Producer, screenwriter, and New York Times bestselling author Jessica Knoll joins Zibby to discuss her 2015 mystery novel Luckiest Girl Alive and its recent record-breaking Netflix film adaptation. Jessica describes her daring career jumps from Cosmopolitan writer to novelist to screenwriter, and shares what it was really like to adapt her book into a movie (guess how many people auditioned for young TifAni FaNelli!). She also describes how empowering, validating, and healing it was to reveal, in a deeply-moving essay, that her book was inspired by her own experience with sexual assault.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jessica. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Luckiest Girl Alive, which is now a, not just Netflix show, but number-one Netflix show, which is amazing. Welcome.

Jessica Knoll: Thank you so much.

Zibby: It’s so exciting. You have two books. You have an adaptation. You’ve spent years writing this from book to screen. Where do we even start? I’m so excited for you. Let’s start with Luckiest Girl Alive, writing it and what this whole adaptation has been like for you. Start there.

Jessica: I started writing Luckiest Girl Alive at my kitchen table when I lived in New York City, my little apartment, at six in the morning before I went into work. I was an editor and a writer at Cosmopolitan magazine. This was probably 2013. In magazine world, you don’t have to be in the office until nine thirty, ten. I used to use that morning time to go to a workout class. When the voice of the character, Ani FaNelli, finally came to me and things started coalescing, I realized that I was freshest in the morning. Because I was spending all day writing and pitching ideas and it was already a very creative use of my time throughout the day, by the time I got home, I was just like, I’m shot. There’s nothing good left in me. I started waking up early and getting an hour or two at my kitchen table. It was a really magical year that I wrote that book. It felt like the story just poured out of me. I felt so personally and creatively fulfilled writing this book. Then the reception of how it was published and how excited Simon & Schuster was about it and how readers responded to it, it really was like a fairy tale for me. Then adapting it, not so much of a fairy tale. It took so long. It was so hard. There were so many points where I never thought it would move forward. I even have moments now that I can’t believe it was finally made into a movie and that that even happened because I just saw being on set, how much money, how much work, how much labor, how much has to come together in order for anything to make it to the screen. I feel really weirdly humbled by the whole experience. Oh, my god, one of my things, people cared enough to come together and make this into the movie that it is today. It’s been a long journey.

Zibby: Wow. How did you even know how to go about adapting? I can see more of a jump — not that it’s so easy to even write a novel. Maybe I should’ve started there. Being an editor to writing a novel is another huge jump.

Jessica: It is a jump, but you’re right, it’s a hop. It really is. That’s not to undervalue myself or anyone else who does it. In the magazine world, it was fairly commonplace that editors and writers had book deals and had these separate lives publishing books. Part of why I say that was just a hop was I was in an office every day — my boss at the time, John Searles, who’s a novelist; the editor-in-chief of the magazine at the time I was there, Kate White, also a novelist; I had people that I could look to and be like, oh, they’ve done it. I could be like, how did you do it? It just felt less mysterious and like something that I could actually do. I really truly don’t know how anyone does it alone in a vacuum without talking to anyone who’s gone through the experience before. To me, that’s brave. I really had a lot of people around me who were encouraging me and who were role models to me.

The adaptation part was much more of a job. When I look back now, I think what was most influential to me — the book was optioned in spring of 2015. I was really, really dogged about being the one to adapt it myself. Where my role model was in all of that — not that I even know her or have ever even met her. Gone Girl was such a phenomenon. Then all the news was that Gillian Flynn was adapting it with David Fincher. I always saw Gillian Flynn more — I was like, she started a magazine. She was an editor at Entertainment Weekly. Then she started writing books. Now she’s written this massively successful, and one of my favorite books of all time, Gone Girl. She’s never written anything for the screen, but she’s going to adapt it herself. I saw that. I was like, wait, I want that too. That really made me feel like it was possible and that a studio would agree to it because there was such a big example of it out there. It was still pretty difficult to get them to agree to it. Then of course, I had to prove myself once they did.

Zibby: Then I actually had to write it.

