Zibby Owens: I'm so excited to be interviewing Lauren Gershell today. We’re here together in the Hamptons. It’s such a lovely day. This is super fun for me. Lauren is the coauthor, along with Sophie Littlefield, of That's What Frenemies Are For: A Novel. A graduate of Columbia University from which she has a BA and a law degree, Lauren currently lives in New York City where she was born and raised. This is her first book. Welcome to Lauren.
Lauren Gershell: Thank you.
Zibby: Congratulations on your first novel.
Lauren: Thank you.
Zibby: Can you tell listeners what That's What Frenemies Are For is about and how you and your coauthor Sophie decided to do this book?
Lauren: The book is about a woman who lives in New York City who has it all. She has everything she thinks she's ever wanted. She puts a lot of importance on her own social capital. She starts to feel as though her star is fading. She takes on a young spin instructor and in a very mammalian fashion, decides that she's going to make her into a superstar, not necessarily out of the kindness of her own heart but to regain some of the social capital that she thinks she's lost.
The book has an interesting story in how it came to be about. I had an idea. I'd never written a book before. I reached out to a childhood friend who's a literary agent. I said, “I have this idea. What do you think of it?” She said, “I really like that idea.” I said, “I'd love to do it with somebody else. I feel like I need someone to work with me and write it with me so that it can be as good as it can possibly be because I've never written before.” She reached out to some other agents that she knew. That's how Sophie and I started writing together. It was basically a blind date. It was also love at first sight. It was over the phone. Within two minutes of talking to Sophie, I knew she was the one. She completely got me. She got what I wanted to do with the book. We wrote the book together. It was a really wonderful experience.
Zibby: That's amazing. I didn't realize.
Lauren: It was a setup.
Zibby: That's awesome.
Lauren: I know. People think we were friends. We actually didn't meet until we'd been writing for almost a year because she lives in California.
Zibby: Actually, before I had kids, I ghostwrote a book with these two authors who I never met until after the book came out.
Lauren: There you go. It can work. People, I think, have this vision that we sat at a desk together writing. That is definitely not how it happened.
Zibby: How did you do it?
Lauren: I'm a Luddite, and so we wrote the book in Microsoft Word with Track Changes because that's what I had done as a lawyer when I wrote briefs. That's what I had been used to doing. Google Docs was really intimidating to me. It was literally drafts back and forth with red lines and edits. Then in the last few weeks, we'd use Google Docs here and there. We were both very stressed about it.
Zibby: When you were using Microsoft Word, would you write a chapter and then she would write a chapter? How do you actually write with somebody else?
Lauren: Chunks, is what I would say. We would write chunks and then send it to each other. There were certain things that were more my area. There were certain things that were more her area. There was a lot of back and forth. The time difference actually worked really well. I would work first thing in the morning when my kids went to school. I would then send her something as she was waking up in California. It worked very, very well, the time difference, which at first made me nervous. It was a little bit hard for phone calls, but it was great for writing.
Zibby: Did you have the whole thing mapped out ahead of time? Did you have the chapters?
Lauren: We thought we did. Actually, we sold the book on a partial, which means that we wrote a hundred pages and sold it. When we sold those hundred pages, we had a detailed outline, which we then completely deviated from as we wrote the entire first draft. Then the first draft was very, very different from the final book. There was a major murder in it. Then that murder became an accidental death. Then we took out the death completely. There was a lot of deviating from the initial outline.
Zibby: Wow. That's so neat to be able to write in the same way as someone else. From reading, you wouldn't know two different people --
Lauren: -- She had a major influence on me. That was also something. Sophie has written numerous books. She's lost count at this point. She's ghostwritten. She's written under her name. She's written under another name. That was an incredible experience. She's a master at what she does. I know that if I had written it alone or written it with anybody else, it wouldn't have been as good as it was because of her. She was very influential in my own writing.
Zibby: When you went to your childhood friend and said, “I have an idea,” what was that?
Lauren: The original idea was a story about women’s friendships surrounding a fitness studio. Initially, I had thought about the fitness part being more prominently featured in the book, maybe telling it from multiple perspectives. Somebody who works at the studio sees everything going down. That was the original idea. Then once we sat down to write, obviously that is not what the book became. That was the original thought.
Zibby: One time I was in spin class. I was like, it would be so neat if each chapter -- almost like a movie. What's going on with her? What's going on with her?
Lauren: That was the original concept, having somebody who worked there have a perspective, and somebody who goes there, and someone who's an outsider. Ultimately, that's not what we wrote.
