It's so terrifying to be asked how you're doing
A conversation with Writer-Capital-W, Emily Layden
Est. Reading time: 32 min. [It was recommended to me by the Ashburton Energy + Hair Logistics Group that I start including est. read time so you can figure out when to make time for the Journal. I know this is a long article to debut the function for, but it’s worth your while!]
This week, I’m pleased to share a conversation I had with Emily Layden, author of the forthcoming novel All Girls, from St. Martin’s Press. Whaaaat, Julian? That sounds like a real-ass book from a real-ass writer. Is this the New York Times Review of Books? Is this the Paris Review? Is this the New Yorker?
No, my dears. It is still the Sternal Journal, but we are not here to play. And yes, I am declaring war on the New Yorker. I met Emily a few years ago when she was, to me, simply the cousin of a person I was (and am still!) in a loving relationship with.
At the time, she was (my words, not hers) banging her head against various walls and crevices trying to publish a book. Specifically, a book about the young women of an all-girls boarding school as they navigated their lives and a series of scandals enveloping the school.
In the years since, that very book was sold to a, yes, real-ass publisher, and now it will be released in two weeks. I talked to Emily about the book and the different ways she infused it with the anxieties and resiliences of young women; but also about authenticity, Emily Dickinson, Instagram, and why aspiring writers and the people afforded the honor of dropping the “aspiring” never quite get to share the same reality.
You can and should read more about All Girls and pre-order at the small business-friendly Bookshop or the small-business decimating other one at the links embedded (and don’t only pre-order for this reason, buut since I gave feedback on a couple drafts, my name is in the acknowledgments! That’s a certified Sternal Journal collectible!).
So without further ado, here’s our chat, edited lightly for clarity and brevity:
— — —
JS: There will be an intro. Already. On top of this.
EL: So I don't think I need give you my background, and whatever bio I might give in another situation.
JS: But I'm curious what kind of bio you have you given in these other situations?
EL: I actually find it a nightmarish question when someone says, “So tell us about yourself and your journey to publication." And then I end up talking for like six minutes, and everything I've said is terrible.
JS: How do you feel specifically when you hear the phrase, "journey to publication?”
EL: Really bad. [Laughs]
JS: But it's complicated. I understand why you feel really bad. It is the most PR-y, contrived bullshit. It goes against everything I believe in. But also technically it's true. It is a journey.
EL: It was a journey. It's totally a journey.
JS: And it is publication. I wanna talk about the book, but I'm gonna go backwards now. Catherine Lacey is doing some sort of creative writing class, and it's like 600 bucks, but you can apply to do pay-what-you-can.
And in the application, they have you check which box you are. It includes high school student, college student, college graduate, writer, aspiring writer. And the horror of it…
JS: Is that they let you choose-
EL: Between writer and aspiring writer.
JS: But they let you choose both, though! You can check all that apply.
JS: And so I had to check both writer and aspiring writer.
JS: You no longer have to check aspiring writer.
EL: But who says? Right?
JS: The “publication” is who says. The “journey to publication” is who says that you no longer have to check aspiring writer.
EL: But what if I never publish another book again? Am I only a writer…
JS: Capital W.
EL: …yeah, Capital W without the word aspiring before it because I have now or will in two weeks have published a book? Or am I a writer just because I write? It's like anything else. Are you what you do or what you are paid to do? And I could never be paid to write again. In theory, that could happen.
JS: Like, I've been paid to write. But when I've told someone I write or I'm a comedian, I can remember vividly every single atom in the room, the moments that someone has said, "Oh, do you pay your bills that way?"
Because when the answer is "No," there's just something... it's not even necessarily nefarious when people ask that question. I think sometimes people are trying to undercut you, but other times people are excited by the fact that you might pay your bills that way.
JS: Anyway, I think you get eight years.
JS: If you haven't been paid to write anything else, then-
EL: Okay, but famously Laura Hillenbrand takes over ten years to write a book because she has a chronic illness that makes working very hard for her. But she's like obviously a writer.
