Jenny Mollen, CITY OF LIKES

Jenny Mollen, CITY OF LIKES

Zibby is joined by actress and writer Jenny Mollen to discuss her first novel, City of Likes, which required a labor of love to publish. The two talk about how the story was inspired by the disconnect Jenny witnessed between mommy influencers’ on and offline lives, what her short-lived agent said that prompted her to try fiction instead of a third memoir, and when she knew writing was her niche. Jenny also shares details about her upcoming Dictator Lunches cookbook and why she is so honest on social media.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jenny. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss City of Likes, your new novel, and then your other memoirs and basically the fact that I’ve invaded your whole private space with all this stuff I’m reading about you.

Jenny Mollen: I love it. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Let’s talk about City of Likes. It’s your first novel. Were you scared? What made you write a novel anyway?

Jenny: I had a manager in LA. Let me back up. This is pretty embarrassing. This is sort of embarrassing, but I’m going to just tell you guys the real. I was repped across the board at Gersh at the time. I love Joe Veltre. I never meant to leave Joe Veltre, but this is what happened. My dog, Mr. Teets, who now you’ve read about, he was my first husband, love of my life. When he passed away, I was just devastated. I was sort of out of touch with reality. I couldn’t believe that my publicist couldn’t get him an obit in The New York Times.

Zibby: Seriously?

Jenny: I was outraged. I was like, people need to know that he’s gone. I was so upset. Then I went through the anger phase of loss where I did fire my entire team at Gersh. At the time, nobody there mentioned he died and reached out to me. I felt like he was such an ever-present, big part of my life. He’s on both of my books. He’s such a big part of my Twitter, my Instagram. When they didn’t reach out, I was like, everyone has to go, everyone. I fired my team. Then I was without an agent.

Zibby: I’m sorry. Let me just say that now so you don’t walk out.

Jenny: No, no, no. I’m over it now. This was six years ago.

Zibby: I am sorry for your loss, still. Okay, it’s out there.

Jenny: At the time, I was a bit unhinged. I’m just being completely honest with you guys. Then I was with a manager who set me up with this agent, Richard Pine. I went in and met with him. He basically looked at me — he had read a little bit of one of my books. He said, “Your first two books, they did okay.” I was like, “What? I made the list.” He’s like, “That doesn’t mean anything.”

Zibby: What?

Jenny: He’s kind of right. He’s like, “Snooki’s a New York Times best-seller.” I did get what he was saying. He’s charming but kind of a dick as well, but in a good way. I totally like him. He said, “Do you want to tell me what you want to do next, or do you want me to tell you what I think you should do next?” I was just so taken aback. I said, “Why don’t you tell me what you think I should do next.” He looked at me. He said, “I think you have a voice for fiction. I think you should write a novel. I think if you can write a novel, you can have whatever kind of life you want.” Meaning, basically, then the world is your oyster if you can write fiction.

Zibby: Do you feel like the world was not your oyster? I thought you had these two amazing books.

Jenny: I went in there thinking — the first book is my crazy life prior to kids. My second book is this reluctance to have children. The third book would be about surrender and now where I’m at. I thought I was going to do a mommy book. I left his office that day thinking, oh, he’s crazy. I’m not going to do that. Then I went away with Jason, and I wrote a pitch for what I thought this mom book would be. I felt my audience was expecting that from me, and that’s what I had to do next. I was so bored. I was writing for Parents magazine at the time, and so I was using all of my material already. Also, my youngest was getting to a point where he wasn’t just a head. He was sort of a character. I almost felt, now I’m kind of exploiting him. I have to walk this tightrope. This stuff is so boring. This material isn’t funny anymore because I had all of these constrictions. Richard just kept playing over and over in my head. I went back and I said, okay, I’m going to fucking try to write that novel. I sat down to write it. I remember he was like, “This is a beautiful disaster.”

Zibby: Oh, no.

Jenny: I didn’t feel discouraged. I was like, okay, I’m going to try it again. I’m going to write it again.

Zibby: That was the whole draft? You sent him the whole draft?

Jenny: I sent him fifty thousand words.

