New York Times best-selling author Jessica Knoll’s second novel, The Favorite Sister, is set on a fictitious reality show called Goal Diggars—a sort of Real Housewives meets Project Runway where five female entrepreneurs turn their startup business narratives into familiar Bravo plot lines. While they raise capital and appease investors, they are faced with generating enough standard reality TV drama—friendship betrayals, engagements, happy marriages, pregnancies—to keep audiences engaged in their business prowess.
Their collective and respective ambition manifests in not just their calculated navigation of each other, but also in the very timely moment of feminism being sellable. Many of their business efforts carry a dual social justice issue or two, whether it’s their own marginalized identity or a third-world cause, not just because they want to, but because they know it’s what resonates with consumers in 2018. Over the course of the novel, and many plot twists, gender parity, sexual assault, racialized violence, and discrimination become platforms by which to promote products, despite how deftly felt many of these experiences are.
The commentary is evident in their respective professional ascensions: For the character of Stephanie, a successful novelist, readers are not nearly as devoted to her fiction until she is willing to promote a memoir detailing extensive assault. For Brett, the trauma of growing up gay in an unaccepting household is the perpetual talking point to her yoga studio, SPOKE, and her personal brand. Every trauma can be mined for a lucrative narrative.
But most sharply about The Favorite Sister is how this critical lens is executed not just across these characters but also the corporately-sanctioned feminist climate that has fostered them.
Knoll and I spoke over the phone about performativity within the #MeToo movement, how she is adapting her books for the screen, and why she turned to the Real Housewives franchise for inspiration. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: One of the things I appreciated the most about your book is that the commodification of feminism is very direct, arguably all of your female characters are using the pervasiveness of millennial pink Pinterest memes to grow their businesses and franchises. What, if anything, are you commenting on?
JESSICA KNOLL: I started writing the book two to three years ago, and then really got into the final editing stages of it. It was basically this time last summer and leading into the fall, and I was fiercely trying to keep up with everything that was happening with the Harvey Weinstein allegations breaking, and all of these women breaking their silence. And something that just stuck out to me, which was something I had experienced before, was the sheer volume of women who I saw speaking out or speaking up, you know in unison with the brave women who were coming forward and sharing their stories, who I knew personally to not really support other women, and who had personally mistreated me or mistreated colleagues of mine or friends of mine. And it just made me see red, I was like, this is so disingenuous. And I think I really bottled a lot of that frustration into the book and into these characters, and it was really kind of a cathartic experience to let it all out in this story and to really make Jesse the like, stand-in villain for all these women I was seeing.
But it’s such a fine line to tread, because on the one hand, you know it’s a good thing that feminism has gone mainstream, but then at the same time it’s frustrating to see the people who glom onto it or the brands or the companies who glom onto it because it’s now a marketing tactic. And the ways in which they do it so poorly, of course the Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner comes to mind. And so there’s also like a bit of humor there too, which I’m always interested in that kind of dark humor in my book. So I was responding to it on a personal level from things I’ve experienced, and then on kind of like a broader more global basis, which of course lots of people were having reactions to these companies that were trying to shoehorn their way into this movement, in a way that just felt kind of icky.
Yeah, this past year we went to Sundance for the first time, and our culture editor was sending us back updates about how all these films now had this #MeToo framing. We just covered a really nauseating study about how taking up #MeToo can be helpful for a celebrity’s brand. But that’s another thing that comes across in your book in a really nuanced way—we’re at a certain time now when hashtag feminism is something that is being used to sell stuff, and the uptick in brands visibly taking up a mantle of social justice has been very noticeable. I found in The Favorite Sister, the framing of all the main characters being entrepreneurial business owners pushing social awareness with profits extremely timely to how social justice is currently being filtered through entertainment.
I experienced that myself, as a writer, you know, that’s my business, my writing, my book, the adaptations. Something that I witnessed first hand after the publication of my first book Luckiest Girl Alive and then a year later writing my essay for Lenny and saying that the sexual assault in that book was inspired by real life events—it was like the book was thrust back into the limelight. I was interviewed on the Today show. Celebrities were tweeting about the essay, and tweeting at me and writing me messages, and I connected to so many more readers because that essay went viral, and that admission really went viral. And the New York Times profiled me. Now the New York Times had no interest in my book really before I came out saying some of this was inspired by real life circumstances. And that was such an odd moment to reconcile for me, this feeling of like, it’s so important for me to tell my story and to take back ownership of the narrative, because for so long the people I went to school with and the boys who assaulted me owned that narrative. And now I finally had a platform and some measure of power in my own right to feel secure enough to share that story.
