Emily Layden, ALL GIRLS: A NOVEL

Emily Layden, ALL GIRLS: A NOVEL

Emily Layden’s All Girls: A Novel, honors “the experience of teenage girlhood in all its depth and capacity.” The former high school teacher talks with Zibby about what it was like “to come of age in a place that really promises you the world when that world still isn’t totally yours for the taking.” They also touched on the benefits of therapy and the incredible story of how this book came to be.


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

Emily Layden: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Sure. All Girls, this book cover stopped me in my tracks. I went to an all-girls school, I have to tell you, for nine years. This was not my exact uniform, but this was the uniform of a lot of the girls down the street who I also grew up with. For that alone, I was like, huh, this is interesting. Then turned out it was a really great book, so there you go.

Emily: I worked at several all-girls schools, but I’m also getting that feedback from a lot of people. I think that tartan kilt is a very standard girls’ school uniform.

Zibby: Yes. Tell listeners what your book is about. Then what inspired you to write it?

Emily: The novel begins as an alumna of the all-girls Atwater School has come forward with an allegation of sexual assault. The story unfolds over the course of a single academic year as the school and its inhabitants react to that accusation. The book is multi-POV. Nine interconnected characters navigate the social mores of prep school life and the broader challenges of growing up against this background of sexual violence and institutional non-transparency. All the while, the acts of the vigilante prankster threaten to undermine the school’s efforts to quash the scandal really raising questions about Atwater’s role as a protector and defender of young women and the power those girls have to nonetheless assert their voices. That’s the book. You asked me about my inspiration.

Zibby: After that, we can go. That’ll just be all we need. All in the first two minutes. It’s okay.

Emily: When I sat down to write the book, I really was trying to do two things. Number one, I wanted to write something that really honored the experience of teenage girlhood in all its depth and capacity. I wanted to do that through the lens of an all-girls school. As we just talked about, I spent most of my twenties working at various boarding and independent day schools, the majority of them all girls. I wrote this book from five to six AM every morning before going to teach, in part because I felt really compelled to write about what I felt I was witnessing every day, which is what it’s like to come of age in a place that really promises you the world when that world still isn’t totally yours for the taking.

Zibby: Wow, I’m impressed. Five to six every day. Literally as you’re saying that, I’m sitting here thinking, could I set aside that hour? Would I wake up before my kids and do it? I don’t know. That’s a lot of dedication, but also shows that when you do it a little bit every day, you chip away. Then next thing you know, you have this giant book in front of you, which is amazing.

Emily: I’m sure many people have said this, but I think it’s Stephen King who has very famously said if you write a page a day, at the end of a year, you’ll have a novel. That was the way it had to happen for me.

Zibby: This is a good New Years thing. I know your book is coming out February 2nd. Is that right?

Emily: February 16th.

Zibby: February 16th. That’s the day my anthology is coming out, by the way.

Emily: Oh, that’s so exciting. We’re pub date twins.

Zibby: Pub date twins. This is still early enough in the year that people could stop and say, this year, 2021, I’m going to start right now. I guess it doesn’t have to start at the beginning of the year. It could be any date you pick.

Emily: Absolutely. I’m a teacher. I don’t go by January to January. I was a teacher. Life is lived in academic years, not January.

Zibby: It could be September. It could be February 16th. Let’s all just start writing books. That sounds great. The interesting thing about this book — not the interesting thing. Let me rephrase. One of the interesting things about this book is that you cover so many different characters. You don’t necessarily go back and dig way back in and revisit everyone in equal measure or even at all. It almost could be interlinking short stories in a way except that they’re all set on campus. Did you consider writing a book of short stories? Your multi-point-of-view point of view, how did you end up doing that in terms of formatting and structure of the book?

Emily: Fair question, totally. I don’t know if I thought of this as short stories or linked stories, but I know that I never thought of this book as a single-protagonist book. I felt that there were too many stories I wanted to tell. It seemed sort of unrealistic and unreasonable to burden a single character with all that I wanted to say. I felt that I could achieve deeper wells, a greater exploration of a single issue, so mental illness, trauma, sexuality, if I used multi vignettes. That’s part of it. Then I also think that I wanted to depict a community, not just a single person. I knew I was going to be casting a wide net from the outset.

Zibby: How did you even pick who to start with?

Emily: That’s a great question. In some cases, the character sort of came to me first. I had a concept for a character and then slotted her in wherever it felt right. Then the book also roughly follows — you went to a girls’ school, so I’m sure you know this too. These places are really big on tradition. The events of the year are really important. I knew I also wanted to chart that sort of rhythm of the year. Sometimes a vignette, I started with something like the holiday pageant and expanded out from there.

Zibby: Interesting. The character who had the eating disorder with the Ensure drinks and who was running and did track and all of this —

Emily: — Macy.

Zibby: Macy, thank you. I knew I was going to get on this podcast and forget all the names, but there are a lot of names, to my credit, right?

Emily: Totally. Absolutely.