Zibby: That’s a lot.

Jenny: Then I rewrote it again. Then we took it out. This was the first time I took it out. I had worked with somebody to kind of chaperone me a bit. I was really deeply misguided with this whole thing. It did not work. When Jason finally read it after the submission was out, he was like, “Jenny, this doesn’t make any sense. This is a mess.” I called Richard, and I pulled the submission, which is awful. You probably know, but I don’t know if your listeners know that it looks terrible for a book to pull the submission.

Zibby: I have to tell you what I did later, but go on.

Jenny: I pulled the submission because I was already getting negative feedback. I don’t think this is ready. I don’t know that this works. I pulled the submission. Then I parted ways with Richard after I tried to sell another — we weren’t working. Even though, again, I love him, it just wasn’t the right fit for me. I went and I tried to write the book again. Then I took it out during the pandemic. I got feedback from people where it was like, I don’t know if a book about privileged white women in Lower Manhattan doesn’t read as tone-deaf in a post-COVID world. People were really, at that point, scared then to take the book. I can’t put something in a drawer. I just refused. I took another stab at it. Then I went the untraditional route. I found a Hollywood producer who had an imprint deal. I said, I know I can sell this as TV. I know this works as a show. I’m going to sell it that way and back into the book deal.

Zibby: Interesting.

Jenny: Then I sold it to Sony. The deal I made with this producer, I basically was like, “Listen, can you get it bound on shelves?” My ego is too big. I cannot do just a self-publishing situation. I can’t do it. This was a marathon for me. I wouldn’t let it die. I couldn’t put it away. This story, I had to tell, even though I feel like nobody wanted this from me. I think everybody wanted me to do a funny, lighter mommy memoir. I’m not the traditional highbrow literary type of author that I think some of these publishers were maybe looking for. It wasn’t working, but I couldn’t take no for an answer. That’s how it’s here.

Zibby: I love that story so much. I am shocked because it’s a great book. It’s really fun and awesome.

Jenny: My timing was bad.

Zibby: I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I almost texted you because I was invited to this dinner the other night which was like one of these Daphne , but not an influencer, an actual important-ish person. Everybody had to go around the table like this.

Jenny: Oh, god, and tell you something they’re struggling with? It’s so embarrassing. It’s so awkward.

Zibby: This exactly happened to me. I was literally sitting there — by the way, I was seated next to the membership director of a club like the club in this book. I was like, I am living a moment out of City of Likes right now. This is the craziest thing that’s ever happened. It was a really fun time. It was amazing. I made great — people I really feel —

Jenny: — I would love it to have been the same woman that I’m talking about. That’s amazing.

Zibby: We’ll talk about it after. I was like, this is the same moment. The characters in your book are great. I don’t know why a traditional publisher — it would’ve been a Zibby book in two seconds.

Jenny: I don’t know. The timing, the whole thing, it wasn’t the right time. Maybe now is the right time. I was saved for some reason. The others were so easy. Everything happened so easily. I care about this one more, obviously, because I’ve had to bleed for it.

Zibby: Tell me more about the show. It’ll be a TV show, or what?

Jenny: I guess I can tell you now that Diablo Cody is supervising me. I love Brook. She’s an amazing writer. I feel like her aesthetic is perfect. I have a shorthand with her. It’s going to be such a fun process. I’m excited about that. Sony optioned it. Once the book is out, I’ll take meetings. We’ll pitch it. We’re going to write the pilot for it.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so cool.

Jenny: Fun. Again, for me, it’s not even about —

Zibby: — I know. You didn’t even want the — I know.

Jenny: No. It’s just the book.

Zibby: That was smart of you.

Jenny: I had to. I was like, I’m going to get this in the world. Crazy.

Zibby: I love it. It’s really cool.

Jenny: My husband’s like, oh, my god, can you just get over it?

Zibby: For my book that is now coming out, the proposal for it, I sent it out to a bunch of publishers. I put on my daughter’s whiteboard, fifty publishers or whatever I was sending it to. People keep coming back saying no. I was like, I wonder what’s going on. This is so weird. Maybe I should reread my sample chapters. I was like, “Kyle, let me just read you my sample chapters and see what’s going on.” He fell asleep.

