Cecily von Ziegesar, COBBLE HILL

Cecily von Ziegesar, COBBLE HILL

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cecily. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Cecily von Ziegesar: Thank you. It’s so nice to be here.

Zibby: See, that was so easy. I just asked a question. Not even. I said something. You said something back.

Cecily: I can do this.

Zibby: First of all, Cobble Hill is so great. I was so excited to see that you had come out with a new book. It did not disappoint in the slightest. I love your characters and your sense of humor and the whole thing. I just had to say that from the outset. I thoroughly enjoyed it and needed a fun escape that pokes fun at basically everybody. That was awesome. Thank you.

Cecily: Thank you. That’s really nice to hear. I’m at that tender stage where I’m terrified about what people are going to think of the book. People are just reading it now. It’s always nice to hear good things.

Zibby: Thumbs up. Obviously, you’ve written the Gossip Girl series. That was smash hit, TV show, fame, whatever. Now how do you go from that and write another book? Tell me how you came up with the idea for Cobble Hill. We’ll go from there.

Cecily: It’s been a long time. The first Gossip Girl book came out in 2002. It’s been a while. There are also many of them and as you said, a TV show. I have actually written a couple of books in between that weren’t really widely read. I kept also getting distracted and pulled away from this idea by other things, also, my kids. Actually, 2002 was when the first Gossip Girl book came out, but also when my first child was born. She’s starting at college now. There you go. There’s a good marker. Cobble Hill, actually, the germ of the idea came about in many paranoid conversations that I had with my kid’s elementary school nurse. After reading the book, you’ll discover that there is very definitely a school nurse in the book. She would send out these lice letters. I would just completely freak out. The minute I got the lice letter in my kid’s backpack or whatever, I’d be like, they’re all over me. They’re in the walls. They’re everywhere. She was this really nice, lovely person. I would go into her office and start out talking about lice. Then we wound up just chatting about other stuff. I knew I wanted to write a book set in this neighborhood, the neighborhood that I live in. In talking to her, I was like, I have to have lice in my book. It was just so ridiculous. It’s even more ridiculous now. If only lice were our problem, the only epidemic we were worrying about. It started with that. Then I very definitely extrapolated wildly from there. Another character in the book is a writer. The longer that I worked on this — I think I’ve been working on this book on and off for more than five years, which is a really long time for me. The Gossip Girl books, I wrote two a year. The more I worked on it and it moved away from the original “moms in the schoolyard” type of book, it became about writing itself too and make fun of myself with the agonizing that I was doing.

Zibby: When I was reading it, you had this one scene where — is his name Ray?

Cecily: Roy.

Zibby: Roy, sorry. He’s walking around. You’re charting the streets. Should I go to this bar? Should I go to this place? Should I go here? Should I go there? I’m like, was she actually doing this? Maybe that was her morning and this was the walk she took and then she sat down and then just wrote that out.

Cecily: Actually, no. I’ve always tried to find other places to write other than home. Right now, I’m in, my daughter who went to college, her bedroom because I don’t have an office in our apartment. I don’t know how happy she is about this, but her room is now my office.

Zibby: Is she finding this out right now on this podcast?

Cecily: No, the way she found out was I took a — she didn’t have a desk in her room at all. I don’t even know how she got through high school without having a desk. She just had this big fuzzy pillow on the floor. She would sit on the pillow and put her laptop in her lap. The first week that she was at college, I took a picture of the fuzzy pillow — it looks like a dog pillow, it’s really gross by now — out on the sidewalk for the garbage to take away. I was like, “Say bye-bye to your fuzzy pillow.”

Zibby: Oh, no.

Cecily: I don’t think she’s too sad. She doesn’t mind. Anyway, throughout my writing life, I’ve been wondering, there are people who work in the park. There are people who work in coffee shops. I’d go to a coffee place and bring my laptop fully intending to get something done. I don’t know how people do that. All I do is eavesdrop on other people. I don’t get anything done. It’s impossible for me to do that. Part of Roy’s journey — it’s also just procrastination. He’s like, maybe I’ll try this. Maybe I’ll go here. In the meantime, he’s not writing. He’s just walking around. I tell everyone, even when you’re not writing, you’re writing. It’s in your head. That is actually very true for me. Once I get going, I feel like I am kind of carrying the whole book in my head. The characters are having conversations. Now I sound like .