Zibby: I feel like I remember Lauren’s the best. Macy, her whole eating disorder and does she talk about it? tell me a little bit about that because I feel like you hear so much about girls in boarding school who might have eating disorders. You’ve been a teacher. I’m sure you’ve seen examples of this. Just tell me a little more about her character and how she manages this when at home you could have somebody’s watchful eye over you. Then once you’re away at school, your demons are packed along with you. What do you do?

Emily: That’s a great question. Macy is interesting to me because when we talk about — disordered eating is often accompanied by, I forget what the technical term is, but simultaneously occurring disorders.

Zibby: Comorbidity.

Emily: Yes, yes, thank you. Macy really struggles with OCD and anxiety. Her disordered eating, which in my mind is actually, it’s closer to ARFID, avoidant/restrictive.

Zibby: Wait, stop for a second. ARFID, what is that?

Emily: ARFID is — I don’t remember the full acronym. It’s avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, I think, maybe, A-R-F-I-D.

Zibby: I thought I was so up on this. Now there’s a new acronym that I don’t even know about. Every time there’s a new eating disorder, I’m like, do I have that, maybe? Maybe that’s the one I have.

Emily: I couldn’t remember comorbidity, but I had ARFID for us. We’re getting there together.

Zibby: Together, we’ll make our way through.

Emily: ARFID, it is really less well known. It really has a lot of symptoms that are very close to anorexia. It is a tricky one and a newer one, at least in the zeitgeist. The point is that Macy’s eating, her issues with food get triggered by her anxiety and her OCD. That’s really what I was trying to mine with her even though she is a runner and runners tend to have — there’s obviously a high correlation between endurance athletes and disordered eating. I really wanted to capture with Macy, that idea that so often disordered eating is a physical manifestation of a psychological burden. It’s easy for it to happen at school for her because everything’s new. There’s so many things that she can be anxious about, so many ways she’s thrown out of her normal routine. For her in her chapter, the real trigger is initiation and not knowing what that is. Not knowing what something is, high levels of uncertainty are anxiety triggers. For her, that was just a quick dive. As you say, particularly when you’re young — she’s only a freshman — you don’t have as great a sense of what the resources at school are, so where you would go, who you could go to. You don’t really have friends yet. You are very alone in a lot of ways. You have to figure these things out on your own.

Zibby: The initiation chapter was like — I don’t know. I was panicking the whole time myself. I feel like you gave me anxiety just reading it. I can’t believe they’re in the dark in the lake now. What are they doing? I’m like, thank god I didn’t go to that school. I wouldn’t have made it through that part. I noticed in your acknowledgments, which are always my favorite part of the book to read, you mentioned this part about therapy which I thought was so interesting. I hope you don’t mind that I’m going to read this part rather than anything in your amazing book. You said, “The transition into this new career would not have been possible without the support of my therapist. Good therapy with the right fit is transformative. Yet the fact that I am able to pursue treatment is a privilege. Mental healthcare should be accessible to any individual who needs it, and I hope that one day such a system will prevail,” which is an amazing sentiment, one I completely and totally agree with. To thank your therapist openly begs the question, okay, so what were you therapy for? which is none of my business. You’re the one who put it in the book, so I feel like I get to ask now.

Emily: It’s totally fair. You write that knowing that people might ask.

Zibby: Today, I am people.

Emily: Exactly. We were just talking about Macy. I do really struggle with anxiety and disordered eating, not ARFID. Since becoming a full-time writer — I loved teaching. I left teaching to do all of this. We sold the book very quickly. My life changed overnight. That was very, very difficult. It was one of those moments people talk about all the time. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted, and it feels terrifying.

Zibby: Terrifying how? Wait, terrifying how? Slow down.

Emily: It’s a combination of, you feel immense pressure — we did sell the book very quickly. I suddenly felt like I had better live up to this even though the book was already done. There was really nothing left to live up to, but you feel like, you better live up to this. Now this is my job. I had best go write another book. I better prove that I’m not just a one-hit wonder. At least, those are all the thoughts that manifested initially. Now I know how to talk to some of those. I’m working on that publishing is a journey in which ninety percent of it is out of your control. That whole new job, whole new world, whole new set of expectations, even though I had ostensibly asked for all of it, that was incredibly anxiety-inducing and really a moment when I needed to — I’ve been in and out of therapy for a decade. It was a moment where I really needed that safe space to process.

Zibby: I feel like I should run a support group for big-deal first-time authors or something, seriously. Earlier today, I was on a Zoom with an author who had been on the best-seller list forever. She recounted her fear at starting her second book and how her husband had to talk her into doing it and saying, “It doesn’t have to be the same book. It’s okay that it takes you longer. The pace might be different. It’s okay.” She couldn’t even write. She was so thrown by it. I think with most successes people, only focus on the good parts. It must be perfect, blah, blah, blah, but there’s a lot that goes into everything. Change in and of itself can be very stressful and anxiety-producing even if it’s something good, good change and bad change. Change is change. Change rocks the system and brings up all sorts of old issues. I get it.

