Amanda Pellegrino, THE SOCIAL CLIMBER

Amanda Pellegrino, THE SOCIAL CLIMBER

Zibby speaks to TV writer and novelist Amanda Pellegrino about The Social Climber, a gripping page-turner about Eliza Bennett, her glittery wedding to Upper East Sider Graham Walker, and the secrets that might ruin it all. Amanda talks about her protagonist’s eating disorder, desperate need for control, and past involvement with an evangelical megachurch (which was inspired by her fascination with religious extremism). She also reveals her book’s original title, talks about her career in TV writing, and shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amanda. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Social Climber.

Amanda Pellegrino: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited. I feel like I need to preface this audio-based interview with the fact that I have a cold.

Zibby: Okay. Everybody, Amanda has a cold. This is not her normal voice.

Amanda: Thank you.

Zibby: I’m sorry you have a cold. It’s going around.

Amanda: It happens. After three years of not being sick, this is .

Zibby: Wow, I have not gone three years without being sick. That would be nice. The Social Climber, tell everybody what it’s about.

Amanda: The Social Climber follows Eliza Bennett the week of her wedding to Graham Walker, an old-money, one-percent New Yorker. Throughout the week, secrets from her past at her childhood and her time at an evangelical megachurch college come to the surface that put her motives into question.

Zibby: Interesting. It’s so funny. There are so many books about people taking advantage of people on the Upper East Side, marrying for the wrong reasons. There’s all these secrets. I’m sitting here on the Upper East Side today. I’m like, oh, my gosh, does anybody just marry for love around here?

Amanda: I know. It’s so funny. I am also on the Upper East Side. I walk around, and I’m like, who is conning someone else?

Zibby: Totally. Oh, my gosh, you should’ve come over. Well, I’m glad you didn’t since you have a cold. I love Eliza, who is sort of obsessed with her body at the moment too and making sure she can stay fit and trim and a size two or something. In one of your opening scenes, you talk about her in a yoga class. You’re like, why do people even have to warm up for yoga? Eliza is trying to literally look the part and fit in and put all of her needs sort of aside in this pursuit of this one goal. Tell me a little bit about the body image piece of this puzzle.

Amanda: She has a really distinct image in her head based on — she didn’t grow up in this world. She didn’t grow up anywhere near this world. A lot of what she thinks is pretty or deserving of this lifestyle she got from magazines in the nineties and early two-thousands. She would go to the grocery store with her mom and steal them because her parents would never have let that in their house. She would stick them in her pants and read them in the dark. Obviously, during that time, there was a really misguided view of what is pretty. It was very singular too. She based a lot of her lifestyle on those images. I also think so much happened to her. In this period of life, everything is so calculated and so meticulous because she needs to fit in in every aspect. Everything is planned. A lot of her eating disorders in the book come from a sense of release. It’s kind of the only moment she has to take a deep breath and not think for four minutes or however long it’s taking her and really just take a deep breath and not have everything in her life be so meticulously planned. I think it comes from both of those aspects.

Zibby: You see her need for control with the whole Vows column thing right up front and how when she gets even what she wants — she’s dying for this, to appear in The New York Times Vows column, which I feel like was a bigger deal a little bit ago. Maybe I shouldn’t even say that. It was the be all, end all back in the day. Now there are many outlets for this. Let me just say it that way. Even though she got the message, she intentionally holds off to tempt fate, but also just so that she can have the ball in her court for a minute. It’s so interesting, just taking a moment like that and using it as a character-development piece. Really interesting.

Amanda: She’s trying to get as much control as she can because at any moment, her bubble can pop, and everyone can find out why she’s there and what she’s really doing. Searching for any little tiny moments of control is really important to her.

Zibby: I like searching for control too, but I feel like it’s impossible.

Amanda: It’s only in fiction.

Zibby: This is your second book. Tell me about how you even got your start writing and a little more about your first book called The Nine-to-Five, which is my favorite movie. Actually, we go to LA a lot. We brought our kids recently. The last time we were there with them, we had been watching 9 to 5, and we paused it. My daughter, who’s nine, she keeps being like, “We have to go back to LA so we can finish the movie.” We got there this weekend. She’s like, “Wait, we have to finish 9 to 5.”

