Paul Rudnick is well known as a screenwriter (In & Out), playwright (Jeffrey), and humor columnist (he wrote satirical film reviews for two decades in the persona of Manhattan housewife Libby Gelman-Waxner). His first YA book, Gorgeous, tells the story of Becky, a girl in a trailer park who instead of three wishes is granted three magic dresses and perfect beauty by an all-powerful clothing designer. Rudnick spoke with PW about the book, why he loves YA fiction, and the guilty pleasures of Kardashian-watching.
What made you want to write a YA novel?
I’m a YA addict. I read Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, John Green, David Levithan. When I first had the idea for the story, I wasn’t sure whether it was a play or an adult novel. And then I started writing in Becky’s voice, and it started to flow, and I knew it was a YA novel.
What were you looking for in her voice?
I wanted her to be grounded – if the book was going to have supernatural aspects and sweeping romance, I wanted that skepticism, I wanted her first reaction to be that this was crackpot. It was like having someone looking at you with their arms folded and seeing how you could turn them upside down and make them believe.
And then there’s Becky’s best friend Rocher: she’s not skeptical.
When you have a really good friend, they will enable you at all times. Rocher’s gung ho; she’s a cheerleader. She helps Becky embrace life – that’s the buddy you want to have.
What did knowing Gorgeous was a young adult novel free you to do?
I wanted Becky to be a larger-than-life character, and there are so many of them in books for younger readers, from Peter Pan to Pippi Longstocking to Katniss Everdeen. And I love the storytelling aspect of YA books; I wanted the book to be carefully plotted with twists and turns and surprises, and that’s something that’s only available in novels, especially YA novels. It almost seems that in adult novels, there’s so much latitude that it sometimes becomes laziness, and writers can forget about entertaining the reader. Reading YA books is so pleasurable; they really deliver. And I think books read when [you’re] young stay with you and are what you measure your life experiences against.
What books meant the most to you?
I think these were a little younger than YA, but they were a series of biographies of famous people like Molly Pitcher and George Washington, told when they were children. I loved reading about these people when they were my age; it felt like the very best gossip, as if I were getting the insider secrets of Thomas Alva Edison.
Which is interesting, since Gorgeous is so filled with pop-culture gossip.
What interested me was how pop culture and celebrity lives have become the international language. Even people who have no business knowing the names of all the Kardashians – they know them. So if you talk about them, everyone knows what you’re talking about; it’s like it’s everyone’s guilty pleasure. It’s a great icebreaker on an airplane. I wanted to create my own pop universe with its own brand names.
And you do, but readers will keep trying to guess who characters are based on.
I wanted echoes of known celebrities so it would have that authenticity, but also because part of the fun is the guessing game – is it this person?
For instance, I thought designer Tom Kelly, who makes Becky those fabulous clothes, was a blend of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.
And Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford and…. He’s not any specific guy. I was interested in someone with that kind of authority and that kind of confidence: the fact that these designers can dictate to everyone on the planet what they should be wearing. It’s both admirable and terrifying, and when I thought of that kind of power, of how they’re the wizards of our time, it wasn’t that big a stretch to make Tom’s power supernatural.
So that’s how the book got its fairy-tale aspect?
That, and I liked the idea of him making her these three dresses, the idea of clothing doing what we secretly wish it would do. We endow our outfits with so much power – we hope that they’ll make us look like the people in Vogue do. So I wondered, what if it actually worked?
There’s a lot in the book about our obsession not just with celebrities, but also with beauty. It’s fun, but are you also critiquing it?
Absolutely. Any behavior that becomes obsessive can be dangerous. One of the inspirations for this book was something my mother said: She was looking at old photos from when she was young, and she said something like, back then I thought I was so ugly, but I looked great. And then she laughed, which I’m glad about, but it made me think about the degree to which beauty rules our lives. I knew that this stuff mattered and could do terrible harm, and comic writing becomes funnier the higher the stakes are.
This stuff especially seems to affect girls.
Right, but we’re all addicted. We’ve all had that experience of looking at the mirror and not being able to tell what we look like. Do I look great? Do I look terrible? How old do I look? Mirrors are more dangerous than drugs and more readily available.
And speaking of celebrity, the film rights to Gorgeous have been sold, I believe?
Yes. I’m adapting it into a screenplay. It’s interesting, because I’ve never adapted my own work before, and since it’s a new format and a new story, you have to be willing to get rid of everything you loved writing in the first place.
And after Gorgeous, will there be more YA in your future?
I’m working on a new book for Scholastic, but I can’t say anything about it, because if I talk about a project in its early stages, I hear myself describing it and it always sounds terrible.
Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick. Scholastic Press, $18.99 May ISBN 978-0-545-46426-0