MysteryPeople Q&A with Jessica Knoll

 

Jessica Knoll comes to BookPeople this upcoming Saturday, April 16th, at 3 PM, to speak and sign her critically acclaimed and bestselling debut, Luckiest Girl Alivesoon to be made into a feature film. 

Luckiest Girl Alive follows Ani FaNelli, high-powered magazine writer, engaged to a blue-blood and about as put together as one woman can be. Behind the veneer, Ani is traumatized by a dark past, and a documentary being made about a mysterious incident during her high school days might help her heal – or it might bring her carefully constructed facade tumbling down. 

Luckiest Girl Alive is full of twists, turns, social critique, and a complex approach to female identity and the politics of reinvention – in short, I can’t recommend this book enough! We asked Jessica a few questions via email before her visit to the store. 

“In adolescence, Ani is made to feel worthless, and so many go out of their way to silence her voice—doctors, teachers, and her own mother. As an adult, Ani believes that if she can achieve success in her professional and personal lives, that she will finally command respect. It’s about being seen and believed and heard after years of being told to sit down and shut up.”

 


  • Interview by bookseller and blogger Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: Luckiest Girl Alive, without giving anything away, made me think of Inception a bit while reading it – as the book progresses, the reader descends to deeper and deeper levels of Ani’s past pain and trauma, almost as if we are peeling the layers off of Ani. How did you come up with your structure?

Jessica Knoll:  It was really an organic process. I wrote the book in chronological order, exactly as the reader experiences it. The toggling between the past and present was an organic structure that just made sense as I was writing it.

MO: Ani FaNelli, as the novel begins, is an incredibly put-together character, and the reader gradually discovers more and more layers to her personality and to her past. Why establish Ani as so functional, and then tear her apart, rather than progressing chronologically through her life?

JK: The best villains are the ones with whom you sympathize. If you can’t sympathize, the character is more a caricature, and there is nothing relatable or compelling about caricature.

“Magazine writing taught me that I can get something on the page even when I’m feeling uninspired and unmotivated. I had to produce—it was my job, and I was under deadline. I gave myself deadlines with the book, too…If you don’t have an agent already, make a deal with your significant other or a friend or fellow writer, anyone who will hold you to your deadline.”

MO: Luckiest Girl Alive contains competition between women, both at the high school level and at the professional level, as one of its central themes. You yourself have worked in an extremely competitive industry with many powerful female figures – magazines. I’ve been on a reading kick of mysteries depicting the uneasy balance between female community and female competition, and yours fit right into the mix. How much do you think competition between women is bolstered by patriarchal structures and institutions, versus a natural outgrowth of a highly competitive modern society?

JK: I think it has much more to do with the fact that professional culture starts at the top, and the top is still teeming with men. I used to write about gender dynamics in the workplace while I was an editor at Cosmo, and an expert clued me in to something called “Queen Bee Syndrome,” which is a well-studied phenomenon that shows that women are hesitant to help other women in the workplace for fear that their male counterparts and superiors will take them less seriously. It’s a complex issue and it’s actually one we are better off talking about and acknowledging, because of lot of people are unaware of their biases. Simply being aware of your biases and doing your best to overcome them can foster big changes.

MO: Luckiest Girl Alive (again without giving too much away) contains characters who use shame and ridicule to secure their ends, rather than threats and intimidation. I read an article in Dissent magazine that contrasted dominant methods of societal control in the 20th and 21st century. This article put forth that while fear defined control in the 20th century, and fearlessness defined rebellion, shame defines control in the 21st century, and shamelessness defines rebellion. Is Ani motivated more by fear than shame? What do you think of the contrast between shame and fear?

JK: Ani is completely controlled and paralyzed by shame. She is in the wrong relationship and the wrong job, she is hard on other people but she is hardest on herself, and all of that stems from her shame concerning events from her adolescence that she has never dealt with in a healthy way.

“I used to write about gender dynamics in the workplace while I was an editor at Cosmo, and an expert clued me in to something called “Queen Bee Syndrome,” which is a well-studied phenomenon that shows that women are hesitant to help other women in the workplace for fear that their male counterparts and superiors will take them less seriously.”

MO: Your debut deals a great deal with the tension between appearance and reality – the more successful a character appears, the more he or she is hiding. What do you think is the link between success and trauma? What breaks a person, and what lets them rise from the ashes, and reinvent themselves?

JK: In adolescence, Ani is made to feel worthless, and so many go out of their way to silence her voice—doctors, teachers, and her own mother. As an adult, Ani believes that if she can achieve success in her professional and personal lives, that she will finally command respect. It’s about being seen and believed and heard after years of being told to sit down and shut up.

MO: I know that Luckiest Girl Alive is your debut, but it certainly didn’t feel like a debut – how did magazine writing and editing translate over to novel writing? Got any tips for the experienced writer yet first-time novelist?

JK: Magazine writing taught me that I can get something on the page even when I’m feeling uninspired and unmotivated. I had to produce—it was my job, and I was under deadline. I gave myself deadlines with the book, too. I had an arrangement with agent where I showed her new chapters every six weeks or so, and it held me accountable and lit a fire under my ass. If you don’t have an agent already, make a deal with your significant other or a friend or fellow writer, anyone who will hold you to your deadline.

“I wrote from the heart. I wrote what I felt and how I was made to feel and how I made myself feel after being told how to feel. I wrote from an angry and vulnerable place. I’m not a damaged or broken person. There is a lot of joy and light in my life, but my vision of the world is twisted as a result of experiences I’ve had, and I merely tried to capture that in this book.”

MO: With Luckiest Girl Alive, you managed to created something both twisted in its vision of the world and highly responsible with its themes. How did you strike that balance?

JK: I wrote from the heart. I wrote what I felt and how I was made to feel and how I made myself feel after being told how to feel. I wrote from an angry and vulnerable place. I’m not a damaged or broken person. There is a lot of joy and light in my life, but my vision of the world is twisted as a result of experiences I’ve had, and I merely tried to capture that in this book.

MO: What’s next? Will we see Ani FaNelli again?

JK: I’m working on a second novel that is slated to come out in Spring 2017 and I’m also writing another screenplay. I will be adapting Wendy Walker’s All Is Not Forgotten, which comes out this summer.


You can find paperback copies of Luckiest Girl Alive on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Copies of the hardback are also available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Jessica Knoll will be speaking and signing her debut, Luckiest Girl Alive, on Saturday, April 16th at 3 PM. Can’t make it to the event? Follow the instructions during web check-out or call the store to get your book signed for you!

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