Amanda: That’s so funny.

Zibby: I know. It’s so funny.

Amanda: You can watch it in New York too.

Zibby: I know. She knows. She does all the devices herself. I don’t know. Tell me about your first book. Tell me about how you got into writing, how you got to this book, the whole story.

Amanda: The Social Climber’s my second book. Smile and Look Pretty came out last year, last March, which was my first book about a group of assistants in various versions of entertainment and media who have really bad bosses. They start a website anonymously writing about their bosses that goes viral. Women start submitting their stories about bad bosses. Our four ladies have to figure out how to keep their identities a secret so that they can keep their jobs with the bad bosses that they’re writing about. I wrote my first book when I was probably about eight years old. I’ve always wanted to write books forever. I did have enough wherewithal or forethought to think you can’t just be a novelist. You have to have a job until you start making money as a novelist. Once I discovered that people write television too, which blew my mind — with books, the first thing you see when you’re holding a book is, title, author. This person owns this thing. You’re not really exposed to that in the same way growing up, with writing on television at least, because they’re given kind of the same credit as everyone else. You don’t really think about it. It blew my mind that people write for TV. I was like, oh, that’s what I need to do. I was a CBS page on Colbert and the CBS Saturday Morning show. Then I was a production assistant for a bunch of shows and then other versions of assistant for a really long time, which is kind of the typical path up, until I finally got my first writing job. It’s been a grind, but moving forward ever since.

Zibby: What did you end up writing for TV?

Amanda: I worked on a show called The Looming Tower, which was on Hulu, and then most recently, a show called American Rust, which is on Showtime. Season one was on Showtime. Season Two is on Amazon.

Zibby: So cool. Then when did you start writing the novel? While you were working full time, just on the side?

Amanda: Yeah. When you’re an assistant, there’s a lot of periods of unemployment because, in between shows, in between deciding if you’re getting a second season or not. I did a lot of writing during those periods just because that’s when you have the most time. The thing that really lit a fire under my ass to write Smile and Look Pretty was I was really tired of being an assistant. You need an agent to do anything in the TV industry. Getting an agent is a supreme, in my opinion, example of gatekeeping. No one knows how to do it. You have to know someone to know someone to know someone to get a TV agent. I was like, okay, fine, I’ll just write a book and get an agent that way. Then they all know each other. I wrote the book so — I think I wrote it in a couple of months before I got — I queried it way before I should have. It all worked out. Thank goodness. It was true. Getting a book agent is much more streamlined. They just tell you what they want. They read their slush pile. I was in the slush pile. I got my agent, who’s incredible. I love her so much. Then because I got that agent, I was able to, within the same agency, get, finally, a TV agent too. It was a little manipulated.

Zibby: Wow. Writing a book just to write for TV, I like it. You don’t hear that all the time. That’s really cool. Who is your agent, by the way?

Amanda: Liz Parker at Verve. Wonderful. I could talk about her forever.

Zibby: We could’ve had her on. She could’ve come with you.

Amanda: She’s so great.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I see where the inspiration for the first one came from, from your eight million assistant jobs, which is great. What about where this particular idea came from for The Social Climber?

Amanda: I always wanted to write in the thriller-y genre. That’s what I like to read. I always knew that was something that I wanted to write. I might have even mentioned it to my agent on our first call. Smile and Look Pretty is very women’s fiction, commercial fiction. They always say that when you’re querying your first book, that you should be the only one who could write it. You should tell people, why are you the only person who could write this book? That’s how I felt about Smile and Look Pretty. I’m the only one who could write this. It’s the book that I needed to write to get the agent and get the book deal and get my foot in the door so that I could move on and start writing in the genre that I really love. This book — I’m really fascinated by religion and any form of extremist religion. It’s just so interesting to me that one text, if it’s the Bible or the Book of Mormon, anything like that, can be interpreted in completely different ways, and one that is very mainstream and then one that’s really extreme. That always really fascinated me. I knew I wanted to write about a character who grew up in that world. Then I was like, what is a really weird place that you can plop someone into? Then I thought college because college, at least to me, is kind of pseudo-freedom.

