You may not know the names Nikola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, but you’ve surely heard of, and most likely read, their 2002 blockbuster bestseller The Nanny Diaries, which dished the dirt (fictionally, of course), on their own experiences as nannies to New York’s upper classes. Now the writing duo is back with a second novel, Citizen Girl that’s also set in the workplace, but one probably more familiar to many—the dot com world gone wild. Their latest heroine, Girl, starts off at a feminist nonprofit, but leaves after the horrid hours and lack of credit, to work at My Company, a web startup that is a far cry from the progressive workplace it bills itself as (you can get a taste of its style at CitizenGirl.com), and seems to have an identity crisis every week. Girl navigates the pitfalls of the workplace and ultimately confronts her own conscience in a way that's often over-the-top and slightly unbelievable, but certainly relatable for anyone who's ever held an underling position. Both 30-year-old Manhattanites are grateful for the opportunity to write about the characters closes to their hearts from the comfort of their homes, rather than their previous life squeezing writing in between nannying. Gothamist got the scoop on writing as a team, feminism as a dirty word, the modern working world and their mandate for creating conscientious literature.
I found The Nanny Diaries and your new novel Citizen Girl vastly different. Girl is much younger, hipper, and, I think by the end, more cynic1al; there’s definitely a darker edge to Citizen Girl, whereas in The Nanny Diaries the satire was lighter and funnier. Here, Girl’s plight was less comical and more maddening. Is there a statement about young women’s working life you were trying to make, and what emotion, if any, were you trying to provoke among your readers?
Emma McLaughlin: The subject matter of the two novels hits people’s buttons in different ways. Many of our readers found The Nanny Diaries to be profoundly dark. We have letters from people from all over the country who were really disturbed by the story and the community it was exploring
Nikola Kraus: Absolutely. We were very conscientious in Nanny’s story. We were consistently aware that Nan was a college student, it was about her leaving this profession. Whereas for Girl, and other women in Citizen Girl, it’s a story about you’re in the pool and you’re gonna be in that pool for the rest of your life. That by its very nature makes it a little bit darker. While she can walk away from this particular work situation, she’s gonna be facing those same challenges in different situations for the rest of her working life.
It’s a rather unique thing that our generation has had this internet experience of getting to the top of a career ladder, coming up much higher up than many previous generations out of college and within months having had the experience of firing your friends and being in a job market where there’s nothing out there. It’s quite an existential marathon to get within your first year of graduating, to sit with it, that these are realities of being in the workforce and trying to find some mental center, to having a life of being a career person and being in the professional world. It’s really been interesting for us to be a part of that, to watch ourselves and our friends go through it and try to make sense of it.
EM: For some people, the abandonment of a 4-year-old and that a new child is going to be born into a highly dysfunctional life to the point of neglect, that scenario is highly alarming. Nanny does not rescue Grayer, Grayer is left with the Xs. That was very disturbing to many. In our eyes, Girl has a baptism by fire. She’s with My Company for 3 months and at the end of it . . . we leave her in the first minutes of beginning to make sense of the experience and of what she’s gonna take away from it.
NK: I don’t think there’s anything that Girl goes through is really an extreme stretch.
What also struck me about Girl is that she’s trying not just to get ahead, but to make a difference, which then gets twisted around when she gets shocked by her treatment at The Center and then goes to work for My Company. That the word feminist and a feminist sentiment were so prominently displayed in the book’s pages felt different to me than a lot of young women’s literature, especially chick lit, where work is often just a time killer. Where did this feminist sensibility come from?
NK: We are the children of the hippie generation and Girl has been imbued with this mission from her mother from a very young age. Girl, coming out of the gate, feels a tremendous sense of social responsibility and responsibility to conduct her life with integrity, and in this economy, that can prove to be a tremendous challenge.
EM: What Niki’s just described, that element is heightened in terms of our generation. Those what it boils down to is that Girl is aware that the way she earns her money signifies her participation in the system and it has an impact. I think that’s something that’s definitely very true for her generation. We are all aware that where you get your dollar is a representation of who you are at some level. During economic and political times like we’re in right now, it’s pretty bleak out there to find something that’s not just going to pay your rent.
My sister is in law school and she started two and a half years ago and her school specializes in humanitarian law and the evolution of her classmates goals . . . it’s really changed, this group of people she started out with they all wanted to do humanitarian law. The realities of the economics of our community now is that they are all going into firm law. It’s happening to doctors too, realizing that plastic surgery is going to be one of the few areas of medicine that will be lucrative in ten years. It’s hard to be able at 30 to be contributing the way you thought you were at 20.