Jessica: Then I had to actually write it. Writing a script is much more collaborative than writing a book. It almost reminds me of writing for magazines in that your producers and the executives at whatever studio or streamer you’re at almost act as your top editors. You’re constantly turning in drafts. They’re like, this is working, this isn’t working. You get these massive notes documents. That doesn’t really happen in books. Yeah, you have your editor, but they will be like, this isn’t working. Then you have to go figure it out. It’s just that one person. You always hear film is really collaborative. It’s so true. There’s so many people weighing in at every turn and helping you shape it and craft it that you’re kind of like — even people who, that’s what they do for a living, they’re seasoned screenwriters, they’re still dealing with that. I was like, oh, if you’re getting someone who’s helping you shape it from the side, that, I can handle. You don’t have to just sit in a room and do this by yourself and pray that it works. You are really getting feedback along the way.

Zibby: I read that you auditioned 150 people to play the role. Is that true? Something like that.

Jessica: Mila Kunis plays the main character as an adult. Then for the scenes where she’s in high school, the casting director told us that over 1,500 girls submitted tapes for the role. Then they narrowed it down to their top ten, which we as the producers and the director and Netflix watched. We were all like, it has to be Chiara Aurelia. She was far and away our young TifAni FaNelli. She’s so amazing in the movie and such an amazing young woman. I’m so impressed by her. She’s so young and so poised. I just think she has such an exciting career ahead of her.

Zibby: It’s always great to discover new talent. You have been really open about your own personal experience as it relates to this book and the plot of the book and what happened to you when you were younger. Can you talk about that a little?

Jessica: Yeah. The book is fiction. The book came out in 2015. It was fiction. People in my life knew the real story, like my husband and close friends, family, obviously, because they were there during it. Publicly, even with my publisher and at book events, women would come up to me and ask, “Have you experienced sexual assault? The way it’s depicted in the book feels so realistic. I can say that because I’ve experienced it. I’ve never really read anything where I believe it. This feels so representative of what I experienced and what I went through.” I never knew how to answer that in that first year the book came out. I felt so awkward about being like, um, yes. It just felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want to make myself uncomfortable. I didn’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable. I was just like, “No, it’s just fiction.” Then a year after the book came out, we were reissuing it as a paperback. I had a meeting at Simon & Schuster. We were talking about ways to launch the paperback. I was going to do another book tour. I said at that meeting, I was like, “What if I wrote something about my own experience very similar to what the character goes through?”

I remember everyone at Simon & Schuster, they were gobsmacked. They were like, “Wait, we had no — this is based on real events?” I was like, “Yeah.” I felt so uncomfortable. I was blushing. I was like, this is so awkward. They were like, “Yes, you have to write that. If you’re comfortable enough to write about that, please. It’s amazing that you told us this.” I went home. At the time, Lenny Letter was a website and newsletter that Lena Dunham had started, and Jenny Konner. I knew the editor of it, a woman named Jessica Grose, because we had crossed paths in the magazine world over the years. I think they had featured Luckiest Girl Alive as a book that they had loved and that people should read. Jess had always said, “If you want to write something for us, email me.” I went home, and I emailed her that day. She wrote back within minutes and was like, “I just read this to Jenny and Lena. One hundred percent. We’re honored you want to publish this essay.” The essay is called “What I Know.” It talks about the dedication of my book, Luckiest Girl Alive. It just says, “To all the TifAni FaNellis of the world. I know.” People would often ask me what that meant. What do I know? The essay is all about — it lives on my website now because Lenny Letter is defunct. If you are interested in reading it, you can just go to my website to read it. That’s how that all came about.

Zibby: How do you feel having it all out there? It’s one thing to say into a room of executives. Then knowing that something you kept so private is so public, do you feel it’s allowed you to process what happened in your own sexual experience any more? Has it been somewhat therapeutic? Do you have any regrets about being open about it?