The stakes aren’t that high in terms of if you mess up. You’re not really a real adult yet, but you’re away from your parents. The rules are more lax. You also have a support system around in this school and in your roommates and in your friends that’s supposed to help you. I was so interested in dropping in a character who’s never experienced any kind of freedom and who’s desperate for it in a school that doesn’t allow it and then just to see how that butt heads and what interesting things can come out of it. Then for the present-day chapters, New York is just such a great place to write about the one percent. They’re everywhere. I think that New York is such an ambitious town. I know I do this all the time. I’m constantly walking down Park Avenue or East End Avenue and just looking into these apartments being like, wow, that must be so nice. I love my apartment. I love my life here, but it’s so different than — I think that that ambition and being in New York and seeing in one of those windows, for someone like Eliza, made sense to me, and her being like, I’m going to get there, actually. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m not just going to look into the window. I’m going to get inside and be able to look out on everyone who’s looking up at me. That’s where a lot of the inspiration came from in pieces until it all worked its way together.

Zibby: Interesting. How did you grow up? Where did you grow up and all of that?

Amanda: I grew up in Queens in New York. I’m not religious. I grew up Catholic. I didn’t really follow it, but I did go to Catholic school through college, which is definitely just an interesting environment in general. It wasn’t an extremist school, but we definitely had rules that I think other schools probably didn’t about visitors in your dorm and stuff like that. When I was at my book launch, I was asked, was this from real life? Did you imagine a lot of the story? My mom’s in the back of the room being like, you imagined it. Tell everyone that you — what are you doing hesitating? Everything comes from a version of real life. It’s just finding the emotional things you want to talk about. This wasn’t my childhood at all, extremist evangelical .

Zibby: What do you think about social climbing as a thing? To a woman like Eliza who decides she wants to get there and to do so by marrying up, so to speak, what do you make of that? What do we think of that as a feminist thing? Where do you land on that?

Amanda: It’s so hard because I think it’s really easy to be dismissive of social climbers as someone who is handed things, but then I think it’s also really hard to climb. It’s working hard in a different way. Something I loved about this book was that it does feel like a twist on the social climber trope because she’s doing it for a very unselfish reason. I did like that. The Social Climber wasn’t the original title of the book.

Zibby: I was going to ask you that. That was on the tip of my tongue. What was the original title?

Amanda: The original title was The Night We Met. So far, I’m zero for two in naming my own books. Both of them got named by my editors. Then we went through some artwork for The Night We Met and tried some different things. The general feedback was that it can skew a little romance, which this isn’t at all, and so they wanted to readjust. I really didn’t like The Social Climber title. I fought back a lot against it. I kept re-pitching different things. They kept saying, “What about The Social Climber?” Finally, in a panicked call, my agent, Liz Parker, was like, “Why don’t we tell them that we want to see the artwork with the title? Then you can make a decision. With a tagline, that’ll make a big difference.” Then it came in. I was like, “Oh, my god, I love it. I’m so sorry for the time I wasted telling you guys that it was horrible.” With the tagline on the book and the woman, I think it helps establish that it’s just not a book about a vapid woman who wants to go to cool parties and live a life of luxury. That was important to me because Eliza’s character is someone who works incredibly hard. It’s for a very specific reason. I didn’t want that to get lost in the concept of social climbing. I think it lands well now.

Zibby: It’s a fabulous cover, I have to say. For people listening, it’s this very glamorous woman in this long red dress, which is beautiful, and tan patent leather heels and a chignon low bun with her perfect hair. She looks like a model in a lobby or living room of her house, basically, with this really cool credenza and this gold mirror and a little tree. It’s just really cool. I like how the tree’s on the back a little bit.

Amanda: I’m a huge fan. They did such a good job.

Zibby: Now that we know you can write a book in a couple months, is your schedule now, you’re just going to try to crank one out every year? Is that your goal?

Amanda: I do think that I had a bit of an advantage because Smile and Look Pretty’s pub date was delayed so much. It sold in March 2020. It was supposed to come out in June 2021. Then it got pushed because of COVID. Then December 2021. Then it got pushed because of supply chain. March 2022. I had written and handed in the first draft of The Social Climber before Smile and Look Pretty had even come out, which I do just think was because there was so much time. We were finished with the book months before it came out, for Smile and Look Pretty. I do think that helped. I also think it helped with my mindset, which I didn’t realize at first. It’s so easy, when being an author is a lifelong dream, to put so much pressure on that debut when in reality, I want this to be a career, so this book should just get you the next one, which should just get you the next book.