Zibby: I’m hearing all these voices in my head. Turns out I’m a novelist.

Cecily: It is actually true. Maybe you do have to be a little crazy to do that. Once they become fully formed characters, they are talking in your head, or in my head anyway.

Zibby: I loved Peaches, the nurse character, and how when she got to go through — why am I blanking on everybody’s name in this book? — the musician’s hair when he came to sit down and she was like, “Thank you, god. Thank you, mom. Thank you, everybody who didn’t let me drop out of nursing school for this moment right here. It was all worth it.” I just loved that.

Cecily: She’s a terrible flirt. That’s part of what I try to do with my writing. I think I did that in Gossip Girl too. You’re kind of hearing every thought that every character has. It’s that off-camera thing. It adds another dimension to them. You’re also seeing how the person they’re talking to is seeing them. It all gets very complicated. Part of what I learned that I like to do in writing Gossip Girl was having the idea of that perfect-looking person and then you see how flawed they really are, and insecure. I had a lot of fun with that in Cobble Hill too. Hopefully, it’s amusing to hear how insecure — I think a lot of it was also me wandering around my neighborhood and wondering what all these people are really doing when they go home, these people who don’t seem to have nine-to-five jobs like me and who might be sitting on a park bench at eleven o’clock in the morning with their laptop or getting a coffee or just walking around. I became fascinated with what those people really are doing and what their lives were like.

Zibby: I feel like it’s human nature, perhaps maybe more novelist nature, to wonder what everybody’s thinking and doing. What is everything doing out? I remember working when I actually had a nine-to-five job in marketing before I went to business school. One day, I got the day off. I remember going to the reservoir and thinking, this is the height of luxury that I can go running in the middle of the day. I was like, who are these people? How is everybody else out and about? What are they all doing? How are they all here? Your books are the backstory that everybody’s really wondering. You even have your Anna Wintour-ish character who’s pretending like she’s so busy at work and doing absolutely nothing. You have so many funny characters in different ways. It’s just great. You poke fun at everybody from the Latin teacher to the — it’s just awesome. Why not make fun of everybody in a nice, funny, literary way? That’s really what you do.

Cecily: It’s funny because the teenagers are — there are two main teenager characters as well, and they’re the more serious characters in a way. That was something that I maybe have discovered in my middle age. Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you act like one. Sometimes the teenagers are a little bit more responsible. I have so much sympathy for my kids. I’m still in my bathrobe with my cup of coffee. It’s seven o’clock in the morning. They’re completely dressed. My daughter’s eyelashes would be curled. They’re facing the day and doing so much. I’m like, bye, I’m just going to go write a book in my bathrobe. A lot of it came out of that, just realizing how much shit they have going on in their lives. Also, there’s so much that you deal with in high school that if you’re in your little neighborhood adult bubble, you don’t necessarily have to deal with that at all. There’s a lot of that in the book too, almost that the teenagers are dealing with what’s happening in the world around them more than the adults are.

Zibby: Did you ever actually debate faking MS yourself so that you could stay in bed all day?

Cecily: Oh, my god. Mandy’s actually one of my favorite characters because she — it’s funny. At first, I was worried, are people just going to hate her because she’s so indulgent and she’s just staying in bed all day? Then I became so envious of her. Why not? Why not just take a little time and stay in bed? I feel like it’s sort of a brave thing to do somehow. She gets through it. She actually grows throughout the story. She’s kind of moving on. It was just something she needed to do. I have a couple friends who have MS. When they were talking about their symptoms — . This is so twisted of me. I was like, this is the perfect disease to fake, just be like, I think I need to take it easy right now. This is just the way my completely crazy brain works. I had this idea while talking to my friend from college who has MS and just went with it. I guess I can ask you. When you read about it, were you like, oh, god, she’s so lazy, or were you like, that takes a certain degree of courage to just be like, I’m staying in bed?