Jessica: No, I have no regrets. It was absolutely a necessary part of the process. It was very validating to tell my story in that essay. The day it came out, I remember I woke up, and I was actually — so many people called me brave the day the essay came out, but I need people to understand that I only was able to write that essay because of the year I spent with the book being out talking to women who read the sexual assault scene in the book and called it rape. When I was in high school, the narrative was it was a party that got out of control, and I was a slut who had participated in the events. Just by nature of capturing what had happened at that party verbatim and then having people read that and say to me, “the rape scene,” or whatever, I’m like, you don’t know what you’re giving me. You’re telling me you believe me. No one gave that to me when I was young. For a year, my confidence was built up by those conversations with readers. Then by the time I wrote my essay, I actually felt excited and ready. I was like, I’m ready. I’m ready to set the narrative straight. I know I’m going to get support because the readers have proven to me that they believe me. They’re going to stand by me when I tell this story.

I remember waking up that morning it came out. I woke up super early. I rolled over. I opened Twitter. I’m not on Twitter anymore, but I was at the time. I remember a writer that I really admire, a woman named Sarah Weinman, had tweeted, “If you read one thing this morning, let it be Jessica Knoll’s essay in Lenny Letter.” It just set the course for the rest of the day. I got a call from the Today Show that day being like, “Will you come down here?” That’s why we have — in the movie, her essay takes off. She goes to the Today Show. That’s exactly what happened to me. It was absolutely healing to have the world respond to my story in kind, to hear from people I went to high school with saying, I’m so sorry I didn’t see it like that back then. If there’s anything I did that contributed to the bullying and the shaming that happened, I’m so sorry. It was a real necessary part of the process. I think a lot of women who experience sexual assault, we never get that moment because so much of the experience is people kind of trying to gaslight you and talk you out of it. Oh, no, I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that. He had been drinking too. You never get that moment where people are like, I hear you. I see you. Your pain is valid. I share in that with you. So many women don’t get that at the time. To even get it seventeen years later, so many people don’t even get that. It was hugely healing.

Zibby: Just the fact that the readers — people feel like reading a book is an intake only. Actually, it’s an output as well. There is a relationship that you don’t even see, necessarily, with the author. The reaction and what you get out of it and then what you transform, it’s amazing.

Jessica: I love that you said that. Cheryl Strayed said that to me once too. Wild, for a lot of people, that was a gift about grief and a way of talking and thinking and processing grief that a lot of people didn’t have before they read Wild. I love that you said that because that’s the second time I’ve heard it. I think it’s so true. You give people something in the writing. Then they give you something back. There’s this exchange that happens that’s just a really beautiful thing.

Zibby: Yes. Wow, it’s amazing. For people who haven’t read it or seen the Netflix version yet, can you just, in a sentence or two, explain what it’s about, but also the sexual assault you were talking about? which I know because I’ve researched.

Jessica: Luckiest Girl Alive centers on Ani FaNelli. When you meet her, she seems to have it all. She’s got the great job. She’s living in New York City. She’s planning her wedding to a guy who’s from a very well-to-do family. She’s on the precipice of really having it all. She’s visited by a documentary film director who wants to make a film, tell the story about a very shocking incident from her past and has invited her to participate in it and talk about what happened to her. It’s really this moment where it’s like, do I move ahead with my life? Do I get married? Do I bury that? Do I change my name? Do I become someone completely different? Do I put all of that in the past? Do I go back there and finally deal with this? I’ve spent my life, and the character spent her life, trying to run from it and hide from it and reinvent and all of these things, which you can try, but you can’t outrun it. You have to, at some point, turn around and face it. She agrees to do the documentary. What comes out in the process of filming is that when she was in high school, she attended a party where three boys, three classmates, one of whom she had a crush on and wanted to date, assault her.

In the book, it’s exactly how it happened to me. The movie’s slightly different. She’s had a lot of alcohol. She keeps coming to in various situations. She comes to for each assault. The assault escalates. It gets more and more violent as the night goes on. Then she wakes up in the morning, and everyone is acting like it was just a crazy party, and she’s a crazy party animal. Oh, my god, what a night. That one goes down in the books. She’s just lying there like, something horrible happened to me last night. I’ve been violated. She tries to speak up about it. She’s silenced at every turn. What she takes from that is, people don’t believe me. People don’t want to hear about my pain, so you know what? I’m just going to shut up and focus on chiseling my way out of here. Then I’m going to prove to everyone that I’m someone important, I’m someone respectable. That really informs a lot of the choices she makes as an adult. For me too, that’s kind of how I lived my life before I started therapy.