NK: Regarding your comment about chick lit – that was absolutely our creative mandate for ourselves. We wanted to see if we could tell a story where we feel like our life has been in the last decade. When we go out with our friends, or on the subway or bus or during rush hour, what you hear women talking about nine times out of ten in our experience is the boss, the colleague, being overwhelmed or underwhelmed by what they’re doing, freaking out that they haven’t found the job yet. Or perhaps they’re in the job and this is what it looks like. This has been the central drama for us and our friends in the last ten years and we haven’t seen it reflected back at us. We’re all worried about the boyfriend and the girlfriend, but really where women are in our experience is in trying to figure out who they are in the workplace and who the workplace is going to be for them. It was interesting because we hadn’t seen it explored and it was impossible to explore that without looking at what has become of feminism or not. The two have become inexorably linked.
What was the inspiration for Citizen Girl?
EM: Through the opportunity of writing Nanny, we were able to talk to young women all over this country in a way that a lot of writers are not given that opportunity. It allowed us to meet and talk to so many people about what was going on in their lives and where their central stories were. We were really dismayed. We consider ourselves feminists. It’s been a really depressing time period as we see more and more young women and older women and popular icons really shy away from that term as if the word itself was something could hurt you and it’s been very depressing for us.
I don’t think for us Doris is representative of the feminist movement. She is a character that Girl bumps up against looking for some sort of roadmap as to how to set her own expectations, what normal behavior is, both to be expected on her part. Work culture does not really fit well . . . family culture, school culture, friend culture, socializing as a young person, if you fit that format up against work culture, some things hold true but some don’t. Work culture is one that at the end of the day is defined by having to make money, the end result of work is not to make people feel good, it’s to make money, that’s the nature of it/ Inherently in that whole situation there’s enormous amounts of complexity to figure out what the norms are. Girl is looking for some model of what should be okay and shouldn’t. Doris has clearly fought an incredible battle. Clearly she's understaffed and underfunded, she’s dealing with a popular culture asking if she’s still relevant. Should Girl be able to expect more from Doris? I think that’s a really good question, I don’t think Doris is every feminist, all of that generation. We present three very different models form that generation.
NK: One of the purposes that Doris serves is that when Girl goes to work for Guy she loves the masculine self-absorption. One thing you can count on is Guy isn’t going to ask about her menstrual cycle. Everything that would be relieving about it is based on coming out of a very different work culture.
When the feminist movement won all the victories it won in the 70’s and 80’s—being able to go to any college, they had sports teams, everything through the age of 21 seemed a lot more egalitarian. Women are graduating college, starting their first job, and they’re exhausted and overwhelmed trying to get their footing. The post-collegiate world is not so egalitarian and this realization that you’re quite disenfranchised is unsettling. They say to themselves, I know this is wrong, this isn’t sitting well with me, but how do I manifest any change? There’s power in numbers, but getting those numbers together is incredibly challenging.
EM: We wanted to explore the tiny moments. What does it mean where we’re working, we’re having our girl moments in our relationships and with our colleagues and bosses, and we go down to DC and we march in the march for reproductive freedom and then we come back and have any one of the moments that Girl goes through that she has to make a split second decision. Everything about this guy seems compelling, maybe he’s not getting this one thing. It’s fascinating to me, in terms of how the book’s being reacted to, where is the city where girl to move to, where is the job market for her to be in? These challenges are not present for her to navigate. They exist in many subtle nuances.
Why did you call her "Girl" instead of a more proper name this time around? I found that a little jarring, not so much in the telling of the story but when she was being directly addressed by other characters.
EM: I think the moments when people call her Girl, they’re specific moments, we definitely gave thought as to who would call her that and when. The same exact method was used in Nanny, her parents never called her Nanny. For Guy, Girl is Girl the minute she walks into the room, everything she does or says is filtered for him through her age and her gender. The same is true for Rex, Jeffrey, Julia and Buster, the characters Girl has a more textured relationship with. We felt like the same is true for Nanny. Nanny was Nanny for the Xs, that’s all she was, and the same is true for girl. We certainly have been the girls in the room, and all of our friends, our mothers, our grandmothers. The tone, the half-listening, the assumptions being made are all based on that so going the extra seconds to calling you a girl is really just calling the situation as it is.