I’m also glad, in that doing that, I connected to other women. I hope I made other women feel less alone—I think I did. I heard that from other women. But then you’re also at the same time reconciling like, this sold books for me. This got the attention of the most reputable publication in the world.
I channeled [it] in Stephanie, really, this feeling like no one took her seriously as a writer or as a storyteller until she talked about her own personal battle scars, and they had to be really ugly battle scars. I don’t want to say anything that’s like a spoiler to the readers, but like, what had happened to her growing up and the benign racism she experienced day-to-day wasn’t sexy enough for her publishers. She had to bleed for people to perk up and listen to her and take her seriously. That feels so wrong on so many levels, and I think other women have come out and said, why do our stories have to be so grotesque in order for the public to listen? Why do we have to be hurt so badly in order for anyone to stand up and say, well this is wrong, or to care about you? I was definitely grappling with that new reality for myself post-my first book and my second book.
You coming out as a survivor, that impacted your book sales?
Oh absolutely. I don’t know how the figures would actually show that, but I do know that the essay taking off in such a way and having the reach that it did, definitely—I don’t see how you could argue that it didn’t help the book sell.
I can understand why that’s a very complicated feeling to sit with.
It is a mixed bag of emotions, because there is triumph in it. These boys and their environment that I grew up in really put me through the fucking ringer. And I have earned every right to tell this story the way I want tell it, and to reap the—not even just like the rewards, the visibility of the book and all of that, but just—the kind of triumph in being able to tell your story, and people believe you? Like that was almost more important than anything to me. I never thought people would believe me, and to have people believe me on the scale that they did, was like really a moment I never could have dreamed for myself when I was younger. And I wish I’d had the foresight to know that was in my future, because it really would have given me a lot of heart, I think.
I remember when your Lenny essay ran, and this is obviously pre-#MeToo but to have an account of abuse like you did, and to have it—I would argue, as a reader—uniformly accepted. To have the collective nation that purchased your book, in some ways sanction what happened to you—
Right, it was very validating.
Per what you observed about Stephanie, your characters are very racially and gender literate. They’re very aware when they’re being asked to engage in a racist or sexist or homophobic dynamic. And they’re also generally willing to capitalize on these narratives, whether that’s literal capital to be gained or otherwise, but they’re also very maniacal. So to have socially conscious women characters who are also maniacal feels to me as a reader, a considerable break from the earnest doe-eyed versus femme fatale evil women trope. Do you encounter any sort of pushback from publishing, in constructing women this way?
I was very nervous for the publication of the second book, and the fact that it was coming out in a climate where women were standing up and banding together and you know, taking on the patriarchy the way that we were, and there was this really strong messaging of women supporting women, I was petrified to be publishing a book that was about women undercutting other women. And so my instinct was to find ways to explain and justify their behavior. I found myself saying in so many interviews, the same culture that creates the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, creates the competition among women. And like I do believe that to be true, but I also wish I had allowed myself to just embrace them, all their unlikability, without trying to make excuses for them. And if anything, there was a point where I was editing and editing, and I kept adding all these details, and my editor was like, stop, I can see you’re trying to make them more sympathetic, and you gotta just have confidence in your original conceit of this story and of these women, and trust in them, because it’s fantastic. So if anything I had the opposite experience.
Because of the the timing in which your book was published, as you were working and #MeToo was accelerating, were you across anything with your publishers regarding tweaking the framing or marketing of the book?
No, I mean, surprisingly—I think if anything, my publisher [kept] cutting back to, this is kind of a fresh take on the politics of feminism, and they really wanted to embrace that. And I’m glad they did. At my core, that’s what I want to do, too, but it’s always just very scary to go into the publication season and not know how the book is going to be received. And you don’t want to be betraying feminism or betraying other women, but at the same time you want to feel free to tell the stories that you know. I have had a range of experiences with women in my life, personally and professionally. Some of them good and great, and some of them not so good and great, and that was really what the book was about capturing: the not so great experiences that I think people were kind of trying to shade out of this new narrative that we’re in where women are going to get behind one another and really support each other no matter what.
The fact that your main characters really operate from a stage of a reality show reads very pointed to me. For instance, the Real Housewives franchise hasn’t necessarily been about literal housewives—they’re all lifestyle brands or developing businesses or products, but much like your characters observe, that has to be transmitted through this more gendered plot of wife, and motherhood, and lots and lots of drama. We can’t watch women literally building businesses, even in your fictitious reality show of women literally building businesses. I’m going to assume you’re a big reality TV watcher. Where do you find reality TV both advancing and denigrating women in this space?
