Jessica Knoll talks the explosion of #MeToo, the dangers of performed girl power, and her page-turning new book The Favorite Sister
It would be tempting to call The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll a beach read. After all, it’s about a group of five women — Brett, Stephanie, Kelly, Lauren, and Jen — who are the stars of Goal Diggers, a reality TV show about young female entrepreneurs. It has all the makings of a great beach read; the book opens with a murder and alternates between the past and the present, switching narrators as you slowly gather information and put the pieces together of what really happened. There are juicy secrets, dramatic catfights, and unexpected twists galore.
But while The Favorite Sister IS an A+ book to read on the beach, it provides so much more than just a few hours of entertainment. It’s a necessary commentary on the ways women can be emotionally abusive to each other. It will make you think twice about those people who rush to claim they support women in public but act so differently in private. And that’s not to mention how it’ll make you rethink everything you thought you knew about reality TV.
In under 400 pages, Knoll tackles everything from money and ambition to race and sexuality. It’s a tall order, but she’s written an addicting novel about what happens when we want to celebrate women for being go-getters yet punish them when they actually try to go and get.
I spoke with Knoll about The Favorite Sister and what it was like telling this story during the height of the #MeToo era. Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers ahead.
HelloGiggles: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but I have to ask. What’s your relationship with reality TV? Love it? Hate it? Fascinated by it? Somewhere in between?
Jessia Knoll: It’s a strong relationship. I’m not one of those people who thinks that reality TV is the death of intellectual culture, high art, or anything like that. [laughs] I think that we need to balance the light with the dark, and I don’t think anyone, particularly women, should ever feel guilty about consuming something that is maybe not the most thought-provoking material out there. I think we should feel free to enjoy what we enjoy and not feel like we have to apologize for that or make excuses for ourselves.
I’m a big fan of [reality TV], and I have been for some time. When I started working on my second book, I felt really tapped out in terms of material, because I had used so much of my own life in my first book. They were rerunning the first season of The Real Housewives of New York City, and I was watching it, and I was like, This is so rife with drama and tension. It occurred to me that this would be a great setting for my next novel, and that I know these women so well, and I know their relationships so well, that I could borrow a little bit from them.
HG: Reality TV is such a different viewing experience.
JK: I think it’s very interesting that it’s so manipulated, and yet we still call it reality TV. That turned out to be a very prescient medium given where we find ourselves today with the first reality TV president; the way people are simply able to say, That’s not true, it’s fake news. Like if you say it, it just becomes true. Facts don’t matter. To me, that is very much playing off the reality TV culture.
HG: It’s a culture where every little thing, whether us viewers realize it or not, comes from a place of manipulation.
JK: Right. Yes. These are people’s real reactions to being put in these very highly-orchestrated and manipulated scenarios.
HG: The five Goal Diggers each see the world very differently. They have such different approaches to business and ambition and success and being a strong woman. Can you talk a little bit about forming their world views, and how you balanced such distinct opinions?
JK: The whole trick of it was, the show itself is purporting to be this new model of reality TV that’s the new guard of millennial women. It’s going to portray strong women, empowered women, women who support each other and build each other up. And it’s supposed to be the fresh take on reality TV that we’ve never seen before. Because mostly we’re seeing women who maybe have fabulous lives, but the only reason they have those fabulous lives is because they’re funded by men, and they’re conniving and backstabbing and all of these things. So Goal Diggers is like, We are gonna set the new tone for reality TV. The intentions are pure, and it turns out that people don’t want to consume that kind of content; it’s not interesting to the viewer. So they — when I say “they,” I mean Jesse the creator, the producers, the editors, everybody involved — start to go against the ideals they espouse at the beginning of the show.