That is kind of what the general goal is versus, this is the one. I just want to write forever. Having my second book in my back pocket — it had sold. I had money already. That all helps because if Smile and Look Pretty tanked — thankfully, it didn’t. If it did, I at least was like, okay, I have another one. Don’t worry about it. We can forget about that. I have another one. That felt really good. It’s definitely a different writing experience now writing after the book comes out and not having to do past pages while I’m working on the next book and stuff like that. I am working on number three, which has been really fun. Eliza’s such a very specific character with a really strong and specific voice, and so it took me a little while to not write like her anymore. I feel like I heard her voice so clearly in my head for so long. That was a bit of a practice in writing the first chapter of book three over and over again until it didn’t just sound like Eliza.

Zibby: You could’ve done the continuation. A whole series.

Amanda: That’s true. That was a practice of patience, I’ll say. I finally hit a stride in it, which feels really good. I have a TV show in development right now, which has been the most fun to work on. Then I have good feelings about The Social Climber’s future, is all I can talk about. Very positive vibes about that too.

Zibby: Amazing. That’s great. So much exciting stuff. I love it.

Amanda: A good start to 2023, which is nice.

Zibby: When you’re not writing and reading thrillers and writing for TV, what do you like to do, especially here in New York? Where do you like to go? Restaurants? What do you like to do for fun or whatever?

Amanda: I’m a big runner. I’ve run two New York Marathons and a bunch of halfs.

Zibby: Wow, that’s awesome.

Amanda: It’s been really fun. I’ll shout out to the Upper East Side Run Club, which is every Wednesday, is where I am. Running’s been really fun. Especially, I find it to be such a fun way to explore any city, but especially a walkable city like New York. Eliza runs a lot in the book and has a very similar running route to me. I love going to new restaurants. I feel like post-COVID, there’s been a real resurgence of new restaurants and newly branded restaurants post-COVID, which has been really fun to explore, especially in the Upper East Side. I’ve lived here for almost seven years now. It’s been fun to see how the neighborhood’s changed and go to restaurants that used to be a diner or speakeasys that used to be subway platforms and stuff like that. I love living here. I feel like there’s an endless possibility of things to do. If you’re ever bored, it’s your own fault.

Zibby: I’ll tell that to my kids. Any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Amanda: Actually, my normal thing is always just write every day, which is the stupidest piece of advice because everybody gives it. Although, I do think it’s true.

Zibby: It’s not stupid if it’s helpful to you, but fine.

Amanda: I also will say something that I learned when writing The Social Climber — I wrote most of the book when I was on set in Pittsburgh for a show that I was working on. It was really hard because being on set, it’s a fourteen-hour day. As a writer/producer, you don’t have a desk, so you’re moving around constantly depending on the day and what scene you’re shooting. It was really just finding any fifteen minutes I could find, whether it’s between camera setups or at lunch or in my car. I would get to set early and sit in my car for a half an hour and work. It really taught me the importance of not relying too much on anything external to make writing productive. It’s important to not feel like you need to be in the perfect chair with the perfect pillow and a candle and flowers and all of this stuff in order to create a vibe. It was hard to get used to, but it was a very helpful learning experience for me. Sometimes you just have to sit down and write on the curb of a street in Pittsburgh for twenty minutes.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Shout-out to Pittsburgh curbs. Thanks, Amanda. It was really great to meet you. Maybe I’ll see you. I will not, probably, be running anymore. I was going to say I could see you in the park, but I probably won’t.

Amanda: Thank you so much for having me. Congratulations on the weekend. It looked like so much fun.

Zibby: Thank you. It was so much fun. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m walking my dog in the rain, and I’m like, that was so nice.

Amanda: Yes, I know. It looked beautiful. It was such a huge crowd. What incredible authors you had coming and signing. So cool. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you. Felt like it was a dream. Now back to regular. Thanks so much. Great to meet you.

Amanda: Thank you so much. You too. Bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Amanda Pellegrino, THE SOCIAL CLIMBER

THE SOCIAL CLIMBER by Amanda Pellegrino

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