Zibby speaks with Noelle Crooks about UNDER THE INFLUENCE, a compulsively readable debut about a young woman who accepts a job working for an enigmatic influencer and quickly discovers there’s an ugly side to being a #GirlBoss. They explore the themes of influencer culture, toxic workplaces, and the pressures faced by the protagonist, Harper, as she struggles to find work-life balance and external validation, especially from her parents. Noelle shares how her own early-career experiences are reflected in her novel. Through this discussion, Noelle and Zibby explore the challenges faced by individuals in the digital age, both personally and professionally.


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

Noelle Crooks: Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Congratulations. This is the coolest cover. By the way, you are the only person I know who color coordinates their outfits on Instagram so that every picture fits the theme without having to curate. It’s pretty awesome.

Noelle: Thank you so much. I feel like if you open my closet right now, it’s just all green and pink. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Zibby: The other day, I’m like, I think I’d save time. Isn’t it Steve Jobs or whatever who says he only wears black turtlenecks? I’m like, maybe I’ll just wear blue. Then everything will always match.

Noelle: Exactly. It’s the unsaid uniform.

Zibby: Under the Influence, tell everybody what your book is about, please.

Noelle: Under the Influence, it’s about a young woman named Harper. She applies for a job on a whim working for this charismatic influencer, Charlotte Green. The job application also means that she has to make a move to Nashville. She picks up and moves her life to Nashville and begins working at The Greenhouse. In the beginning, she finds it really challenging and exhilarating, but the longer she ends up working there, the more she realizes that there could be a dark side to being a girlboss.

Zibby: Interesting. You have so much in here about the whole cult-like atmosphere of working for an influencer who has so many, not trappings, but things set up around her, from the homes where people live nearby, or work, to the way they do everything, to having to post at a certain time, to optional activities that are not optional at all. Talk to me about this whole influencer company mentality. I’m hoping that in running my business — I’m always saying, oh, this is optional. It is, but then I’m like, oh, no, am I making people feel like it’s not optional? Tell me about this whole culture.

Noelle: It was something that I decided to research more about also when writing this book, which is this idea of workplaces, and specifically, toxic workplaces. What I’ve come to find is the most toxic workplaces that people end up coming forward with or you hear about online are always the ones that are a little bit sexy and a little bit cool. They’re the ones that have the Instagram pages that are just filled with smiling, happy employees and all of these amazing mission statements on the website and then beautiful offices, all of the things. Come to find that behind closed walls, there’s these crazy, interesting rules and policies or rituals, like dance parties, and like you said, optional events that are not actually quite optional. To me, it was just such a fun setting to explore a lot of the themes of influencer culture, social media by telling this story that shares a lot of what some people face every single day going into these toxic workplaces that they might not have known about when they applied for the job.

Zibby: I know that Harper quickly realizes that she’s maybe in over her head, even from her wooing, from the rapid-fire application process, and how she’s selected and how she has no visibility into anything she’s going to be doing and yet has to fly to Nashville and drop everything. Only her parents are there as sounding boards. Obviously, when she gets there, she encounters a lot of surprises as to what the company is like, and the culture and all of it. When does it become obvious, do you think, in real — basically, how do you avoid getting into this? Should Harper have made a different decision? Where is the line between toxic and healthy? Where is that line?

Noelle: That’s a great question. I think it’s something that people are still sort of uncovering right now. I don’t think the line or expectation is, I’m never going to work a minute past six PM or a minute past my hours. It’s unrealistic. You obviously also want to show up to your workplace and feel really excited and dedicated and passionate. Sometimes that does mean working a little bit of extra hours here or there. I do think, though, a lot of the happenings that are going on in The Greenhouse, the red flags, if you will, are the cult-like atmosphere, so the really specific rules about what can and can’t be on your desk, the unspoken expectation that everyone’s participating in a dance party. We’re all getting up. We’re all dancing our little hearts out. Those sort of things that don’t necessarily actually help with productivity and just weird rituals that are occurring.

In terms of how someone could avoid this, I always like to think of applying for jobs as almost like dating. You would never go on a date and put all of your eggs in their basket and just answer all of the questions and walk away hoping that this person likes you or wants to go on a second date. You would always go into it with your own questions, your own expectations of things that you’re hoping for, and have it be a two-way street. I think job interviewing should very much be the same thing. Whatever’s important to you, whatever that might be in terms of a company culture or something specific within your role, making sure that you are well-versed and asking the right questions and making sure you’re also getting a whole picture. I think sometimes companies like to just have you interview with one or two people. It’s sort of a fast interview process. I think asking to interview the other members of the team and really trying to do your due diligence to get an accurate representation of, what is a day-to-day like here? Not just exactly what’s on their career page.