NK: It’s challenging for us to pick stereotypical names and then imbue them with full characterizations. It’s ten times more challenging to us to give you a character by the end of the book whose name is Girl. If we named our character Ann, that doesn’t imbue her with any more characterization than if we named her Screwdriver.
EM: It’s a lot more challenging to work with someone like Girl than to work with someone like Julia. We have to cover a lot more territory and create a lot more texture.
Do you think Citizen Girl will have more local appeal than The Nanny Diaries because it's set in New York in a very specific world?
NK: We would’ve expected that with Nanny. It was something we felt compelled to do, we had no idea there’d be a national let alone international audience for it. That it would be successful in places like Holland, which has socialized daycare, so the idea of a nanny doesn’t exist there.
We’d just come back from touring across the country. We visited Seattle, LA, and Denver, and communities that are different from New York but due to the nature of globalization, these themes are really true across urban and suburban environments. We have a friend who’s a ballet dancer. She doesn’t have a supply closet, she works in a tutu, but the dynamics completely mirrored her and her colleagues’ experience with their own boss. Whether you’re working in scrubs or a tutu or grooming dogs, those work dynamics are universal, unfortunately.
Your website continues the themes of Citizen Girl with some very tart comments in the style of My Company, and there are t-shirts by Vagisil and beauty companies’ logos – do the companies who are up there know and if so, how have they reacted?
NK: Because this is a book about a website, we wanted to create a virtual version of My Company was interesting to us, with the idea of people who’ve already read the book in mind, because it mirrors a lot of aspects of the story. You genuinely can buy a Vagisil t-shirt that says "Citizen Girl." There are actually t-shirts. Vagisil thought it was funny. It’s mostly aimed at people who’ve already read the book. And we don’t have sponsors.
What’s the collaboration process like? How does it work in practice and what do you think of it? Do you see yourselves teaming up indefinitely or writing under separate names?
NK: We emailed with Nanny, thankfully we didn’t email with Girl. When we wrote Nanny we were working. I was on a Mac and Emma has Windows, it was incredibly backwards. Our collaboration usually begins with a lot of talking, a lot of asking questions, examining what are the issues that are getting our hearts racing. Once we figure out who the characters are and the points we want to touch on, we start fleshing those people out and examining what makes them tick. Who’s holding their key, who’s making them crazy, the chain of command is really interesting to us. We’ll outline the chapter and email it back and forth and that’s how we create a first draft. For the second draft, we begin at the first word of the first page, then tighten and tighten and tighten. We had a wonderful editor at Atria who was great at asking questions. There’s a certain point you can get very stuck in your own head and to have a third eye to ask why is she doing that was incredibly helpful. Once you look at the why, other possibilities open up for you.
EM: We enjoy and thrive working together and share something creatively. It’s a lot more similar to how TV teams and movie teams work. A lot of TV and film are team-written. We are working on a screenplay and starting out third book sometime in 2005.
Do you have anything you want to say about the controversy surrounding your changing publishers?
NK: Atria is a phenomenal place to work, it has the best qualities of the goals of the startup movement. It’s only been around for three years. There’s a management style that makes everyone feel very safe and heard. It’s nice working with people who feel like not only your colleagues but also your friends.
Are the companies based on actual companies you worked for?
EM: They were based, unfortunately, on tons and tons of place. We wish it would be just one point of inspiration. Girls Gone Wild is opening up a restaurant in Times Square. Writing about being young and female in 2004 over the course of writing the bar of satire kept having to be shift higher and higher.
Is New York a nurturing place to be a writer?
NK: It depends on what you need as a writer. For some people being on a farm in Vermont would be far more conducive. The economics of the city have changed. I grew up in New York in the 80’s and my parents’ friends had huge loft spaces in SoHo to be creative in, and now those loft spaces are taken up by Club Monaco and Crate and Barrel. New York City is proud to be the American hotbed of the arts but every year it gets harder and harder for artists. In terms of the vibrancy and stimulation, it’s incredible, but in terms of the sheer practicality of doing that, it’s incredibly hard.
EM: One of the nice components of the city is that when you’re working as an artist there’s a lot of other people who are not on 9 to 5 schedules, so the city is full, you can go to cafes and restaurant and can walk around the park. This isn’t a strictly a 9 to 5 culture in New York.
Citizen Girl has just been published by Atria. Find out more at CitizenGirl.com.
-- Interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel