It’s not every first-time novelist who has the film rights snapped up by Reese Witherspoon — before the book is released no less. But Jessica Knoll is not like most first-timers.
“Luckiest Girl Alive,” her twisty, delicious thriller Simon & Schuster published in May, has been slowly climbing the New York Times best-seller list as it’s racked up accolades by everyone from Mindy Kaling to “Real Housewife” Kyle Richards. Along the way, it’s drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster “Gone Girl” and gained one very high-profile fan in one Ms. Witherspoon.
“The first week the book came out, I could not put my phone down,” Knoll says. “And the dust hasn’t settled since then.”
Knoll, a former senior editor at Cosmopolitan, is in New York’s TriBeCa sitting down for a seafood lunch at Locanda Verde, the same restaurant where her razor-sharp leading lady, Ani, is “on a first-name basis with the hostess.” Knoll lives around the corner with her husband and lately, they’ve been coming in hoping, maybe a little too hard, that she’ll be recognized.
Knoll, 31, took a job as the respected Paradigm Talent Agency when she moved to New York in 2006 — they now represent her, by the way. But her interest instead lay in magazines and she was soon working as an editorial assistant at Cosmopolitan. It was there she first encountered the work of Flynn.
“That’s how I first discovered her, by reading ‘Dark Places.’ I loved it immediately. Her books helped me identify what type of book I wanted to write, and helped me realize I liked the darkness that she had,” she recalls.
She first had the idea for her own novel when she was 28. Finally, late last year she gave notice to dedicate herself to fiction full-time.
The plot of “Luckiest Girl Alive” revolves around a heroine who seems to have a life straight out of a glossy magazine, only to have a secret from her past threaten her picture-perfect livelihood. Women, in particular, have responded to the pressure on Ani to strive for an impossible work-life balance.
“I started the book when I was 28, and I made Ani 28. At that age, I really felt like everyone was staring at me because I’d been with my boyfriend for over four years and we weren’t engaged,” she says. “I told myself ‘OK, I’m a senior editor, I have this great apartment, I’ve amassed this amazing wardrobe, and the next marker I have to hit is an engagement ring on my finger or I’m a failure.’ I really bought into that. The pressure was coming from somewhere.”
Knoll’s heroine embodies that dilemma. When we meet her, “she is doing everything she’s been told to do – she has bought into the messaging that she needs to be thin, and nice, and submissive – and she’s miserable,” Knoll says.
Clearly, the story resonated with at least one Oscar winner. In April, before the book had even touched shelves, Witherspoon, who previously adapted both “Gone Girl” and “Wild,” another blockbuster book with a strong female heroine, snapped up the rights to produce a film adaptation. Knoll said she connected with the actress through her agent at CAA, where Witherspoon’s husband is also an agent.
“They were looking for more female-driven types of narratives,” she says. No surprise there. Here’s the little secret Hollywood’s recently discovered: making movies led by women pays off at the box office.
Though Knoll is living every writer’s dream, there is still a pull to the editorial world. “Getting dressed up, going into an office, seeing what everyone is wearing — that is definitely something I miss,” she says. While “Luckiest Girl Alive” isn’t entirely autobiographical, Knoll did draw on many of her own experiences from life in the glossies. “In my career in magazines, I experienced a lot of supportive and loyal women. There is a fascination with that industry in TV and movies, and I wanted to show the positive,” she says.
Ani, like Amy in “Gone Girl” before her, is not the most likable character. But that was all part of Knoll’s grand plan.
“It’s not that we don’t have unlikable female characters, it’s that we don’t have unlikable female characters that we celebrate, like we do with men,” she says. “We don’t idolize these unlikable characters when they are women, but to me, honesty, authenticity — that is likable.”
Up next is another book — “I’m trying to get some traction, but I keep throwing out the attempts I make,” she says. But not before she undertakes the film adaptation.
“It is so much fun to think that she gets a second life, cinematically. The idea of having the book come out and then not have this continuation — I’m so glad it’s not over,” she says, smiling mischievously.