Zibby: Good advice. I know from your bio, you worked at the Hollis Company. I had, actually, Rachel Hollis, on my podcast a while back. Before I read your bio, because I just dove right into the book, I was thinking to myself, I wonder if she ever worked for any sort of influencer that she’s getting all this information. Then at the very end when I saw your bio, I was like, oh, okay, she worked for Rachel Hollis. I’m sure you can’t talk about your experience there or how it informed this. I know this is all a work of fiction and all of that. From your own experience, at least, in the world of influencers and companies under influencers, what can you say? What do you think about the culture of the influencer at all? What can you share about what happened with you?

Noelle: To start, I definitely fell victim to hustle culture in my early twenties, similar to Harper. I like to say I’m sort of a forever teacher’s pet. I have that sort of energy. I’ve always been very excited. I’m ambitious and ready to go and hit the ground running. We see that a lot with Harper going into her job where she’s a little bit green and younger and things like that. In my early twenties, that is also when the girlboss era was birthed. Going into the workforce during the same exact time that this girlboss narrative was happening really ended up being almost a perfect storm for me. A lot of the learnings that I would say Harper goes through are learnings that I ended up having to go through as well in terms of understanding what work-life balance looked like. I definitely spent so much time dedicated to my career and really letting other things fall to the wayside. For me, this book is definitely a manifestation of lessons that I wish I would’ve read right out of college.

In terms of the influencer culture, I always like to say that the book is very much a vessel for conversation. It’s not really a point of view or an opinion on any industry or any person. I feel like within influencer industry, there’s always going to be people who have bad intentions or negativity or may be motivated by the wrong things regardless of occupation. You could have a bad police officer, lawyer, doctor, etc. Just as much as I think there are bad influencers out there, I definitely think there are great ones. I think there are influencers that are moving things forward and help people and society feel really heard or seen or feel like they’re curating a community of people that might not be able to connect with people who look like them or have gone through similar life experiences. To me, influencer culture, it’s complicated. In terms of how it manifests in the book, it does show the dark side of it. I think that’s important to remember as someone who goes on social media or somebody who consumes it, is knowing at the end of the day, there is someone who’s 3D behind the screen that you’re looking at and just being a little bit smarter about the content that you consume or about how much you believe in terms of the parasocial relationship you have with this person and examining that a little bit.

Zibby: One thing I found interesting was Charlotte’s relationship with her husband or his involvement with the company, how Harper even gets to know him and how he’s just trying to find his way. He’s trying to start these Mister Classes. Did he help? Did he not? Tell me about this character and the role of men in a girlboss world.

Noelle: Ryan, I really love this character a lot because I think he kind of represents — I just watched the Barbie movie. When I was watching it, I was like, oh, my gosh, Ryan would fit in with all of these Kens. That’s very much what Ryan is in the book. He’s that traditional white guy who always had the right upbringing, met the right people, went to the right schools. He has this feeling within him that he wants his wife to do well and succeed, but just not better than him. When the spotlight begins to shift more and more onto his wife, he becomes very uncomfortable with it. I wanted to have a character that was very uncomfortable as a partner or as a male with seeing someone succeed next to them, especially a female, because that is a story that a lot of women can relate to. I wanted to open that up and show what it looks like to have this husband who is so deeply uncomfortable with their wife succeeding or having a spotlight. It was something I personally have experienced in my life being someone who — I feel ambitious. I know past relationships, I have had men that aren’t comfortable with it. To me, this was definitely a narrative not to put down ex-boyfriends, but to just have a bigger picture and conversation that hopefully, women can relate to. Hopefully, men maybe examine themselves a little bit more.

Zibby: Interesting. We will not throw any of your ex-boyfriends under the bus.

Noelle: Awesome.

Zibby: I did really like — maybe it’s because, in part, I come at this from the mom perspective as well. I did really like the influence of Harper’s parents as one of the influences that she is under, and her desire to please them, to help them with their inn, to see what she can do for their financial situation, which I know sums up — I really love the ending and everything. I won’t give anything away. Anyway, just how it feels to be growing up as a young adult coming into the world and listening to your parents but listening to yourself in that crucial time of life when you have to sort of waver back and forth between Poughkeepsie and Nashville and whatever else. Tell me about that and the role of parents and all of that from your vantage point.

