I feel like lately, especially in feminist communities, the idea of privilege comes up a lot, there’s the ‘white people problems’ meme, everybody calling out Girls for being too privileged. You too, with The Nanny Diaries and then here, talk about people who do have a lot of privilege — how do you make a sympathetic and relateable story about such incredible privilege?
Emma: Going all the way back to The Nanny Diaries and going all the way back to being nannies in our early 20s, we were endlessly fascinated with situations that should work perfectly. When you look at them from the outside, everyone here should be so happy. They have everything! But everyone is so miserable. That, to us, is the making of great drama. If you look at people in a situation where, oh look, they’re all sitting in a bucket, of course they’re unhappy —
They’re all sitting in a bucket?
Emma: It’s good drama. It’s the disconnect that makes for an exciting story for us. So whenever there is privilege squandered, we’ll be there.
Do you ever imagine what would happen if Britney ever read your book?
Emma: I hope she would like it.
Emma: Yeah we have hashed into it. We think she would like it.
When you were working on it did you think about things like what people from her camp might think about it? Or did you just...not?
Nicola: We didn’t want to get paralyzed. We wrote it from such a place of love and admiration and then we tried to tell the best story that we could.
Emma: And it's a story. There isn’t a Logan in real life, which we know. We did the work up front to follow the essence and spirit of the journey but it is our imagining, it is different, there are lots of differences... and the kind of strength it would take to survive this journey is kind of mind blowing. And, no, it’s not serious. It’s not the projects. It’s its own unique thing, but I look at someone like that and think -- "They’re not happy. Why aren’t you happy?" I’m curious about that. And if you’re not curious about it and extreme privilege then this may not be your book.
The voice ends up being really consistent — the dialogue. You could tell who was talking based on how they talked. That's always so hard for me, how do you do that?
Emma: This was the hardest book for us, which is saying a lot. Creatively, I think, we were so anxious about doing justice to the story, it was so much thinking, structurally, to tell the essence of the story and have it be a strong story. And I think... just, logistically, to have scenes or so many pages where there are always four or five people in the room so it was SO hard. I mean Nanny Diaries was essentially about a child and two women in an elevator vestibule. So essentially this was a real learning curve for us, but one of the great things that we do a lot is we’ll read everything aloud. And that’s really helpful for dialogue to just keep reading it until we’re like “oh, no, that’s how you would say that.” We voice check almost all of it.
Do you consider your work "chick lit"? Do you hate that term?
Emma: That term has been phased out, but that is a question we’ve had a lot over the years.
Nicola: Before The Nanny Diaries had come out in either country, I was over in London because my grandmother had died and I went to see our editor and she said “oh, these are our new Chick Lit titles.” I had never heard the term before and I was like, "Oh, that’s so cute! That’s so clever. There’s this adorable thing in England called "Chick Lit," what a cute idea!”
Then it came over here and became this huge thing! Suddenly everyone’s covers were pink and everyone’s covers had shoes on them. And it really limited what women could suddenly write about. Thankfully that phase seems to be over. But there was such a hunger for a very limited window of female experience in commercial publishing. And I had no idea when I first heard of "chick lit" that it was going to end up being these fluffy pink shackles for awhile. It seems to be over. There was market saturation on fluffy pink shackles.
The literary agent that I used to work for always harped on the importance of making readers want to turn the page, and you definitely did that.
Emma: That’s the hardest part.
How did you do that so well?
Nicola: We are obsessed with that. We always say when we are lecturing to creative writing students: Step One is just vomiting the story down and not editing yourself and not judging yourself because until you have created a mold, you won’t be able to move forward, so at least give yourself something to work with. And the second step is to edit it to make sure the vision you had in your head actually made it onto the page. Will people know the gender of your protagonist? What country is it set? Sometimes we’re picturing whole stories that don’t really come through great at all!
And the third stage is "why should anyone give a shit?" You can tell when you’ve worked with
someone who’s completely skipped that step. We cut a lot, a lot. We cut 75 pages off this book because we’re like "Oh, that lovely description doesn’t need to be there." So I’m so gratified to hear that that works for you because we really tried to pay attention to making sure that there is always something you are dying to find out next and that we don’t slow you down with stuff that you don’t need to be paying any attention to. Even when it means sacrificing pretty packages.
