Jamie Brenner, GILT

Jamie Brenner, GILT

Bestselling author Jamie Brenner returns for the third time to talk with Zibby about her latest novel, Gilt, which takes readers into the world of fine jewelry. The two discuss how living in Provincetown during the pandemic inspired Jamie while writing this story, her relationship with the author community and what is expected of writers these days, and which fictional character helped her craft her protagonist. Jamie also shares what she is currently working on and how it felt to find out the role she played in Zibby’s career after reading Bookends.


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

Jamie Brenner: Great to be back, Zibby. We’ve spoken a few times now. I don’t know what I would do without this as part of a book publishing routine.

Zibby: I swear, I think you’ve done more books than anybody else. Is this the fourth time? Drawing Home, Summer — no. Did you come on for Summer Longing? You came on for Blush. What else?

Jamie: I don’t even know. It’s been a lot. I love it.

Zibby: I love it too.

Jamie: Officially, it feels like book tour now. Thank you for having me back.

Zibby: By the way, I should clarify for people listening, this is Gilt. Not like Jewish mom guilt, but G-I-L-T, gilt like the jewelry that this does take place about. Tell listeners, Jamie, about the plot of this book. Did you model this after Tiffany’s or Cartier? What were you thinking? Tell me the whole story.

Jamie: Gilt is the story of a family like Cartier or Tiffany that made their fortune selling diamond engagement rings. They essentially invented the market of diamond engagement rings. Yet all the daughters in the family, three sisters, are tragically unlucky in love. When the book begins, one of the daughters, estranged daughter, returns to the fold to reclaim what she believes should be her birthright, a thirty-carat pink diamond called the Electric Rose. It was this diamond that divided the family in the first place. That’s the premise of Gilt. It’s partly based on the traditional diamond industry as we knew it growing up, Tiffany’s, De Beers. A diamond is forever. What really made me want to write the book is a much more contemporary take on jewelry and a designer named Lulu Frost. Lulu Frost is a woman named Lisa Salzer. She collects antiques and tokens and turns them into beautiful charms and jewelry. I just love the idea of jewelry that has really meaning behind it and history and not just, how big is your diamond ring? It was the contrast between those two jewelry values that gave me the story and the tension in the book.

Zibby: It’s so cool. Gemma, the niece of — well, I guess the granddaughter, right?

Jamie: Yes, right.

Zibby: Technically, the granddaughter. She wins this whole big award at school about her jewelry design. Of course, she is naturally gifted in this new way that you’re talking about. When the book opens, you have her sneaking into what, in my head, looked like the Tiffany store on 57th Street.

Jamie: Absolutely.

Zibby: Right?

Jamie: Yeah, you got it.

Zibby: I was picturing that. She’s walking in, snuck in as an undercover press person and then raises the question, what happened to this one missing diamond that is not in the collection? Everybody’s hackles go up. People get excited. The auction house follows up with her and wants to know, what is this ring? Of course, it cracks open this story. I feel like right from the beginning, you have, literally, face to face, the old-school jewelry with new school right there. So visual. I feel like I just watched the movie.

Jamie: Thank you. Exactly. This third generation — technically, she’s sixth generation, but for narrative purposes, third generation young woman, she’s been estranged from the family, but she has a gift. She’s a creative. She’s an artist. She wants to be a jewelry designer. She is a jewelry designer. Part of it is a generational thing. Who’s buying jewelry today? How are we selling jewelry? Instagram is a whole new — you don’t need a store on 5th Avenue. What I really wanted to get into was, in my research, I read about how diamond rings were only a thing starting eighty years ago.

Zibby: I was shocked to read that. I didn’t know that.

Jamie: I was shocked too. We’ve had microwave ovens as long as diamond engagement rings have been important in our culture. It was absolutely a marketing ploy, a brilliant one, by De Beers to move lots of these stones that just aren’t inherent valuable. Emeralds were the original gem from antiquity up until two hundred years ago that people really coveted. Even the whole 4Cs, the color, cut, clarity, made up so that people who couldn’t afford big stones could say, well, mine is small, but it has great clarity. I was just like, wow, probably the most successful marketing campaign in modern history. I wanted to debunk that a little bit with the story. Growing up in the seventies and eighties, the icon of jewelry was Elizabeth Taylor. She just had these outrageous gems, most of which were gifted to her by Richard Burton.

