Susan Rigetti, COVER STORY

Susan Rigetti, COVER STORY

Zibby is joined by Susan Rigetti to discuss her debut novel, Cover Story, which was inspired by a number of con artists Susan studied while working at the New York Times. The two talk about the research Susan managed to conduct on The Plaza Hotel and the lives of magazine interns from the opposite coast during the pandemic, as well as how she went from a self-homeschooled child to an engineer, an editor, and now a published author. Susan also shares her experience as a whistleblower at Uber and what her goals are for the future.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Susan. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Cover Story: A Novel.

Susan Rigetti: I’m so glad to be here. Oh, my gosh, I’m so excited. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I did not, by the way, speaking of unexpected things in your book, I did not even notice this was The Plaza in the sunglasses.

Susan: Isn’t that amazing?

Zibby: I looked at this cover a hundred times without noticing. It’s so cool.

Susan: The detail on the cover just amazes me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m noticing more —

Susan: — And the faces. I know.

Zibby: Now the other faces too. Yes, I am not the most visual. I just asked my husband this morning, I was like, “Did you put something over the phone so you can’t see the screen?” He’s like, “I did that two weeks ago.” I was like, okay. I don’t notice visual things as much sometimes. Anyway, off of me. This book was so great. I got totally sucked into all of it. I love how you incorporated — this is the book for the attention-deficit generation because it’s a mix of all sorts of different formats from FBI briefs to emails. You’re constantly stimulated with the different formats. Tell listeners what it’s about. I want to hear about the way in which you told the story.

Susan: Oh, gosh. Where to start? I was working at The New York Times. I was waiting to write the perfect novel. I’ve written novels in the past. None of them are ones that I really wanted other people to read. They were just terrible. I was like, okay, when I get the right idea and the right one comes to me, I’m going to write that one. I was working at The Times. I was reading and obsessed with all the different grifters and con artists. There’s so many, especially in the past few years, we’ve seen. I was just totally fascinated. I was reading everything I could about them and going down all these internet rabbit holes about, ooh, look at this person on this person’s Instagram. Oh, my gosh, look at this text message that they had sent that now is getting pulled into this article. I thought it was just absolutely fascinating. The thing that I noticed that was so fascinating was about my own reaction. When I was reading, I was creating this narrative in my head about who these people were and creating this timeline that, later on when I read more about them after we had uncovered more, it wasn’t true. It was just the pieces that I’d been putting together. That realization really stuck with me. I was like, that’s fascinating.

I didn’t think any more of it for a while. I was reading all these. The other thing that really stuck out to me was they didn’t really end the way I wanted it to. Anna Delvey didn’t escape from the police. There’s all these different things where it was like, oh, it’s real life. It’s not a movie. I got this idea for the ending before I came up with anything. I got the idea for the ending. I was like, this is the scammer story I want to read. I was like, oh, my gosh, I have to write it because it’s going to be so fun. Then I remembered that realization that I had had about the way we create narratives in our heads when we’re just reading little bits of information and not having the actual what really happened. I thought, I wonder if I could write a novel and take all the things I love about all these con artists and scammers and all the things that I love about media and publishing and fashion and tech and write something that’s funny and that gets the reader to create this narrative in their head and that then, at the very end, you can just pull the rug out from under their feet. Oh, here’s what really happened. That was my goal. It’s so tricky because I was like, I have to be so careful to make it work exactly right.

Zibby: It worked perfectly.

Susan: Oh, my god, I’m so glad.

Zibby: I don’t even want to share my emotions because I don’t want to give anything away at any point.

Susan: It’s so tricky, right?

Zibby: Amazing. I interned at Vanity Fair when I was in college, so I feel like I totally related to this being in the fashion closet or the beauty closet not knowing what I was doing. Obviously, your character’s at Elle and not at Vanity Fair, but whatever. Same general thing.