Zibby: It’s great, what you wrote.
Lauren: That was the original plan.
Zibby: Are you a big spinner? A lot of this is around spinning.
Lauren: I am. I love to spin. It’s the only form of exercise that I have ever found that I actually enjoy. I have an article coming out soon about having taken over two thousand classes at SoulCycle over the last ten years.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh.
Lauren: I know. I don't know if it’s something to be proud of or embarrassed by, but it’s the truth. I love, love, love spinning.
Zibby: Are you a person who follows certain instructors?
Lauren: Yeah, I do.
Zibby: You're a devotee?
Lauren: I'm a devotee, yes.
Zibby: Awesome. That's cool. It’s great to be able to stick to anything.
Lauren: I have to say, when I became obsessed with it ten years ago, I think most people expected that within a few months or a few years I'd be over it, but I'm not. I don't do it quite as much as I used to.
Zibby: Do you get something from SoulCycle for two thousand classes? Are there little awards? Are they going to bring out one of the cakes that they [indiscernible/laughter]?
Lauren: They're really good about recognizing their riders. Birthdays, big milestone rides, they do try to make you feel special. No, you don't get a free class or anything. I wish.
Zibby: In the book, you discuss personal branding. Julia, who's the main character, takes on this newbie spinning instructor named Tatum as her pet project. She says, “Building a personal brand, you have to be strategic and disciplined. The first step is to identify your customer. And after that, everything you do, every decision you make should be focused on her.” You do a great job of then crafting the brand of this woman. Maybe she picked the wrong woman. It remains to be seen. [laughter] When you think about this book and the branding of this book, who are you thinking is the ideal consumer of this book?
Lauren: I obviously think the book is targeted at women. I hope men will read it too. I'm realistic that I think it’s really a book, mostly, for women. The answer to that question is twofold. It’s for women or people who want a fun beach read that they read quickly without getting depressed, without getting lost in the book in the sense of having to go back. It’s not a difficult book to read. It’s a fun book. We tried to place, within the book, some themes that were a little bit more serious and a little bit more important. It’s ideal for book clubs. It’s ideal for groups of friends who want to read a book together and then talk about it afterwards. It’s also a fun, juicy beach read.
Zibby: I agree. It was awesome. I was actually struck reading the book by how much airtime -- I don't know the equivalent, booktime? -- you gave to Benilda, the nanny character. I feel like she was really one of the central characters in the book.
Lauren: Good, as she's supposed to be.
Zibby: You were always wondering what's up with Benilda? You never really know. She almost becomes another frenemy in her own right in a way. I wanted to know about that decision to include her as such a central character.
Lauren: Benilda is almost the moral compass of the book in the sense of she is watching Julia, the main character, make some very questionable decisions and get herself into a lot of bad situations. Benilda is watching and judging, but also cares. It’s almost what I would expect a reader to be going through themselves. They know this woman is a good person. They want to throttle her at times. They think she is awful at times. Hopefully, they also like her. People are flawed. She's flawed. Benilda, to me, is a voice of reason. If she becomes a frenemy, it’s only because of Julia. She's not coming at Julia as a frenemy. It says a lot about Julia, how she treats her, and how their situation is resolved. I think of Benilda as a moral compass.
Zibby: Julia, let's talk about her likeability for a minute.
Lauren: My favorite topic.
Zibby: [laughs] She is a blatant social climber, for lack of a better word. In the beginning for example, you set it up with her family friend Janet Erikson who wrote the letter helping her get Paige, her daughter, into this school. Yet once she gets into the school, she's like, “No. Social liability, not going to go there.” She's very much aware of her status and is very strategic and all that. You wrote -- this is now Julia talking about Janet. She said, “I felt bad for the way I treated her, but now wasn’t the time for me to be taking chances. I sometimes thought of my life like a stock ticker, the graph line trending up or down with my social status. Throw a winter solstice party that ended up all over Instagram -- the line ticked up. Lost the PTA election, and it slipped back down. Conspicuous absence from the Hamptons scene all summer...it remained to be seen how far my stock would fall.” Are we supposed to like Julia?