Zibby: At first, I was like, I wonder what’s wrong with her. Is she depressed? What’s going on? First, you hear about it from her husband. Then I felt sorry. Then I was like, oh, no, this poor woman. Then you find out that, actually, she’s faking it. I was like, I cannot believe that she’s faking it.

Cecily: Spoiler alert. Did you know the whole time she’s faking it? I love how I wrote the book and I can’t remember.

Zibby: I feel like that was all very early. Did I ruin it?

Cecily: You totally didn’t ruin it.

Zibby: It’s all very early in the book.

Cecily: You see her process of googling what the symptoms are.

Zibby: I wonder if there will be an outbreak of other moms being like, you know what, I don’t want to take my kid to school anymore. I’m just staying in bed. You put the bed in the living room. I feel like actually what it is, it’s every crazy stressed-out mother’s fantasy, is basically what you wrote. It’s like, you know what, I’ve had enough. That’s it. I’m just not going to do that anymore. Let’s see what happens.

Cecily: Some of Mandy — no, probably all of her behavior came from that moment where I’m saying goodbye to my family in the morning and it’s just me and the dog. Then I’m like, what if I just took to my bed and they came home from school and work or whatever and I was just in bed? How crazy would that be? Instead of doing it, I wrote it.

Zibby: There we go. Why not? Cecily, how did you get into writing to begin with? Maybe it’s just a natural outgrowth of what goes on in your head. How did you start the Gossip Girl series? How did you become a published author? How did it begin?

Cecily: Oh, boy. Going way back, in high school, English was my favorite class. I had this wonderful teacher named Christine Schutt. She’s actually a published author. She really encouraged me to begin with when I was a teenager to write outside of class. In my head, I always had this idea that it was the only thing that I was really good at. In college, I was an English major. I took all the creative writing classes that they offered. I actually did both poetry and fiction. For my senior thesis, I published a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s actually funny. I don’t really write poems, but then when I’m writing a book — Dan in Gossip Girl, in the books, is a poet. He writes poetry. Then Stuart in Cobble Hill is a musician. That’s not poetry, but I did have fun with his little one-line rhymes. I started a master’s, an MFA in fiction writing, but I didn’t actually finish. Maybe I could go back. I just did a year. I felt like I wanted to be living in the world and not in school anymore.

My first job was actually in publishing in England working for a children’s book publisher. My husband is English. We met over here. Then I went over there to live with him and got married over there. Hence, Roy is British in Cobble Hill. This is how I know so much about English people. Half of my family is English. While I was living in England in my early twenties at that job, it was this weird — I feel like a lot of people have encountered this. I had this editorial assistant job. I didn’t really have enough to do, and so I would start writing my own stuff. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. None of that was ever published. It’s all on floppy disk. What do you do with those? Anyway, then we moved to New York. I got a job with a company called 17th Street Productions which then was acquired by Alloy Entertainment. They were a very unusual company. It was a book production company which meant that they came up with ideas for series, mostly young adult series. The editors were really in charge of the content and what the series would be. That was my job. Then they would outsource the writing and hire writers who didn’t get to use their own names. One of the most well-known series that they had done before I got there was Sweet Valley High.

I was hired to work on a horse series, because I grew up riding horses, called Thoroughbred. It was about horse racing. It was such a big series. I think we published one book a month or something. It was crazy. I was insanely busy. I had to come up with the plotlines for the stories. I’m going on and on. The company wanted to develop and produce more authentic fiction. They worked with all the big publishing houses. One of the series that one of my colleagues came up while we were there was The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. At the same time, another colleague of mine, after reading a newspaper article about a girl who had exposed everyone in her class, some sort of scandal through instant messaging, he came up with this title, Gossip Girl. The title was not mine. Then in the development process, I was assigned this to come up with the characters. I just went completely crazy. I was like, I don’t want this to be like anything we’ve ever done before. I don’t want it to be in this weird made-up place like Sweet Valley High. I grew up in Manhattan. It’s going to be about Manhattan teenagers. I came up with the whole cast of characters. I wrote the introduction. They sent it out to publishers.

