Interview with Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus

Posted by Goodreads on August 27, 2013
Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus burst out on the scene in their twenties when they wrote the best-selling novel-cum-exposé The Nanny Diaries, about the secret life of "the help" on the posh Upper East Side. Since then the duo, who met at New York University, has penned seven novels together, often about the plight of the recent college grad. Their heroines navigate new careers in Citizen Girl, embark on complicated love affairs in Dedication, and struggle for independence in Between You and Me. The First Affair, their latest, takes on an all-too-familiar situation: sparks between a White House intern and the commander in chief. Although the two authors have left the gawky twentysomething era behind for the challenges of motherhood, they still have plenty to say about that critical decade. McLaughlin and Kraus chat with Goodreads about how tough it is for women just starting out, the perils of writing together, and their very first date.

Goodreads: The First Affair is actually the second book in a trilogy after the novel Between You and Me. It's a little unusual that the trilogy is thematic rather than based on shared characters.

Emma McLaughlin: All of these stories, to our minds, are situations in which the public has been fed one specific narrative and has passed really loud judgment. All three of these female characters have served as kind of a public catharsis point. We wanted to see if we could bring those stories right down to earth, make them incredibly relatable, and take you step by step through the decision points that these protagonists make. We want to ground readers in that situation to the point that they would say, "With that type of baggage, I could have made all of these choices."

GR: Did it concern you that this story was borrowed from the headlines of 1998? The former White House intern Monica Lewinsky turned 40 this past year.

EM: Sadly, being in a relationship that takes a sexual turn with a politician, whether you wanted that or not, is seemingly almost the norm right now. There's also a recent story that has come out, that was a big part of our research: a wonderful memoir by Mimi Alford called Once Upon a Secret. It was looking at that, looking at Marilyn Monroe, and looking at a number of stories about women who had affairs—frequently when they were very young with men in power—and seeing the similarities. It came down to the burden of this "secret," the burden of not being able to ask anyone for advice. It's an isolating moment and one in which you desperately need guidance, contact, and someone to talk you off the ledge—and probably talk you right out of it. We thought, dramatically, that it was such an interesting place to set something.

GR: How did you develop the characters of Jamie the intern and Gregory the president?

Nicola Kraus: We tried to work backward from what type of girl ends up in a situation like this: who hasn't been taught in her life to have any kind of boundaries. That's the perfect person that a man like Gregory Rutland is going to be attracted to. He's not looking for someone who knows how to say "no" to him. So creating Jamie McAlister's backstory was a very clear road map for us of someone from birth to 21 who would be perfectly positioned to receive his misguided and destructive attentions.

GR: Did you research Monica Lewinsky a lot?

NK: Yes, we did. Similarly, I think she also had a childhood that really perfectly set her up to not know how to handle this relationship. We have heard that she can't even get a job interview, and Bill Clinton made $17 million last year. I know that he was the president and she was just an intern, but she should be able to get a job interview. Nor can the women that Anthony Weiner sext-ed. Why do we hold the burden of responsibility more on the side of the 20-year-old rather than the 50-year-old who called her over 200 times at home? Every time she tried to pull out, he didn't let her. Yet she ended up being portrayed as a stalker. Our hearts go out to her.

My father used to pat me on the knee when I was a teenager and say, "You guys just got the vote like a minute ago." This is primitive times. Men don't want to see their power go. You're going to have to fight for it.

EM: Jamie had a really soft and lovely ride compared to what Monica Lewinsky went through. The research is stunning and devastating. It's really disturbing. The burden was on her to prove whether Clinton had lied. It all came down to: Did they come together with the intention of arousing each other? That testimony needed to be exactly focused on that. And who would want to answer any of those questions?

The two political parties of this country had everything at stake in how she was presented or demonized. The public didn't really account for the fact that this was one of the most well-funded political campaigns that had ever happened in the history of the country. It's bizarre.

GR: Your work often focuses on the struggle of the average twentysomething girl. The woman who graduates and starts out on the bottom rung of any career, who feels the pressure of having to figure it all out and be independent. Why are you so interested in this period?

NK: I have such profound sympathy for that time in life when you haven't figured anything out. In my early twenties I just felt like I was in free fall. I was acting, and my parents had no idea how I was going to support myself: why I had to keep nannying and why I couldn't just get a real job. There is something about that early twenties experience that is excruciating: You're just coming off of your adolescent hormones, you really are physiologically becoming an adult at that time, everything is so intense and you just don't know. The stakes feel so high about every choice that you make.