Susan: It’s the same experience. I didn’t intern, but I talked to a lot of people who had either interned or worked with interns at various magazines. Some people have amazing experiences. It’s all glorious and wonderful. Then there are a lot of people that are just kind of like, well, here’s what really happened. I found that totally fascinating because it’s just so human. You can imagine getting what you think is the job of your dreams. Then you show up and you’re like, oh, actually, this is pretty intense.

Zibby: I have no interest in fashion, which anyone can tell by looking at me, basically.

Susan: Whatever. You’re .

Zibby: I dress nicely. I’m put together, but I am not into fashion.

Susan: Not high fashion. I’m the same way.

Zibby: I’m not following a trend. What I wear today I could’ve worn twenty years ago. I’m not on trend unless it’s so obvious. I was watching the Grammys. They’re doing nomination for the best new artist. They’re like, this is who your mom’s going to be listening to in five years. I’m like, yes, that is totally me with fashion. Anyway, I worked in the fashion department. I had to put all this — you’re so much younger. There used to be little slides of everything. I had to put them in slide protectors where there were twelve in a row. It took so long. It was crazy. There were some interesting parts. You nailed it. You nailed the whole thing.

Susan: I love that. That makes me so happy. There’s always that tricky part of when you’re writing about something you don’t know and you’re doing a bunch of research. You’re just like, is this going to resonate? I’m glad that made sense.

Zibby: I want to hear about your research at The Plaza. Did you have to do some really tough work by checking out rooms at The Plaza? I feel so sorry for you.

Susan: I have to tell you the craziest thing. I wrote this book a few months — the fall. It was the fall before COVID. I had set it in the next year. I set it in 2020 and 2021. Then when the pandemic hit, I was like, oh, my god, I can’t keep this the same at all. I kind of just was like, okay, I can’t write this book. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Then I went, no, no, no, don’t throw it away. It’s too much fun. I went back and rewrote it so that it happened a few years earlier. Then it was really tricky because I had all these things that I wanted to do, like really, really tour the Elle headquarters and really, really tour The Plaza and get in all the rooms. I had this whole plan where I was going to reserve specific rooms. I would set aside money. I was going to spend a ton of money and just go and stay in these rooms and really experience them. Then that happened. I was like, oh, my god, what am I going to do? I talked to a whole bunch of people and hunted down pictures of the Elle headquarters so I could get an idea for what it was like.

Once I got that locked in, I was like, now I have to get The Plaza locked in. I watched a million videos. I read a million books. Then there are these 3D virtual tours of the hotel rooms on the website. I spent so much time in there until I knew every doorknob, every electrical outlet, everything, and just burning them into my mind until I knew literally everything. Then I had to go and figure out, which one of these would Cat actually live in? That took a while. It also had to work because there needs to be an extra bedroom. There needed to be this degree of separation, physical separation. I found the perfect one. Then I spent months, literally months, every day, I would spent so much time just staring at that and imagining them walking around. Where would they go? What would they do? Where would the wig collection go? Where would this go? Where would that go? All these different things. Then once I felt like I really knew it, I went back and rewrote, basically, the entire book because it had to be so physical. I wanted that hotel room to be a character. I wanted it to be its own character in the book. It was a lot of fun.

Zibby: Wow. That sounds amazing. That’s just awesome. The Plaza has gone through so many changes lately. I just feel like something has so been lost forever. It’s so sad, as a lifelong New Yorker, for what it is now and what it was.

Susan: I know. It’s beautiful. There’s this amazing book that I read called The Plaza. It’s a history of the hotel.

Zibby: Oh, yeah, she was on my podcast, Julie Satow.

Susan: Oh, my gosh, really? Yes, yes, that book is incredible.

Zibby: You would like each other. I’ll put you in touch.

Susan: Really?

Zibby: Yeah.

Susan: Amazing. I think I follow her on Twitter. I sent her a copy of the book. I was like, I owe you. You have no idea. I could not have written this book without you. Her book is just amazing. It made me fall in love with it all over again. It’s a special place. I love New York.

Zibby: I also really like the point of view of the intern who is just seriously struggling with money. She’s thrust into this situation. The other interns are so — they don’t even think about it. They didn’t even realize their displays of wealth because they’re just doing them. They don’t even think twice, where they’re going to lunch every day and what they’re wearing and all the things that she’s trying so hard to mask and try to fit in.

Susan: She agonizes over all of it because it’s all something that’s so out of her reach. That just felt really real to me as someone who came from a background of really growing up in poverty. I went to an Ivy League university. Everything was just, wait, how do I this? What are these people wearing? What’s going on? It was just so intense. I remember everyone had this bag. It’s so funny. You know those — what are they called? Oh, my gosh, I cannot remember the brand for the life of me. All of the girls had this specific bag. It’s a nylon bag or something. I was like, oh, this is going to be amazing. I should totally get one. I remember I walked up to one girl. I was thinking this is twenty dollars or something, some twenty-dollar bag from Target. No. I walked up. I was like, “What is this bag that you have?” She’s like, “How do you not know?” She told me what it was. It was $160. I remember just being like, . In retrospect, of course, I should’ve known it was an expensive bag. Those things, you agonize over it when you don’t have that and when it’s like being in a totally different world. I went back to my diaries from when I was in college and in that time just to, what was I saying? What was I thinking? What was I writing to myself? I pulled a lot of those little pieces in because I felt like I wanted to be true to what it felt like to be there. That was a lot of fun to write, but also kind of sad. I feel for you, Lora.

Zibby: Wait, tell me more about — where did you grow up? What was your life like?

Susan: I grew up in rural Arizona. I was homeschooled by my mom. I have six siblings. She homeschooled all of us. It was amazing and wonderful. Then around when I was in what would’ve been sixth grade, our family — we were very poor, but then it got a lot worse. My mom had to go back to work. She put all my younger siblings in public school. Then me and my older sister, for some reason I don’t really understand — I’ve tried to figure it out, but I don’t know what happened. We kind of got lost in the system. The schools were just like, nope, they can’t come. I don’t know if it was because we were supposed to be taking standardized tests. I have no idea. It was like, okay, so I guess you two are going to homeschool yourselves. That’s what we did. Me and my older sister, we were just on our own. What I ended up doing was working during the day. I worked as a stable hand. I worked at this place, it’s called the Spider Pharm where they breed black widow spiders and take their venom out and send them to researchers. It was quite an adventure. I worked as a nanny. Then at night, I would come home, and I would just teach myself things. I would try to teach myself math, English, basically anything that I could.

I had this realization that, oh, my god, what is my life going to be? I have no formal education. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to be in poverty forever. Then I got even more scared because I looked at the girls my age and girls who were a little bit older than I was who were in my community and even the ones who went to school, they had such a hard time getting jobs. They couldn’t get into colleges. It was just so tough. I was like, I’m going to live in this small town in a trailer park for the rest of my life. I felt like I was capable of doing big things, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was like, okay, I am going to get into college. That’s going to be my step one. I’m going to focus on that. I would call up all these colleges. I literally picked up the phone and called Harvard. I was like, “Hello. I want to go to Harvard. How would I get into Harvard?” I don’t think they understood what I was asking. I was literally like, “What does a high school student need to do? What do they need to know about math? What do they need to know about science?” They would send over all these, “Students need to have this kind of SAT score or an ACT score and this many recommendations and this many years of English,” and all that. Then I took this list that I got from talking to all these colleges and then called a bunch of high schools. I would literally just, “What are the textbooks that you use? What are your English textbooks for ninth grade, tenth grade, eleventh grade, twelfth grade?” Literally went to that level because that was all I knew. I’m just going to try to do what everyone else does and see if I can get there.

Then I had to take standardized tests. I had no idea people prepared for these things. I thought you were just supposed to show up. I showed up. It was a disaster. I thought it was, at least, but I was really lucky. Amazingly, I walked away with a really high ACT score. I don’t remember what it was, but it was one of those really high ones. It was high enough that I got a full scholarship to Arizona State University. They literally didn’t take into account anything else. It was just the ACT score because my ACT score was so high. It was just a dream come true, amazing. I was blown away. I ended up going there. I loved it. It was wonderful. I originally went there to study philosophy. I had been reading all the philosophy stuff on my own. When I got there, it was kind of just reviewing everything I knew, so I started taking graduate classes in philosophy. I wanted more of a challenge. Then I took this amazing astronomy class, fell in love with physics. Then Arizona State said, you can’t study physics because you have to have all these prerequisites for a physics major. I didn’t have them. I decided, maybe if I transfer to another school that has a different policy, maybe they’ll let me study physics. I again picked up my phone, called a bunch of schools. Hey, if I got in, would you let me study physics? Would you let me study physics? University of Pennsylvania was one of the ones that said yes.

I transferred there. Went there, studied physics, studied philosophy. I think I spent four years there and then came out here to Silicon Valley and worked as a software engineer. Then I worked at Uber for a while. Then I was, kind of infamously at this point, I was a whistleblower about the sexual harassment there, which brings us to where I am now. Before I quit, I had this moment where I was like, everyone’s telling me, and they’re probably right, that after I blow the whistle, after I speak about this, no one’s going to hire me as an engineer again, which ended up being true. I was like, okay, so I’m going to have to start all over again. If I could do anything, what would I do? I thought back to when I was a little kid. I’ve been writing my whole life. I’ve always written, always these stories. I wrote all these little books when I was kid. They were never for anyone else because I had no idea. How would you even publish? I had no clue. I just loved to write. I wrote for years and years and years. I got better. I was really grateful that I had done all that because then when I was at Uber and I needed to write something to tell my story, I knew how to because I had been writing for so long. Then I found myself needing to start all over again. I said, you know, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. If I could go back and I could live one life, I would be a novelist and screenwriter. I also had this idea that — I’d always really wanted to be an editor at a newspaper or a magazine. Those were my big things.

I said, okay, I’m going to do all those things. I’m going to see what I love the most. Maybe I’ll do all of them. Maybe I’ll just love some of them. Who knows? I got a job as an editor of a tech magazine out here. I really loved it, but I wanted to work in the most challenging possible environment, basically. I was like, let’s go all the way, so I got a job at The New York Times. It was amazing, just absolutely wonderful. I worked there for a few years. I loved being an editor there. I loved all the creativity of it. I loved working with writers. I loved just shaping the trajectory of things. I loved the strategy part of editing. I felt like it was so creative and so fun. Then I also was studying to be a screenwriter. I took some classes at The New School. I started writing screenplays. That was amazing. Then I said, I’m going to finally write a novel, hopefully, that I really love. That brings us to Cover Story. This is the one where I was like — I’d been writing for so long that none of them felt like, oh, I want everyone to read this. Then I wrote this. I was like, this is it. This is the one. I want everyone to read this.

Zibby: Susan, this story, your life story, this is insane.

Susan: It’s wild, right?

Zibby: You are so impressive.

Susan: Thank you. It feels chaotic.

Zibby: No, it’s amazing. The most amazing, I feel like, is you getting out of where you were, being homeschooled, to an Ivy League School. What the heck?

Susan: I know. I don’t think I could repeat it if I tried. When I look back, I’m like, I don’t know how I did that. This was really important for me because when I was writing this book, one of the hardest ways for me to get into the character of Cat or was, how do I make her human? You got to bring some of you, some of your own vulnerability, some of your own experiences. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel real. I had this challenge where she didn’t feel like a real person. She felt a caricature. I was like, I got to make her real. I took these pieces, some of these pieces about, how do you get out of systems? How do you get out of poverty? How do you get people to take you seriously? Her experience is different than mine. She can’t get into this school. She can’t get into the jobs. If you were very desperate, if you had nothing else, I wouldn’t do it, but you can see how someone would justify themselves doing these things. I had to bring that in to make her feel more real. I did that on one of the very last edits of this book. I was like, oh, she’s missing something. Okay, I got to use myself. Here we go. I think that that gave her a little bit more humanity toward the end.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really, really impressive. Wait, question. Was your dad ever in the picture? This is none of my business. You can just shut me up.