Lauren: I don't know. Amongst early readers, that has been a hot topic. Is Julia likeable? Is she not? Does it matter? When Sophie and I were writing this book, something important to us was to not have a protagonist who was angelic. I prefer books where the characters are complicated. Real people are complicated. Real people make mistakes. Real people sometimes lose focus. They lose focus on what's important in their lives and what's important to them. They can get caught up in other things. I like Julia. There are people who've loved the book who hate Julia. That's one of the many things that people can talk about when reading the book. We’re not supposed to hate Julia. We are certainly supposed to feel frustrated by her, dislike her at times, but possibly even identify with her on some level. She's very, very privileged. She doesn't necessarily appreciate that privilege in the way that she should. Anybody reading the book understands what it’s like to sometimes take things for granted. I like her most of the time.
Zibby: That's good since you spent all this time writing about her. I would hope so.
Lauren: [laughs] I like all the characters in the book. I like Tatum. I like Julia. I like them all, maybe not some of the real frenemies. The main characters, there are moments where you like them. You agree with them. You disagree with them. You hate them.
Zibby: One thing you did so well is they're so real. I feel like I could go to a cocktail party tonight and be like, “Oh, that's them!” I know you didn't base them on any particular people, so I won't actually see them tonight. [laughs]
Lauren: They are figments of our imaginations.
Zibby: You did a really good job of making them into actual pseudo-people. Julia and her husband James get in a fight because James has all these legal issues which crop up throughout the book, not to give anything away. When she starts complaining about how his legal issues are affecting her social standing -- this is reminding me, are you watching Big Little Lies this season?
Lauren: I watched the first season. I didn't watch the second.
Zibby: You have to start watching.
Lauren: I was waiting until they were all out so I could binge them.
Zibby: I think they're now all out as of last Sunday. Anyway, she starts complaining to James about how this is so unpleasant for her. He says that she should ignore the nasty responses that she's been getting about it. She thinks to herself, “Easy for him to say. James had a black belt in ignoring what other people thought, but he wouldn't last a week in my shoes. These are my friends, James, the people I see every day.” Then he tells her, “You know, if you did have a job, or even a goddamn hobby, maybe you wouldn't go around acting like any of this shit matters.” Then I was wondering, do you think that's it? Do you think that women who don't have jobs and hobbies use their social world as their main measure of self-worth, or is it just people who are vulnerable to this particular social game regardless of whether they're at home or not?
Lauren: All of that. There's a few things. One question in the book is why do women, or some women, feel like their social capital is so important? Is that something that's their fault? Is it what society has placed upon them? It is hard for women, whether they work outside the home or don't, to find what makes them feel fulfilled separate from their jobs, whether their job is their family, or their job is their family and a job outside the home. Actually, I know you're familiar with it -- one of my closest friends has a book coming out in October called Fair Play. Her name is Eve Rodsky. She writes a lot about unicorn space and the importance of women --
Zibby: -- What does that mean, exactly?
Lauren: What it really means is women need to have something. It can be anything. It could be knitting. It could be reading. It could be working out. It could be gardening. It doesn't matter what it is. Women need things that fulfil them outside of their familial responsibilities. They need to be given the time to do them. They have to be told it’s okay to take that time. That comment from James, it circles back to James’s comment, which is that Julia’s trying to have a hobby. She's a little misguided about what it is. The idea that, are women’s hobbies even valued? I like James a lot. We wanted James to be a wonderful guy. He doesn't quite get her. He doesn't quite understand her. He doesn't quite understand her life. That's something that many women can relate to. That's one of my favorite conversations that's come from the book.
Zibby: You include Instagram a lot in this story which I thought was very appropriate given the mental energy, the space it takes up in my own mind. I appreciated it since I spend way too much time on Instagram. @ZibbyOwens, @MomsDontHaveTimeToReadBooks [laughter] I'm just kidding. You include the role that Instagram plays in today’s mom relationships a lot. You're commenting a lot on -- Julia’s always noticing how many followers so-and-so has, pictures of who’s out and about with who. She has an issue with her friend Grace. “She was just posting about me at the Central Park Conservancy luncheon. #BestFriendsForever.” I totally related to this too. There was one time I saw these moms at my daughter’s school out and about, arms around each other at some dinner. I was like, [gasp]. I wouldn't have been able to go. It doesn't matter. I felt so left out. This is terrible. I'm in my forties. Does it ever end?