EM: If you look at commercial movies, the entire first act is to get someone to a place where they are unborn. Where they get on a plane and suddenly end up in Zimbabwe. Or they took a drug or got in the car with the wrong person or picked up the wrong suitcase. Suddenly they are without resources. They're starting from scratch, in a way. That's where the second act of the story kicks in. I think when you are in your early twenties, the stakes are instantly there. Given all of that, it's amazing how judgmental society is about women in that time and the choices they make. Particularly about their sex lives and fashion choices. There is a kind of criticism that really impacts women's lives.

NK: For example, you would never have a guy movie called What's Your Number? We get such conflicted messages. We're supposed to be reading Cosmopolitan and wowing him 1,200 new ways, but we're also not supposed to let our number get too high. You're supposed to find Mr. Right, but don't sleep with Mr. Right while you're trying to find him. We like to think that we're past all of that, but we're not culturally at all.

GR: So how can women ignore the criticism and start making good choices?

NK: I also think what's interesting to us about that age is that we're attracted to writing about wounded characters. When you get out of college, it's your first time that you can start making choices. A lot of times those choices are, "I'm going to go work for someone who's unconsciously exactly like my father or exactly like my mother." It's a great time to be able to create these mirrors in childhood trauma and the world that you create as a grown-up. I think that it's not until your late twenties, at least in our circle of friends, that we started to have this awareness of when patterns started to repeat themselves. For example, dating the same guy at 23, a slightly worse version at 25, a worse version at 29, and then, "Oh, wait a second. It's me!" We like writing to journey to, "Oh, wait a second. It's me." Then you don't make the same mistake again.

EM: We wish there were times someone reflected back a crazy experience and said, "It's not you. It is the room. It is the room." It drives us to hold up a mirror to each story. We're choosing very dramatic circumstances but everyday dilemmas where you don't have perfect answers to guide you. We write to say, "Girl, you're not crazy."

GR: Goodreads member Sevi asks, "I noticed in your novels the themes of voyeurism and intrusion. The main character inadvertently finds herself partaking in or observing others' intensely private moments. Nan's discovery of Mr. X's affair, Logan caught skinny-dipping in Kelsey's pool and later witnessing her husband's breakdown. What is the significance of this theme, and how does it figure in The First Affair?"

EM: I think that's something that's dramatically interesting to us: the burden of a secret or knowing someone is in pain or making a choice. Again, there's something about being a woman in society where you run in circles through your head on an ethical loop, [deciding] what your responsibility is with that type of information. With Nan, she's thinking, "I love this child. I want to protect this child. I now know that his father is doing this. This mother is treating me horribly, but she's my employer. Is it the right thing to tell her? Is it the right thing not to tell her?" There's no clear right answer. You're screwed if you do and screwed if you don't. You want to un-know it.

I think in terms of the swimming pool, it goes back to being in your twenties when your objectification and sexuality are always what you bring into the room. It's just part of what people see you as and how they treat and interact with you. It's part of your merit or lack thereof.

Our characters are always having moments of that. My favorite moment of this is in Citizen Girl; she gets a job and is supposed to be this poster girl for a feminist Web site. Over the course of that journey she becomes her worst nightmare. In the final turn she goes to a party for work, and she's asked to put on a bikini for one of the corporate sponsors that is there. She then has a face-off with her boss and his assistant in their guest bathroom. They say, "Just put it on! Just put it on! Just put it on!" Again, what do you do? It's your job, and everyone else there is in bathing suits. To us, it's getting women in these situations where it's complicated. There is no exact right thing. You're just kind of working through your own moral compass and trying to hold on to yourself.

GR: We received tons of questions about your writing process and how you two manage to have written—seven!—books together. First off, what's the story of your "first date" together?

EM: No one has ever asked us about our first date.

NK: It's true! We met at an ATM on 86th and Lexington in Manhattan. It's funny because we had gone to college together for one year, and we'd taken one class together, but we'd never spoken. Then we ran into each other at that ATM, and I invited her to see a theater performance with me that night. We went down to Second Avenue and saw some alternative theater monologue performance art, spoken-word thing. We became fast friends; I think Emma moved in with me a few days later, and I introduced her to her now-husband a few weeks after that.