For me, Brett represented the show in what it is on the surface, and Stephanie represented what was actually going on behind the scenes. Brett was the one who was drinking the Kool-aid, who was buying what Jesse was selling. So at first, you’re like, Okay, I’m on Brett’s side, this is great, she’s supportive of other women, she’s cool, she’s body positive. Stephanie is the one who is problematic here. I liked the idea that your perspective on each of them would shift midway through the book, and that you would start to see that Brett and the model of the show are really just a facade, and that Stephanie is the one who is the truth cannon and really shining a light on what’s going on, which is the complete opposite of what the show is espousing.
HG: Do you think America actually wants to see women succeed and support each other?
JK: I don’t know. You know, we’ve never done it. [laughs] It could be like an experiment. Let’s air a show about women who really like each other and support each other! I mean, listen: Conflict is interesting. No matter who is behind the conflict, conflict is interesting on screen. You need it on scripted shows; you need it on unscripted shows. It provides that drama that you need. I don’t know. [Goal Diggers] is my response to seeing people that I know and that I’ve worked with in the past really glom onto the explosion of #MeToo. And knowing that behind the scenes, how they are in their private lives does not align with this public persona that they’re putting out there as someone who is supportive of women. That hypocrisy drives me crazy. The show is kind of like my invention that gets into that disconnect between the way people present themselves in their public lives vs. what’s really going on in their private lives.
HG: At the end of the book, Kelly makes a comment about how she’s pushing a narrative that serves her and the show better than the truth does. Do you think people are stuck in this area between what we present vs. what life is really like?
JK: Yeah, I do. I think that’s true in not just the performance of feminism. I think that’s a very timely disease of the social media generation. We’re all guilty of presenting this image of ourselves on Instagram or Twitter. And often times, what’s really going on that we’re not captioning, that we’re not taking pictures of, is less glamorous, less funny, less exciting. Everybody has these boring and excruciating Tuesdays where you just can’t bring yourself to do the work that you need to do to get through the day. You’re dragging, you got in a fight with your significant other — you’re not going to put any of that stuff on social media. I think we know the dangers of fully buying into the hype that people put out there, because then it makes you feel worse about your own life. That’s all well-documented.
I do think that something that has emerged over the last year that I noticed, that I respond to in this book that seems like a subculture of that — I was blown away by some of the women I saw posting these inspirational memes about sisterhood and feminism, knowing how they treat other women. It really blew me away. I’m like, Do they know they’re being hypocritical? Or do they not realize that they mistreat other women? I don’t know. Obviously, in the book, Jesse is somewhat aware of the fact that she’s mistreating these women and underpaying them and letting them hang out to dry when they reach their expiration date. But I do think on some level, she buys into her own hype. And I do think that’s what’s going on with some of the real life examples I can think of. I think people do start to buy into their own hype.
HG: Your dedication at the very beginning of the book is intriguing: “For women who know that feeling.” Who are those women?
JK: That is a nod to the section where Stephanie’s talking about why she even signed up for this reality show, and how Jesse seduced her into it. She was sucked in and didn’t know how to get out of it alive. She didn’t know how to get out of it without really hurting her brand, really hurting the identity she created on the show. She starts talking about how when Jesse is unhappy with you, or when Jesse makes up her mind about someone and she’s not shining her light on you anymore, it’s this awful feeling.
That was born from a conversation I was having with someone about the book and being like, I’m writing a book about the way women can be really emotionally abusive to other women, and I’m scared to publish it in this era. We started sharing war stories about our respective female bosses. She was describing a scenario where she was left out of a really key social gathering that happened after work, and she was like, You know that feeling, when a woman has turned her back on you? And I was like, Yes, it is the worst. Your stomach just drops. And the way she said it, I was like, Women know this feeling. So that’s where the dedication came from.
HG: Ugh. Yes. I know that feeling.
JK: I’ve known the feeling for a long time. I’ve known it since middle school. You know, when girls decide they’re going to ostracize you. I think it’s a more painful feeling than being broken up with, than a guy breaking your heart. There’s something so specific about feeling betrayed by another woman that just cuts me to the core.
HG: You mentioned you were nervous about publishing The Favorite Sister in this era. What has the reaction been like?