This one editor, Cindy Eagan at Little Brown, read it and was like, “This is amazing. This sounds exactly like the people that I went to boarding school with. I want to come and talk to you about publishing this.” She asked in the meeting, “Who wrote this proposal?” I was like, “I did.” I was still kind of a junior person there. She was like, “You’re writing the books.” My boss was like, “We don’t usually do that.” She was like, “No, she’s writing the books.” She was really my champion. They gave me a shot at writing the first book. She insisted that it have my name on it. To make a long story short, by the time this third book was coming out, it was on the best-seller list before it even was published because people were preordering it. I quit my job and was just writing Gossip Girl full time while also nursing my newborn baby. It’s funny because the other thing that — as Gossip Girl became more and more popular pretty early on, because I literally gave birth to my daughter and the first book came out at the same time and the second book came out six months later, the publisher at Little Brown had told people, “She can’t travel right now,” because I’d just given birth. Somehow, it got in the system that Cecily von Ziegesar doesn’t travel. Years later people would be like, “I know you don’t travel, but…” I felt like I had this weird reputation or something. I was like, “What do you mean I don’t travel? I’ll go anywhere.” I’m a travel . I love to travel. It was all just because of the weird timing of that first book that there was this idea that I never travel. Then the word got out I’m going to Brazil. I’ll go anywhere. If you want me, I’ll go.

Zibby: How involved were you, then, with it being adapted as a TV show?

Cecily: That happened — I don’t even remember when the show came out. 2007? Is that right? I can’t remember when the show first came out. I wasn’t involved in the writing of the show. I met with the creators of the show. I had lunch with Stephanie Savage at the restaurant in Barneys. She’s not a native New Yorker. She’s actually a Canadian. We walked around the reservoir in Central Park. Then we went to my school. We watched the girls coming out of school. I felt like I needed to take her around the neighborhood where it all happens just to be sure that she — I think I was being a little crazy because then they wound up doing an incredible job. It was way better than I ever could’ve imagined. I was so nervous that it was going to be filmed in LA. I didn’t know at that point. They were also very generous with me. I was able to go on set anytime. They asked me to do a little cameo in one of the later episodes. I had a line. That was really fun. The show was really amazing. It was really different from the books. It started out with the first book and then completely — they had to go beyond the timeframe of the books. It was really amazing.

Zibby: Wow. I think I watched probably every episode of Gossip Girl over the years. I have four kids. My daughter is thirteen. She’s like, “My friends are talking about this show.” I’m like, I don’t know. Do I want you watching it?

Cecily: It’s funny because my daughter’s friends — I think she was always a little bit nervous about it or something. It was in her life. Because of that, she didn’t really pay much attention. Then somebody would find out in middle school, seventh, eighth grade, the same age as your daughter. Then they’d be like, “Oh, my god. Tell your mom I want a –” She’d end up having to bring signed copies of the books to school. Sometimes teachers would ask too. It would just get out in school. She tried to keep it on the low-down a little bit. I think she has pretty much watched all of the episodes of the show. I don’t think she’s read all the books, though. Maybe later. It’ll be her escape from schoolwork.

Zibby: I know you worked on Cobble Hill on and off for five years. Do you have another project that you’ve already been working on or dabbling in that you think might come next, or you’re just not sure what’s up after this?