I am a huge reality TV watcher. I’m a huge Bravo fan, and really the idea of putting these women on a reality TV show came from feeling like I used up a lot of my own life in Luckiest Girl Alive, and I was kind of out of gas, and I didn’t know where to turn for inspiration.
The premiere of the 13th season [of Real Housewives of Orange County] was last night, and I’m looking at Vicki Gunvalson, and I’m like, “This woman has been in my life for 12 years, since I was in college.” That is crazy! She’s got to be pushing 70 and I hang on this woman’s every word. I am so invested in her; I am so invested in her stories, her families, her breakups, her new boyfriend, all of it. And I don’t think that there are very many spaces on TV where we really care about what women over the age of 40 are doing. In some ways, I find that really progressive, that Bravo has created this following. I don’t even know if I want to call it a cult following because it’s so much more mainstream than that. Women who really don’t get a lot of fair play in other realms of TV.
I’m googling Vicki’s age as you’re talking.
How old is she? I mean, I don’t even know if you can trust what you read on the internet. She’s in there altering birth certificates.
According to the internet, she is 56.
No. Oh my god. That is such a lie. There is no way. Ramona Singer is 61. She’s open about her age. There’s no way that Vicky is younger than Ramona Singer.
We’ll put a reporter on it. You were saying?
Nice try, Vicki. We also don’t get to see women rewarded or celebrated for being really loud. These women are loud and over-the-top, and of course these aren’t the women that we aspire to be or the mothers we aspire to be, but there is something to be said for the fact that they are getting to do, on camera, what women in real life are not allowed to do. So those are the ways in which, I think, reality TV is—not even gonna say “good” for women, but I think it gives women opportunities that they don’t have in real life, and that’s very interesting to me. On the flip side, I do think that all that we know, all the manipulation that goes on behind-the-scenes—we know there’s all this posturing, and that there’s lying and backstabbing and all these things that are just not good for humanity in general. At the same time, I will just say that sometimes you just want to be entertained, and I hate this idea that when women catch flack for the type of content that they’re interested in watching or reading, it just feels like another way that we police women’s choices, and I hate that.
Up until probably the last year, no one said anything to men who tuned into the NFL regularly, and we know how some of those players treat the women in their lives. There’s high instances of domestic violence and sexual assault, but no one ever made men feel bad for tuning into the NFL. So I’m very careful about declaring that a reality TV show is trash and that women shouldn’t watch it, because I just think it sets this impossible bar for women. We can’t even watch what we just feel like watching at the end of the day.
I do want to get to the amazing, self-aggrandizing, obliquely pro-lady shorthands that are in The Favorite Sister. Like, “real queens fix each other’s crowns.” I’m thinking of the moment when one character says to the other, when they are miked, “real queens fix each other’s crowns.” There is a multitude of these sayings that are on Pinterest and Instagram. Did you literally write that yourself, or did you—
Oh no! I could never be that clever. I own a Peloton bike, and one of the instructors always uses that phrase. Okay, wait, sorry, he uses the phrase to talk about your posture, that you should sit up, shoulders back, head up, so that the crown doesn’t flip. And then I think I started seeing variations on the idea that women are walking around with crowns on their heads, and then I think I saw from an entrepreneur I follow on Instagram that “real queens fix each other’s crowns.” And I think I just groaned out loud. Like, really?
When I saw that in your book and I saw the way it was positioned, I thought that you must find the whole “slay queen!” shorthand across successful, first-world, female narratives as empty as I do. Is that a correct assessment?
It is extremely correct. Yes, that’s exactly how it feels to me. It feels completely empty. And it shocked me. The people who are posting those sorts of platitudes, I’m like, “Do you really believe that, or do you not really believe it, but you think your followers are dumb enough to believe it?” It’s one or the other. Or maybe it’s both. I don’t know but yes, it’s so meaningless. It really gets under my skin because men aren’t sitting around, throwing out these cutesy little shorthands to pump each other up and give this illusion that power is right there, if only they could see that. I don’t know, it feels like another way that women are getting distracted. It really bugs me. It’s one of those things where it’s like, I do a cleansing of my Instagram every now and then, and anyone who’s posting shit like that is the first to go.
To me, all that stuff feels like a concession, because I don’t want to be a queen with a crown. I want federal paid parental leave. That’s what I want.
Right, right, or paid maternity leave, or not being demoted or looked over for promotion. It just feels like a point is here, and it’s just completely missing it.
Your book just came out in May, but it was recently announced that it was optioned for a TV series. Congratulations.
And I saw on Instagram that you started writing the pilot. And in addition to writing, you are also producing—slay, queen! [Laughs]
What are you keeping in mind as you translate the book to a series?
