My first meeting with Isabel Kaplan in December 2020 was like a scene out of the Slack novel Several People Are Typing. She was in Los Angeles, I was in Brooklyn, and we’d both been added to a Slack channel for debut authors with books coming out in a year or two. In the #introductions sub-channel, we were all giving quick run-downs of ourselves and our books, welcoming each other with an excited chorus of 👋, ❤️, and 🎉 emojis.
When I read Isabel’s description of her novel NSFW—”a coming of age story about a young woman working in TV development, exploring sexual harassment in Hollywood and complicity and the realities of female empowerment”—I did a double-take. Except for the coming of age part, I could have been reading my own elevator pitch for my novel The Work Wife. I skipped the 👋 and went straight for the reply button. Let’s keep in touch? I asked her, and for the past year and a half, we have.
Once we exchanged galley copies, the differences between our two tales came into clearer view. NSFW follows a woman just out of college who, in the span of two years, tries to make it in Hollywood while holding onto her dignity and her feminist principles. The Work Wife is told from the perspective of three women in their thirties and forties who are in the orbit of a billionaire movie mogul—his personal assistant, his wife, and his ex-business partner—and is set over the course of one day.
The former story is set a few years before the #MeToo era began, while the latter falls somewhere near the end. But both books make a thorough accounting of the price of success in an industry (and a country) where the happiness of important white men (and the women who enable them) is paramount.
A week ago, NSFW finally hit bookstore shelves; next week, The Work Wife will do the same. This June, Isabel and I sat down over Zoom and talked about Los Angeles, “try-hard offices,” and the challenges of building a sense of self when professional boundaries are blurred.
–Alison B. Hart
Alison B. Hart: I want to talk about your opening paragraph, which I thought was the perfect encapsulation of life in Los Angeles:
The thing about Los Angeles is that it’s awful and I hate it, but when I’m there, nowhere else exists, and I can’t imagine leaving. It’s a difficult place to be old or sick or fat or poor or without a strong social media presence. It’s not an easy place to be young either.
I know that you just moved to New York. How are you finding that transition? Some of those things you could also say about New York.
Isabel Kaplan: You could probably say those things about a bunch of different places, but LA happens to be the place I’ve agonized most about. That’s the first paragraph that I wrote of the book, and I wrote it shortly after leaving LA and moving to New York for the first time, for grad school. I didn’t have that much distance and perspective, but I had, and needed, at least a little bit to get started.
That opening line set the tone for the cognitive dissonance that I wanted to explore in the book. We can think knowing what’s wrong with all sorts of things will protect us from being hurt by them, but that’s not the case.
I think you similarly do an incredible job of bringing us into the city of LA and also giving a really broad depiction of the whole city, which is tough given that you’re also working with a 24 hour time span. You managed to get the claustrophobic sense of the Stabler estate, but you also get the whole city in there. How did you choose that tight time frame and which character did you start with?
ABH: Zanne came first. I’d actually written with some of these characters before in a short story collection. It was going to be my Goon Squad book, and I had Zanne and Holly already. But many years later I started re-conceiving it as a novel. I always need to know what my bounds are, and then that helps me figure out what the shape of the story is. And once I knew that the story would take place over the course of one day, clearly the woman from Ted’s past needed to be there, and that’s when Phoebe came along.
IK: Your book is set in 2019, which was a moment when a lot of people wanted to believe the entertainment industry had made meaningful progress post-#MeToo. How did you decide when to set it, and did that change during the writing process?
ABH: When I was a younger writer, the stories I wrote could’ve happened anytime within a twenty-year span. Back then, I wasn’t really thinking politically as much, whereas now I can’t divorce myself from that thinking. So when I came back to these characters to write the novel, I knew it needed to be set in a single period of time, near-post-#MeToo and dealing with the ramifications of that. It also needed to be in the Trump era, but before the pandemic. So that’s how it ended up in 2019. But what about you? Your story is set a little bit earlier, but also has a very specific time period.
