Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Jenny Lee who’s the author of YA novel Anna K: A Love Story, a modern-day adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. She is a TV writer and producer who has worked on BET’s Boomerang, IFC’s Brockmire, Freeform’s Young & Hungry, and the Disney Channel’s number-one rated kids’ show, Shake It Up. HBO Max acquired the rights for Anna K which Jenny Lee will adapt for the screen and write. Jenny has written four humorous essay collections including I Do. I Did. Now What?!: Life After the Wedding Dress from 2004, which I read right before I got married the first time, and a middle-grade novel series, Elvis and the Underdogs. Originally from Tennessee, Jenny lived in New York City in her twenties and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband.

Welcome, Jenny. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jenny Lee: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: Jenny is being very kind because she came a few minutes early. I had just gotten back from a run which I do once a month, once every two months. My face is like purple at this point. I still could not get cool enough to shower. Jenny’s being very, very kind. Let’s just say that. Anyway, please tell listeners what Anna K: A Love Story is about.

Jenny: Anna K is a novel that is a reimagining of one of my favorite books, which is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I took the same sort of plot structure, but I moved it to modern-day using New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut, instead of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Zibby: That’s awesome. It’s like a YA Gossip Girl meets something.

Jenny: Crazy Rich Asians.

Zibby: Crazy Rich Asians, yeah, I love that. See, you have whole your line already set up. You didn’t need me. You had this great letter at the end of the book which explains when you thought of this idea, why you did it now. Can you summarize that?

Jenny: Sure. In 2012, I was in New York City for Christmas with my mom. The Joe Wright version adaptation of Anna Karenina came out with Keira Knightley as the star. We went to see it at the Ziegfeld. It’s so sad it’s closing. We went to see it. We had this magical time. My mom had read the book in Korean and in English. I had read the book twice by then. We were talking about it. We had this great discussion about it and how tragic it was for the ending of Anna. Then I just kept thinking what it would be like in modern day. Then later that night, I couldn’t sleep. I snuck down to the lobby of the hotel. I just was like, oh, my god, Anna Karenina is a book about first time, major time, that you’re in love. If you wanted to translate to modern day, it needed to be teenagers now because obviously in the late 1800s in Russian society, they were all in their twenties and thirties. Now the first time you usually fall in love is when you’re a teenager.

Zibby: Did you fall in love for the first time as a teenager?

Jenny: Probably. Whether it’s now, as I’m definitely not a teenager, I’ve seen — you’re like, oh, that was that young, first, crazy teenage love. I definitely have had that experience a couple times. My now second husband, when we fell in love recently, like five years ago, I was like, oh, this is like that teenage version of love where you’re super obsessed and you’re smelling his shirts and all that.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so cute.

Jenny: It reminded me of that. That was definitely part of the inspiration of writing this book.

Zibby: You had this line at the end that made me cry that was like, you can’t write a true love story until you’re really in love, so that’s why you waited so long to write it even though you thought of it a long time.

Jenny: Yeah, I definitely was channeling that. I was like, oh, this is the right time to do this. There’s so much of my husband and our love story in this, like tiny little details and shout-outs of things that happened between us that I added as a little — like a gift that I gave him is in there, etc.

Zibby: I’m trying to remember which gift that would be.

Jenny: Where Anna’s brother keeps his drugs, there was an orange — it’s an Anya Hindmarch thing that I had had engraved for him for an anniversary. I put that in there.

Zibby: That store also just went out of business.

Jenny: Oh, did it?

Zibby: In New York, yeah. You have written for a long time. Your first book — well, start talking about your whole writing career.

Jenny: My first book was in 2001. It was a collection of essays, humor essays basically, called I Do. I Did. Now What?! I wrote three collections of humor essays in my early thirties. None of those books — they all sold so-so, but none of them broke out and became a big success. I was really using my personal life, whatever I was obsessed with at the time. Then I would tend to write a book about it. I hadn’t written fiction yet. Writing a novel, my first novel’s always the big goal in my — ever since I was a kid, I was like, oh, my god, I want to write a book, a novel, the great American novel. Then I just kept waiting. I was like, I need more life experience. I need more time. Then my first novel actually was a kids’ book called Elvis and the Underdogs that I wrote maybe six years ago when I was working on Shake It Up, a Disney Channel show. That book started as a TV show. It was a pitch for a TV show about a talking dog. It was right when they were developing Dog with a Blog, that show. They were like, “We’re looking for outside pitches.” Then I came up with the idea. I pitched it.