Jenny: So you kind of had the same experience.

Zibby: I was like, this isn’t good. These aren’t good sample chapters. This isn’t even how I write.

Jenny: You get too close to it.

Zibby: I know. I didn’t even spend that long on them. I wrote every —

Jenny: — You rewrote the whole thing.

Zibby: I talked to Joe. I was like, “We have to send a letter to the people who are left and say, you know what? These are not good. I didn’t even have time to work on it. I’m a busy mom, but I promise you I’m going to do a good job.” That’s how I found the editor who saw into my heart. I’m with the exact right person. I had the same. I was like, should I just pull it?

Jenny: Nobody tells you — I didn’t realize because I sold my first two books on just a sheet of paper where I was like, I’m going to write this and maybe this. It was such an easy, ridiculous couple paragraphs. It wasn’t a lot. I was writing for Playboy at the time, so I had a collection of essays already that they could look at. It was just such an easy, smooth ride. I went to St. Martin for the first one. Then I followed my editor over to Doubleday for the second. I didn’t realize, with a novel, you really need to turn in a polished manuscript. It can’t just be, this is sort of what I’m thinking.

Zibby: Now that I’m reading submissions for our company, I’m like, I don’t know. If you have something where you’re like, “This could be good, but we don’t know,” versus “This just came in, and it’s amazing”…

Jenny: What do you do?

Zibby: It’s easier to go with the one that’s amazing. It’s right there.

Jenny: What about if you’re like, I could make this great?

Zibby: We do some of that too. I think it’s a mix.

Jenny: I kept thinking, don’t these people want to have a hand in the shaping of it?

Zibby: That’s what I was thinking. That’s why I didn’t write my whole book at first. I could write it a million ways. I could do it a million different ways, but I would like somebody to tell me, “Okay, that way makes sense. That way, not as good,” as opposed to spending a couple months writing the whole thing and then throwing it out. Couldn’t I just start with — right?

Jenny: Yes, completely.

Zibby: It’s like training for something. Someone could teach me the wrong way to hit a backhand.

Jenny: One hundred percent, or you’re just like, I don’t know the rules of women’s fiction, that I can’t have — can I say what’s happening in the book?

Zibby: Oh, yeah. What is your book about, Jenny?

Jenny: The book is about a new mom who moves to Manhattan and falls under the spell of this mommy influencer and gets a little wrapped up in that female friendship that I think we’ve all had where you’re in a toxic relationship with a narcissist and how you walk that tightrope of, how can I be both Batman and Bruce Wayne at the same time? How can I service my family but also serve this narcissist in my life? She’s getting gassed up by this person. She has a light on her when she felt sort of invisible and lost in the trenches of mommyhood. It’s exciting and fun. She’s getting all this free stuff and living this life, but then as we peel back the onion, you start to see how much of this is real. I started off with this question of, if we’re curating our lives online so intensely, how present are we in our actual lives for our families? It bothered me so much, especially because I follow a lot of these women. I’d see the posts. I’d see the kids. They looked like they were just sort of propped up. Then the caption never matched what was going on in the photo. It drove me insane. I think that is what really galvanized my writing the novel, just over and over again following these people that you’re like, that’s not your life. You’re not happy. What’s the truth in any of this?

Zibby: I feel like I only follow mostly writers at this point.

Jenny: You do. It’s different.

Zibby: I feel like there needs to be following rehab sessions.

Jenny: Where someone comes in and just helps you.

Zibby: It’s like, no, Jenny. Don’t follow those women. That’s not good for you.

Jenny: Block them. Then it became fun because I was like, well, I’m going to just go after these people. I had to almost screenshot and save in a folder, my all-time favorite posts because they’re so absurd, some of these things that we’re seeing, people dressing their kids up, and they’re in the slutty version of the outfit. It’s so out there. It’s crazy.

Zibby: I do want to hear more about how you ended up writing in general. You share your whole life story in your memoirs, as good memoirs do. You have been wanting to be an actress for so long. Yet you pivot. You’re super amazing at what you’re doing now. Not that you’re not a great actress.

