Jessica Knoll, New York Times-bestselling author, may seem intimidating. And surely on paper she is: Her first novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, was the highest-selling debut of 2015 and she’s sold an adaptation (for which she’ll be writing a screenplay) to Reese Witherspoon. But really, she’s one of us. By which we mean she’s obsessed with reality television. As her devoted Instagram followers can attest to, she prays at the altar of The Real Housewives of New York, candles burning alongside a headshot of Sir Andy Cohen, just like you.
Her newest book, The Favorite Sister, out now, is about what happens when seemingly well-adjusted women sign their lives over to a camera crew and an editing team with a taste for blood and catfights. The fictional show is Goal Diggers, about millennial women who run their own businesses: There’s a wellness guru (that’s Jen), a best-selling author (Stephanie), the founder of a spin studio (Brett). It’s billed — to the audience and to its cast-members — as a reality show that rises above the fray, the progressive, feminist alternative to the (delightful) smut that sets out to pit women against each other. But spoiler alert: Goal Diggers doesn’t live up to that promise.
The novel opens on a tell-all interview between Kelly, the newest cast-member and sister of breakout star Brett, and the series’ slightly dictatorial showrunner. You see, Brett is dead — and no, that’s not a spoiler. Kelly has come, hair blown-out and makeup shellacked to the high heavens, to present the television-friendly narrative of what happened. It’s not the real story, but it’s the version that Goal Diggers has convinced her the audience needs to hear. The story then jumps back in time to follow the women as they film the season and slowly but surely unravel how Brett was killed.
Beyond the build-up to the big reveal, the chapters are filled with the daily drama of reality show stars, with witty observances from cast members who feel fully above it all, and nods to the inner workings of reality television — the belly of the beast in every sense of the term. Instead of being ripped from the headlines, these dirty details are straight out of Bravo (and a little bit of network TV, too).
“The main friendship between Stephanie and Brett is based on the relationship between Bethenny Frankel and Jill Zarin in the first season of Real Housewives of New York,” explains Knoll. “Their friendship was so great, but when it unraveled it was devastating. I just thought it was so rich and there was so much to explore there.
“It seemed to lend itself to a book about female friendships really well,” she continues. “It’s the ways in which we are obsessive with each other and these friendships mean so much, and then we can just destroy each other for just one little thing.”
Before she sat down to pen The Favorite Sister, Knoll was tasked with the delicious burden of researching every last in-and-out of reality television — think mostly the Housewives and The Bachelor. She went back and re-watched much of the early New York seasons (“It was fascinating, I watched as if I’d never seen it before”) and set out to interview as many producers and editors as she could. But getting insiders to spill their tricks of the trade was no easy feat.
“It was impossible,” laughs Knoll. “I even tried to interview some former reality stars but no one wanted to talk.”
She eventually convinced a producer to speak to her off the record — she says she asked him every burning question she’s every had about filming and he answered candidly. She also spoke to an agent who represents a few of the Housewives (good luck trying to find out who!) and a friend of hers who serves as an editor for an undisclosed E! show.
“I wanted to shadow on a day of shooting but it’s such a closed-off world,” she explains. “Everyone told me that they rarely let additional people on set because it disrupts the feeling of reality. It takes people out of the moment.”
Reading through the pages of The Favorite Sister, one is presented with so many revelations about behind-the-scenes machinations that it’s impossible not to wonder what is a real trick of the trade and what Knoll conjured up to make the story more interesting. There’s the scene in which the producers uncork dozens of wine bottles before the cast members sit down to dinner — to prevent them from keeping track of how much they’re drinking. There are the times in which the showrunner texts the cast members to tell them what they should be talking about (scripted, but not scripted, right?). There’s the scenes in which the women haven’t seen each other in over a month yet are instructed to pretend that a certain fight or event happened just the day before.
And, in a nutshell, it’s all (mostly) true.
Knoll infused the tome with all the bizarre tactics that producers use to facilitate storylines in real life. She notes that if you’re a fan — a true fan like those of us with our Andy-alters — you may recognize the final product of some of these ploys, namely the way in which reality stars try to get free swag (laser treatments, designer bags, and even event spaces they don’t have to pay for, all in return for a mention on the show). The wine-bottle-uncorking isn’t directly borrowed from what producers spilled to Knoll, but she did learn that they push the drinking very heavily: There is always alcohol available, whether it’s an open bar in the makeup room or a cooler full of wine at a reunion.
“The cast members kind of keep it together when they’re filming and then when the camera crews leave the women really let loose and start drinking,” says Knoll. “I was told that sometimes they forget to turn their microphone packs off after the producers are gone — I thought that was so fascinating, thinking they had their privacy when they don’t.”
She was most surprised by the practice of texting reminders about what’s happening in a show’s plotline — it helped her realize that sometimes when a star claims, on camera, that she doesn’t remember saying something inflammatory, it could really be true.
“In the past I used to think it was bulls–t and that they just didn’t want to pay the piper,” she says. “But they’re filming over months with hours of footage each day, so if someone is confronting them it could easily be over just one line from ages ago. The producers are the ones who latch on to that line and set out to make it a storyline, so they have to let the stars know the conversations they need to be having. It’s necessary for the sake of continuity.”
Overall, the impression that Knoll built about the reality television industry — and the impression that she infused into the book — is that nothing is what it seems and no one is who they claim to be. Stars will resort to all kinds of posturing for the cameras (eating more than normal, drinking less than normal, and everything in between), all in the name of creating an image and clinging to it for dear life. Like Brett, you’ll have to pry it out of their cold, dead hands.