They were like, “We don’t really talk about these underdog kids. It’s Disney Channel. We want good-looking, aspirational kids.” Really? There are many more of these underdog kids. It’s about a kid with a talking therapy dog who was always sickly. I was like, “I think there are more of these kids.” They’re like, “Yeah, not for us.” Okay. Then I was like, it’s such a weird idea to have this idea and come up with all these characters that you love and put it in a drawer somewhere. I’ve never written a kids’ book before. I think I’m going to just try it. Why not? I was getting up at five thirty in the morning and writing ten pages a day before work to get that novel done. Then I finished it. That was a really gratifying experience. The way kids love the books they read really strikes a chord in me because I was like that as a kid. It was a really great experience. Going on tour to schools and meeting a bunch of kids who read it was really fun for me.

Zibby: Go back to the writing ten pages before work. You were working on the shows.

Jenny: On the show, yep.

Zibby: Then you would get up and just write a little bit and then shut down the computer and leave, and that was it. Then you would get it out of your head. You could start just like that, like, this is my time, I’m going to just whip it out?

Jenny: Yes. Well, I think what it is with me in terms of prose, TV writing’s usually in a room, especially — I’ve only written/worked on comedy shows right now. It’s a group of comedy writers. A lot of it’s done in the room. It’s a group experience. Writing a book, it’s your own chance, your own imagination. You have so much freedom. I found it kind of freeing. That was also this year when I had just gotten out of a relationship. I was like, I’m going to take a year off of men and relationships and really focus on my career because it just wasn’t exactly where I wanted it to be. If I took that out of the equation and didn’t have to worry what I look like when I went to the grocery store or if I wanted to meet someone or dating, I think I’d have so much extra free time. I will say, besides this last past year, that was the most productive year of my career. It freed up so much space in my life to not — if you’re not thinking about relationships or this and that, I just put it all into my work. I did that. I wrote a pilot. I wrote a lot of stuff while working on the show. The show, I will say, Disney Channel show, that Shake It Up, we had perfect hours. It was like ten to six. It wasn’t these crazy TV hours that I’ve had on other jobs.

Zibby: I was so sure you were going to say, “Then I met my husband when I swore off men.” No?

Jenny: I didn’t. I met my husband, though, right when I was like — it had been a year and everyone’s like, “You need to start dating.” I’d never dated and been single in LA, really. It’s very different from when I was in my twenties and dating in New York City. You would go to bars. You would hang out at restaurants within your crowd of people. Here in LA, it’s so spread out. Bars seem more like twentysomething. Everyone hung out in their houses, so I was like, I don’t know how you meet people. Everyone’s like, “You have to online date.” I was like, I don’t want to. I don’t want to. Finally, I started online dating. I think I did eleven dates in a month. Then I met my husband on a book tour.

Zibby: But not through online dating?

Jenny: Not online dating.

Zibby: Wow. So it’s meant to be.

Jenny: Yeah, meant to be for sure.

Zibby: Came at the right time. You mentioned also in this letter, which by the way I think should be at the front of your book — why is it in the back? I thought it was so interesting. It informed my whole reading, but it was after the fact. You said when you had left your first husband, your mom was not so happy about that. Let’s talk about that.

Jenny: Oh, yeah. Okay, I’ll tell you anything. Having been raised in a very traditional Korean household here in the United States, my parents were extremely strict. I hear that Korean parents who immigrated to the United States were almost even more strict than Korean parents were at the time in Korea, basically, because they were just so bent on you have to be a certain way and all the studying and the education, etc. My mom really was a traditional at-home mother and housewife. She really, I do think honestly, believes that women are to cater to men. That’s just how I was raised, always. I was always told, “You laugh too loud. You talk too much. No man’s going to want you. You have champagne taste.” In my twenties, my mom was like, “No one’s ever going to marry you.” It was this continual struggle between us. When I finally did marry, he wasn’t Korean, but he was a doctor. She loved him and thought he was — I think she was surprised that I managed to land him. When, after five years of marriage, I wasn’t happy anymore and I was really thinking about considering divorce and leaving him, we had one of our biggest fights ever. I was like, “Would you rather I’m unhappy and married, miserable? Or would you rather I was happy and divorced?” She’s like, “I would rather you stay married.” All right. Well, I don’t think we have anything more to talk about.