Noelle: I feel like for Harper, she’s somebody who really wants to do well by everybody around her. Definitely, that people-pleaser mentality. I think that really shows with her parents, wanting so badly to make them proud and make them feel like they know what she’s doing. She’s got her head on straight. She’s making these steps in her career. In the beginning of the book when she was telling her parents a lot about her job, I loved having her parents be characters that just didn’t quite understand what was going on but wanted to be supportive because I do think that is an experience a lot of people go through, especially with — there’s lots of new jobs in this digital age that I know my mom is still sort of wrapping her head around. Oh, people get paid to do that? Wait, what is the job title? I wanted to show the distance of, also, generationally, her parents having no idea of what an influencer was and no idea of how their daughter was going to be helping, but excited to support.

I think a lot of people and children do really want to make their parents proud. I especially think that there are pressures if you go to college, and especially if your parents have invested in any portion of your college. You want to show them that it was worth it. There’s a reason I have a degree. I’m making steps in my career. In your early twenties, it’s such a complex time. You have the media telling you things. You have your own hopes and dreams. You have family. You’re also comparing yourself to your friends. I do think that it becomes complicated. I wanted to show what that looked like for Harper and what it meant for her to kind of feel confident in her decision but not really be sure, but also wanting her parents to feel proud of her, but also looking at her peers next to her and wondering, is this the right move? I really appreciated the family aspect because I do think that for me, it was something I really relate to. I wanted to write something that hopefully, other people can see themselves in too.

Zibby: Amazing. Tell me a little more about your writing experience of the book.

Noelle: A lot of people don’t know that I’ve been someone who has loved writing for a really long time. It says in my author bio one of my fondest memories is going to the library with my late dad. He was somebody who was very frugal, and so we actually never really purchased a book for a really long time. It was just very, very rare. As soon as I ended up getting a library card and going with him, that’s also in tandem when I began writing. I would write these fun little stories. My mom actually came to New York for my book launch party and brought me my first-ever “published” book. It was when I was in first grade. She brought it to me and was like, “Look, this is actually the first book that you wrote.” It’s always been something that I’ve loved to do. Professionally in my career, I’ve had a lot of writing jobs. 2020 is when the story begins with this book. That’s when I had the idea to write Under the Influence. It was during COVID when I had watched seven hundred hours of Netflix. I was quarantined alone and just needed to make use of myself. I felt extremely lazy and was probably mentally going through a lot of things, as most people were. At the time, it was really never anything that I had a master plan with. It was never something that I was sitting there writing going, oh, this book is going to get published one day. It was really just something to take up time during quarantining by myself with my dog.

During that time, I would write a few chapters. I would send them to my best friend. She would cheer me on and say she really liked them, so I just kept going. From there, I think I probably got fifty pages in, and that’s when I started to really believe that it was going to be something. From that moment on, it was very tunnel-visioned that, okay, this isn’t a hobbyist thing. This is not a passion project. This will be on a shelf one day. I just kept being really motivated and kept writing things, two AM, three AM. Time felt like it didn’t really exist during that time. From there, I was fortunate enough that an agent ended up hearing about the book that I was writing and reached out. I, at one point, got to meet with my current team. It was wonderful. Even on book tour, I had a lot of people saying, it’s so cool that you published a book and you’re a first-time author. I always like to be so transparent about it because it really was just something that I was kind of fussing with and playing with during COVID. Now it’s something that I feel so proud of. To me, I think it’s such a good lesson. Those little hobbies that you have or something that you just want to try out and you’re a little bit nervous or anxious — you don’t have all the knowledge. You should definitely try it and pursue it because you just never know where it could go.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. I love that. Good for you. I’m glad something so positive came out of COVID for you, the pandemic. Awesome. Who are influencers that influence you?

Noelle: That’s a great question. I try to be really mindful about the people that I follow. One that I like a lot, her name is Victoria Browne. She hosts the “RealPod.” I love the way that she shows up on social. I personally have never met her in real life. Her content, I love that she talks a lot about body image because to me, that’s something for women that is really, really important. Her demographic is definitely early twenties, I would say, to early thirties. I love that she has grown a following talking about her body. She basically began her career by showing her Photoshopped photos, showing photos that she posted at one point on Instagram and then showing the actual real photo that she took and the difference and then ended up kind of putting herself on blast about it and just saying, I’m tired of Photoshopping. I’m tired of feeling this way. Now she continues to make content like that. I think it’s great. It’s really refreshing. Another similar is Sami Clarke. She had a really large weight loss journey that she went through. She documented it for everybody on social media as well. Those two women stand out to me just because the way they show up is really genuine and authentic. I know those words are sort of so saturated in the influencer industry, but I do feel like when I consume their content and when I see the things that they’re posting, it feels to me that they are really there to share a story, to make people feel a little bit less alone. I appreciate that.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you think that influencers have to be selling something to be influencers, or are they influencers just emotionally? What makes an influencer a hundred percent? Not that you have to be an expert. I know you wrote fiction and all of that. What do you think?