JS: But how many has she written?
EL: Oh gosh, maybe like three or four books.
JS: Well, I would say, eight years into the ten years between the first two books, if she (a) hasn't been paid or (b) hasn't been able to keep herself top of mind in some way… she’s no longer a Capital W Writer.
I remember when you were visiting a few years ago, we went for a long run. And we were talking about how you were working on these short stories. And if you go back to that Emily Layden, and tell her, "But I'm just like you. The things that I have gotten now are just like the things that you have. Don't worry about it.”
You might believe that. Emily Layden Now might believe that. Emily Layden Then would be like, "Go fuck yourself. In a ditch.”
EL: [Laughs] No, it is totally true. I remember that run too. And all I wanted at the time was to publish a book, in part because I felt that all this writing I was doing, from five to six AM every morning before I was going to teach, was not legitimate.
It wasn't a serious, real thing. It didn't count for anything because I wasn't being paid for it. And now, I would wanna tell that person that it's the same as how I'm not paid to run, but I call myself a runner. Right? So why does whether we're financially compensated for it dictate whether we're aspiring or not?
JS: You see it a lot especially in LA, not necessarily only in comedy. Late twenties to now, a lot of people are sort of being raptured up into success. They're getting staffed, they're getting a Netflix half hour, whatever. And I know intellectually that most people who get to the other side are like, "It didn't change any of the things I felt bad about.”
EL: Yeah! Yeah.
JS: I both believe that and I also… I'm not sure. There’s some missing piece. Because people get to the other side and they're like, "It's not all that important." And it's an easy thing to not be important when you have it. But I also get in theory why it’s not important, because the industries are creating all the pressure.
And you're sort of in this limbo right now: your book isn't out yet, but you have for a couple years now been paid for it, and been told that it's going to come out.
And so I think that's a fascinating snapshot of a moment of life to be in. Do you?
EL: It was actually funny to hear you go on that spiel because I had this moment where I was like, "Yeah, you're right. I'm full of shit." Because I know that it is different now. I know that I have a level of not just financial security, and not even job security because it's true that no one could buy another book from me. But I have more doors open to me now than I had three years ago. And that is real.
I think that the desire to talk in this way about "You aren't just what you're paid for" is in part because… I'm not necessarily any happier or any less anxious or any less neurotic than I was three years ago. I'm just unhappy and anxious and nervous about a new set of things.
And I think 27-year-old Emily thought she would get a book deal and be a writer Capital W, and not be any of those things any more. So then when you realize you're the same you, I think it's just this desire to sort of reframe.
JS: So you're trying to reframe what you were experiencing at the time?
EL: I don't know if this is it, but I wonder if it's a little bit about some… I don't know if embarrassment is the right word. Am I embarrassed about having wanted something so bad and having believed that it would be the key to my lifelong happiness? So now I need to correct the thinking and show that I've wisened up in some way. "I'm more mature now." I'm not, but…
JS: But reframe it in a way to make you feel more mature.
JS: Do you think—and I'm genuinely curious whether this is a yes or no, I'm not trying to lead with this question—do you think you are unhappy, anxious, and unfulfilled about one fewer things than you were before?
EL: No. I think that I am someone who has always been on a hamster wheel or a treadmill of externally validated success and achievement, and I think that that is never-ending. There's always a new rung on the ladder, or whatever metaphor you wanna use. It's always "What's the next trophy?" Which... that is a thing I'm working on. [Laughs]
JS: Right. External validation is the thing I think we've sort of been talking around. It's the thing that 27-year-old Emily would be telling you to go fuck yourself in a ditch over. And I think about external validation a lot because I'm one of the most talented people in the world-
JS: -and I don't have a lot of external validation. I get large amounts of it from a very small number of people. And they're like, "But this should be all you need." And it should be all I need... but it's not all anybody needs. And also it is, for better or for worse, very fleeting. You get to enjoy it for maybe sixteen hours tops. Probably not even a full cycle between sleeps.