Susan: Yeah. My dad was a preacher. He was also someone who had these really big dreams and never ever accomplished them. My mom was an artist. She went to art school. Amazing. She’s just an incredibly gifted, incredibly wonderful artist. Brilliant. She wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and teacher. She ended up not being an artist, but she felt like being a mom and being a teacher was her calling. She’s a public-school teacher now. Amazing at it. Then my dad was a preacher. He had all these dreams about all these things he wanted to do. He just couldn’t figure out how to make them work, ever, ever. Growing up with that, it was so heartbreaking to see. He lived so authentically. His dreams were always on display. He was always working to accomplish things. It was a really beautiful thing. Even though he had a lot of pain, it was really inspiring for me because I saw, imagine if you had that drive, that passion, that belief in yourself to just keep trying, and imagine if you could break through. Imagine if you could get something done. Imagine if you could succeed. That was really inspiring to me growing up. It was really painful, though. When you look back, I feel really blessed to have had such an authentic, full, big dreamer for a father. That was really inspiring to me. Very different than the father of the con artist in the book, but that same desperation.

Zibby: I have to tell you — I started reading the book. I read the book before I researched the author. Sometimes I research the author first, and then I read. This time, I just jumped right into the book and read the whole thing. Then I flipped it over. I was like, who is this author? Then I was like, oh, this is funny. She makes all this stuff up. It’s so tongue in cheek that she must have made up this bio because it’s impossible for it to have all been true. Then I had to double-check it on your website. I was like, oh, my gosh, she wasn’t kidding. There’s so many accolades. I just have to say, this is amazing. Person of the Year by Time, The Financial Times, the Webby Awards; 40 Under 40; Vanity Fair, New Establishment; Marie Claire, New Guard; Bloomberg 50; Upstart 50; Recode 100. You’re on every list in the world.

Susan: It’s weird. It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel real at all. I’m just like, they must have made a mistake.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, and then of course, whistleblower. Wow.

Susan: It’s a lot, huh?

Zibby: It’s great. Where are you now in your life? Where are you emotionally, physically? You’re still living in Silicon Valley, it sounds like.

Susan: I am, yeah. My husband, his company is out here, so we’re here for all that. I worked at The Times for a while. Then once I started making enough money to — I was making more money writing novels and stuff than my regular job. I was like, oh, my god, this is an amazing opportunity. I can just write full time, which is honestly the dream. They were getting ready the election. All the coverage went to the election and pandemic. None of the things that I really loved working on were still there, so I was like, okay, this is a good time for me to transition. Now I just write all the time. I love it. It’s amazing. I pinch myself all the time. This cannot be real. I can’t believe it. I’m just always writing, trying to figure out, what’s that next one that I’m — I’m very prolific. Not everything is something that I’m like, this is the next one we’re going to write. Right now, I’m trying to figure out, what’s the next novel that I really am going to want to put in people’s hands? That’s where I’m at right now, and writing screenplays and having a lot of fun. It’s great. I got two little kids. They’re just absolutely magical. I get to spend a lot of time with them, which is really fun.

Zibby: Wow. What’s happened to your siblings?

Susan: They’re all doing really well too. Almost all of them have gone to college, except for the littlest one. He’s starting college. The two littlest ones, actually. They’re doing really well. They’re thriving. I’m really proud of them.

Zibby: This is like a movie in and of itself, just this little piece of the story. What have you not crossed off the list? What is it now? Clearly, you keep setting your mind to things. You’re like, I’m going to do this. Boom. What are you “I’m going to do this” about now? Is it writing a screenplay?