JK: I was worried about it, and then I started thinking about it more. I started thinking about how I was gonna position the book when it came out. Something that occurred to me, that I think has occurred to other people as well, is the culture that breeds these men who violate women in all of these abhorrent ways also breeds this mistrust and competition and posturing among women. I don’t think that is something we are born with, I don’t think it’s a question of nature. I think we are nurtured to be like that. I think men pit women against each other. I think the culture pits women against each other.
After I made that connection, I started seeing it everywhere. I started seeing it on my TV, I started seeing it in conversations I had with other men. And I realized this is something that if we want to change, we have to recognize it. Because now, when I recognize it, whenever that starts happening, I’m like, Oh, hell no, and I change the channel. If it’s happening in a conversation with a guy, I refuse to rise to it, or I call it out. So I’m glad I did a little soul searching about that and worked that out for myself. I always want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
HG: How can we own being ambitious women?
JK: During one of the awards shows this past winter, there was an actress who got up and gave a speech about the #TimesUp movement, saying all of these necessary and really raw truths. And I got a text message from a guy friend, commenting negatively on her appearance. In the past, even though it would have made me uncomfortable, I wouldn’t want to have made this guy feel uncomfortable, so I would have engaged with it. And I looked at [the text], and I’m like, She’s up here talking about all the fucking women in this room who have been sexually assaulted and harassed and belittled and undermined and underpaid by these rich white dudes, and all you have to say is that she doesn’t look good?
That is so fucked up! No! So I didn’t say anything. And 24 hours later, he followed up and was like, I guess you didn’t like that. And I was like, Well, actually, I don’t like talking about women’s appearances when they’re saying something important and thoughtful. The focus shouldn’t be on their appearance, good or bad. I hate that so much. Writing this book made me more aware of how much of a focus there is on women’s appearances and how it does play into ambition. It really is a distraction to think about all the energy we waste worrying about how we look, what we eat. Men don’t feel like they have to look a certain way in order to get everything they want out of life. I just want the same for women.
Now, the new pressure — Stephanie obviously takes issue with this — is to look like you’re not wearing makeup. To look like you haven’t had your hair done. To look like you haven’t put any effort into your outfit. And it’s so exhausting, because all of that takes so much work, so much money, so much time. Or, if you’re not born with those genes, if you want to try and achieve that effect, it does require all of those things. Again, it’s a distraction. It’s like, Why do I want to waste my brain power and my energy on my appearance, when it could be on something that’s so much bigger and more meaningful?
HG: You write bravely about sensitive topics in both The Favorite Sister and your first novel, Luckiest Girl Alive. How do you find the courage to write so openly?
JK: There’s so much solitude involved in the act of writing. It’s a long, drawn-out process. So when you’re working on it, there’s a part of you that intellectually and logically knows that people are actually going to read this. [laughs] People who know you, and people who might suspect you’re writing about them — all of that is present in the back of your mind. But when you’re by yourself for hours and hours on end, day in and day out, the focus is not on that. You’re alone with yourself, you’re able to be honest with yourself.
It’s only after you’ve written it where I feel like the bravery comes in. To be like, Okay, I’m actually going to allow this to be published. Okay, I’m actually going to allow this to go out. When you’re actually doing it, you don’t really need to be brave. You need to give yourself permission to just write. Because otherwise, you’ll never get it done. It’s so hard to do anyway, and if you’re putting extra shackles on yourself, forget it. It’s just impossible. But the fear of exposure and feeling very vulnerable and having to go through with it anyway, that comes in later. That comes in when you’re closer to the actual publish date.
HG: What are you reading right now? And what’s your favorite book that you’ve read this year?
JK: Right now I’m reading The Outsider by Stephen King. But my favorite book I’ve read this year is Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. I just loved that. It was the first time in a while that I had read something about a horrific crime, but there was still so much compassion in how she wrote. I found that to be such a refreshing combination. It really made me think, as a writer, about the kind of writer that I want to be. I love books that simultaneously entertain me and inspire me to be better.
The Favorite Sister is now available wherever books are sold.