Zibby: It’s hard to go against that.

Jenny: It was very hard to go against it. Luckily, I had a cell phone. I didn’t tell her. I left and moved back to New York. I didn’t tell her for six months.

Zibby: No!

Jenny: She didn’t know. You have a cell phone. She can call. If she calls me, I just was like, “Oh, he’s busy. He’s at work.” I just didn’t tell her. We weren’t talking as often anymore because I was mad at her as well. That a very big moment between me and my mom of, this is my life. I have to service my own happiness. I’m not living for you or what you want from me. I’m sorry. You got the nice fancy Vera Wang wedding that you got to throw me. That was for you, but now it’s my time.

Zibby: You need to write about that. Let’s write that book. Come on. I want to read about that. That’s perfect. I Do. I Did. Now What?!, by the way, and I know I mentioned this to offline, but came for me at the perfect time in my life when I was getting married. Full circle that now we’re here and we’re talking about second marriages. It’s just so funny how life works.

Jenny: I know. When I received the questions and I saw that you had read my first book, I was like, oh, my gosh. This is kismet. It’s meant to be.

Zibby: It’s so crazy. I remember reading that book, so cool. Part of Anna K‘s whole thing is this posh lifestyle. You include so many references to brands and items. You just set that scene so well. Everything is in the moment, this whole — you just so nailed it, basically. Talk to me about that decision to use so many brands and timely references and root it so specifically in that time and place.

Jenny: In the original, it was very much a piece about society and your place in society. To me, I always wanted it to be a soapy, fun read. I wanted it to have this aspirational — I love Gossip Girl, the show, as well. I just wanted to have that sort of quality of like, ooh, the lives of these people and the pressures that you face. In terms of the brands and the designers, I’ve been thinking about that, why I was so specific. I was thinking, I wonder if some of it came from — I was a huge fan of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, their first books. They label-drop a lot. What was interesting, in the very beginning of the book, I made a conscious effort to probably do it even more so. I feel like when you see these wealthy kids, you really look at — when you first meet anyone, you look at the outside and their superficial, materialist appearance like their shoes they’re wearing and this and that. I slowly, as you go through the book, started to drop out the designer labels and stuff as you got to know the characters. I wanted it to be like when you first meet them, you think they’re rich and perfect and have these wonderful lives because they’re rich, but it’s really not the truth.

Until you get to know a person, then you can kind of drill down and realize that they have the same sort of teenage issues that every teenager faces, under a different magnifying glass and with different pressures. It was important to me. I went to one year of boarding school at St. George’s in Newport, Rhode Island. I got to see a lot of the teenagers that were probably in that wealth class of the characters of Anna K. I myself was not actually in that class. It was interesting. What I took away from that was like, oh, we’re still talking about boys. We’re still talking about the zits that we have. We have the same issues. Teenagers who were born into wealth, to me, it’s not like that’s everything, who they are. They were born that way. Sometimes you wonder if people give them a hard time just because there is — one of your questions was this idea of wealth today. It’s not that popular to be rich. I was like, yeah, but for teenagers, they get a free pass. I feel like all teens get a free pass. They were born into their circumstances. Who they become and the choices they make as a teenager, wealthy or not wealthy, is going to define them for their lives. I definitely was commenting on that, but not really about the class system, if that makes sense.

Zibby: So when does the free pass expire? At what age do you not get the pass anymore?

Jenny: My husband has a little sister who’s like twenty-nine. Really, I feel like your twenties, when they’re so smart and driven and serious, to me, your twenties are a chance to screw up and do whatever you want to do. I made so many mistakes when I thought I was so worldly and knew everything in my twenties. Every decade you’re like, oh wow, I didn’t know anything back then. I feel like you get a free pass for a long time, with love. Especially with love, I think you definitely — it’s tricky, love and relationships.

Zibby: Not to say you’re not giving them a free pass, but I feel like there’s a poking fun at this whole lifestyle in the book. You’re not mean about it, but it’s definitely an — not exploitation, like an expose of a certain class of kids.

