In 2002, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus suddenly found themselves in the spotlight when The Nanny Diaries, their debut novel based on their experiences as Manhattan nannies, hit the bestseller lists. Now, seven years later, they have published their first young adult novel, The Real Real (HarperTeen), centering on a 17-year-old whose life takes a similarly dramatic turn when she is cast in a reality show filmed at her Long Island high school and thrust into a clique of glamorous classmates. With the cameras constantly rolling and the show’s producers playing with the teens’ lives to heighten the drama, Jesse must struggle to remember what is really real.

Feedback from teens who had read The Nanny Diaries or seen the movie based on the novel sparked the idea for The Real Real, which has a 120,000-copy first printing. McLaughlin and Kraus began chatting with young fans (via e-mail, MySpace and Facebook) about what interested them. “Reality TV was definitely a recurring theme in these conversations,” Kraus says. “Emma and I both love reality TV—or rather have the same love-hate relationship with it that everyone has—and we started thinking about what it would be like to be a teen and be involved in an unreal reality show.”

The authors realized that the teenagers they talked with had little sense of what Kraus terms “the machine behind reality shows,” and are likely to take them at face value. “But teenagers who are featured on reality TV, and often become role models for kids, don’t really exist,” she says. “Emma and I have friends who work as reality TV show producers and they told us some interesting things. The objective is to keep the cast members inebriated and exhausted. The drama relies on friction among the characters, so they try to keep the cast anything but calm. We were struck by how manipulated they are and how scripted a lot of these shows actually are.”

Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.
Photo: Victoria Will.

McLaughlin and Kraus’s own experience with unexpected media attention helped them shape the characters in The Real Real. “We don’t identify with Jesse as much as admire her, since she and some of the other characters are braver and have more moxie than we do,” Klraus says. “But we can empathize with her experiences—they brought back a lot of memories.”

Noting that she and Kraus were only 27 when The Nanny Diaries came out, McLaughlin says, “We were completely overwhelmed and unprepared for the attention that not only the novel got, but that we got too. It gave us a kind of lens for viewing what celebrity means—and of course we only experienced a tiny second of it compared to many people.”

The collaborators, who also co-wrote the bestselling Citizen Girl and Dedication, work together in what McLaughlin quite fittingly calls “a way that is similar to how TV writing teams work.” After mapping out the story from start to finish, the two break it up into scenes, which they divide between them. “We generate those on our own and then swap and edit what the other wrote,” she says. “For later drafts we sit elbow to elbow by the computer, and by the time the book comes out we can’t quite remember who wrote what. Even our parents and husbands can’t identify whose voice is whose.”

Kraus adds that this collaborative process sometimes creates “embarrassing moments” when the authors read from their books at events. “I’ll be reading a passage that Emma wrote and I will crack up, and I’m always afraid people are thinking, ‘What a jerk. She’s laughing at her own writing.’ But I can’t help it. It tickles my funny bone every time.”

Farrin Jacobs, executive editor of HarperCollins Children’s Books, who edited The Real Real after acquiring it at auction, can identify. Citing the book’s humor as key to its success, she calls Jesse a “realistic, relatable character who is very, very funny. I read this novel many times while editing it and every time I laughed out loud. And reading it today, I still do.”

McLaughlin and Kraus have just wrapped up a five-city tour for the novel, which included an interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. In The Real Real, Jesse and her castmates also appear on this show with Roberts—yet another example of life imitating art imitating life.

The Real Real by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. HarperTeen, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-06-172040-6