Emily: Absolutely. It’s so hard because I know how lucky I am. I’m so grateful. I know that two years ago I would have committed murder to be where I am right now, but it’s real nonetheless. I know it’s universal too.

Zibby: Even if it’s good, doesn’t undermine what you’re going through. Can you go back a little bit to the selling of the book? So you wrote the book from five to six in the morning. Then what happened? You got an agent and immediately sold the book? Is that what happened?

Emily: It’s funny. I actually do come from a family of writers. My dad is a writer. My uncle is a longtime journalist. My cousin who I’m very close with is a television writer. I still went through the normal query process. I just finished the manuscript and I sent it out to a bunch of agents, got a few offers, and ended up with Lisa who is just — I adore her. Talk about therapists, she also definitely does her fair share of that for me. We did, I would say, a light revision together. Then we sent the book out. This is June of 2019 and sold it the next day in twenty-four hours.

Zibby: In twenty-four hours?

Emily: I was teaching. It was the last day of school. Lisa was calling me and emailing me. I’m literally trying to wrangle a bunch of kids and just keep them safe on the last day of school and also take calls about a book deal.

Zibby: Have you read Writers & Lovers by Lily King?

Emily: I have not. It’s a huge miss. I need to read it.

Zibby: You definitely need to read it after that story, not to give anything away about that book. Now you have to go wipe time clean in your holiday season or something and read that book.

Emily: I will.

Zibby: It will relate. That’s crazy. It just happened and then you went with that publisher and that was it?

Emily: Yeah, we had a preempt offer instead of going to auction. I talked to Sarah at St. Martin’s. She didn’t go to a girls’ school, but she did go to a prep school. She had been looking for a campus novel forever. I felt like she really understood exactly what I was trying to do with the book. It’s been great working with her.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Wow, very exciting. Have you found it to have made it more difficult to write having the success and the sale and everything? Are you able to write now? Are you working on another book?

Emily: It’s true. I’ve heard other writers say that on your podcast, that sometimes the less time you have, the more productive you are. I definitely think that in some ways when I had to go teach all day and I only had that hour in the morning, I really used that hour. I was super focused, no tabbing around online. I was in the zone because it’s all I had. Now I find sometimes I can fill four hours with the same amount of work. I’m still wrestling a little bit with that pressure of feeling like the next one has to live up to whatever expectations have been created by this one. I’m working on a couple of things. I’m bouncing between a multigenerational family narrative in the vein of Everything I Never Told You and a book that is engaged in exploring the difference between gold-star good, like in school when you get a gold star, so gold-star good, and ethically, morally good. When we say someone is a good girl, for example, what do we mean by that? Which one? Which set of expectations are we operating with? We’ll see.

Zibby: That was vague but interesting nonetheless. I like it.

Emily: We got to cocoon it.

Zibby: I won’t try to tear anything else out of you here. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Emily: I’m an athlete. I’m a runner. Just as the only way to be good at running is to do it, consistency is the key. I feel that way about writing too, that the only way to get better at writing is just by writing. I would add that in running, rest days are important as well. I think that in writing, the same is true. It is important to take time away from the project semi-regularly to give yourself space just to rest.

Zibby: I could tell — well, I couldn’t tell, necessarily, but I had a feeling that you were a runner after what you wrote in the book, the feeling of running and what it did for the character emotionally. There was something about the passage you wrote there that I was like, I bet you this is Emily talking here. Did you compete in track?

Emily: No. I played lacrosse at Stanford. Running has always been the love. Lacrosse was the sport that just gave me other opportunities, and so now in my post-collegiate life have been very happily just a runner. I do races and any distance, but it’s more about the day to day.

Zibby: I played lacrosse in high school.

Emily: No way.

Zibby: Then I went to Yale. I was like, maybe I’ll try to walk on the lacrosse team here. I’ll give it a shot.

Emily: They’re pretty good.

Zibby: Yeah, I know, which is why it did not work out. I showed up my first day, “Hey, I’m a walk-on.” Everyone’s like, “I had the most assists in the country. I was recruited from X, Y, Z school,” and this and that. I lasted maybe a week. I was like, okay, not only am I two feet shorter than everybody, but I’m definitely less skilled.

Emily: I’m only 5’1″.

Zibby: I’m 5’2″. All right, now I can’t use that excuse, but I like that excuse. There are many others too.

Emily: That’s so funny.

Zibby: I could’ve played you if I weren’t probably twenty years older than you as well. No, I’m kidding. Anyway, Emily, congratulations on this book. I’m so excited. I’m excited we have books coming out on the same day. Even though mine’s an anthology, I’m still really excited.

Emily: That is so exciting.

Zibby: I’ll be rooting for you with the success of this book. You have a natural built-in audience with all the girls’ schools. That’s very strategic and awesome of you. It was great to meet you over Zoom.

Emily: It was great to meet you too. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. Take care.

Emily: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

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