Jenny: I think that acting was a gateway for me. First of all, I grew up — I was dyslexic. School was never easy. I’m just resilient. I don’t know if that comes from just struggling with school. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. I just have something to prove. It had to go to a good college. That’s why I related so deeply to your book. I have that. I also have, similar to you, a bit larger-than-life father that I feel like I need to usurp in some weird, fucked-up way. I was very motivated to do something. I love telling stories. Again, my grammar’s terrible. I’m not a great speller. I didn’t ever think I could be a writer. I found myself in the theater department. I ended up going to UCLA for theater and just started working. I started getting jobs. I was always playing the girlfriend, the random patient, the dead body, just these thankless roles. I never felt fulfilled as an actress. Then I married a guy, again, who took up all of the room in the relationship, to some degree. He’s always like, “Why do you blame me? It’s not my fault. I was already famous when you met me. I didn’t do it to hurt you.” I’m like, “I know, but it’s annoying that you’re famous.” That was the one reason I didn’t want to date him. I hated that he was famous. It drove me crazy. All anybody ever wanted to talk about was, so, tell me about your husband, Jason Biggs? I only like it when I’m trying to get into a restaurant. Otherwise, I’m like, get the fuck away from me. I don’t want to take your selfie with him.

Zibby: You were so funny in the book about the nail salon with the woman in the —

Jenny: — The woman at the nail salon would treat me like shit. Then Jason came in. It was full-body massage, paraffin body dip, everything. She’d clear people out of the way, wanted him to be so comfortable. It was insane. Also, I was frustrated my career wasn’t where his was that I started tweeting. I didn’t even know I was funny. I never did comedy. I thought I was such a serious actress in college. I did a one-woman show at UCLA that was sort of my first book, but almost the serious version. I’m not kidding. I started tweeting just out of rage. At that point in time in the mid-2000s, comedy was really democratized. Twitter changed everything, especially for female voices. You could be Lena Dunham, or you could just be some random chick in your Studio City apartment. You’re putting a tweet out there. It gets just as many likes. All of a sudden, you grow this following. It was incredible. It really changed my life. After about a year or two years, I had this platform.

I said to Jason, “I think I’m going to write a short story.” I knew a girl who was a writer on some show. She had a connection to The Smoking Jacket, which was this Playboy comedy site at the time. I sent a letter to them saying that she thought that I would be a good fit — which she never did; I didn’t actually really know her — and that I had a short story I wanted them to post. It shut the site down. It crashed the site. After that, the guy who was running the magazine at the time called me. He said, “Do you want to have a standing column on our site?” I just started writing these crazy fucking capers that I was already living in my real life. After a year, Joe Veltre was like, “I think you should try to write a book.” That’s how it happened. It was so surreal, so random. After I started writing, I’m like, who would ever want to act again? I don’t want to service somebody else’s story. I always want to tell my own stories. I had total control. The first book became a digital series for ABC where, finally, I got to cast Jason’s ex-girlfriend. I got to cast somebody to play Teets. I had a casting couch with dogs. They all came in. It was amazing. The writing changed everything.

Zibby: Are you over the resentment?

Jenny: Towards Jason?

Zibby: Yeah.

Jenny: I’m over the resentment now just because I don’t have time to resent him anymore. I’m too busy with the kids. The kids are sucking my will to live too often. I don’t have time to resent anybody else. Now I resent him more that he goes away to work and isn’t there to coparent with me. The best part of having an actor husband is that he is sort of a stay-at-home mom when he’s not working. I get so much out of that that when he goes away, it does feel like one of the legs of the chair is broken.

Zibby: I saw on Instagram that you called in reinforcements.

Jenny: Oh, my god, I had to. Yes, I had to.

Zibby: You now have taken a whole new approach — not new, but on the authenticity meter. Maybe it’s an act, but it feels very real. You’re very open about the craziness of life and having kids and when you end up in the last row of an airplane.

Jenny: Oh, my god, it was hell.

