Zibby interviews Jessica Knoll about BRIGHT YOUNG WOMEN, the utterly absorbing, blisteringly paced, instant New York Times bestseller about two women who are brought together by violent acts of the same man and become allies as they pursue justice. Jessica shares her research process, which involved delving into the 1970s era through magazines, touches on the importance of victim’s rights, and describes the evolution and the challenges of her writing process. The conversation reveals the meticulous process behind novel writing and offers a glimpse into how real-world issues can be woven into fictional narratives.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jessica. Thanks so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time for Bright Young Women, your amazing new novel.

Jessica Knoll: Thank you for having me back. It feels like we were just doing this.

Zibby: I know, right?

Jessica: I don’t know how a whole year has passed.

Zibby: Seriously. You better slow down your writing. What’s going on here?

Jessica: My publisher would beg to differ.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Jessica: Bright Young Women is a fictional reimagining of what it was like to survive the crimes of Ted Bundy told from the perspective of some of the women from his final murder spree, which is in Tallahassee, Florida, which I actually did not know until I started researching this book. I always had him firmly in Seattle.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. The way you tell the story is so vivid and real. You start out with us being in the sorority house and getting to know the sorority president, Pamela, super well, down to how she gets ready for bed, basically, all the details of her wandering around the hallway until the unthinkable starts to happen. You show us as it unfolds and then show us with her calling the parents and show us escaping and blah, blah, blah. Then you go on and on taking us right into what it must be like and then the consequences after. How were you able — I don’t know if it was part research or just imagination or what — to recreate, or what you imagine that would be, and really put someone in that action like that?

Jessica: One of the sorority sisters, about ten years after he was convicted and was in jail — he was executed in 1989, so I think it might have been the same year he was finally executed. She basically went on to campaign for victim rights. She was integral in getting the Victims’ Bill of Rights added to the Florida State Constitution. It was the first time any state had elevated victims’ rights to the state of constitutional rights. You can read this Victims’ Bill of Rights that the residents of Florida voted to put into their state constitution. I don’t put this in the book because it’s not my story to tell, but it was directly related to her experience and her sister’s experiences from how they were treated by the police. Not that they had anything ill to say about the police. It was just that there was no training. Part of the Victims’ Bill of Rights was to implement training about how to approach victims of violence and where they can turn to for state-sanctioned refuge. Their whole thing was, when this happened, they were like, “Well, don’t stay in the house, but we don’t have anywhere for you to stay.”

Zibby: I could not believe that.

Jessica: They had to find their own accommodations. I still think it’s not great for victims of crime, but there are at least victim compensation programs. Now law enforcement is trained to say to a victim of a violent crime, you can go to this website. This is going to give you all the — they didn’t have anything like that. Just reading through this Victims’ Bill of Rights, it really helped me shape those early hours after the attack, down from, they didn’t even have an advocate who was giving them correct information about who had passed away, who had survived. Even that call where she calls and she thinks one of the girls is alive and other one isn’t, that’s all based on stuff that I gathered from the Bill of Rights.

Zibby: And then having to call the parents back and be like, oh, my gosh, I just said she was okay. What about getting all of the sorority — the time of year and all of that. I was just so moved by the specificity of it all. I know that’s part of writing and part of everything. Even when they did find refuge in the older sorority sister’s home and had the one dinky guy standing guard outside, even how you imagined — tell me about the characters and their relationships and the boyfriend and all of that.

Jessica: All of that, I just came up with that because there’s not a lot written about the victims. I really only had, this is the date the attacks happened. This is the date he was finally apprehended. This was the date of the trial. Then I just tried to shape a story around those coordinates. I really appreciate you saying it felt real in terms of the 1970s and what it would be like to live in a sorority house because the college I went to did not have sorority, so that’s as foreign a concept to me as being a twenty-one-year-old woman in 1978 and what that would be like. Off eBay, I ordered a lot of women’s magazines from the seventies because I figured that would give me a real sense of even how to describe their clothing or what the home design scene was like at the time. What was the food they were eating? What was the color nail polish they were wearing? I ordered all these old Cosmos and McCall’s. It was amazing to get my hands on them. I just read them cover to cover. I also was able to order — I don’t even know what these are called because, again, I wasn’t in a sorority. I’m so unfamiliar with this. Sororities all have — I don’t know if they still do, but they have quarterly magazines that they release to the alumni network. There were ones that I just pulled from eBay from 1977, 1978. It was very comprehensive about what the girls in all of the chapters were studying — there’s a lot of fundraising — what the causes were that they cared about. What sorts of events did they have? Parties, formals, all of these things. That’s really where I got a lot of my information. Thank god for eBay.

