The Pressure to Have It All

Posted on 6th July 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our Thriller of the Month The Luckiest Girl Alive has rocketed author Jessica Knoll to the front rank of thriller novelists, drawing deeply on her own – and sometimes challenging - life experience. With a film adaptation already under way, Martha Greengrass caught up with the author to discuss the debut’s origins
You’ve written candidly about the events which led to you writing Luckiest Girl Alive, what inspired you to reveal that the book drew from experiences in your own life?

It was a message to readers on the eve of my paperback tour in the U.S.  In the year since the hardcover came out in the States, I had fielded many questions about how I had written about a teenage rape victim so accurately, and I was not prepared to share my own experience yet. Knowing I would get these questions on the tour spurred me to talk about it in the way I feel most articulate, which is on the page.

How do you think fiction helps readers to explore important, difficult and painful topics differently from non-fiction?

If you’re pulling from a painful experience from your own life, you have the freedom to be revisionist. You can craft the ending you didn’t get in your own life, and there is a form of power in that.

Your main character, TifAni, is known by different names throughout the book, how important are the concepts of identity and self-image to this novel?

Ani is someone who has never been comfortable in her own skin, which is something I think a lot of women can relate to. You’re too fat, you’re too thin, you’re too bossy, you’re too intimidating—the list goes on and on. She tries on different hats, always trying to find the one that will allow her to blend in and to be accepted. When she was younger, she stood out, and she was brutalized because of that. Finding an identity that allows her to blend in is matter of protection for her.

The narrative moves back and forth in time between the adult Ani and her experiences as a teenager, was it always important for you that the reader should have both perspectives?

Once I got into the flow of writing the novel, the story came very organically. I finished the first chapter and realized that of course I needed to go back to the start. The real action takes place in the past, and I wanted to juxtapose Ani’s dark backstory with the glamorous, sophisticated life she’d created for herself in the present.

There’s a focus in the novel on the pressure on women to ‘have it all’, how does that correspond with your own views on the challenges women face today?

The zeitgeist rallies around women who lean in and act like girl bosses. Women are outpacing men in education and in managerial positions. A woman is leading the presidential ticket of a major political party for the first time in over two hundred years. It is such an exciting, promising time for women professionally, and there is pressure to perform, which I don’t think is a bad thing at all. At the same time, there remains pressure to be personally successful, and a ring on your finger signifies that you have your personal life in order. Just like Ani, I endeavored to be both professionally and personally accomplished, but my motivations were based in fear and anguish. I longed to be accepted, to feel safe and supported. I tried to fill that emptiness with professional and personal accolades, and it didn’t work.  That’s part of why I felt so angry all of the time.

How did your work as an editor for Cosmopolitan help to shape the media world Ani inhabits?

The magazine world is very glamorous, and it seemed like an interesting idea to contrast that with a very dark and violent storyline. In a way, it mirrors who Ani is as a character. There is a disconnect between who she really is and what she really thinks with the image she presents to the world.

The novel has been described as a thriller, how comfortable are you with that description?

I am a huge fan of crime fiction and psychological suspense. I knew I wanted to write a story with grit and intrigue.  The traditional definition of a thriller is a novel in which a protagonist is pitted against a villain out to destroy her, and I certainly think it fits.

 High school reading comes up in the novel, what were the books you read growing-up which influenced you?

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.

Luckiest Girl Alive is your first novel, what can readers expect next?

I finished the script for Luckiest Girl Alive last fall. I’m currently writing book two and writing a second script for another Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea produced project.  I’ll be in my writing cave for the next year if you need me.


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