Lauren: It does not ever end. I love Instagram and Facebook. It’s allowed me to stay in touch with people that I would've lost touch with. I know what they do. I know where they live. I know the names of their kids. I like that, but it can be dangerous. We’re often so focused on the dangers for our children. I have a thirteen-year-old daughter, so I'm very aware of those dangers. It can also be dangerous for us. It’s an alternate reality. People can get very caught up in thinking it’s reality. The other thing, apropos of what you just said, is that particularly for adults, you get to see all the things you're not invited to. You get to see all the things you've been left out of, every dinner party, every wedding, every cocktail gathering. It can be very, very damaging and hurtful. It can start to really mess with your mind, which is what I wanted to capture with Julia. I do think that it can also be really positive. One of my favorite things about having written this book is that I love to read. I have connected on Instagram with all these other people who love to read and love to talk about books. I have a few friends in real life who are like that, but not a million. I've loved that part of Instagram, which is a whole new part of Instagram for me in the last year or so. The conversations about social media are often focused on the kids and maybe need to be focused more on the women in their forties. [laughs]
Zibby: Totally. I need an Instagram intervention.
Lauren: Many of us do.
Zibby: My screen time, they were like, it’s gone up twenty percent. Again? It went up again last week? How is this even possible? I'm always complaining about what I have time for and what I don't.
Lauren: But I like it.
Zibby: I love it too. I love it. I feel like, actually, I am strengthening relationships on Instagram. Somebody got on the best-seller list and I can be like, “Yay! Amazing!” I love that.
Lauren: I love it too, but it can really mess with your head.
Zibby: I know. There's also no way to do it any faster, which drives me bananas. You can't be even more efficient because then you miss stuff.
Lauren: You miss stuff. You miss your best friend’s post about her child being born. [laughs] That's the problem.
Zibby: The thing that I didn't know -- some people, maybe not the people listening right now, but Instagram is sort of a requirement for authors now. You have to be on. You have to really be available.
Lauren: Yes. Authors tend to choose their social media platform. For many of them, it seems to be Twitter. I was already on Instagram. I already loved Instagram as a stay-at-home mom. With the book, I tried to get on Twitter. I mean, I am on Twitter, but I literally don't know what to tweet. Instagram is, for whatever reason, more my thing. Again, I love talking about books and seeing what people are reading and seeing the pretty covers.
Zibby: Me too. I love that. Cover reveal!
Lauren: It’s really fun. Maybe some authors feel like it’s a requirement of the job that maybe isn't their favorite. I actually really like it. I love seeing what people have to say about the book, usually. I hope they’ve only tagged me when they liked it. I love it. I love seeing what they’ve taken from the book. I love seeing their photos of the book and where they pose it. I'm really enjoying being part of that community on Instagram.
Zibby: It’s really fun. I love it.
Lauren: I've gotten so many great book recommendations too.
Zibby: Me too. I feel like if you see certain people all posting about one book...
Lauren: Exactly, then you want to read it.
Zibby: Maybe that's just pathetic of me.
Lauren: No. It helps me know what is out there and what's supposed to be really good.
Zibby: I just interviewed Courtney Maum who wrote Touch and has a new book, Costalegre, out. I did it with Nicola Harrison at Berry & Co. Bookstore. She had this whole thing about being a good literary citizen and how it’s important for authors and everyone, but in particular, authors, to be good literary citizens. One of the things is to promote books that come out. Every Instagram, every picture of a galley or whatever helps.
Lauren: I agree with that. There have been some books that I have loved that I have read this summer. Even before I wrote a book, people were often asking me for book recommendations. I do try, maybe once a week, to post a book that I have read and loved for my friends to see, but also the people who follow me who are readers to see what I've been reading and really loving. I read a lot, so I can't post every book I read. The really, really special ones, I definitely try to promote. That's what I use Twitter for, actually. That's the only thing I can think of to post about on Twitter, aside from my own book, is other books.
Zibby: I did this podcast on this library podcast. I was saying how much I love recommending books too, just like you. I feel like every big friend group has one person in the group who they come to for book recommendations. We are those people in our group.
Lauren: I am definitely that person. I have a friend who, for example, mostly only reads thrillers. I recommended a book to her last summer outside of her normal genre. She's still talking about it. She's still incredulous that she loved the book as much as she did. It’s so cool. That's my greatest accomplishment of last year.
Zibby: Me too. That's how I feel. When I recommend something and people love it and then they're like, “Thank you. That was amazing,” I take so much joy and pride in that. It’s great. It’s really silly. Of all the things in life, but for me and for you -- I'm glad you can relate.
Lauren: I'm so excited when someone says, “I read it and loved it.”
Zibby: Some people are good at matchmaking. I have a few friends who are like, “I've set up five marriages.” I'm not that way. I like to think I'm good at it. I'm actually not at all.
Lauren: I've never even tried.