Right now, I’ve been working on the pilot for about three to four weeks. They’re short, it’s like 45, 55 pages, and it’s also in screenplay form, so there’s a lot of space on the page, so it’s not like 45, 55 pages of text, like it is for a book. I’ve been having a lot of fun doing that, kind of positioning the dynamics of the group, the way those conversations can play off one another and parallel one another. I’m in kind of the “having fun with it” stage right now, and then I’ll submit it to the producers, and they’ll come back to me with notes and feedback, and I’ll incorporate that. And then I think we have to talk about doing the bible, which is an overview of what the season would look like, and then we would take it out to the networks.
Something that has stuck in my head, just paying attention to reviews of the great mini-series that have come out over the last two years, thinking about Big Little Lies and now Sharp Objects, is—and something that also came up in pitch meetings was—how interested people are in the interior lives of these women. Seeing them at home, seeing them with their girlfriends or boyfriends or husbands or kids. In some ways, that is as interesting and as juicy as someone dead who did it. I think that’s fabulous to hear. I don’t know if, five years ago, TV execs were hiring people that were interested in the interior lives of women over violence. So I’m trying to be really cognisant of balancing the depiction of the show and the politics of the group with the more intimate scenes at home, and being sure to build in lots of those.
I know you’re relatively new to the industry, but what do you attribute that shift to, particularly being new-ish?
I think that people are finally sitting up and taking notice that shows that are centered around women and their lives are winning awards, are captivating audiences. I don’t know if I could pinpoint where that started, exactly. I know that of course, Reese Witherspoon comes to mind. I think she was definitely at the forefront of actresses who are saying, I’m basically producing the projects that I’m working on. Why wouldn’t I just officially start my own production company, or be more hands-on in developing the projects? I definitely think she was one of the first women who was doing that, and other women have now taken that same path, and I really applaud what she’s done, what she’s created. And having worked with her on Luckiest Girl Alive, I know that she’s incredibly smart. She has a vision. One of the edits she gave me on that script, I was just amazed. She’s been in this business since she was a teenager. Of course she understands the rhythm of a script, the pacing of a script. Of course I have so much to learn from her.
In general, how do you find her as an editor?
When I submitted the first draft of Luckiest Girl to her, I heard from her within days. The other thing about Reese—something that I realized that not every producer does, or not every producer you work with in this industry does—Reese recognizes the value of complimenting someone and giving praise, while also giving constructive criticism, and I think that’s how you get the best work out of somebody. Because I’ve worked with people who’ll just come back and tell you everything that’s wrong with it, and they don’t even tell you, “But we did really like this.” I don’t know, not to sound like a total entitled millennial—I can handle criticism—but give me something to hold onto, and not make me feel like the whole thing’s got to be tossed away. I thought Reese struck that balance really well, and I also did not realize that that was unusual in the industry, to get someone who is pretty emotionally intelligent in terms of how to speak to an “artist” about their precious work.
What if any screenplays have you read to help you sharpen and develop this skill set as a writer?
The script that everyone wanted me to read when we finalized the deal and I would be adapting it was… I love this story… was American Psycho. And the reason they sent me that script and wanted me to read it, and the reason they wanted me to read it is because of the voiceover. Patrick Bateman, a good part of his dialogue is voiceover in his head. We decided that we wanted Ani to capture—this character who is one way in public and another way in public, or one way to your face but in her head she’s making something completely at odds with whatever she said or however she’s presenting herself with you. We would really need the voiceover to clarify that. The Patrick Bateman character is the perfect example of that. Also, the voiceover should be very sharp, very funny, and that there is a rhythm to it, because you don’t want to be in someone’s head for too long. It has to be pithy. So that was one I read with a really critical eye before I sat down to adapt it.
One of the things I’m most excited about with the adaptation process for Favorite Sister is that this is a story that truly offers diversity in terms of the casting. And something that became very clear to me, and played into the kind of world creation of my second book, was adapting Luckiest Girl, and then I adapted two other books. There was, at the same time, all these conversations were happening about the need for broader representation onscreen. Meanwhile, I’m being set up for these jobs where there is not a single person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community. No one was putting their money where their mouth was. Having developed relationships through the adaptation process of Luckiest Girl Alive in the entertainment industry, and knowing that there was a strong shot that my second book would be picked up and optioned as well, I want to write a cast of women that is truly diverse. Body diverse, every sense of the word. Once I write it and we take it out and hopefully we get the network deal, hopefully it all moves forward and it happens. I think I would be most excited for that process of it—to be a part of a show that is really offering rolls for women that we are starting to see more of and I think offers representation that everyone is saying we so desperately need.