A few months back author Jessica Knoll penned an essay for Lenny Letter called “What I Know.” Written on the heels of her best-selling novel Luckiest Girl Alive, about a woman named Ani FaNelli who is gang raped as a high schooler, Jessica’s essay revealed a difficult truth: Ani’s rape was based on her own. “The first person to tell me I was gang-raped was a therapist, seven years after the fact,” Jessica wrote. “The second was my literary agent, five years later, only she wasn’t talking about me. She was talking about Ani, the protagonist of my novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, which is a work of fiction. What I’ve kept to myself, up until today, is that its inspiration is not.”
With or without that admission, the novel is a must-read. When put into dialogue with the essay, its existence becomes even more pivotal. As Jessica wrote in the dedication to Luckiest Girl Alive, “To all the TifAni FaNellis of the world. I know.”
The novel tackles difficult subject matter of many types, but what is so skillful about this debut is that while it treats the subject matter with gravitas, it also treats it with marked readability and relatability, even while Jessica crafts a protagonist who is often hard to read and frequently hard to relate to.
While this is Jessica’s first novel, her love of writing is lifelong. She also worked as a magazine editor prior to penning Luckiest Girl Alive. “Writing has always been a part of my identity,” Jessica told HelloGiggles. As for her desire to write a novel she said, “There was no when or how. It was something I innately understood about myself for as far back as I can recall.”
After reading the essay and the novel, we had an endless amount of respect for Jessica and so many questions to ask. Luckily, she let us pick her brain on writing and life in general.
On her professional life before Luckiest Girl Alive
HG: I read a quote from you in which you said that as an editorial assistant at Cosmo you did more writing than you did in any other position. What type of writing were you doing, and how do you think it was important to your writerly development?
JK: As an editorial assistant at Cosmo I wrote about three features a month, pitched and wrote four or five department pages a month, wrote for the site, and pitched options for the “Red Hot Read” section in the back of the book, which was always a “steamy” excerpt of a romance novel. This was actually one of the hardest pages to edit, and I’m going to sound ridiculous when I say why: Not only did it involve a lot of rewriting on my end to give the scene context in a small amount of space (and then haggling with the book’s editor when the author was inevitably displeased with the liberties my editor insisted I make), but I had to make sure that we had as much variety as possible. We kept a running list of past heds and themes to make sure we didn’t repeat any too often. You would be surprised how many editorial assistants before me also came up with Dangerous When Wet when pitching heds for a sex scene involving a fire fighter!
Ultimately, writing for magazines taught me to have perspective, and it taught me not to be too precious about my work. Inevitably, your first draft would be returned to you ripped to shreds by a bunch of top editors, or the art director would annihilate your layout, forcing you to cut 500 words. I’m my own toughest editor now. It’s not easy to read something you’ve written, something you’ve slaved over, and not only recognize that it’s not working, but to get in there and rejigger it and sometimes scrap it entirely. Magazines made me discerning.
HG: When did you know you wanted to write a book? And what were the steps you took from saying internally “I want to write a book,” to actually writing the book?
JK: I have always seen big things for myself, but I prefer to go about things thoughtfully. I take my time, get my bearings at each step on the ladder, and do things right. When I graduated college, my immediate goal was to get a job and move to New York City. I was hired as an assistant to a talent agent at a literary and talent agency. I knew it wasn’t the perfect fit, but it got me in the city I knew I needed to be in to become a writer. Once I was there, I learned about the media world, read Gawker, Mediabistro, and ED2010 obsessively, and realized I could be paid in exchange for my byline. I worked really hard to get my foot in the door, and ended up at Cosmo.
For the next couple of years, writing, and pitching and working my way up the masthead kept me engaged and challenged. But all the while, I paid attention to the editors who had independent novel careers. I asked them how they did it, where their inspirations came from, and when they even found the time to write. I took a short story writing class at NYU in the evening, just to get back in the creative writing groove. When Kate White retired as the editor in chief of Cosmo after 14 years and a new editor came in and shook up the staff, I lost my sense of security. It was unnerving but motivating, as it lit a fire under me and made me realize that the time was now to start thinking about the next step in my career, and for me that was writing my novel.
The Luckiest Girl Alive writing process
HG: Nuts and bolts question here, but for Luckiest Girl Alive — what was the process of taking the idea in your mind and putting it onto the page? Did you outline, take notes, just dive into writing?
JK: I don’t properly outline on paper, but I do think things through very thoroughly before I feel “ready” to put anything on the page. Inevitably there are aborted attempts, but each horrible draft gets you closer to the next not-as-horrible draft, and so on and so forth. For the most part, I write first thing in the morning, and so as I’m falling asleep I take the time to think about the scene and the characters and the plot so that when I wake up I can hit the ground running.
HG: Do you keep a writing schedule and did you when you were writing the novel? If so, what is/was it?