Zibby: I tried for a while. Then I gave up. I realized I guess I just don't know what people want in a relationship at all.
Lauren: I know what they want in a book.
Zibby: A book is easier.
Lauren: If you recommend a book that they love and the second one they don't love as much, they’ll usually give you a third chance. They’ll say, “I loved the first. I didn't love the second.”
Zibby: I was brainstorming a description of what I do. One of the terms that I had come on was book-yenta.
Lauren: Yes. It’s perfect.
Zibby: You're like a book-yenta.
Lauren: I love it. Again, I love to read. I love to share my passion for reading with others, whether it’s somebody who reads a book a year or somebody who reads a book a week.
Zibby: I agree. That's awesome. A quick line you said in the book. You're talking about life in general, basically. “Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not. That's why there's wine.” Truth. Discuss please. Also, are there other ways, perhaps wine included, that you have turned to, to get through the pitfalls or the difficult times?
Lauren: Totally. It’s funny because my literary agent at one point in an early draft said, “There's so much drinking in this book.” Whether it’s good or bad, the wine culture is very prevalent. There are plenty of other ways, though, to deal with moments of stress or hardship. I like to spin. I like to see my friends and be around people who make me feel better. The thing about friendships, which is something that we also wanted to write about in the book, is that women can break your heart. Women can also heal your heart. People are often so fixated on marriage and families. The importance of friends is sometimes forgotten in the dialogue in this country. I have the most wonderful friends. They have gotten me through so much. Yes, wine. Yes, spinning. Yes, friends and obviously family and all that stuff.
Zibby: And reading.
Lauren: And reading. Reading is a huge thing for me. I really try to take time every day to read. It’s not always easy. I failed miserably yesterday. It’s really important to me to get that time to quiet my mind, quiet the thoughts in my head about myself and my own life and immerse myself in another story.
Zibby: Do you have any favorite books, or books you're reading now, or books to recommend?
Lauren: I have tons. Do you have three hours?
Zibby: Let's pick a few. Let's say three.
Lauren: Not a thousand? Let's do current books. This summer, some of my favorite books have been Fleishman Is in Trouble.
Zibby: I'm halfway through that. So good.
Lauren: I am the biggest fangirl of hers now. I tweeted at her, in fact.
Zibby: I direct messaged Taffy Akner. Now she's going to come on the show.
Lauren: I'm so jealous. I wish I could watch that. That book, to me, was genius. Towards the end -- I was reading it on my Kindle -- I was highlighting full pages. I was obsessed with that book. I still am obsessed with that book. That's a book that I really tried, on my own Instagram account, to talk about several times. There's a book that just came out last week called The Marriage Clock, which I loved. It is really funny and light and a great summer read. I just finished City of Girls. I finished it two days ago. I could not put it down. There have been some really amazing books out this summer. I would say those have been three of my absolute favorites. Also, Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner. I think it’s her best one ever. There have been other books I've loved this summer.
Zibby: I had her on the show earlier this summer.
Lauren: You did? I haven't heard that. I have to listen to it. I loved that book. Those are some of my favorite ones from the summer.
Zibby: What's coming next for you?
Lauren: I don't know. [laughs] I was a lawyer. Then I was a stay-at-home mom for eleven years. If you had told me two and half years ago or three years ago that I was going to write a book and publish it, I would've thought you were crazy. You never know what's coming in life. You never know what opportunities you're going to find yourself facing. I'm just going to enjoy this book, and be busy with this book, and be busy with my kids, and then see what comes next. I do have little things in the back of my mind. I'm trying to keep Frenemies and my children in the front of my mind and not think about those other little ideas until I have a little more time.
Zibby: That's smart. Very wise.
Lauren: I don't know the answer to that. I wish I knew.
Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?
Lauren: The advice is a complete cliché, but clichés exist for a reason, right? Just to believe in yourself. If you have an idea, sit down and start writing. If you have a manuscript that you believe in, keep pushing it. One thing I realized in meeting so many authors is that most authors have manuscripts in their drawers that they didn't sell or didn't even try to sell. Many authors work for many, many, many years until they sell their book. If you believe in yourself, that's your best shot of publishing a book. If you start to give up, everybody else will too. That's what I think.
Zibby: Love it. That was great advice. It may be cliché, but I don't think anybody has said that specifically. There you go. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Lauren: You're so welcome.
Zibby: Lauren Gershell, Sophie Littlefield, That's What Frenemies Are For, available now. Thank you so much.
Lauren: Thanks, Zibby.