EM: I've made out like a bandit in this relationship.

NK: We didn't start writing together until five years later. Emma had gone on into organizational development, and I was acting. I had started to write a book that turned into a play, and I invited Emma to a reading of it so she could hear how it sounded. She e-mailed me the next day and said, "I really want to write something about having been nannies, and I'm looking for a partner. I know obviously that you were a nanny, but I didn't know you were interested in writing. Would you have any interest in partnering with me on this?" That is how we started. That was January of 2000.

GR: That sounds like fate. So tell us a little bit about your writing process. How do you do it? Goodreads member Yolanda Nesbeth would like to know, "How do you manage conflicting ideas, and what is your exact model for writing?

EM: We outline extensively. We talk at length about backstory, about "core wounds," which is our catchphrase. We talk about every arc of every character and of the story itself, thematically and practically. We don't start writing until we have the logistics of every chapter mapped out. That takes about two months. Then we break that up into chapters. For the first couple books we broke it up by scene, which now is mind-blowing to me. I can't believe we did that. In The Nanny Diaries we switched off every paragraph. I think we were really finding our voice together and needed that. Now we do every other chapter. Sometimes we'll do two chapters back to back. On paper we do tandem reads and read sections out loud. By the time we're done editing, I often forget what thing I've written or Nicky's written.

In terms of conflict, we definitely do have different ideas about what should happen to a character in a book. It's become something we really embrace because what it requires is that you have to pitch the other person your take on it. Over the course of pitching it one of three things can happen: Either you're halfway through the pitch and you realize in hearing it that it doesn't hang together, you convince the other person, or 60 to 70 percent of the time it's the thing we haven't thought of. In The Nanny Diaries we had to knock down, throw down, fight about whether the word "milk" or "cream"....

NK: It wasn't "milk" or "cream"! It was "cream" or "beige." It was the color, not the beverage.

GR: Do you have to take breaks or can you handle each other for long periods of time?

NK: We can. When I fly with my husband, I think, "Ah, I wish Emma was here." You make an airport fun.

EM: We know how to rock an airport. The thing is, it's because we have our own hotel rooms.

GR: Which authors have influenced you?

NK: I think David Sedaris was a big inspiration. When we first read his SantaLand Diaries, it was a way of talking about work that we had never read before. It was legitimizing that it was OK to talk about a job in that much detail. The combination of pathos and humor really set us on fire. It was a window into this idea of how we could potentially tell The Nanny Diaries that was very inspiring.

EM: I think it was also hugely helpful to realize that we could write the way we talked. There's a kind of accessibility, frankness, and use of humor. We always want you to feel like you came for a coffee with your storyteller best friend. It's late and they are closing the café, but you just have to hear the end of the story. Not having to sound like someone else gave me the courage to start.

GR: What books are you reading now?

NK: I feel like I've been so lucky that it's summer, and my daughter has been napping. I've actually gotten to read. I just finished The Language of Flowers, which I loved. We are both now reading Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. It's amazing.

EM: Just this last year we both read Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which I almost died from. I was also late in the game this year, but I finally read I Don't Know How She Does It. That book slayed me. It came out right around the time Nanny Diaries came out, and the media kind of made this idea of the mommies versus the nannies and created a story around that. I remember it really put me off of reading it.

I'm really grateful I didn't read it until I became a working mother. I think it's the most feminist piece of fiction I've read. It's an extraordinary piece of work. I feel like it should be required reading for all losing-their-minds working moms. I'm keeping a stack of them in my house to give out to people who come over for dinner.

GR: What are you working on next?

NK: Right now we are finishing the novel that will be coming out next summer. We don't have a title for it yet, but we're really excited about it. Then we are finishing up working on a musical, which will hopefully be out sometime before we all have grandchildren. We also debuted a Web series called The Writers Block.

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Karen (new)

Karen Pottruff So sorry for myself when I think what I might have been able to accomplish with the help of a college journalism course.

message 2: by Anas (new)

Anas Omer yes

message 3: by Hediyeh (new)

Hediyeh I've haven't read that , but I really want to read in future , but I'm in Iran, and I can't find these book in my country because just some books traslating in Iran. It's my honore to could see these interview . Good luck

message 4: by محمد (new)

محمد it was really good and unbeliveable


message 5: by Hamza (new)

Hamza Hello !

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