I also know that very large diamonds often come with these alleged curses attached to them. I never really knew, does a curse really exist, or is it just the way they make people feel better who can’t have jewelry like that? I know it totally made me feel better. A book I was reading posed the question, are huge diamonds cursed, like the Hope Diamond or the 195-carat Black Orlov diamond, or is it just that the greed that is required to acquire something of such scale, that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that bad things are going to happen? If you look at stories of people who have owned — for example, the Hope Diamond was Marie Antoinette’s original diamond called the French Blue back in the day. Obviously, she had a terrible end. Every subsequent owner had tragedy. It really got me thinking about what is valuable. What makes us happy? What’s important? What do we spend our time and energy and money on? These are all things I wanted to explore in Gilt.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. How did you come up with the character? Gemma, right?

Jamie: Gemma, yeah.

Zibby: Gemma, she kind of has a chip on her shoulder. She’s gotten the short end of the stick in life and has a lot of mixed feelings about her family and her place in it and all of that. Where did that come from? I feel like you’re so good at creating younger women characters. Older women too. Maybe I should back — you’re good at all, but I feel like a lot of your books have this younger woman. Tell me about coming up with this character.

Jamie: To me, one of the ultimate heroines in a novel or a miniseries, which is how I first saw the story, was the book Lace by Shirley Conran. Phoebe Cates plays this daughter, a young woman who had been placed up for adoption. She’s in her twenties. She summons these very successful women to a hotel. She says to them, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” It was one of the most famous, explosive lines of books from the 1980s. I love the idea of a young woman who doesn’t have a mother but is loosely linked somehow to wealth, fortune, and power, and what that does to someone psychologically and what, in turn, they come back seeking. In this book, Gemma wants that diamond. She thinks that’s what she wants. On a quest to find it, she leaves New York City and goes to Provincetown, Cape Cod. Of course, what she finds along the way is more important than a diamond. She reconnects with family. She learns about herself. She learns about, really, why is jewelry so important to us? Why is it a universal thing that we long for and that we use to express ourselves? It was originally the idea of a Lili character who has nothing but feels like she should’ve gotten more and comes back for it.

Zibby: It was so funny. When I got to the part about Provincetown, I’m like, of course we’re back in Provincetown. I feel like you and Provincetown are like — you own that as a locale or something. That is your spot.

Jamie: The weird thing is I really wasn’t intending on setting it in Provincetown. I was starting this book in the spring of 2020. New York was just such a nightmare, as you know. My husband and I were like, look, where’s the one place where we feel is a complete when things are nutty in the world? Of course, Provincetown was the answer, so I moved there for half a year. Of course, I had to set the book there. I was living there while I was writing it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, crazy. Really crazy. I know we often talk about this, but I am in awe that you can crank out books at this rate, and good books. These books are well-written and have intricate plots and characters. They’re all really different. You go from the art world to the makeup world to the diamond industry, all glamorous in their own ways. Whether it’s at this lush winery or the American Hotel in Sag Harbor with an old painter, it’s not like you’re — I don’t want to disparage any kind of writer, but these books seem as though they would take a very long time to develop and then write, not something that you could just whip off. Let me say it that way. How do you do that?

Jamie: There’s a saying. I’m getting it wrong, but it’s something like, live a boring a life so you can be daring in your art. I am not running a major company. I don’t have a crazy, jet-setting life. I have the calm to live in a created world. I have arranged my life so that I have months and months out of the year where that is what I’m concentrating on. My daughters are grown. I could not keep up this pace when I had school-age children. I love it. I love books the way you love books. I feel really lucky that I somehow arranged my life around them. There’s that saying. Be careful what you love because you’ll find a way to have it in your life. I think that’s really true. For better or worse, I’m in this book world.

Zibby: Don’t you feel like there’s so much accompanying stuff with each book launch? As you were talking about at the beginning, there’s touring. There’s marketing. There’s Instagram. There’s just so much associated with each release.

Jamie: That’s the thing. I didn’t even realize getting into publishing a book — I understand the craft part and the challenge of writing a story. The way our world and the way publishing has evolved is, I think, more than a lot of people signed up for, in a way, because so many writers are really — they’re introverts. Introverts doesn’t mean shy. It means that we get our energy from calm, quiet, books, and looking inward. The world increasingly demands us to be putting out, output, output. I was saying to someone — I was the English major. I knew I wanted to work in books. I had no idea I should’ve been taking graphic design classes so I could deal with Canva and Instagram. I always said, oh, I’m not a visual person. So what? Now it’s coming back to bite me because I have to rely on other people. Some people have a knack for visual things. That’s been really hard for me. It could take me an hour to get a post up. Then I think, oh, my gosh, I could’ve spent that time writing or outlining or reading something. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Now this is part of it. That’s the way it is. I do, in some ways, envy writers who are so gifted and literary, like Donna Tartt. She just opts out of all of that. She doesn’t have to do it. She wins a Pulitzer. Then she goes underground for ten years. Then she puts out another masterpiece. For most people, it’s become this hybrid game of social media, promotion, touring. If you can fit a book in there somehow, amazing.