EL: Yeah. Yeah! Oh, yeah.
JS: If you had to guess, when you found out you sold your book, how many seconds, minutes, or hours did you get to just enjoy it?
JS: Really. What was your initial reaction then?
EL: I felt like I was gonna throw up. It was immediate overwhelm. And then I was exhausted.
JS: But what's the immediate overwhelm? Overwhelm is sort of a…
EL: It is a copout word.
JS: It's not a copout. I was gonna say it's like a galaxy of worries or feelings all at once. So you can't describe all of them, but what is one of the things that you felt?
EL: Well, this is something we might have to... Mmmm. So.
JS: You can always "No comment."
EL: I mean, the size of my deal was not what I would have imagined in my wildest dreams, and the speed with which it happened… I just immediately understood that there was a new set of expectations for the book. Even just for myself. If it sold this quickly and in this way, the story I told myself was, "Well, then it had better live up to this."
JS: And without saying exact lengths of time and amounts of money, you can just say that basically you were meant to be starting a process that was supposed to take months, or at least weeks?
JS: And it ended within a day? Hours?
EL: Yeah. It sold in less than twenty four hours.
JS: And you already had an agent at that point. So for the people reading at home, you were essentially placed in the industry at this point such that it was expected for it to sell within a few weeks for a certain normal—fucking phenomenal for any writer—but a normal amount of money.
EL: Right, and whatever normal is is so skewed because there's like zero transparency around book deals. I think this past summer, there was this hashtag "Publishing paid me" and writers were posting what they had gotten for their book deals on Twitter. The goal behind the hashtag was to shed some light on in particular how BIPOC writers are paid less for their work than white writers.
And it's hard because it feels like transparency is a really good thing, and all industries should have more transparency about their finances and decision-making. And I might have appreciated hearing someone talk really openly about it ten years ago, but now...
I don't know if it’s insecurity, or if it's just embarrassment. And we have this gratitude economy too where it’s like, “You're just supposed to be grateful for everything!" [Laughs] And I am really grateful for it. And I don't wanna say anything that makes it sound like I'm not.
JS: So, you just nailed the toxicity of the gratitude economy. There are times when people are legitimately disrespectfully ungrateful. But a lot of the times when people are told they need to be grateful, they actually in effect feel like they're being told, "Don't feel the thing that you're feeling."
JS: And, being grateful for the fact that you worked on a thing for a long time, and it was able to be something that gave you career legitimacy, and some financial success, doesn't mean you can't feel other things about it.
EL: Yeah. That's it in a nutshell.
JS: I don't feel like, because you're stressed about it, you're not grateful about it. I think you're right to be like, "I want to be happier now just like I wanted to be happier then.”
EL: Yeah, yeah. No, that's exactly it. One thing that's happening all the time now is people are like, "You must be so excited! Aren't you enjoying it?!"
And I have no idea what to say to that. Because it feels like I'm just supposed to say, "You're right, I'm so grateful that I have this opportunity that people are gonna read my work, and that a publisher has invested in me." But what I feel inside is "No, I'm terrified all the time."
But nobody wants to hear that. Or maybe people do wanna hear that. Maybe it actually would be refreshing for someone to hear me say that. But you feel sort of like a wet blanket.
JS: Right. When I left Maxim, there were a few events when I saw a lot of people from college pretty regularly for like eighteen months. And for the first half, when people asked, I would say, "Oh, yeah. Things are great!" And really, I was like, "I have no idea. I felt like I was on a path, and I realized it wasn't a path at all. So then I left because I realized I was just in a field or something." But I was telling them that things are great.
And then I started telling people, "Oh, things suck.”
JS: And I think the main difference was, when I admitted things sucked, I got bought a few more drinks.
But otherwise, when people ask how you're doing, I think they’re either invested in the next five minutes or they're really invested. So my argument is tell people actually how you're doing unless you feel like they can't emotionally hold whatever you want to unload on them.
EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JS: But yeah. It's so terrifying to be asked how you're doing. [Laughs]
EL: Well, we're both getting at a question about authenticity particularly in spaces when you're not with people you're super close with. I'm not talking about like, if you ask me. I'm talking about my neighbor. Or on social media, where you're talking to all sorts of people you don't know at all. How to be in those in-between spaces, that's what’s trickiest to navigate, I think.
Which is also to say that I don't necessarily think that people who are—and I have certainly done it—who are talking about all their gratitude on Instagram are being necessarily inauthentic.
JS: Right. We both have very close relationships with authenticity. One of your Instagram posts from a few months ago was a beautifully set up stack of books on a dock, and they were books that you had read.
EL: [Laughs] Yeah. It was like, "Books I love the most." Like Mary Oliver and Toni Morrison. Go on.
JS: Right. [Laughs] And they were at the edge of a pier, and there was a lake in the background. And I commented: "Wow, did you just find them like that?”
EL: Which, that was an excellent comment. I appreciated it.
JS: I'm glad you did. I generally try to say funny things that might sting a little bit sometimes, but never in a destructive way. But for a few hours after commenting that, I was like, "Uuuh, was that too mean?" And then Brian, your husband, liked it. And I thought, "Okay! At least Brian's on my side!"
EL: [Laughs] No! And I loved it!
JS: But I very specifically am like: I take a screen grab and I post it on Instagram. I can't doll it up in any way because I have to be "authentic." And you put books at the end of a dock and don't make clear whether…
EL: Obviously, I did not find the books there.
JS: I know that you didn't find them like that, so there's like implied authenticity in the fact that everyone knows you didn't find them there. But that is right where our brands of authenticity are incompatible.
EL: Right, right, right. It's really interesting to me though because I think that posting a styled shot of books... I think that a not insignificant percentage of people would think that that is inauthentic.
EL: Because it's too posed or too polished or too considered. And for me, that is actually an extremely authentic presentation of myself because I am someone who spends a lot of time thinking about my public-facing self. And that doesn't make it inauthentic. It actually makes it very authentic that what you're getting is me, who spends a lot of time thinking about what she puts out into the world.
JS: I was with you ‘til the end. Because then we go back to how thinking about things a lot has one side of acting with care and acting thoughtfully. But then it also has the other side: obsession and the fear of everything.
So I am fascinated by the argument that all of that is encompassed in that shot of the books on the edge of the pier. You might see a post like that and get both sides of that, but I don't.
EL: I think what I'm maybe getting at it is this larger conversation the general "we" are having about the internet and social media right now, particularly with like TikTok.
JS: I'll hyperlink to my think piece about TikTok here.
EL: Yes, yes, exactly. There’s this idea that the more sort of stripped down you are, the more authentic you are. But I also think that it is authentic, perhaps particularly for women, to be guarded about yourself. I guess I'm saying that guardedness is not necessarily inauthenticity, even though it is often perceived as inauthentic.
JS: I... don't... get that?
JS: To say I “get that” would be too diminutive of the largeness of that idea. But yeah, I've never thought about the way guardedness interfaces with authenticity.
JS: That's cool. Um... you have a call in twelve minutes and we haven't really talked about your book yet.
EL: I know, we should talk about my book a little bit. We could pivot! We could make a pivot from authenticity to teenage girls.
JS: Absolutely! And authentically, I'm gonna leave that in the interview. I want to uh know how you picked the epi... epig... epi, epi, what's the thing at the beginning?
EL: Epigraph [Laughs]
JS: Epigraph! I was gonna say epigram.
EL: The Dickinson poem?
EL: That poem was actually given to me by a college professor of mine when I graduated, with a note that I treasure about how the poem reminded her of me as I was making my way through school. Which is just to say the poem is very sentimental to me.
So Emily Dickinson is a tricky little writer in that sometimes her poems seem really anxious and they make her seem really nervous. And that fits into the lore of Dickinson which is that she was this hermit who wrote in the attic, who was afraid to interface with people.