Zibby: I feel like if this were a Jeopardy question, I would get it wrong. This author used eBay to inform the details of her 2023 thriller. I would never guess Jessica Knoll. Who is… I worked at Vanity Fair and Condé Nast one summer. I had to go into the library there and paw my way through all the past episodes. The fact that you can just on eBay and get them — it would’ve saved me a million hours.

Jessica: I used to also work in — I worked at Cosmo. Same thing. If an editor was like, “Can you pull this?” I could get lost for hours. Hours. It just was fascinating to read. You could be completely transported to a different time period. It would be like watching a movie.

Zibby: And even the ads. I feel like the ads tell so much of the story.

Jessica: Oh, my god, the ads. The cigarette ads.

Zibby: It’s crazy. It’s a total time warp. I did another project in college, actually, on the way marriage is depicted in magazines over time, which was also very interesting.

Jessica: I bet that was a real eyeopener.

Zibby: It really was. The power of magazines to report. I love how you said that you anchored this around the coordinates because that seems like such a good writing assignment. Take these four dates and write a novel. It’s one thing to say it. It’s yet another to fill it in with the things that people relate to, which of course, are the emotions and the people. When you were crafting your characters, the heart of all the characters, how did you think about building all of that out and also creating that sense of propulsion that the story demanded?

Jessica: It was harder than it sounds. I also was under a misguided belief, ooh, this is going to be fun and different than how I’ve written things in the past. I love that you used almost a writing prompt, like how it was in school. A writing prompt, some of the work is done for me. It still was so hard. I actually found that Pamela’s story was more challenging than Ruth’s because I had more dates that I was trying to hit, important flashpoints in her story that I was trying to hit, whereas Ruth’s story was much more open-ended. It took my editor and lit agent — I struggled with Pamela’s story so much. I rewrote it so many times. Initially, it was from even a different character’s point of view. It wasn’t even her point of view. They were like, “Actually, Pamela’s a really interesting character. Could we try getting the Tallahassee story from her point of view?” It was actually one of them saying to me, “Ruth’s story has never given you any problems, and you’ve been much less constrained by trying to hit these coordinates. Because it is fiction, you can let go of some of this if you wanted to.” When they said that, I think that was when I really started hitting my stride with Pamela because I realized I have to get at the emotion of this. I can’t just be relying on these big, dramatic points to kind of carry the story for me. I still have to do the work. I was always trying to make it easier writing.

Zibby: That’s okay. It’s okay to want it to not be so hard.

Jessica: Why is it so hard?

Zibby: I like that you picked Pamela because as the sorority president, you can just feel her need to control. You’re basically taking this perfectionist personality and being like, everything is wrong. Nothing is remotely right. Deal with that, which is, of course, such an interesting thing to read your way through.

Jessica: She was definitely in a pressure cooker. I think those are the types of characters we want to read about, where things are just mounting and mounting and mounting until something has to give, some major decision about life where you just break free and you’re like, I’ve got to start living my life on my own terms. As you know, she gets to that point both professionally and personally in her romantic relationship.

Zibby: And with her parents.

Jessica: And with her parents, yeah. I was watching some documentary about disappearances in the wilderness. There was some story about a kid who’d gone missing for a couple of days. He was presumed dead. Then they found him. It was mysterious. He should’ve been severely dehydrated and covered in scrapes, and he wasn’t. He didn’t remember anything. I just remember thinking, what an interesting thing to have as part of your history, your story, but it’s something you don’t know about yourself. How would that inform your life? How does that function as almost a secret the character is keeping, a little bit of withholding? You’re like, there’s something up with her, but I don’t know what it is. She isn’t being annoying and dangling a carrot. She really didn’t know her whole story. If this hadn’t happened to her, she wouldn’t have ever gotten the full picture about her life in order to make different choices where she was going to be more fulfilled and have more purpose.

