Alumnae of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus are successful cowriters of many best-selling novels. They met at NYU and developed a friendship while working as nannies in the wealthiest neighborhoods of New York City. Since 2002 when their first novel, The Nanny Diaries, was published, McLaughlin and Kraus have written three other books: Citizen Girl, Dedication, and The Real Real. They keep their readers interested with their witty humor and looking for their next novel in bookstores. The Nanny Diaries is based on your time spent as nannies during college. How did this experience help you grow as writers? Nicola Kraus: We were at an age where you are really looking for role models, and being dropped into one of the wealthiest communities in the country – if not the world – you think that you are going to find that. It was a huge surprise for us to find that there was nothing we wanted to take away from that community after working there for a number of years. They say money can't buy happiness. We were looking for happiness, and it wasn't in those walls. We had no idea at that point that we were going to write a book about our experience; it was just a job. Five years later, the idea of writing about it came to us. What was the main experience that helped you get confident with your writing? Emma McLaughlin: When we were writing The Nanny Diaries, neither of us had written a book, and we certainly hadn't written one as a team. I got some degree of confidence because I could make Nicki laugh. And from that point on, and still today, I really write for her. She is my primary audience. I'm still nervous when I present my writing to her, but once she is great with it, then I feel confident. You have to write with blinders on and really commit to making something that you feel is as good as it can be. You certainly have to hold yourself accountable for making sure it's interesting to other people, but you can't spend too much time thinking about whether it's going to be liked or not. As teens, were you enthusiastic readers? McLaughlin: We read a fair amount of teen fiction, but the genre was so different then. We are surprised now and really happy when we go to libraries and see a whole room devoted to books especially for teens. When we were growing up, libraries had a children's department and the adult department, and on the desk there was a little magazine rack that had maybe seven books on it, and that was considered the YA section. But for us, Judy Blume was a huge influence. And then there were the classics. What current novels and authors would you recommend to young people today? McLaughlin: We have a good friend Sarah Mlynowski who has written quite a bit of teen fiction and women's fiction, and she is a wonderful writer. Kraus: Alison McGee has a beautiful voice. McLaughlin: We are huge fans of David Sedaris. His story “SantaLand Diaries,” about being an elf for the Macy's Christmas season, actually inspired us to write The Nanny Diaries. What do you hope readers will take from your books? Kraus: We primarily would like them to have a good time with any of our books. We want people to be entertained. We are also concerned that people want to keep turning the pages. We love it when we hear that someone missed work or a subway stop or sleep because they had to keep reading. That's the primary goal. And within that, there is always some issue that we are fascinated with and want to raise in a sneaky way. You know, Nanny talks about domestic workers, and Citizen Girl talks about feminism, and our latest book, The Real Real, looks at reality television and how it has permeated our lives. So we like there to be some substance and a message, but it should be subtle, I think. McLaughlin: And with all of our books, there is a strong female heroine who is the voice. In a lot of contemporary women's fiction and, to a lesser degree, teen fiction, frequently the heroine is portrayed as somewhat incompetent. That creates a lot of hilarity and funny scenarios, but often the joke is at her expense. In our stories, we like to say the heroine is not the jerk, but rather the person she is dealing with is. It's important to us to present strong female role models who are certainly human and make mistakes, but are essentially trying to do the right thing, and use humor to guide themselves. You are successful writers by a lot of people's standards, but how do you define success? Kraus: I think happiness is how we define success. We are so blessed to love what we do. To be able to make a living doing something you love is success. My friends and I who are writers feel that we see the world differently from most people at our school. Did you ever have that feeling when you were a teenager? Kraus: All the time. McLaughlin: Yeah. We still do. How would you describe yourselves as teens? Kraus: I was a hot mess. When I turned 33, a friend said, “To me, you were always 33.” I really loved the world of adults, and I was excited to become a part of it, which is a strange quality in a 14-year-old. I loved to read. I loved anything that took me away from the monotony of adolescence existence and transported me somewhere more glamorous or dangerous or exciting. McLaughlin: The ironic thing is that, in our culture now, it seems that women in their twenties and thirties are really nostalgic to live the life of teenagers. But when we were teenagers, adults were further away than they feel now. Adults are, in a weird way, trying to be teens now. For teens who are going through that phase of wanting to grow up quickly, what advice would you give them? Kraus: Patience. You will be an adult before you know it, and I think anything you do to nurture your life is only going to make adulthood a richer experience. So, if you love to read, read. If you like museums (even if your friends think it's weird, you don't need to tell anyone), just go. Or go to movies by yourself, or whatever it is that feeds you and stimulates your imagination and passes the time. There is no need to be anxious, because the one certainty is that adulthood is coming. Who do you think are good role models for teens? Kraus: I have a funny story about that. When I was in twelfth grade, I was responsible for handing out a survey to the student body asking which woman they most looked up to. Five hundred and ninety-nine girls said Madonna and one picked a female scientist. As I sat in the headmistress's office to count the results, she was horrified. She wanted to know, what is it about this dreadful woman that inspires girls? And I said, you know, because she could kick any of our boyfriends' a--es. Madonna portrayed this image of being strong and powerful and owning oneself and not apologizing for anything. Everyone found this image of a women exhilarating. In my community the teen depression rate is growing rapidly. Do you have any advice for teens who are suffering from self-doubt? Kraus: I learned at one point that depression is actually the suppression of one emotion, which then suppresses all of them. Usually the suppressed emotion is anger, which makes sense if anger is defined as powerlessness. As a teenager I think you feel like so much is happening