IK: My book opens in the summer of 2012 and I chose that because I think during the latter Obama years, there was still a sense that it was possible to change structures from within. There was such a rupture after Trump’s election, and the discourse really shifted. Where we’ve landed now is that a few very bad people have been fired, but the systems that support them—as you also explore in your book—are still standing.
ABH: The narrator of NSFW ends up in development specifically because somebody has told her this is the way that she can make change. But later in the book she’s kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. To get power, she’s going to have to abandon her principles, but she needs those principles if she wants to change the power structure. I loved how you built that tension into the book with her choice of job. You’ve worked in development too. Was that part of the appeal for you too, that you could potentially have a chance to change the culture with that role?
IK: When I drove onto a studio lot for the first time, I was 23 and I thought of myself as fiercely principled. But it was more that my principles hadn’t been tested yet. I don’t think it is a failing of any individual if they can’t make change within a corporate environment. Of course you can’t! The system is designed to prohibit change. Instead, you’re rewarded for playing your role as a cog in the machine in a way that, in the moment, can genuinely feel really good.
There’s a great conversation in your book that evokes those feelings—when Zanne’s girlfriend Gaby suggests that Zanne is trapped—and that’s hard for Zanne to process. She thought she was working toward empowerment with her plans to buy a house, but Gaby sees that as a move that would increase her dependence.
At a network, there are ostensibly professional boundaries, though those are often blurred, but when you’re working in a household staff, the boundaries are even more amorphous. I know that’s a workplace you have some familiarity with. How did that play into your writing?
ABH: Like Zanne, I also worked on a personal staff. Obviously my personal experience was much different—I worked for and with lovely people. But it’s still the case that if you’re working for a family, in their home, it can get tricky. Already there are the workplace dynamics that many of us experience and the ways we talk about our coworkers. We say they’re our family. We say this person is my work wife. On a personal staff, you get to know the people you work for very, very well, but your daily agenda is whatever the principals’ agenda is. You have to be able to pivot and abandon things on a moment’s notice. And there is a hierarchy on staff, even though it might not seem so from the outside because it’s not a corporate structure. You do still know the pecking order. You can tell who’s important by who gets proximity to the principals and gets time with the principals.
So I wanted to build that into the book. To go back to what you were saying earlier, I think it’s interesting to be both very good at your job and trapped. It’s hard for your brain to pick up the signals that you should flee when you’re succeeding, you know? So I wanted Zanne’s wires to be crossed a lot.
IK: Zanne’s relationship with Gaby felt crucial because Gaby is new to this world and hasn’t bought into it yet. Was she always a part of the story as you were writing it?
ABH: Yes. I wanted somebody who would be seeing the Stabler estate, and Zanne’s role there, for the first time. Gaby’s also quite a bit younger than Zanne. They could almost be of different generations. So she’s bringing a different sensibility to it. Zanne’s been making her way in the world for a long time. This job is not the first compromise she’s ever made. But for Gaby, it would be, and that’s not so appealing to her.
In NSFW, you have David, the narrator’s boyfriend, and he’s also incredulous about things the narrator accepts. He hears her stories and thinks That assistant should go to HR and offers all these naive suggestions. David’s naivete is balanced out by the mother character who—despite saying the wrong thing all the time, when the narrator is just so outraged—does give the narrator very good strategic career advice. She’s helping her advocate for herself all the time. It would be easy to write a cynical character whose advice is all bad, but her advice is often really good. It’s just kind of like shellacked with the wrong tone.
IK: Thank you, that’s a very good way to put it. I think when you’re young and you haven’t had to make certain compromises yet, you often feel a more pure indignation and frustration because you’re seeing for the first time just how fucked it all is. I wanted that youthful fury to contrast with the mother’s awareness of yes, of course it’s all fucked, what part of that is news? Here’s what you have to do to get yourself in the room where the decisions are made. But the narrator is struggling with the slow journey towards realizing that if she does all those things, she’ll end up trapped in a room that should be burned down. For so much of the book, she views her mother as her moral compass, so it’s particularly destabilizing when she reaches a point where she can’t turn to her mother for guidance any more.