Zibby: Wow. You go through the drama of the rewrites and different characters. Then you put it aside. Do you second-guess any of it? Do you go back in your head and think, should I have kept that? What could I have done differently? Are you just like, okay, put that to bed, onto the next?

Jessica: Until the final day of turning in your edits, I’m always feeling like — the “kill your darlings” thing — I killed it, but maybe it could come back this way. It’s hard to let go of things that you think in the beginning are going to be so essential to the story and to your character. To let go of those things, especially if those are things that you really spent a lot of time on from a craft level where things are written in a way that you’re really proud of but it’s just not really part of the story anymore — it’s slowing it down in some way or the other. I do think letting go of those things is always and will continue to be a challenge for me.

Zibby: I get that. Everything I delete, I would save in another file just in case.

Jessica: Always. I will say there was one chunk in this book that I really loved the writing of it. My editor was like, “It’s just slowing it down. You just want to get to the end.” I saved it. I’m pulling a chunk of it for an essay I’m writing. It is getting a life somewhere. I cannot tell you how satisfying it was to copy/paste this one paragraph and just plop it in there. I was like, it’s polished. It’s done. Always keep those documents because you never know when they’ll somehow be relevant to something you’re working on that’s tangentially a part of it but not the actual book itself, would be my advice.

Zibby: Yes, excellent. I’m thrilled for you that you found a place.

Jessica: I repurposed it.

Zibby: That’s excellent. Check plus. That’s awesome. Amazing. Do you feel like now that the book is done, you have advice or just a different framework for victims today that you’ve gotten out of this? If you were on the scene or if you were the one training the police to deal with victims, what would be something that should be included in the training?

Jessica: I think a big one is just getting the information at the same time that the — information that’s relevant to the what the victim needs to know. Things like if someone’s attacker is paroled and they’re released from prison early, in some states where a bill of rights is not part of the constitution, there is no one who is in charge of alerting a victim to be like, your attacker is back on the street again. That, to me, and reading up about what victims’ rights mean — it’s very complicated. There is obviously an intersection between the rights of victims and the rights of the accused. Both parties need to have those rights respected. I would read horror stories from victims who would go to their local grocery store, and all of a sudden, standing in aisle nine is the person that killed their sister. The idea that there’s no one who’s assigned to be in contact with you about that information, that feels like something that a family of a victim or a victim themself, they could be privy to that information without it being a violation of the convicted or the accused rights.

Zibby: It should really be an automatic email that goes out. You’re connected. What emails are connected to the case?

Jessica: Also, how are all the systems connected? It all feels very abstract still. They’ll talk about how in the seventies, eighties, nineties, even early two-thousands, police departments in different precincts don’t work together. That’s oftentimes how these serial rapers — rapers ; just to add some levity there — serial rapists or murders are able to operate, because the precincts aren’t in touch with one another. It feels like that’s still happening on some level when things could be digitized. I don’t know. I’m not an expert there, but it feels like we still have a long way to go in terms of what the technology could offer that isn’t being utilized.

Zibby: It’s chilling to think about, honestly. It’s terrible. What are you working on now? Did you start a new book? Do you have a new book coming out in three months that we’re going to talk about?

Jessica: Oh, god, I wish. I am trying to get ahead on a next book just because, obviously, the strike is going on, the writers’ strike. I have other projects that are on pause because of that. With this time, I am trying to do my best to put all my effort into promoting this one and getting ahead on the next one. That’s kind of where I’m at. We’ll see how long it lasts. Hopefully, the strike is resolved soon, and we can all get back to work on those other projects because I’m really excited about those too.

Zibby: I know you’re not supposed to talk about them, right? I won’t ask.

Jessica: Yeah, we can’t.

Zibby: Can you talk about the next novel, or no?