JK: I was still working at Cosmo when I started the book, and in magazine world, you don’t have to be at work until 10 a.m. I used to exercise in the morning, but I decided to take that time to write. I would wake up at 6 a.m. and write until 9 a.m., quickly shower, and head into the office. I wrote most of my weekends, too. I followed this schedule for nine months until the book was finished. Today, I still follow a pretty similar schedule, though I do wake up an hour later since I don’t have that hard stop at 9 a.m. anymore.
The stats on her writing schedule
HG: Is there a word count or number of hours writing that you try to hit every day?
JK: It’s more about how long I feel I’m producing worthwhile content, and I can usually churn that out for three to four hours. In that time I can hit 800 words or I can hit 2,000 words. It all depends on the day.
HG: If you’re not working on a particular project, how do you write? Do you still keep a schedule?
JK: What is this thing you call not working on a particular project? I just returned from an eighteen city book tour, and I have a script due in July and book two due in September. My dance card is full!
HG: What are you working on now?
JK: I’m adapting All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker, which comes out in July, into a script for Warner Brothers, and I’m 100 pages deep into book two, which is a standalone novel.
On the extreme importance of marketing your writing
HG: In terms of turning a great book into a bestseller, how important is marketing? As the writer, what were you able to do to help boost sales?
JK: Marketing is not just important. It’s everything. I worked harder at marketing my book than I did at writing it. The writing comes naturally to me — I find calling on editor-friends and friends of my editor-friends for favors an excruciating endeavor. But it had to be done and I never would have forgiven myself if I didn’t chase down every possible lead. I don’t like to say I was fortunate that I had connections from working in magazines and at a talent and literary agency, because these were not serendipitous junctures on my journey to becoming a novelist and screenwriter. This was all very deliberate action, and I think you must be deliberate and savvy when it comes to marketing your work. I made the decision to move to New York City and I fought my way into this world so that when I did write a book, I had a connection at CAA which turned into being represented for motion picture rights at CAA which turned into the book landing in Reese Witherspoon’s hands.
I had friends from my time at Cosmo and SELF who had fanned out to Marie Claire, O the Oprah Magazine, Buzzfeed, Glamour, Us Weekly, so I called on them to feature the book and to see who else they knew in this world. Exhaust every connection you have, and if you don’t have connections, make them by reaching out to editors and writers you admire on social media, pitching story ideas to online and print publications, starting a blog with a unique perspective, and going to events for writers with other writers.
All about Jessica’s Lenny Letter essay, in which she opened up about her rape
HG: In Lenny Letter, you very bravely opened up about how the story of Ani’s rape was based on your own life experience. When you look back on the genesis of Luckiest Girl Alive, how much of the motivation for writing the story was about getting this story out of your body and into the world?
JK: There was never a conscientious motivation. This is the story that came out when I finally sat down to tell one. I was obviously trying to give myself a voice after not having one for so long, but I was not aware in the moment that this was what I was doing. I think some experiences are personally fulfilling and healing to the point of being spiritual, and that was what I felt as I was writing the book. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.
HG: What emotions did you go through when you decided to share your experience in Lenny Letter? How do you feel now?
JK: I felt proud and empowered to share my essay. I had the support of the entire Luckiest Girl Alive team, my friends, husband, and family. I had shouldered this story and this burden alone for so long. It was emboldening to share something that had seemed so secret and so shameful for 17 years and to have the world respond in kind.
HG: In writing Ani’s story, did you feel pressure to stay true to your own?
JK: No, because I didn’t think of it as telling my story. Luckiest Girl Alive is a work of fiction, with threads and characters and a twist that I created, rather than experienced firsthand.
Jessica’s advice for all writers
HG: For writers who have a draft or a few chapters of a book they’re hoping to write, what would you say is the next step on the road to publication?
JK: If it’s a work of fiction, keep going until it’s done! You can’t sell a debut novel on a few chapters, unfortunately. Nonfiction you can get away with a few chapters and an outline. After that, it’s about finding a literary agent. I was lucky because I met my literary agent at my first job in the city. I worked as an assistant at a talent and lit agency, and so we have known each other for years. But if you don’t have any connections, I’m told How to Land (And Keep) a Literary Agent by Noah Lukeman is a great resource.
HG: As a writer, what are some of the most helpful books/quotes/advice you’ve read?
JK: W.H. Auden said, “Art is born of humiliation.” This resonates deeply with me as Luckiest Girl Alive is my humiliation, my pain, and my power after years of powerlessness.
HG: What advice do you give to young writers who are working full-time jobs, worrying about bills, trying to maintain a personal life, and still hoping to publish their writing?
JK: I can’t count the number of writers I know who want to write a book. It’s endless. I can, however, count the number of writers I know who have actually written books, and it’s not many. What separates those who do and those who don’t is not talent. It’s work ethic. It’s the willingness to write utter crap, wondering if anyone is ever going to read it or pay you for it, and to keep writing anyway, until you see your character and you see your story and it gets better and becomes something. Don’t try and give up because the story isn’t coming, or the characters aren’t coming. It’s never going to come. It has to be made, and it takes hard work and time to make something of substance. Be patient but persistent.
If you haven’t read Luckiest Girl Alive, get on it. You won’t regret it.