Susan: I have a whole list. Actually, I’m going to show you something funny that I’ve never shown anybody else. I have this list, this book, literally a book. It says, “My goals and dreams.” There 180 things I have not accomplished yet that I want to accomplish. It’s the most random stuff. This is what I’m working through right now.

Zibby: I love that so much. I can’t even tell you. Read me a couple. Just pick a couple.

Susan: It’s so random. One is, visit Antarctica. I’ve got, learn basic fencing. I’m actually taking fencing lessons right now because I want to cross it off the list. Write a middle-grade novel. What else is on here? Gosh, there’s a lot of stuff. What’s another random one? I really want to read War and Peace in Russian. I really want to read Plato’s Republic in Greek. I have all these random things. Some of them, I crossed off, but . See, I have, publish a novel. I’ve got Cover Story on there. I just crossed it off. What else do I have? I really want to direct an episode of television. I really want to direct a movie. I feel like that’s probably the next ten to fifteen years. I want to write more novels, but that’s a big thing in my list that’s coming up next, I hope. There’s just so many things in here. It’s amazing.

Zibby: The great part is you’re going to do them because you put it in a book, that book.

Susan: You can’t not, right?

Zibby: You’re not going to forget. There’s so many things that I say I want to do. I also, at some point, want to write a middle-grade novel. I’m not so sure about Antarctica.

Susan: Yay, do it.

Zibby: Not yet. I have a bazillion diaries from when I was that age. I’m like, I have to do something with this. If you don’t have the list — your motivation is inspiring. Now I want to go write my own list. The fact that you keep it right there, you’re never letting go of your goal. It’s amazing.

Susan: I have to. Then I rewrite it every few years. I sit down, and I rewrite it. Sometimes I’m like, wow, I would never want to do this thing. What was it that was on there? I had something that was like — it was the most random, some athletic thing. I’m not a very athletic person. It was something like, run a 10K. It was, run a 10K. I was like, I’m never going to do that.

Zibby: Do you have any politics dreams, leadership-type things?

Susan: No, I don’t. At one point, I did. I tried to get involved in something. One of the things I got involved with was legislation at the federal and state level of getting rid of forced arbitration. I wrote an amicus brief for the supreme court. I think that’s kind of like, unless there’s something that really sticks out to me that I’m like, okay, I need to put my name and all my energy behind this, there’s just so much. There’s so much. It’s a very chaotic world.

Zibby: That bill just passed, the Gretchen Carlson bill.

Susan: I know. Isn’t that amazing? Mostly thanks to Gretchen Carlson, who is just — oh, my gosh, she’s worked so hard. She worked harder than anyone on that stuff. She’s amazing.

Zibby: She was on this podcast talking about it before it passed.

Susan: She’s great. She’s really great.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Susan, if I could pick stocks on people, I would be picking you. I can’t wait to see — I hope I get to see what it is that your output is and follow along with your crossing off the list. You should put it on Instagram or something. You should make it something that people are all rooting for you and going along with it. That could be in a book also.

Susan: That’s a good idea. It’s so funny. Every time I look at it, I’m just like, oh, my gosh, life is short. I’m never going to get to do all these things. It’s fun. It’s really fun. I do feel like life is short. I’ve been given a really amazing chance. There’s so much to do. I just can’t wait for people to read the book, honestly. At this point, I’m just like, okay, what do y’all think? I want to have a million book club things. I’m like, you can’t do this because you’re the author. You have to chill out.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. I’m excited for you. I totally enjoyed it. It was so clever. Again, I just didn’t put all the pieces together.

Susan: That makes me so happy. You have no idea how much that means to me. I’m so excited and so thankful for you for reading the book and also for having me on. This has been really fun.

Zibby: It was fun. Thank you for chatting with me.

Susan: Thank you so much. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Susan Rigetti, COVER STORY

COVER STORY by Susan Rigetti

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