Zibby: Maybe stay out of therapy so you can just keep writing these amazing things about it. I am so sorry that you went through that in your life. It is horrific. It’s just terrible. The way that you have shared it even in fiction and through all of the things you’re doing is so amazing and, as you’ve seen, helping so many people. That is not an easy task. Sorry to keep going into this. The guys involved, what has happened there since this has come out? Anything?

Jessica: Really, nothing. When the essay came out, there was some kind of scuttlebutt at the school. The headmaster wrote a school-wide email acknowledging the event and saying that, of course, they were devasted to learn about it. They had no idea about it at the time. Then I did hear that someone had written the headmaster. They CC’d my lit agent so that it would get back to me. It was someone who went to my high school but was a couple of years older than me, so we were never even at the high school at the same time. He was in college at the time that the assault happened. Even he had heard about it. He was kind of accusing the administration of, “Come on, there’s no way you didn’t get wind of this. I heard about it. I’m hundreds of miles away –” wherever he was in college — “a couple years older than these kids, and I still heard about it.” My parents left that area, Philadelphia, when I was in college. That’s not even home. I don’t go back there anymore. I live in LA. Before that, I lived in New York. I haven’t had any communication with them, which is fine. I don’t need it. It’s weird. I think people always want to hear that they got what was coming to them or their comeuppance or something. I always want that for other people when I hear their stories. For myself, I’m just like, I really don’t need it. It’s very strange. I would think I would be the type of person who would need that, but I’m like, no. It’s so much harder. The work is really in how I deal with it, how it affects my marriage, how it affects my friendships, how it affects my relationships with my parents. There’s a lot of work to be done there. I just feel like my focus is on that.

Zibby: That’s exactly right. Why waste your energy on something you can’t control? Not like you need my, oh, yeah, you’re handling this right.

Jessica: I’ll take your stamp of approval. That’s fine.

Zibby: We didn’t even talk about your next book. What are you working on now? What are you excited about? I know you wrote another screenplay. You’re all over the place. This is amazing.

Jessica: There’s tons of stuff going on, which is really exciting. I wrote a second book, The Favorite Sister, which came out in 2018. That has been set up for a TV show with Made Up Stories, which is Bruna Papandrea’s production company, and also was the producer on Luckiest Girl Alive. Now actually, Mila Kunis and her producing partner, Lisa Sterbakov, have come on as producers for that as well because we had such a great time making the film together last summer. Then I just turned in my third book a couple weeks ago. I think that’s going to come out in September 2023. That’s really exciting. I wrote an original script that I sold to Amazon. We have a great director attached to that, Nisha Ganatra. We’re in the casting process now. Right now, the thing I’m working on is, I’m adapting a viral Reddit thread called “My mother-in-law was trying to poison me, but then I found out why.” It is so much fun. I’m adapting it into a feature-length film for Sony. Everyone should just go read this Reddit story. It’s amazing. I read so many thrillers and so many things that have twists and turns and whatever. I feel like I’m always like, I saw that coming. I did not see this one coming. It’s really fun. Go read it. It subverts some really sexist mother-in-law tropes, which I love. It’s going to be a really fun one. I’m having a lot of fun working on it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You’re one of the Screenwriters to Watch. That’s amazing.

Jessica: Variety, they do the 10 Screenwriters to Watch. I was one of those last year, which was such an honor. It was great.

Zibby: I’m watching you. You have both my eyes.

Jessica: Thank you.

Zibby: Jessica, this has been so fun. I wish we had more time. I had so many more questions I wanted to ask you. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I am so excited to do so this weekend. That is my plan. Nice and chilly here on the East Coast. I can’t wait. When I see you next, we can discuss. Thank you for coming on. I know you said it’s not brave or whatever, but it’s important. It’s very well-respected. Bravo from me, for what it’s worth.

Jessica: Thanks, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Jessica: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Hope to see you soon. Buh-bye.



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