When Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus met, they were both students at New York University and both working as part-time nannies for families on the Upper East Side. (Kraus was a native of the city; McLaughlin was from upstate New York.)
They didn't dream then that the shared experience that cemented their friendship would lead to fame and fortune as the authors of The Nanny Diaries, a fictional account of their years working in childcare.
"We wrote it for ourselves, really," McLaughlin told a reporter from The Washington Post. "We wrote it to share with our parents and our close friends. And we wrote it to see if we could."
The result was a scathing portrait of emotionally unavailable parents who obsess over private school admissions but coolly deflect the kids' hands when they come in search of a hug. The New York Times' Janet Maslin called it "perfectly pitched social satire."
And it struck a nerve with readers -- not only in New York City, but across the country and around the world. More than 2 million copies have been printed, and rights to the book were purchased in 32 countries.
"It was unbelievable to us," Kraus said in an interview with Rocky Mountain News. "I don't think we ever wrapped our heads around it."
At the age of 28, the two were celebrity writers, able to devote themselves full-time to the task of co-authoring another novel. First, though, there were some hurdles to clear: their publishers at St. Martin's Press didn't want their second book, so a new agent got them a two-book deal at Random House. But the deal fizzled, and their much-publicized $2 million advance was rescinded.
Finally, they landed at Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which published Citizen Girl, another satirical take on a young New Yorker's travails in the work world -- this time, a woman in her twenties who is fired from her feminist nonprofit and lands a new job at a dot-com.
"We set out to write something we had not come across," McLaughlin told Rocky Mountain News. "And we had not come across a book that takes a young woman through a professional odyssey, where the odyssey is 99 percent of the experience and her sex life is 1 percent of it."
The phenomenally successful Nanny Diaries was a tough act to follow, and some critics found the new book disappointing. USA Today suggested that the authorial duo might be a "one-hit wonder."
But other reviewers were positively buoyant about Citizen Girl and the way its heroine struggles to hang onto her integrity, self-respect and feminism in a world of "Girls Gone Wild."
"Thank God for Citizen Girl," wrote Sacha Zimmerman in The New Republic. "Girl is a self-possessed, moral, intelligent, and open feminist who is not a militant-chic refugee from Lilith Fair or an NPR-tote-bag carrying blue-stater in a hemp dress. She isn't a loveable oaf like Bridget Jones who only obsesses over weight and boys and little else. McLaughlin and Kraus pull it off because they are so wry and so spot on."
McLaughlin and Kraus insist they aren't joined at the hip -- but they are good partners, and fans can expect their partnership to continue. "With any luck," wrote Emily Gordon for Newsday, "even if their next collaboration is a book about the pitfalls of creating a sane but beautiful wedding, the trials of loft buying or the stresses of professional pregnancy, they'll do it with panache."
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A few fun outtakes from our interview with McLaughlin and Kraus:
"We love our dogs."
"We can't write something we don't feel passionate about -- we tried, it doesn't work."
"Eddie Izzard's comedy show, Dressed to Kill, is our crack. Whenever the writing gets too stuck, we take a breather and fire him up."
"While we spend an inordinate amount of time together and it may frequently feel like we are, we are actually not a) living together, b) married to each other, or c) otherwise joined at the hip. Luckily, our own homes and lives allow us a few moments of daily rest to restore and revive before we head back into the writing cave."
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In the winter of 2004, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus took some time out to talk with us about some of their favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Life Influence: Read at a time when everything feels intense, seminal, and like you're the first person to discover it, freshman year of college, Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice made my hair stand on end with awe. She introduced me to a completely different lens for looking at identity and put forth a productive language with which to deconstruct gender. Her work set my college studies on fire in the best possible way.
Career Influence: Read on a miserable family vacation in your early 20s when you're too old to share a motel room with the cousins and too poor to afford your own escape -- David Sedaris' SantaLand Diaries, quickly followed by Naked, brought me a clinical amount of joy. In retrospect, it was the pivotal "ah-ha!" He flipped the light switch on the tremendous humor and politics to be explored in the rarely mined professional landscape, for which I will be eternally grateful.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Well, I have realized in attempting to list these books that my response to a good story is highly visceral and challenging to quantify. Often what remains in my memory are the emotions the story evoked, rather than an autopsy of its compelling qualities; so noted, here are my impressions:
Atonement by Ian McEwan -- I developed such a deep affection for the characters in the first few chapters of the story and then I remember having this horrible moment where it dawned on me that this couldn't just be a beautifully written tale of compelling characters having a nice day in the country, and I suddenly became sick at the thought of anything horrible befalling any of them. Near the end I had to put the book in the freezer. After a few days I retrieved it. I remember finishing it on the Acela train on the way home from D.C. It was a tremendous effort not to sob audibly.
The End of Alice by A. M. Homes -- As sparingly dark as this book is, it remains one of my favorites, even though I had to read through the night to have it over with as fast as possible. It is an absolute tour de force and I recommend it heartily to anyone who can tolerate climbing inside the absolute nadir of what the human animal is capable of.
I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb -- Not only exquisitely written but one of the most suspenseful and compelling books I've ever read. Although it's almost 1,000 pages long, I finished it in three days. It's a thought-provoking, moving exploration of the expectations our culture places on men. And I remember how devastated I was when I finished it and how much I envy anyone who still has the treat of experiencing it to look forward to.