Jenny: I wanted to comment a little bit about it. There’s a Dustin character who’s Levin from the original. He’s really an outsider status. He is black, adopted but raised by Jewish white parents. He’s probably the one who’s the smartest and the moral center. I gave him the freedom to comment on it because I feel like you need to be able to have a voice in the book to say, you know it’s crazy, the way you live. If you’re a teen and you were raised that way, do you know it’s crazy? That’s kind of the world — it can be, very, a sheltered existence. They’re at country clubs with other people who are of their same wealth level. Do they know it’s that? It’s all about perspective. I feel like when you’re a teenager, until you meet people from different backgrounds, you don’t necessarily know that your upbringing was that different, do you?

Zibby: No. I mean, kind of.

Jenny: Right, exactly. Do you know what I mean?

Zibby: Yes, you know. I went to one of these schools. I went to two. This is not so far — these were not — you know what? I’m not going to get into this. I’m going to leave myself out of this. I think parts of it seem realistic, but these were not my people. I didn’t run like this.

Jenny: With the fast crowd?

Zibby: Yeah. I was more — anyway. Moving on, there was this part about Dustin, though. He’s just like, wow, look at how things work in the world. I didn’t even know. He was resistant about even going into this class of people, this whole situation. He was recruited to be a tutor for his friend when he was younger. Then he gets to see, like goes to a party in the beginning and is looking all around like, wow, maybe I should enjoy it because maybe I’m not going to get back here again. There is also that part of it. I feel like there’s something to this book where you’re like, I have to keep — I might not get back in this again. Let me see what happens in this.

Jenny: I went to New York City at eighteen for college at NYU. I had grown up in Tennessee, small town Tennessee. New York City was the biggest change possible. There, when you see how grand everything is and then you realize how much money there is in New York City, you can’t help, especially teenager through your twenties, fantasizing and being like, I wonder what — you know there’s a whole other part of the city that’s going on around you that’s wealth and connections and fancy things. You just always kind of fantasize about it. I was broke through most of my twenties working in publishing, and so you just are so interested. To me, I really wanted to show this soapy, hidden world. Where to them, getting your first designer thing, that’s just their lives. Their closet is filled with designer bags. Where for me, I was begging my mom through my entire twenties to get my first Prada purse. I was like, please. My mom would be like, “It’s more than your rent.” I’m like, “I know, but if you want me to find a husband…”

Zibby: That’s why I did not grow up with my closet full of designer purses, just saying. That was not my experience in the slightest. That’s so funny. You’re turning this into, now, a series with HBO Max. Tell me about how that’s going.

Jenny: We’re still in the waiting process. TV development’s so much a different — it’s a longer timeline, basically. It’s funny because I just read Deadline and you see show after show after show. There’s so many. Behind the scenes, the development process, because there’s so many stages of it, it’s taking a while. I just don’t have that much information about it yet. When I sold the book, I was lucky enough to have my first Hollywood bidding war for the studio side and then on the network side. We pitched it and there was a lot of interest. It was really fun. What was great is having been working in TV for last ten years, I sort of understood the game at that point in time. None of it went to my head, but I got sent a bottle of vintage Cristal and Sprinkles cookies. I was like, this is crazy. What’s happening now? I’m living this Hollywood fantasy. At the same time, since I’ve been here, I didn’t take it too seriously. I just had fun with it, which was a great experience.

Zibby: During which stage were you getting the Cristal? This is once you had…?

Jenny: When there was a lot of different producers. I met with fourteen different producers. I think there were twenty-five that wanted to meet. As soon as the book got announced, it just was a feeding frenzy. I spent three weeks meeting different production companies and talking to them about what their ideas were. I could always tell that in Hollywood, a lot of the assistants read the books, basically, for their bosses. A lot of the assistants were always like, when they greeted me, they’re like, “Oh, my god, I love the book,” and this and that. Then they probably wrote coverage. I could tell in the meeting which producers had read the book themselves based on the conversation. I really took my time and was very careful with this process because this is the dream TV show for me to do. I’m an executive producer. I’m writing it. I’m the creator of the show. I really wanted to make very sound, smart decisions.

Zibby: How did you pick your final producer?

Jenny: It’s interesting. When it was narrowed down to the last group of four and they were connected with different studios, they were all vying for it, I really was looking for people, I’m like, oh, I’m going to have to work with them. A TV show could last for, knock on wood, four or five years. I’m going to have to be with these people all the time. I need to make sure I like them. I have a very strict no-asshole policy.

