her, how she’s followed around — it’s not an experience any of us sort of spent much time thinking about or tried to sympathize with. Well, I have, because I’m obsessed with Britney Spears. Anyhow, when you wrote the outline how did you decide what parts of the story to make up and what truth to draw out, and were you concerned about being too close to the truth?
Nicola: The challenge is that some of the things that happened to Britney were SO dark and upsetting that we tried to find a balance between those stories, and also moments when she’d been unfairly portrayed or portrayed in a one-sided fashion — for example, when Britney performed at the VMAs, and she was so eviscerated for that performance, Justin [Timberlake] had come backstage right before the performance and she was really nervous and started to drink.
What if this was your best friend who just handled the moment were everything was on the line very badly as people do in all walks of life? People blow job interviews, people blow first dates. Sometimes you’re not your best ally. And so moments like that where we thought there was another side to the narrative, that’s what made us choose some of the moments and not others.
Emma: But, also at the moment that we started planning, there were a lot of young women going through this in public — like, say, Christina Aguilera – again, these women all have something in common: they all have their parents and families organized around their careers as children. Their parents live large as their kids become adults. It’s kind of really remarkable that Beyoncé has respectfully fired her father as her manager. It was quietly done, and she was very clear in the public and vocal about saying where the decision was coming from and what it was about and that it was necessary for her to mature as a person, as a woman and as an artist. It’s an interesting contrast. Again she wasn’t a Disney girl. Separating from your parents while you're growing up is hard for everybody, and of course Britney is the worst case scenario of that: You can't [separate.] Ever.
Obviously, it all seemed really authentic, your descriptions of everything behind the scenes. What kind of research did you do for that?
Nicola: We have some friends who were personal assistants in their early 20s who told us some great stories. We also watched some documentary footage of various tours, and we read articles from Rolling Stone, and then some of it was just from our own experiences, what it’s like to be in a different city every day, constantly flying, just imagining all of the logistical things that someone like Logan would have to be responsible for. That part was really, really fun to write.
So are you basically embracing the fact that it’s based on Britney Spears? I read a review that snarkily was like, "well, this is obviously based on Britney Spears," like they had just discovered it and were calling you out.
Emma: What we’re saying is that it’s our imagining of how she changes, of the journey, of how one can get to this point in their career where they’re literally owned by her father.
Nicola: To even have this kind of thing in place in this country...
Emma: Well, it’s set up for people who are invalids! It’s a sensible thing for people who need feeding tubes, but it’s not a sensible thing for people who are performing by themselves on a stage in front of 28,000 people. It doesn’t make sense.
Next: "The heroine's 'likability' became almost one of the the number one things we would be edited for during that time... it just didn’t feel like Jonathan Safran Foer was grappling with likability. Or ANY of our male contemporaries at that time."