The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker -- These three novels are about Craiglockheart, the first hospital to treat shell-shock during World War I. The fiction jumps off from the factual premise that Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were both patients there at the same time. I love British books set during the wars, but this trilogy is at the top of my list for the way it captures the aftermath of combat and the profound consequences to an English society filled for the first time with the living dead.
Survivor by Chuck Pahlahniuk -- Every time I read one of his books I am always in awe at his extraordinary use of language, his ability to infuse eviscerating dark humor with subtle, yet crucial, heart and his skill for gripping the reader with unplug-the-phone suspense -- he is a master storyteller.
McLaughlin:Naked by David Sedaris -- See above.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers -- Because it is. And hands down, the best Acknowledgements section ever written.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides -- An utterly innovative construct that calls up a suburban summer so viscerally you can hear the crickets chirping.
Straight Man by Richard Russo. A pitch-perfect take on much-traversed territory, this book rang utterly true to my academically employed family.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley -- Before novels written by women were relegated to their own "genre," I was introduced to Jane Smiley by a dear professor who raised my awareness of what female authors were bringing to the table of contemporary fiction. Shakespeare with a woman's soul, far beyond simply "re-setting," Smiley executes an innovative approach with precision and heart.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The English Patient -- I've seen it 11 times. It is heartbreaking. Swoon.
Naked by Mike Leigh -- I love stories with a Hamlet-esque, tortured antihero out of step with society. It's dark with a little more dark and a side of dark.
If Lucy Fell -- Hands-down my favorite contemporary romantic comedy of all time.
McLaughlin:Jerry Maguire -- The ultimate working film. Cameron Crowe can write dialogue and shoot it with warmth and humor like nobody else.
Broadcast News -- The other ultimate working film. I simply love every second of this movie.
The Insider -- The other other ultimate working film. Michael Mann infuses a symphony into the very real stomach-turning choices one can be faced with as an employee. His storytelling tautly holds the universal tension that we all can't help but identify deeply with our work.
Lost in Translation -- A news flash demanding answers as to why there aren't more than, um, two women allowed to write and direct in the big Hollywood system. Utterly gorgeous and genius. I mean come on -- Sofia Coppola creates a masterpiece about a state of mind! You sit down and come up with a compelling story about jet lag.
Monsters, Inc. -- Pixar just plain makes me happy, but this one is a particularly smart concept, constructing a loving yet feasible reason behind why monsters need to be "scary." Smart, smart, smart.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I always listen to music when I write, usually instrumental soundtracks, like High Heels, The Lover, Talk to Her. Or else songs that I'm so familiar with that I no longer hear the lyrics and the language won't distract me. Music can be an invaluable tool for conjuring a mood.
I am just the opposite. I can't listen to anything when I write, not even the TV. I do have to listen to music when I drive, though. Short drives: dance stuff I can bop along to. Long drives: the somewhat modern musical (early '70s forward), in particular Sondheim. As a novelist, I find it mind-blowing that people take the story even further, out into this thematic, harmonic realm. From a painting to Sunday in the Park with George -- it's so inspiring that hours of road fly by.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- I've never read it (shame, I know) and if I had a deadline I'd finally pull my socks up and take it on.
Sadly, I share the shame. I think we're onto something, though -- the Guilt Book Club! I'll bring Crime and Punishment!
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I don't have a favorite type of book to get, but I love getting books, especially when the person has read the book already themselves. Then, while I'm reading, I feel as if I'm visiting a place my friend has been before me. And I enjoy discovering why the book brought me to mind. I think of whoever gave it to me as the story unfolds and, the best part, I can talk about it with them when I'm done.
I agree. Also, when I find something I love I push it like a drug dealer -- I gave Naked to everybody for every occasion for a year straight.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have to have everything neat and tidy to start -- it's a little OCD. And if things shift around while Emma and I are brainstorming, I'll reach around her to put everything back at right angles. Snacks are also crucial. And also knowing when to get up and get some fresh air; sometimes stepping away gets the brain unstuck.
I have to walk around a lot. I used to think it was procrastination, but I've learned that I just have to work and work at an idea or scene before I sit down to write, and then it just comes rolling out. The upside is I have a much cleaner house when we're in "generating" mode.
What are you working on now?
McLaughlin & Kraus:
We are writing a screenplay to give ourselves a break before our next novel. It's enormously challenging, and we're greatly enjoying flexing different mental muscles.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
McLaughlin & Kraus:
Allison McGhee. She was our pick for the Today show's book club. She is an extraordinary writer. Her stories are that delicious and rare blend of warmth, humor, exquisite imagery and lightening pacing. We recommend all her novels, especially Was It Beautiful? and Shadow Baby.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
McLaughlin & Kraus:
Look in the acknowledgments of books you enjoyed that you feel are similar in some way to your own manuscript. Then send your manuscript to the editor and agent listed, with a letter mentioning how much you enjoyed the other book they worked on and why you think your manuscript is comparable and should be published. This way you know you're approaching people who have a similar sensibility to you and are much more likely to be responsive to your work.
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