Zibby: Nice. I love it.

Jenny: I don’t work with people that I know are going to be jerks about some things. I was very careful about that. I tend to like strong females, working with them as well. One thing, one of my executive producers is James Shin at the Scooter Braun production company. James is Korean. I wasn’t necessarily making that as a conscious choice, but I found that very helpful in our discussion. Obviously, Jenny Han, To All the Boys I’ve Loved — I read this article about her when she was deciding who was going to get the movie, the producers. She picked the one producer who said that they would make sure that the girl stayed Korean or half-Korean. I was like, oh. I really respected that. She was already a New York Times best seller, so she had her choice, basically. For once, I had my choice. I’ve honestly never been in this position before in Hollywood where I had — I was the one who had the power and ability to choose. It was important for me to make sure I had the right people. I did like that James — he talked to me a lot about his own childhood and violin lessons and his own Korean upbringing. I felt like that was a good fit for me and the book.

Zibby: So cool. In the meantime while you have all this going on, what are you doing now? Are you working on a new show? Are you writing a new book? Are you thinking about a next book? Are you thinking about saving your creative power for the adaptation?

Jenny: It’s so funny. Everyone always has that side hustle going. For a long time when I came out here and I had been writing books but wasn’t making enough of a living doing that, then I was like, I need to concentrate on one thing. I’m like, I want to write a play. I want to write short stories. It’s not flitty, but I am so —

Zibby: — Creative. You’re so creative.

Jenny: Yeah, creative and curious. I want to try so many different things. I was like, I need to focus on TV, will be my day job. Then books will be on the side. Now it’s kind of flip-flopping again. I have a couple TV projects. I’m really working to try to create and have my own show get greenlit so that I can run it. I have a kid show at Netflix that’s in contention. I have the Anna K project, which is obviously the dream project. I have a Korean soap opera with Margaret Cho, adapting a Korean soap. That’s super fun. That’s a comedy. I am writing another book. I am writing a sequel.

Zibby: No way! That’s awesome. That is so cool. When I was reading this book, I was like, wow, this could be multiple books. There’s so much going on in here and so many characters. This is amazing.

Jenny: I know. First, this really was supposed to be a one-off. It was no intention to do a series. Then once the TV show sold, I was like, oh, the TV show, the first season would be the first book. If I could write the books per season, then you would see it. The second book takes place over the summer. To me, I feel like as a teenager your lives is your school year versus your summer. Who doesn’t want to see a bunch of rich kids and how they party in the summer?

Zibby: Is this the Hamptons? Anna K, Hamptons version?

Jenny: Partially. I’m going to have a character — Beatrice is going to come to LA because she’s doing an internship. Some will be in New York. Some are travelling abroad. I really wanted to make it very expensive. I’m working on it right now. Literally, I’m going to go home and continue writing when I get home.

Zibby: That’s so cool. I love it. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jenny: I have always wanted to write. I just really think that you have to — my best success have come from things that are personal to me. As a fiction writer you’re like, I have an imagination. Why can’t I just create things that are totally fictionalized and make it up from my head? That’s how I used to think. But to have an emotional impact and wait, really, my best success have always been things that I wrote about personally. My first book was about my first year of marriage and me kind of struggling with that and trying to figure it out. My second book was about how to tell if you’re obsessed with your dog because I was currently obsessed with my dog. I think that’s where I get the most creative inspiration from. When you’re thinking about what you want to write, I think you try every genre, and stage versus TV versus a book, and just see where it takes you. Also, you have to sometimes put your butt in the chair and just write. That’s what I did with that kids’ book I told you about where I was getting up early before work. I was like, I want to try. I set these small goals, ten pages. I didn’t always hit ten pages every morning, but that was my goal. I had a friend that I would email the ten pages to, to keep me on track even though I wasn’t asking her to read it. It was just so I had it so that I could kind of keep myself accountable because it’s hard. It’s busy. Life is busy.

Zibby: I’m so interested in seeing what you write today after this. I want you to send me like a paragraph.

Jenny: All right, I will.

Zibby: I’m totally fascinated. Plus, I want more of all of these people. Tell me more. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Sorry again for my appearance today. Thank you. I cannot wait to see what happens with everybody.

Jenny: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a fun talk.

Zibby: Good.