Bonus: Read Zooey Deschanel's foreword.
Sophia Rossi has quite the resume: Before she founded HelloGiggles, an online community for girls, with her best friends Zooey Deschanel and Molly McAleer, she worked as a TV producer on shows like Glee, The Hills, and The City. Today, Rossi adds “novelist” to that resume, as her first book, A Tale of Two Besties, hits shelves. A Tale of Two Besties is the story of two BFFs, effortlessly cool Harper and artsy Lily, who must deal with starting high school and being separated from their best friend at the same time. Harper stays to attend the local public high school, while Lily switches to a private school for creative types. Read on for an interview with Rossi about friendship, social media, and running a website; and check out Zooey Deschanel’s foreword below.
EW: I read in an old interview that you hate writing. So why write a book?
SOPHIA ROSSI: Well, I hate personal writing, but I’m getting better at it. It was just new to me, it’s very vulnerable in doing it. But what I liked about this book is I was such a fan of this sort of YA—you know, Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club. Sweet Valley High author Francine Pascal blurbed my book and I freaked out of happiness. With the site [HelloGiggles] growing over the last four years, I saw there was a huge opportunity to share my interests with our contributors. It’s not just eighth graders who can connect to this book. You could be a grown woman, like myself. Millennials are capable of many interests, so I was excited to write something like this.
You went to Beverly Hills High, which is where Harper goes. How did your own experiences there translate into the book?
What I wanted to come across was that it was this really big school, which, even though Harper has this big personality and this confidence, it’s still intimidating when you don’t have your core best friend. But that this is a time where feeling different is important to do, because that’s what really makes you figure out who you are. And that’s what Beverly was like for me.
Did you pick your younger contributors’ brains?
Yeah, for the whole process. We have over 1,000 contributors, and we have over 16 million unique visitors per month, and I think that it was really nice to do a call-to-action about what the cover contest would be, and who would be the contributor we’ll be speaking with on our tour. This whole thing has been very much a community project, which makes me happy because I think the idea was for me to spearhead this, but to really give an opportunity for our contributors to connect with each other on these tours.
The book is very California-oriented, so I was really surprised to learn that you had lived in New York briefly.
I did! I am such an L.A. girl, which I used to think was something negative, but now I’m really proud of it. I feel like, because of the space and the freedom that I had out here, it was really nice to grow up in California.
I think New York really taught me my work ethic. It’s a lot harder to work in L.A. when it’s beautiful out, and there’s sort of a lax culture. Whereas New York fit what my early 20s was needing, which is that structure, and that intensity. My personal life wasn’t needing that, so I’m happy to be back in L.A., and my vitamin D [levels] didn’t need that either.
How do you think California teens are different from New York teens?
Early on, transportation is a huge advantage in New York. There are a lot more opportunities to explore. In L.A., you have to get in a car, beacuse there aren’t really things in walking distance. I mean, we hung out in one mall, in a huge city. And I think New York has access to a lot more generational differences and diversity, where it’s a little more segmented in L.A.
So I think I would probably rather be a teen in New York, with summers in California. Or maybe the opposite. Or teen in L.A. for the year, that way school doesn’t feel so stressful. And then summer in New York, so I can do that summer camp vibe. I’m obviously too old for that, but in my mind…
You worked on The Hills and The City. What did those shows teach you about female friendship?
I saw how important female friendships were, and the intensity of them, but also how destructive they were, and how your identity is so wrapped up into your friendships at that age. It was interesting to see how dramatic it was compared to my actual friendships. But it was also highly charged and dramatized for a TV show, so that was really nice.
Then I worked on Glee, and I really enjoyed seeing what friendship meant through talent. When the kids worked together in Glee, they definitely bonded over shared skills, so that was really fun to explore, too.
I never really thought of Glee as a “friendship” show, but now that you say it, that’s so obvious.
I mean, they spend so much time together. I think the idea was that they were experiencing all these “firsts” together, and that’s what the book is sort of about: This is the first time you’re separated from your best friend, the first time you’re in high school, the first kiss. The first are always, not the most important, but what changes you the most when you’re learning to identify yourself.
Yeah, and I think reading your book really helps adults relive those moments. I loved when you wrote about “idiot shivers”—that uncomfortable feeling you get when you see or do something awkward. That was the most perfect description—I knew exactly what you meant. Is that something that you talk about with your friends, or did that just come to you in your writing?
I always will be like, “Oh my god, that makes me feel so weird. It gives me idiot shivers.” I think I have a strong reaction and a strong compass for things that make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t refer to it, necessarily, as anxiety, I just am very vocal about my opinions. They’re more reactionary than they are suggestions. And I think that’s why I really enjoyed working on Glee. And Ryan [Murphy], he’s just a genius, and he really was open and excited to pick my brain, and I was excited to get mentored from him. But yeah, with my friends, I’m constantly saying, “That gives me idiot shivers.” Which is not insulting—it’s just my personal reaction. I’m like, it’s that balance of, “that makes me feel weird, but no judgment.”