Zibby: It’s true. I know. I wonder who would’ve opted out in prior generations if this was part of the job description.

Jamie: I think there’s a lot of people who — who knows? I would not have signed up for this, but I wouldn’t give it up because of it. Probably, that’s where most writers fall. It’s not their favorite thing to do, but they wouldn’t give up because of it. It’s ironic because the writers who are great at promotion and social media often don’t do a book as often as writers who don’t like that. It’s just a question of where you’re putting eighty percent of your energy.

Zibby: It stresses me out just even talking about this.

Jamie: It’s a lot.

Zibby: But it’s great. I feel like you are one of the biggest proponents of other authors. I feel like you’re always lifting people up and heralding their accomplishments and all of the stuff. You’re a lynchpin of this whole New York women authors community, even though you’ve now recently left the city. Tell me if that has just come naturally or how you found your people.

Jamie: I started my career in book publishing working for publicity for HarperCollins. This is why I feel badly for young people starting out today. I was in an office. I saw, like you said, people lifting each other up. I watched how my boss supported her authors. I watched how other authors did things like invite people on their tour or blurb books. I saw how important it is to have that reciprocal relationship. When I was starting out, there were people who were extremely generous to me, like Elin Hilderbrand and Adriana Trigiani and Nancy Thayer. I will never forget how it felt to get a blurb from someone who you respect. Then luckily, New York just has a lot of people pursuing the arts, so it’s not hard to find your tribe. I have to say, and you know this, writers happen to be, I would say in general, just really generous, amazing, interesting people. I have dabbled in other industries and found that is not the case.

You have been instrumental because it was very dispersed. We would meet at a party here or there or grab a quick lunch at Pain Quotidien. When you started having your salons, I feel like we got a physical nexus, which really took the whole scene to another level and was one of the things I was most sad about when things shut down for COVID because I felt like we had gotten into this great rhythm. There was a core group and then always new people showing up. I learned about new books at your salons. I met heroes like Dani Shapiro. Having that physical space that was central was amazing. Now we have the virtual space with the podcast. I think with social media, you lose a lot of the social because it becomes about shouting the loudest. We really need to stay connected with the actual social, which is the connection to our friends and our readers. That’s why something like the podcast is so important, because it’s actually a real conversation, not just you heart emoji-ing my picture of the book cover, which I appreciate, but we need this.

Zibby: I miss in-person events too. For those listening who don’t know what we’re talking about, prior to COVID when I started my podcast, a couple months later, I started in-person events at my house in New York City. I would invite all the authors I’d had on and all my friends. I had book fairs every six months. I’m actually having a book fair. I don’t know when this episode is coming out. I’m going to have one in LA at the Palisades Village, my first LA book fair. That was really fun. I got to meet all these new people. It was so interesting for me. I’ve had one or two since COVID. I hope to bring that back or find a place where people that I don’t know well enough to invite into my house can come and enjoy. That’s on my to-do list, FYI, at some point. What book are you working on next? Where will it take you and us?

Jamie: I’m writing a book about a woman who created a perfume empire. She created a perfume that’s as classic as Chanel No. 5. She’s in her fifties. She always prided herself on not being a commercial sellout, but as the book begins, she’s about to meet with a huge popstar to do her first celebrity fragrance. When she wakes up the morning of the meeting, she realizes she’s lost her sense of smell. Her first instinct is, I’m going to see which of my children can kind of step in until I figure this out, which is, of course, a disaster because none of her three grown children are capable of filling her shoes. The attempt to get them to do so is what happens over the course of the summer. This is the weirdest thing. I’ve written the whole book, but I couldn’t decide where to set it because I wasn’t able to travel, really, last year at all. I created a fake placeholder town. This summer as I’m going on book tour, I’m going to decide what place I’m going to shoehorn in and then adjust the book accordingly.

Zibby: It would be neat if you did some sort of — towns would have to campaign to be chosen. Seriously.

Jamie: Someday.

Zibby: It would be cool.

Jamie: It would be.

Zibby: Ask your fans.

Jamie: I know. That would be interesting. I feel like I’d insult the towns that — it’s so personal, choosing a setting. There are places that I intended to set books. I would visit, and there’s just nothing. There was no give. It could be the most beautiful place, but if there isn’t something more than just a cute main street or a pretty body of water — there has to be a spirit to the town. Sag Harbor, the American Hotel, you just feel the history. There’s real characters. It sets your imagination on fire. That spark is what you need. It’s impossible to predict, even when you go to the most bucolic place, if it’s going to be there or not.

Zibby: Interesting. Before I went to business school, I worked at Unilever and helped launch the Vera Wang fragrance.

Jamie: Oh, so you know. It’s very stressful.