Zibby: I was like, I have to give you a travel agent. You’ve decided to just be all in; you, this is how it is. It’s not always so glamorous. Tell me how that is and how that makes you feel and if that was a decision or it just kind of happened.

Jenny: I think it comes from having two narcissist parents. Nobody was ever listening to me, so there was no reason for me to not just — nobody was paying attention. I always felt, even with Twitter as well, this is going to the ether. Nobody’s listening to this shit. It doesn’t matter what I say. That’s why I think I’ve always just been so open and honest about it. Who am I hiding things from? Nobody’s listening. When all of a sudden it felt like I had feedback suddenly, it just reinforced that and pushed me to go further with it. In all of my amends letters I’ve written to Jason’s ex, I’ve said to her, I was egged on. It wasn’t really my fault. I was being rewarded for — whatever. I just kept going with it because I felt like, god, everybody else must feel the same way. There are women out there who, I’m connecting with them on some weird level. I think everybody must feel the way I feel. Not everybody, but some people. It worked.

Zibby: Also, with the kids, you said a second ago now they’re becoming too much like real characters, so you can’t exploit them in the book. You’re so careful to hide their faces and all that stuff. Yet you share all your own emotions. This is something I always struggle with too. I want to say this really funny story. Is it revealing too much? How do I know if it’s revealing too much?

Jenny: It’s so hard.

Zibby: I posted one thing that my daughter did that I thought was so benign. She got upset about it. I took it right down. I was like, okay, I’m never going to say anything that this child of mine says, ever. How do you know? How do you know how to handle it? How do your kids feel? Do they even get the whole — do you talk about it?

Jenny: I live in fear every day with that. I’m so scared that they’re going to google us one day and see Jason’s penis and see my boobs in some guy’s mouth. There’s so much to find on the internet, so many stories about us, so much shit that I’ve — and even in the books — that I’ve done. I live in fear. I don’t think Sid even knew, really, what Instagram was until recently at school when his friends are asking him. He still doesn’t know that I’m on Instagram a lot. He just knows, are you posting this? Are you posting this? More with the food stuff, he kind of is —

Zibby: — Yes. I want to talk about Dictator Lunches too.

Jenny: He’s aware of the food stuff. Before the pandemic, I treated the phone like it was a cigarette. I never wanted them to see me on the phone because I felt like this is something that’s taking my attention away from them. I was just pained over it because I knew my own childhood trauma. It was just me projecting onto them. I felt like, oh, god, I don’t want to not be the parent that’s fully focused on my kids because that was what I always wanted. How can be the mom you always wanted when you didn’t have the mom you always wanted? You’re walking this tightrope. Now he knows that — people will say things. He’s a little bit more aware. He doesn’t like when I have the video camera out — video camera? My phone — taping something and he’s not in it and I’m avoiding him. That drives him insane. He’s like, hi. Hello? Hello? I might get the opposite where now that I’ve protected them so much, they’re going to say, how could you have just omitted me from your life? I don’t know. I think you lose either way. You’re damned if you do. You’re damned if you don’t.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s impossible, parenting in general, particularly today.

Jenny: That’s what I hate about parenting.

Zibby: I know. It’s ridiculous.

Jenny: We have to fail at some of it in order for them to turn out —

Zibby: — My kids want to be YouTubers when they grow up. I’m like, come on. Wait, Dictator Lunches, you have a cookbook coming out, right?

Jenny: I do.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Jenny: I have a cookbook that comes out September 13th.

Zibby: That’s soon.

Jenny: We’re backed into each other. I didn’t mean for it to happen.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Jenny: Yes, it’s crazy.

Zibby: Who is publishing that?

Jenny: That was HMH. Now their new name is Harvest. I think it was bought by HarperCollins. Then now their little section is called Harvest.

Zibby: So, traditional publisher?

Jenny: Traditional. I love it. It’s hands-off. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to weigh in on — the normal things, but you knew all the stuff that I had to do with this book. It’s just night and day.

Zibby: Are they your pictures? How did that whole thing start? You take pictures of the meals you make.