Jessica: It’s still so rough that there’s not really a lot to say. I will say that it’s a little bit — the way this one was a departure from my earlier stuff in that it’s the first time I left a contemporary period, this next one is a departure in that it’s a little sexier than I’ve done before. Trying some new things.

Zibby: Got to keep it interesting.

Jessica: Exactly. Keep it fresh.

Zibby: Otherwise, why do it? You got to have some fun if it’s that hard. Did you have input on the cover? I thought the cover was so good.

Jessica: Thank you for saying that. You know what? I’m in love with the cover. It was the first try, which has never happened before. With my other two, we went through a couple of batches and being like, this isn’t quite right. This is okay. This one, they took a big swing. I appreciate that the cover is different, a departure from my other ones because the story itself is a big departure. I think that the cover also signifies that. They really did a brilliant job on it. I’m in love with it. Thank you for saying that.

Zibby: Me too. It’s so great. I devoured the whole thing. I told you. The first hundred pages, I read in one sitting. I was like, don’t talk to me, which I love.

Jessica: Thank you. That’s the dream to hear.

Zibby: You know when you’re petting a book? You’re like, this is so good. I was having that feeling. Oh, my god, this is so good. Not to diminish books by saying they felt like movies, but it felt like a surround-sound book where you’re in it, and all your senses. You can’t tear away. That’s how I felt.

Jessica: Thank you. It was a real fear of mine. If I’m going to do this, I better be able to capture it accurately. That was a constant fear I was battling when I was writing this, so I really appreciate you saying that.

Zibby: I don’t know if it was accurate or not, but it was a great read.

Jessica: It feels accurate, so…

Zibby: It feels accurate. It’s totally believable. I buy it, whether or not it was right. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jessica: My advice is always to write and not to wait around for the right time, the right idea. Then I also feel like I contradict myself because sometimes I do think I start writing too early before I’ve really given an idea and a character time to germinate. I have to find that balance. I do think that there is a delicate balance there. If you’re a new writer and you’ve never written before, I think that we tend to err on the side of, well, one day, I’ll find the right idea and the right period in my life where I have the time to do this and I can give this project the kind of effort and total concentration that it deserves. I think that if you wait to do that, you’ll never find that time, has been my experience. Just go for it. A lot of times, you work things out in the process of writing. You can figure things out in the process of writing. Don’t try and be too perfect about it. Oh, now I have my million-dollar idea and character, and I can start writing. I wish that could happen like that, but it doesn’t.

Zibby: Do you have any books that you tried writing in between some of the other books that just didn’t work?

Jessica: Oh, yeah. I had one that I put on the backburner probably five years ago that I think I will write one day. I still really like the idea. I just hit a point where I didn’t quite know how to make it all come together. I was like, let me try something else. Then I got going on this one. This one, everyone was really excited about it. I felt good about it. I have kept that one in the back of my head. I know I’ll go back to that one day, someway, somehow.

Zibby: That’s good. Then it’s not so stressful debating what to do next.

Jessica: Yes, but then I feel like I’ll probably find myself at the same impasse that I find myself at with every book. The beginning is exciting. It’s a great concept. Then you get to the point where you have to execute. You hit that point in a book inevitably. It’s so hard to do. It’s really hard to execute. That’s the one thing I’ve learned in almost ten years of writing books. Pulling that off is the hardest part.

Zibby: What’s the secret?

Jessica: A lot of work, a lot of drafts, a lot of headaches, sadly.

Zibby: At least you can do it, though. I think that’s one of the things that separates fantastic authors from other — you figure it out. You don’t give up. It’s good.

Jessica: Inevitably, whatever you figure out always feels less dazzling than how you had it in your head. You know what I mean? I think there’s still always that part of me where it’s like, I conceived that differently, but I couldn’t pull it off in the end.

Zibby: Well, it’s working. Stick with it.

Jessica: Thank you.

Zibby: Congratulations on this book, Bright Young Women. It’s sure to be a massive hit. It was so good, so well-written. Great job.

Jessica: Thank you. Great talking to you as always.

Zibby: You too. Good luck. Bye.

Jessica: Bye.


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