Zibby: I had to go to the — I can’t remember — IC something, ICF or whatever, and got trained in how to be a nose and smell.

Jamie: I wish I’d known that. Oh, my gosh, I might still have to call you and talk about that. Amazing.

Zibby: They took us to the lab where they mix all the stuff at Unilever. We got to hear from the chemists and all of that. It was really interesting. Super, super interesting.

Jamie: That is so cool.

Zibby: Then I had to work on the bottle and all the mechanics of that and the tooling. It was a whole thing, what size, 1.7, 3.4 ounce, eau de parfum. I learned volumes about that industry, which I have done nothing with up until now, so if you would like any sort of brain dump.

Jamie: Good to know because this was another year where I couldn’t really sit down and meet with people in person. I usually like to do research. For Blush, I went to the vineyard. I met with the winemaker and the vineyard manager. Then with Gilt, I couldn’t do it. I had these grand plans to sit in the studio and watch this jewelry designer work. Couldn’t do that. Then again for this next book, I had to rely on reading and just research. I couldn’t hang out with people. Hopefully, the next time I’m writing a book we’ll be back to the world being fully open to us.

Zibby: Interesting. Amazing. What are you reading right now?

Jamie: Look what I just got in the mail, Zibby. I read an ARC, an advanced reader copy, of Bookends, which is your memoir coming out July 1st. We had created this little sisterhood of the traveling ARC amongst our reader friends, so I read it very quickly. I didn’t want to hog it. I read it really quickly. Then I put it in the mail to maybe Susie Orman Schnall. I forget. I don’t know where this ARC is now. It could be in Florida. It could be in the Outer Banks. It’s supposed to be back with you on pub day. Now that I have the physical book, I can read it again at my leisure. Any book lover, the way you frame your story through the eyes of books and books you were reading at the time or books that you’ve discovered, I think so many of us subconsciously view life through that lens. It was so much fun to see the books paired with your experience during all these different phases of your life. It’s just a beautiful love letter to literature and to coming of age. Congratulations. Everyone, July 1st. It’s called Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. I’m taking it with me to read again this week because I had to rush last time.

Zibby: You do not have to read it again. That was not intended to be a promotional moment for me. I was literally just asking you.

Jamie: I literally just got back from traveling around Cape Cod and New York, and this was waiting for me. It’s so crazy. The thrill of holding a new book, it just never — as much as I’m jaded about some parts of it now or sick of some parts of it, still in that moment, I feel like a child again opening a gift. I think we all feel that way about books. There’s just an unparalleled joy. Especially when you read an early copy, you’re seeing sort of a rough draft of the book. Often, there’s still typos in it. It’s not the real cover. Then you see the finished product. You feel like you’re part of the journey of the life of a book. To feel the paper that you use and to look at it, it’s amazing. I think one of our privileges working with books is that we do get to read things early. We get to see works in progress in the different phases. By the time a book is in the window of a bookstore, we feel like we’re spotting a friend that we’ve gotten to know already. I love that. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. That was beautifully said. I feel the exact same way about books in general and unwrapping them. I feel the same about your book. Look, it’s all sparkly. It feels so nice. It’s just awesome. It’s awesome, even what size the books are. Really cool. Jamie, thank you so much. I will see you back here next year to talk about whatever you call your perfume book. Do you have a title yet, or not?

Jamie: No, not yet. You’ll be the first to know because I’ll probably be calling you and picking your brain as I finish this thing.

Zibby: I was trying to think of something clever off the cuff.

Jamie: There’s a lot of puns. Not puns. There’s a lot of wordplay with perfume, but it’s surprisingly not that useful. There’s a million little plays on words.

Zibby: I was thinking maybe Spray or something. You could do a really cool cover with it all coming out.

Jamie: Yes, but you could imagine that — .

Zibby: Yeah. Anyway.

Jamie: Zibby, thank you. Have fun on your own book tour, being on the other side of all this for a change. You deserve it.

Zibby: You were the first person to ask me to moderate an event at Barnes & Noble. I was over-the-moon excited. I brought everyone in my family to come see us. I was so nervous. That was now four years ago or something crazy, three years ago. Thank you for taking a chance on me.

Jamie: I almost fell off my chair when I saw that in your memoir, when you spoke about that night. It’s so funny, Zibby. You know what also? It’s funny how memories are different. All I can remember is how the air conditioning was out that night at the Barnes & Noble. Remember that? We had to move.

Zibby: Yes, you were very upset about that. I was just like, whatever. I’ll do whatever.

Jamie: Thank you. Have a great summer. Happy summer reading, everyone.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye, Jamie.

Jamie: Bye.

Jamie Brenner, GILT

GILT by Jamie Brenner

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