Jenny: Yes. It started off just as fluke thing. I was bored at night. I don’t know how to turn the TV on. I’m just in the kitchen rummaging around foraging for snacks. Again, I wanted to tell a story with these lunch boxes. Again, it’s a sublimation of my own guilt because I’m a working mom. I’m not around all the time. I think this generation has it, I don’t know if I want to say harder, but we’re in a precarious position. Unlike our parents’ generation — I think my mom could go to work and feel fine about working and feel proud of herself for working because she had a mom who stayed home. If you have a mom who worked and you’re also the child that carries those sort of issues with, my mom was never around, I’m a latchkey kid, but you also have the drive and ambition to want to work, you’re sort of fucked. I’m grappling with this. I want to send him to school with this handwritten letter. Food has always meant so much to me. It’s my way of communicating with him and showing up when I’m actually not there. I’m not the one doing pickup and drop-off every day. I’m not around in the way that maybe a more traditional mom would be. For me, the food and the lunches are that.

Zibby: That’s so cool. Give me a lunch. What should I do?

Jenny: I’m really into doing Guatemalan coconut rice. So easy. You can make a giant batch with black beans. Then I’ll do some roasted pumpkin, maybe, on the side. I always do a weird fruit salad with different fruits.

Zibby: You’re making all this stuff?

Jenny: Yeah, I make the stuff, but I don’t make everything. I also will use whatever I have leftover. If we had pasta the night before, I’ll throw pasta in the main and just make some cucumber creatures or something random and throw it in. It’s so bizarre. I never expected it to become anything. It just happened. I literally was just posting it on my normal feed. I thought I was annoying people because I was posting too often with the food, so I went and started this other account. I can’t tell you, of all the shit I’ve done in my life, there’s so many people who want to talk to me about Dictator Lunches. I’m like, why hasn’t anything else in my life worked out this way? It’s always the things you don’t put time and effort into that take off. For whatever reason, that was just this weird anomaly. Yes, I decided, I think I could make this into a book.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. It’s so cool. Then are you ever going to do fiction again?

Jenny: I don’t know. I want to see how this does. I’m scared. This was such a harrowing experience. It was not fun. I love the book.

Zibby: I feel like you’re having PTSD.

Jenny: I’m having PTSD. It was so hard. That’s why I think I’m just like, I have to make this book work. I have to see it succeed because it needs that happy ending.

Zibby: It’s going to succeed. It’s really good. It’s fun. It’s a great summer book. It’s got all the things, good characters, unpredictable ending, the whole thing.

Jenny: Now I do feel like it’s worthy. The journey with it was not what I expected.

Zibby: What advice would you give for someone — maybe not writing fiction because I feel like you’re a mess about fiction. If somebody wants to be an author in general or a memoirist or whatever, what advice would you give?

Jenny: I would just say start putting your stuff out there however you can, whether it’s Twitter or Instagram or TikTok. The more you can build and cultivate this following, the easier it’s going to be for you. Nowadays, you can have as much writing as you want accessible to everyone in any form. I would say that just putting your work out there is what’s going to get you that traditional book deal if that’s what you’re looking for. Just don’t give up on it. When somebody tells you no, you don’t have to accept that. Oftentimes, people throw things in a drawer because they’re like, nobody wanted it. I’m here to tell you that doesn’t matter if they don’t want it. You’re still going to feed it to them. They’re just going to get it a different way.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Jenny, you know I love the books. Thank you for coming on.

Jenny: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I really want you to write — it doesn’t have to be a mommy memoir. I need another installment because you have us all following along. I know on Instagram — it sounds creepy — that we see what goes on in your day-to-day life, but it’s the interior monologue that I love so much. It’s all the stuff.

Jenny: Thank you. The crazy.

Zibby: Yeah, I love that. I just relate to it. There’s such universal stuff. Maybe it’s not universal and I’m just equally crazy, which is possible.

Jenny: I love it. That’s why you got to stay honest, because I think so many women out there feel the same way we do.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on.

Jenny: Thanks for having me.

Jenny Mollen, CITY OF LIKES

CITY OF LIKES by Jenny Mollen

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