But a lot of times on second read, or third or fourth or fifth, her poems are actually pretty subversive and bold. So in that poem that's in the epigraph, the imagery of stepping from plank to plank, you can read it as tentative and nervous and like someone tip-toeing across stones or whatever imagery you wanna use. Or you can read it as someone who is boldly or bravely making their way across a hazard.
And that way of gaining experience—which is what the poem comes around to—by being brave, but occasionally being mistaken for being scared or cautious or uncertain… that feels really intrinsic to the experience of being a teenage girl. To me.
JS: I love that. And also, that kind of relates back to what we were just talking about, with authenticity. Emily Dickinson has to be guarded about her boldness.
EL: Yes! Yes.
JS: So she's puttin' those books at the end of the pier, but what you don't know is, that pier is a mile into the ocean. And there were only three planks that were fully intact. Metaphorically speaking.
EL: Exactly! [Laughs]
JS: So I have a favorite sentence. Can I tell it to you?
EL: Ooh! I love this. Please do.
JS: It is from page 41, and it's talking about Macy's mom:
"She lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling, imagining refined sugars and preservatives marching through her daughter's little body like invaders, chewing away at the synapses in the developing brain, setting fire to her neurotransmitters, planting like grenades the seeds of insulin resistance and dementia.”
First question: how does it feel when somebody reads something you wrote back to you?
EL: I wanna quote the Didion Time interview, when she's like, "Sometimes I see what I've written and I think, 'Whoops!'" [Laughs] But I didn't feel that there. I actually thought that was a good sentence, which feels mortifying to admit.
JS: No, I think it's a great sentence.
EL: At some point, someone questioned whether we should include it—and I can't remember who the someone was—because it is perhaps too much inside Macy's mom's head when we're really with Macy in that chapter. But I liked the imagery, so it stayed.
JS: I am glad that you fought for it. And I will also just say that the referencing of someone somewhere suggesting that you should take sentences out is a whole other direction the conversation could have gone. That is an entire part of the industry bit of it we could have talked about that we probably won't get to.
EL: We'll put a pin in it.
JS: We'll circle back. Would you call the book a mystery?
EL: I don't feel like it's a mystery. To me, the mystery is just a lens. I think the scandal that drives the book and the mystery of the student vigilante and the alleged rapist on campus, those are just devices that allow us to get inside these girls' heads and hearts and process of growing up. And that to me is what the book is about. Not so much the machinations of unraveling a mystery.
JS: Are we allowed to say that this started as a series of short stories that didn't have to do with the mystery?
EL: Oh yeah. That's fine.
JS: That's sort of how I became aware of it. You had been working on these as mildly interconnected short stories, and then some industry person suggested that you weave through a longer narrative, and then “They Snozt and They Lost” as I like to put it, because you found another industry person who said, "Yeah, I like this a lot." And the first person said, "Yeah, we still like it!" And you said, "Oops!" [Laughs]
EL: [Laughs] So the thing about that journey, is that the initial feedback was correct. I was having trouble agenting the book as just a collection of short stories—
JS: By which you mean signing with an agent.
EL: Yeah. And I was given that feedback as you just described, and you worked with me on that round of revisions. And then I had multiple agent offers.
JS: And those first people weren't necessarily at the top of the heap.
EL: Correct. But it was good feedback. It made a difference. And I do think the book is a better book now. And a more cohesive book. But I still think that the through thread creates cohesion more than it alters the fundamental themes of the book.
JS: I agree and I think what I was originally getting at with the mystery question is that the mystery-esque things that really landed for me had nothing to do with the mystery.
When you start the book with Lauren, you're in her head and she's so stressed and anxious about things. And from her gaze, you see all these other girls being so sure of themselves.
And then almost immediately when we leave Lauren’s P.O.V., you see her say something pretty self-assuredly from somebody else's perspective. And then you see the other girls, who in Lauren's eyes had been so confident, from their perspectives, clearly not being so sure about things.