Are you more like Harper or Lily?
I’m more Harper. But I aspire to the creative freedom that Lily has.
I noticed that Lily had blue eyes and blunt bangs… was she supposed to be Zooey?
Zooey is an influence in so much of my life. The authentic truthfulness of her essence obviously translates into a lot of things we do, especially because we work so closely with the site together, but the specifics of [Lily] were more just an archetype of different L.A. schools.
It was pretty clear to me what Lily did wrong in their friendship, by ignoring Harper and getting sucked into her new friends. Did you think there was anything Harper could have done better to avoid the fight?
Communication at that age, especially in this modern time, is so confusing. You believe that you’ve given so much access because it’s on social media, but truly it’s only a layered version of it. I think it’s also a skill you learn through experience and age. So I know that as an adult looking down, she could have done more, but as someone actually in that age, I think it’s pretty accurate to what the miscommunication could be.
You’re living through the lens of this social media, so I think it’s hard to be as genuine as you want, but at the same time, you’re super more vulnerable than you were before. You just might be more hesitant about how you curate that. We do things in 140 characters, in an image on Instagram, in a short Snapchat, in a short Vine. We’re not really accessing our true verbal communication or emotional levels.
That was another thing I really liked, when Lily said that when someone sends you a really serious message over text instead of calling, part of your soul dies.
Yeah, and I think I experience that the most in New York, in a lot of ways. I’ll just be walking around with my phone, and someone sends a really intense text, it’s like, “Oh my god, I don’t know how I’m going to respond to that and be a present person,” or just ignore it. Both versions make me shut down. Because you can’t focus! It’s not like it’s an email, where you can email when you have time, and that’s expected. Texts feel so immediate. There’s such a sensitivity to it. And I find myself, even when writing, “I feel sad!” to a friend, it’s like, “I don’t even know where that person is today.” They could be in a big meeting, and I just dropped a full responsibility emotionally.
So what’s the alternative? Always call?
I’m a fan of voicemail. People like to say they hate it, but I’m a fan of people wanting to leave a message.
What is the hardest thing about running a website?
The hardest thing is that it’s never offline. It’s constantly there, so you want to have that separation from it in a lot of ways, but your baby is still awake, at all times. It’s nice to have other people take care of it, but it’s a little bit stressful knowing that the second I get off the phone, that doesn’t mean that HelloGiggles took a pause. At the level we are now, things feel really secure and slow, but it’s still alarming every time to think when I go to sleep, something could happen.
That’s where your New York work ethic can come back in.
Totally. I turn my phone off every Friday to Saturday night for Shabbat though, for Jewish religious reasons, and it has been a game-changer for me to have a connection to myself. I’m more present during the week, and I can allocate responsibilities to people that I clearly trust and have connected with.
That’s a really smart technique.
Thank you. I’ll let God know you think that.
A Tale of Two Besties Foreword, by Zooey Deschanel
I learned to read while I was living in the Seychelles, a group of islands off the east coast of Africa, when my father was making a movie based on Robinson Crusoe. I had left the familiarity of my Los Angeles home, my first grade class, and all of my friends for this tropical beach reminiscent of an explorer’s desert island. Although it was beautiful, it was so different from home—with a very small population and just one tiny general store, it was nothing like the big-city culture I was accustomed to. I had my sister there with me, and did manage to make one or two new friends. But I still missed life at home and the friends that went with it. This new feeling was what led me to discover that I could escape into the stories in the books I was learning to read. Instead of feeling homesick, I could picture the characters and the places I was reading about. My imagination was thriving, and I finally felt at home.
When I returned to California, I got my first library card. I came to love the musty smell that accompanied the shelves upon shelves of undiscovered stories. From the fairy tales I knew from my early years to the page-turning young-adult novels I discovered as I grew older, books became my constant and consistent
friends. From fiction to nonfiction, history to mystery, books of all kinds became my confidants, my teachers, and my entertainment, and they never, ever let me down. I took my books with me everywhere I went, and they silently soothed my bad days. I couldn’t wait to get into bed and read every night, sometimes so en- grossed in a story that I would sneak a flashlight under my pillow so that I could keep turning pages well past lights-out.
Books also become a way that I bonded with my friends. We exchanged our cherished and tattered paperbacks, and then wrote down our own stories when we were inspired. This was how I first became interested in going into the profession of storytelling, of playing other characters, of inhabiting other worlds. If you get tired of your own world, there’s always a story waiting to take you away to someplace interesting.
Sophia’s book, A Tale of Two Besties, is an homage to the books of our youth—and to our real friends, the ones who are as consistent as our favorite novels. I hope this book can be something you can share with your friends, and that will remind you of how lucky you are to have them.