In her relationship with David, she’s the jaded one, and he’s the innocent idealist. And when he points out the absurdities and inappropriate parts of her job and is horrified on her behalf, she quickly dismisses that as his naivete.
The question of who owns you and whether you own yourself is so complicated, and we get to see three different examinations of that in your book with Zanne, Holly, and Phoebe. Zanne works for Ted Stabler, Holly’s married to him, and Phoebe was married to him, and now that she’s back in Hollywood, she has to consider what she’s willing to do to get her film distributed. Is ending up trapped inevitable? Structurally, do all roads lead to dependence?
ABH: It’s such a tricky conversation. You can look at Zanne’s choice, which in some ways is a more simple one, because the trap is a job. You can quit a job, right? But as somebody who recently quit a job, I know that quitting is still very difficult. You often end up in a job because of certain financial motivations or what you think your career path is and where you think you can succeed. So it’s not an easy thing to walk away. For Holly, you could say She could just divorce Ted, but they have children and a life together. For her, it’s less about getting away from him, and more about getting out from under his shadow. Ted casts such a big shadow over all three women’s choices, so they all have some moves they can make, but none of them are easy.
I want to ask about the narrator not having a name. What was behind that choice?
IK: That decision had a lot to do with the running theme of individual identity. At the beginning of the book, the narrator feels very much like her mother’s daughter and is concerned she lacks an independent sense of self. For example, early on, David asks questions like what’s your favorite color and where would you prefer to go on vacation and she realizes she could answer those questions more easily for her mother than for herself.
And then she starts working at the network and when you become someone’s assistant, your name becomes deeply irrelevant. You are their extra limb. The narrator starts off doing what’s known as floating, so she’s moving from desk to desk, each day pretending to be a different person, filling in for other assistants who themselves only exist in relation to their bosses.
It’s hard to build a sense of self in that situation, let alone hang onto an already existing one. So much of the book is about agency and lack thereof. I wanted to end it in a place where the narrator does have a choice to make, and the reader can understand why she might make either choice. I also wanted to encourage the reader to consider what they would do in her situation.
Let’s talk about the man playing the central power role in your book, Ted Stabler. It feels like he genuinely is unaware of the ramifications of his actions and the power dynamics he has created and the ways he’s being accommodated.
ABH: I always wanted Ted to be oblivious—to have that privilege. He pays a lot of money to be oblivious. His EQ isn’t that high and he doesn’t want to work on making it any higher, nor does he see a need for it. He knows that his assistants accommodate him. That’s part of the job, right? He can feel when it’s lacking and he’s having to be too involved, and that’s a failure on their part. But structurally, he’s not aware of it all. He’s an artist and he’s running these important businesses, so he’s just focused on that.
The ways in which he’s had such an outsized effect on the shape of Phoebe’s career is a shock to him. I think a lot of people in power wouldn’t be aware of something like that, because they don’t need to think about it. And because the world is telling them they’re terrific. Ted gets Oscars, he gets buildings named after him, so that’s all the feedback that he gets, that he’s a wonderful person.
IK: To jump to a writing question, did you start writing this when you were still an assistant, and if so, how did you balance writing with the job?
ABH: I was an assistant for a long time, and I also left and came back multiple times, a little bit like you and LA. It was easier to do the actual drafting when I was not working there. Like you were saying, it’s hard to have perspective on LA when you’re in LA, and it was the same thing with this job.
IK: Did you live in LA? You write about it so well.
ABH: I grew up there, and I went back for a little bit after college. My mom still lives there so I go back a lot. I joke that the essence of what LA is always clicks back in for me in a strip mall parking lot. It’s so different from New York, where I lived for a really long time. But I am also totally ready to get called out on the drive times in the book. People who know are gonna see that it assumes best-case traffic conditions for how quickly a person could get here and back. I just want everybody to know that I know and I tried.