And high schoolers have anxiety. That’s nothing novel necessarily. But I think the way that it kind of cascades over you over the course of the book evokes that feeling in a way that is very effective. And it is kind of dropping little clues, and not a mystery, but-
EL: Thank you. I love that.
JS: [Very Margaret Thatcher voice] The mystery of the teenage woman.
EL: But I really appreciate that. It's funny. Besides Macy, I actually wasn't even aware of how much anxiety I was writing into the book. But you are not the first person to say that it's through the whole book. The girls are anxious about everything constantly.
I guess I hadn't put the word anxiety yet to the way teenagers and girls are always watching one another. But that is an anxious behavior.
JS: A quick one: why is Priya's turtleneck such a bad choice for photographs? What do you have against turtlenecks?
EL: [Laughs] I might have changed her outfit in the final version. But just for your own knowledge, turtlenecks don't photograph well. Has no one ever pointed that out to you? When your neck gets cut off, it really rounds your face.
JS: I don't know. My new favorite rapper Jack Harlow wears a bunch of turtlenecks.
This next part would definitely be a longer conversation if we weren’t running out of time: You clearly think about body movement, specifically in terms of how the parts of the body move; and how that plays into conversations; and how that plays into the space that people create between themselves and others intentionally or unintentionally.
I don't know if there's any way to really cover that in sixty seconds, but there was a point where I was like, "Oh… shoulders are always moving.” But in a way that it's almost like a chess game. They're treating their body parts as individual pieces to set up later moves.
EL: Well, you are such a generous and attentive reader. You made a real difference in this book and I continue to feel very grateful, but in a true way, for just your care with words. And that was really striking there.
But to answer the question, I think it's the same answer to your previous question which is really trying to capture how girls are watching one another and thinking about themselves, and knowing that they are being watched. So that attention to the body is just a physical manifestation of that almost hyper-vigilance that I think you experience as a teenage girl.
JS: Totally. You're about to have to go, so I guess the last thing, to bring it kind of back to the beginning. Your book comes out in two weeks, right?
EL: February 16th.
JS: February 16th. Understanding that you can't be not scared or anxious for the next two weeks, what's one thing that you have thought about doing that would make you feel nicer even for ten minutes?
EL: Ooh, this is a great question. I started an adult paint by numbers over the Christmas break, and it was very, very, soothing. I'm not good at it. But it's very meditative, and it's only halfway done, and I should finish it.
— — —
And if you made it this far, Sternal Journalists, you clearly enjoy how Emily thinks and should go pre-order All Girls. And also if you’ve made it this far, it’s giveaway time, SternoJournos!
The first person to reply to this e-mail with a very minimal description of someone you would recommend the Sternal Journal to, will get a copy of All Girls purchased for them by the Sternal Journal! (It would be great if you could actually forward them this or another favorite Sternal Journal so that they actually may subscribe at the button below, but I won’t even make you do that).
If you are the second person or on to respond, I will still let you know that you have my undying gratitude!
Emily (Layden) highly recommends Dickinson, a show about Emily (Dickinson), on AppleTV+. It was from a part of the conversation cut for clarity and/or brevity, so I’m including it here. Also, one time I had a nice conversation with one of the actors from Dickinson backstage at a comedy show that maybe eight people attended. He was very talented and I’ve been meaning to watch it.
A part of the conversation that had to be cut for boring-ish, legal-ish reasons also meant I had to cut Emily telling me about the arbitrary, asinine naming conventions for book deal dollar amounts (Nice deal? $1 to $49K. Very nice deal? $50K to $99K), and I could have written an entire Sternal Journal about that alone, so I had to find a place to share it. You can read a random blogpost about it here.
All Girls! Duh!
And that’s all for now, friends. Much love to you all! Until next week!
This was such a great read! Emily is so right when she says: "Well, you are such a generous and attentive reader. You made a real difference in this book and I continue to feel very grateful, but in a true way, for just your care with words. And that was really striking there."
I have not finished my revision for my lovely mess of a novel, but the notes you gave me have been indispensable. Can't wait for next week's Sternal Journal!