When you’re writing a novel do you choose the setting—or does the setting choose you? When you read about debut author Lindsey J. Palmer’s decision to write about the world of women’s magazines, you’ll see that in her case (and in many) a setting just begs for a story. How can we, as writers, resist?
Please welcome Lindsey J. Palmer to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Why I Set My Novel At A Women’s Magazine (even after The Devil Wears Prada)
By Lindsey J. Palmer
Any workplace is a world unto itself—I first learned this waiting tables in high school when I quickly deduced how to steer clear of the leering dish-washer, which managers let you sneak out pints of ice cream and which ones didn’t, and that if the surly owner showed up my skirt better be regulation-length. Now that I’m employed by one of the country’s biggest bureaucracies (the NYC Department of Education), I understand it better than ever: Each workplace has its own laws—both official and unofficial—plus its own social code, hierarchy, vibe, and of course population (with the implicit or sometimes not-so-implicit threat of being booted out if you don’t get with the system).
For this reason I’ve always loved a workplace story, on-screen (Parks and Recreation, Veep, The Office) or on the page (Then We Came to the End, Nickel and Dimed). And after toiling for seven years in the editorial departments of women’s magazines—at Glamour, then Redbook, then Self—I not only felt I knew this world like a native, I also believed it would be an ideal backdrop for a novel.
The World of Women’s Magazines is by turns a blast and a bellyache, glamorous and glamour-less, girlfriend-y and cutthroat. The mingling of ambitious Manhattan women in their 20s, 30s and early 40s (plus the occasional gay man, and the rarer straight man) seems custom-made for conflict. Task that cast with putting out a product that’s supposed to be fun but not frothy, intelligent but not cerebral, unique but not niche, edgy but not offensive, opinionated but not political, inclusive but not bland, and a hundred other seemingly impossible requirements—oh, and that will sell, sell, SELL—and the resulting atmosphere is fresh and vibrant at the best of times, and frantic and volatile at the worst. Plus, there are the perks—the events at Manhattan’s chicest venues (I dined at both Per Se and The SoHo Club within my first week in the industry); the famous “free table” where editors nab everything from hardcover books to designer clothing, all gratis; the sleek, sun-drenched offices and gourmet cafeterias with fresh sushi and seasonal, local fare; the beauty sales featuring luxury lotions and potions for $1 a pop; the occasional hobnobbing with celebs; and the photo shoots and TV segments, plus the accompanying hair and makeup. Lastly, women’s magazines are an easy target, blamed for every eating disorder, self-esteem problem, and societal woe. All of these factors combined? What a perfect backdrop for a page-turner, I thought.
But—and this is the question I often got when I told people I was writing a novel that took place at a women’s magazine—wasn’t this already done in The Devil Wears Prada? Well, not exactly. Listen, I enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada as much as the next girl (in fact, I read the entire thing in one sitting the day before my first and last interview at Vogue, wearing, I kid you not, head-to-toe The Gap). But I had a different story to tell, set in an entirely different era of publishing; whereas Prada came out in 2003 and the movie followed in 2006, my novel, Pretty in Ink, is a post-2008 story, one set in the era of economic meltdown and recessionary downsizing. Prada captured women’s magazines at the height of their glitz and glory; in my book, the editor-in-chief gets fired on the very first page, setting in motion the kind of upheaval and staff reshuffling that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s collected a paycheck (or tried to) in the past five years. In Magazine Land, the recession felt magnified because competition from blogs and webzines and brands’ own free online content had been cannibalizing print magazines for years.
The tale I tell in Pretty in Ink is one similar to what I—and so many others working in the industry—have lived through: In hopes of reviving a brand when sales are down, a new head honcho is brought in to make over the magazine, and often the staff, as well. One of the ways I made it through that existence of complete chaos, round-the-clock-work-days, and constant fear of getting the axe was pretending I was a character in a novel: What an interesting conflict, I’d think, trying to imagine I was taking vicarious pleasure in a fictional protagonist’s troubles instead of living my own life, I wonder how it’ll get resolved!
Eventually, I started taking notes. A couple of years later I’ve fled the industry for the high school classroom (another setting ripe for drama, but that’s a different post entirely), and I’ve done my best to transfer my experiences (plus a lot of imagination) into fiction. I do miss the setting of women’s magazines—particularly the free table—but now at least I can revisit it on the pages I’ve written.
Lindsey J. Palmer worked as a professional writer and editor in the magazine industry for seven years, most recently as Features Editor at Self, and previously at Redbook and Glamour. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she earned a Master of Arts in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and currently teaches 12th grade English, A.P. Literature, and Creative Writing at NEST+m in Manhattan. Lindsey lives in Brooklyn. Visit her at www.lindseyjpalmer.com