You capture that city so well, too. Speaking of—what’s a “try-hard office”?
IK: I think there are different versions of it. One version is really self-consciously cool. I was just recently hearing about an office where they got rid of all the tables in the conference rooms and put in just couches to foster a sort of chill, laid back vibe. But that means there are no tables and nowhere to put a computer.
Another version is an office that’s in a very sexy location but has absolutely no parking and so you know, best of luck to the visitors who are racing there for a meeting and have to circle the area searching for a spot. And another version is a production company office where the most recent movie poster on the wall is from fifteen years ago and that’s how you know this producer hasn’t produced anything since.
ABH: To get back to NSFW, I loved how many scenes there were, where there was ostensibly what the scene was about—maybe it was an argument that the narrator and her mom were having—but then happening throughout it, she would be loading a bong very carefully or she would be trying to manage the pain from having her IUD inserted that day or she would be getting her nails done or getting waxed. And it made me so aware of this second full-time job that she had, existing as a woman in all these places and doing the things that she needed to do, either to present in the way that she felt like she needed to in order to succeed or to self-medicate. And I just wanted to ask you about that, because it does feel like she has a whole second shift in her life in that way.
IK: There’s a scene early on in the book where her mother accuses her of not being able to handle discomfort. And the narrator thinks well, maybe that’s true, but also: she’s almost always uncomfortable. That’s her baseline. I wanted to explore her various strategies for trying to mitigate that discomfort.
ABH: She’s an ambitious person who went to Harvard. If you present these things as something that could help her succeed or excel, she’s gonna do it, even if her first answer is no. Eventually, it’s like, OK, how bad can it be? I can do it, I can handle it. That’s the way she thinks about the locker room talk she hears all around her at the office, too. I can handle it. And she kind of I can handle its into all these additional strategies to get herself into the most pleasing shape for everybody but herself.
IK: I’m so glad to hear that that came through. I still find myself thinking that way often, reasoning that it’s easier for me to be a little uncomfortable than to make everyone else here uncomfortable by voicing my discomfort.
Isn’t it easier for me to suppress my shame than to introduce the shame of it to everyone?
ABH: You become sort of the designated shame carrier.
IK: Phoebe really does that as well. And as a reader I so badly didn’t want that for her but I also saw the inevitability of it.
ABH: I wanted to think about how shame would work for Phoebe specifically as a Korean-American woman. I had an idea of the types of responses I would have to the traumatic situation she finds herself in, but how would she respond? And I talked to a friend of mine who’s also Korean-American and I realized, oh, I’ve got the wrong lens on this. What I was trying to do was spare her the shame, as you would for any friend. To be like no, no, you don’t need to think that way about what happened to you. I’ll carry it.
But the reality is carrying the shame is what she’s had to do ever since she left LA. It was hard to write the shame in there, but I knew it had to be there and I’d be doing a disservice if I just wrote her like she was able to just compartmentalize it all the time. Sometimes it had to come close.
Like you, as I worked on this book, I was watching the #MeToo movement play out, knowing that, even if in the beginning things may have looked more promising, there was going to be a backlash. Eventually we were going to reach a turning point like, say, the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial, and the grimness of that. So I wanted there to be a moment for Phoebe at the end that is more about a progression she has come to for herself and less about how the industry is going to change its reaction to her.
IK: She’s intensely self-aware and disillusioned, but she’s also persistent and hopeful, in spite of everything. And there’s both a beauty and tragedy in that.
ABH: “Persistent and hopeful, in spite of everything.” I’m not always capable of it, especially in times like these, but on my best days I’d like to be.
IK: Nevertheless, she persisted. To limited effect so far, but what else can we do?
Alison B. Hart’s The Work Wife is available July 19th from Graydon House.
Isabel Kaplan’s NSFW is available now from Henry Holt & Company.