to you and you don't have control over your life. So that returns to what Emma and I were talking about: having patience and faith …. McLaughlin: Not religious faith, but just hunkering down with the cosmic belief that this is not forever. And when all else fails, stay hydrated, eat healthy, and get your heart rate up with exercise. What advice would you give teenagers who are aspiring writers? Kraus: Build up those muscles of consistently creating even when you are not feeling inspired. You can create exercises for yourself, like picking a book off the shelf with your eyes closed, looking at the first sentence, and writing your own first chapter based on that. Sign up for writing classes at your local YMCA, church, or community center. It's a great way of getting in a habit, getting feedback, and meeting people. Blogging can also be a great way of generating on a regular basis. Describe the writing process you have developed. McLaughlin: We start by outlining. Nicki and I either talk or get together for lunch every weekday and catch up on everything we have been watching and reading and listening to and talking to other people about. Usually the topics for our books come because we are having the same conversations over and over. There is usually something that we hone in on that we feel is not being talked about. With The Real Real, it was reality television. So once we have our thesis, we sit down together and outline, then we hammer out the details of the story and the characters, and that usually takes a couple of weeks. Once we have nailed down everything, we break that outline up into scenes – anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a couple of pages – and we take separate scenes and go off for a period of months and generate separately. We usually call each other every few days and read what we have written. When that's done, we e-mail each other our scenes, edit each other, and then string them all into one document. From that point on, we edit it over and over and over again, working with our editor. And then we hand it in. Nicki, do you want to talk about the editorial process and the three stages? Kraus: Sure. When we are first generating we have what we like to call the “vomit” phase where we just get it down. Just put something on paper, don't overthink, don't go back and re-read, and don't second-guess yourself. And then once we have something we can start editing. We look at it first through a stranger's eyes. Will they get the time of year, the gender of the protagonist, the time of day? Once we have those details locked down, the third phase is to look at it and ask why should anyone care? What mystery has yet to be answered that's going to keep someone turning the pages? We find that it's important to have one large, overarching question, which is usually very simple. In Twilight it's are they ever going to get together? And then there are little questions, like what's her first day at school going to be like? Is he going to come sit next to her? Is she going to make a friend? Just little things you are wondering from chapter to chapter that keep the story moving. We find it's important to constantly step back from our storytelling voice and look at it from a larger perspective and ask what shouldn't we divulge in this scene because we are going to want people to be curious about it moving forward? How much attention do you pay to the both positive and negative opinions of the public of your work? McLaughlin: I think that's been a real learning process for us. I usually let somebody read the review first and if it's positive, or negative but done in a thoughtful and productive way (which is rare), then I will read it. I always remember that Maya Angelou said, “If you don't pick it up you don't have to put it down.” Do you believe writing is a lonely way of expressing your emotions? Kraus: We are so lucky to have each other in that regard. I checked in with Emma so many times today about the scene I was working on, about the structure, and then I needed to call her because I was just having a rough day. There are obviously people who completely thrive on the isolation of writing. But for us, I think we would get too lonely. What do you think is the biggest problem facing teenagers today? Kraus: I don't envy having to navigate this virtual world that didn't exist when we were teenagers. You are putting so much information out there and it is so challenging to manage being perceived on so many fronts, like making sure your Tweets are funny and your Facebook page is updated. It just seems like there are so many different venues for having to make a good impression. To me, that seems exhausting. McLaughlin: I am feeling really old during this interview. I grew up in upstate New York and remember when everyone would open their lockers in high school and your identity was on that 16 inches of metal on the inside – what pictures you put there, how you decorated it. Luckily all teens are going through these culture changes together. We have such respect for what you guys are navigating right now. We just came back from a tristate library tour and went to a ton of libraries in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York where we met with teenagers. We're amazed at what they're worrying about, their consciousness of the economy and how it's impacting their families and their futures, even thinking about how they are going to mix working and parenting – things we weren't worrying about until later. Would you like to share any quotes or advice that inspired you? Kraus: Harvey Fierstein sent me a card when I was 13 that said, “May I wish you the very best success with your own writing. Just keep your heart and ears open always; the rest is easy.” That was the best advice on writing I have ever gotten. McLaughlin: And I have a quote over my computer from “Memory House,” a play by Kathleen Tolan. Throughout the play a girl is trying to write her college application essay and it's the zero hour and she has to get it done. And then her mother says, “Do the thing. It's what's in front of you.” When I am really getting scattered, I think of that. Are there any future projects that you hope to do that are unlike anything you have done before? Kraus: We are currently working on a second young adult novel that's in the third person, which we have never done before. We're having an enormously good time with that. McLaughlin: We have a running joke that we keep challenging ourselves unwittingly. It's not that we set out to climb Everest each time …. With Nanny, we had never written a book before, and then with Girl we were tackling such a thorny subject, and we had to invent an entire business model and then crash it. So that was a perpetual migraine. Our editor has asked us, “What's next, a Western?” How can fans stay updated on what you're doing? McLaughlin: Check us out on our website, emmaandnicola.com. You can find out from our newsletters when we will be visiting a library in your area or when we have new book coming out. If people have more specific questions, they can reach out to us through that website or Facebook or MySpace.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.