Noelle: I think there are a few, probably, different types of influencers. You have influencers in terms of, for example, a fashion influencer. I wear outfits. I tag all of them. I make some type of commission off of what you buy. Then you have influencers that are more what you might call a content creator where it’s, I travel. I show you different places. I post it on whatever social platform. It’s not as transactional, I would say. Then you have influencers also who are on TikTok. They’re sharing, maybe, their dating story of New York City. Every single day when they’re done going on a date, they hop on, they tell you about it. They have a huge following all from just the fact that they’re opening up this crazy dating scene of New York City. I think there’s so much to be discovered in the industry within itself. I think there are so many categories. What I find really interesting is we’ve only created one name for all of them. There’s such a spectrum, from someone who’s going on The Bachelor and Bachelorette to somebody who’s documenting their garden in Brooklyn. Yet all of these people have the same job title. There’s really no other industry that has such a wide spectrum but we all just share the same title. I’m excited to see in the future how the naming convention changes and how we start to interact and label these different occupations. To me, they are quite different.

Zibby: It’s true. Now the biggest celebrities for my kids are the YouTubers. Oh, my god, there’s a YouTuber. I’m like, who is that? I don’t know. They freak out, of course.

Noelle: I love that. My boyfriend is a YouTuber, so I’m curious if your kids know him.

Zibby: Oh, really? Who’s your boyfriend? I’ll ask them.

Noelle: Brett Conti.

Zibby: I don’t know. That means nothing to me.

Noelle: You’ll have to let me know. I’m sure they probably know MrBeast and all of those really —

Zibby: — Yes. That’s him? Your boyfriend is —

Noelle: — No.

Zibby: I was like, your boyfriend’s MrBeast? Oh, my god.

Noelle: No, no, no. That man is so funny. I just watched a video of him shredding a Lamborghini the other day. I don’t quite think we’re compatible because I don’t know if I’d be able to watch that.

Zibby: I’ll ask them afterwards. What are you working on next? What is your next project?

Noelle: Really, I’ve just been so knee-deep in Under the Influence. This is my first time doing any of this. There’s no guideline or playbook on how you do it. I’ve been learning so much about how to promote a book and how to get people excited about it. Goals for me would be, seeing a Hollywood adaption of the book I think would be incredible. I’ve had a lot, a lot of people tell me already, this is going to be a movie. I can see it as a TV show. That would be incredible. Then in terms of writing, I would love the opportunity, if presented, to revisit these characters and their journeys. I think there’s a little bit more story left to be told for the cast of The Greenhouse. I would be really excited to tell it.

Zibby: Amazing. Awesome. Any advice for aspiring authors?

Noelle: Just follow your gut. When I reflect back on my writing journey, so much of it was really personal and emotional. Beyond just the fact of learning about publishing and learning about the industry, it was so much about facing a mirror of my own self-doubts and my own confidence, and especially when you’re just beginning. I’ve worked almost ten years in the marketing world and had worked myself way up into being head of marketing for companies. Now with me being an author, it’s like I’m knocked way, way, way down as sort of an intern, is how it feels in this publishing world. I think just following your gut and being okay with learning and being uncomfortable and knowing, hey, I have a book that’s being published. I absolutely learned everything one step of the way and googled things and actually bought books called What to Do Before and After the Book Deal and just learned about it. If you have an idea and you’re passionate, just continue doing it. Don’t let your demons and self-doubt get in the way.

Zibby: Now that you have been through this process, at least the beginnings of it, is there something you wish you’d known the most about, even book launch or book marketing or just some tiny thing that might help somebody out?

Noelle: Always marketing your book earlier than later is great. The minute I got the book deal, I was already so excited to share. Just generally, always marketing it sooner than later. I also think something I learned along the way is about asking for what you want. I think a lot of people end up being really shy about things. If they want to share the book with someone or if they want to be on somebody’s podcast or if they want someone to write a review, I’ve gotten really comfortable with asking for the things that I want, obviously, in a polite way and not inappropriate. Oh, you enjoyed the book? Thanks so much. It would mean so much if you could go on Goodreads and share your experience with it. I think people forget that. Especially, I think a lot of women sometimes feel worried about asking for things, so just feeling comfortable with that.

Zibby: Amazing. Noelle, this has been so interesting. I’m influenced by you and your creative words and stories and ideas. I really appreciate the time. Thank you for coming on the podcast.

Noelle: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for doing an event at Zibby’s Bookshop. That was awesome.

Noelle: Yes, it was amazing. You have the cutest bookshop. Oh, my gosh, I loved it so much. Your team was so incredible. They were so kind.

Zibby: Oh, good. I’m glad. I love hearing that. Awesome. Congratulations.

Noelle: Thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


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