Cecily: I don’t want to get anyone too excited because it’s not a done deal. I don’t really know what my involvement is going to be. I’m trying to, just almost as an experiment at this stage, to adapt Cobble Hill for television. It would be really fun. I think it lends itself very much to a TV show. I wanted to try to take a stab at, this time, writing it myself. The problem so far has been that every single thing that you do when you’re writing a book is not what you do when you’re writing for television. What I was talking about earlier, all that interior monologue, all that off-camera what she’s thinking and what he’s thinking when she’s talking and all that stuff, you can’t do any of that. It’s just dialogue. I’m finding it very challenging. I also have this weird impulse to get up and try to act it out myself, just the little things, the stage directions, so that it’s not so awkward. It’s a fun experiment. I don’t know if I give it to somebody, if they’re going to be like, yeah, just stick to books. We’ll see.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Cecily: Everyone tells you this, but reading, to me, is more helpful than anything else. I read across all genres. Maybe this is crazy too. There are even little kids’ books that I love, picture books. I love the language. It’s funny, the cover of Cobble Hill looks a lot like that Richard Scarry book, What Do People Do All Day? There are some lines in that book that I really like. There’s a cadence to some kids’ books. It is sort of like poetry. Reading for the music of the sentences, to me, is really important. Sometimes I’ll just pick up a book that I know really well because I’ve read it a few times and just read a few lines. Then that gets me going again. I’m also just, I’m a book nerd. I’m guilty of the fact that I’ll start — I’m always reading like five different books at the same time. Do you do that?

Zibby: Yes. I, a hundred percent, do that.

Cecily: I feel like if the authors knew that I was doing that, they’d be like, what are you doing? You’re not just reading my book? Sometimes it’ll just be a magazine or something. To get warmed up somehow, I always need to be reading. The other thing that I do is — I’m sort of an insomniac, which is part of the reason why staying in bed all day makes sense to me. If you don’t sleep, you may as well just be somewhere relaxing. I keep a pen or a pencil and a piece of paper next to my bed. In the middle of the night in the dark I’ll just scribble down something. Usually in the morning, I can’t read it. Every once in a while, it’s worthwhile. It literally might be just a word or something. I do take notes on scraps of paper, napkins, Post-its. I’m always scribbling something down. This isn’t good advice. This is just illustrating how crazy I am.

Zibby: I think it’s great advice. I think reading is great. I think scribbling things down is great. I think opening up a book and getting inspired just by a couple sentences is awesome. Why not? This is all great advice.

Cecily: The other advice I have is — I know after years of doing this that my brain doesn’t really work that well until three in the afternoon. Some people are morning people. I’m definitely not a morning person. I probably wouldn’t keep anything that I — if I sat down at nine o’clock in the morning and made myself write, it wouldn’t be good. I do everything else beforehand. I exercise and I do all the chores that I need to do and read and all that stuff in the first part of the day. Then all of a sudden, I’m ready to go. It has always been a shame for me that three o’clock in the afternoon was when people would start coming back into the house. I’m like, I’m writing. I can be working at two o’clock in the morning. Ideally, if I didn’t have a family, I would work from probably three in the afternoon until eleven o’clock at night. That doesn’t really work when you have other people in the house. It’s nice when you can just give yourself the liberty of being like — you’re not going to write for eight hours. It’s not like a normal job. What works best me anyway is being like, oh, I’m going to literally just take a couple seconds to scribble this down. Somehow, I manage to piece it all together when I do have that time and my brain is in the right place. Then I’ll write twenty pages at a sitting. What I’m trying to say is don’t force it. Don’t try to force something that isn’t happening. Just go take a walk or go running or read something. You can’t make yourself be creative.

Zibby: Or wander around Cobble Hill looking for a .

Cecily: Exactly.

Zibby: Thank you, Cecily. Thanks so much for coming on my podcast. I know you’re not a big podcast person, but you should listen to it because you’re a book lover. You might enjoy it.

Cecily: It’s so funny. I’m just old-fashioned. I’m just starting to discover podcasts. I’m excited. This is good. Somehow, I thought podcasts were for the people who are wired. They’re not. They’re for everyone. I can do this too.

Zibby: You can experiment with your own. Have a great day. Thanks so much for doing this.

Cecily: Thank you, Zibby. It was really fun.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Cecily: Bye.

Cecily von Ziegesar, COBBLE HILL