When I read The Gossip Girl books, I was working on a similar project at the time and thinking a lot about how, like strategically, she kept me glued to the page. I noticed those times when I'd be compulsively turning the page would be when something bad had just happened to a character I wanted good things for. I had to keep reading until something good happened to that person! When I'm writing, I struggle with that, 'cause I don't like making bad things happen to my beloved characters, but when I'm reading I just keep reading. Do you ever feel you have to sort of do things to your characters that makes you sad for them in order to keep the suspense high?
Emma: We noticed in this particular book, which is true of all of our books, is that when were are outlining we always want to do this thing around the third act or right before the third act, where things are getting really bad then we want to have this "false good." When you're outlining it structurally or cinematically, [the false good is] when you're out there going: "Oh, no. Things aren’t better. You’re totally making the wrong choice. You think things are better but they’re not and you’re happy but it’s gonna be so much worse!"
When we’re writing, every fucking time we go back to edit we have to overhaul that section because it can’t get any better in that section. It has to be what we call "a straight shoot." It has to be every metaphor for everything bad: a train shooting into the station, a snowball barrelling down the hill and so on. It's so hard because as a writer you've been writing about things getting worse FOREVER, for 200 pages! You've been writing almost since page one about things getting worse, so you feel like, "come on, don't you want a little bit of good?"
This last round we took each other by the shoulders and I’m like "Let’s not do this again." Let’s not have things seem to get better because that just makes it boring and makes everybody like, "Is it ending? Does this end? What do I still care about? She’s fine." We have to cut that out. That’s been a huge learning curve for us. Straight shoot into speeding train, the rolling snowball, nobody gets a drink, nobody gets to the bathroom, nobody gets to have the sex. Just keep going.
Nicola: The hardest thing...even harder than that, and always a challenge for us, is something that we think Lena Dunham does brilliantly and part of the reason that [Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls] is such a success is letting your character make mistakes. Letting them do the wrong thing is challenging because I think a lot of people in the blogosphere get annoyed when a character makes a mistake vital to the story being moved forward. If Nan was a 31-year-old she’d walk out on day two. She’s 21 and she doesn’t know any better. She doesn’t know any better until she’s gone through this journey and that’s true of all our characters. They’ll do it better the next time, but you’re on this journey to watch them make mistakes and that’s even harder than doing something horrible to them.
Emma: It’s very loaded for that to be the case for young female characters, which is why not only are we in awe of Lena Dunham for her ability to do that and her fearlessness, but also about doing that with showing how up our own asses we are, which I think is one of our biggest faults and it’s an inevitable, impossible not to be, part of being in your 20s, to be so far up your own ass. The problem is getting so much crap from the outside. It becomes true of all our characters, and watching Kelsey go through it — it's like you're getting so much conflicting, paradoxical information about who you are supposed to be and what’s wanted from you. You’re supposed to be happy or you’re supposed to be critical, but not too much. You’re supposed to have an opinion but have it go along with everyone else's but don't just blend in. Just on and on and on. There’s so many contradictions, the paradox of being in the room. It’s kind of the strangest place.
Going back to what Nicci said about chick lit and the commercial publishing restrictions that came in as to what popular fiction could be about women in such a manner -- and for the heroine, there were a lot of conversations about likability. And likability became almost one of the the number one things we would be edited for during that time that we had to grapple with. It just didn’t feel like Jonathan Safran Foer was grappling with likability. Or ANY of our male contemporaries at that time.
I think right now Nicci and I are personally, artistically are still stumbling out of that hangover of there being so much pressure for them to be likeable. And what happened in Chick Lit, psychotically, as the result is that most of these narrators were shipwrecks.
They were goofballs. They wore two different shoes out of the house. They were zany. They were falling into cakes. They were very uncoordinated. They were making zany, goofy mistakes all the time. And it was kind of, I think, it was a weird way to make them be fallible but utterly endearing in a conventional perspective.
Nicola: The characters didn’t reflect real life at all and I think that’s why the genre ate itself.
Next: "You can only take so much time standing around dressed up with your legs crossed on the red carpet smiling politely. How many years of that before you’re allowed to say to the press "I think I’d like to be in charge of myself, please"?"