With back-to-back smash hits under her belt, Jessica Knoll’s young literary career is off to a meteoric start. Her summer thriller The Favorite Sister has been sitting on bestseller lists since its May 15 release — and she’s still riding the high from her debut, Luckiest Girl Alive, an instant New York Times bestseller and the most successful debut of 2015.
The story of the simultaneously glamorous, cutting, and secretive Ani became the very definition of a cult hit. Beyond the dollars that rolled in from book sales, Knoll became a household name among beach readers, touring the country and meeting with fans. The author made further headlines when she revealed through a Lenny Letter that the plight of Luckiest Girl Alive’s antihero — who suffered a violent gang rape and vicious bullying in high school — was based on her own personal experience. While promoting the book, she opened up at length about how the writing process helped her heal.
Before becoming a famous author, Knoll made a name for herself covering the book industry at Cosmopolitan, where she started thinking about writing her own novel while racking up important contacts. The final push to actually sit down and put pen to paper came from a former fellow assistant.
“I had a unique experience for a first book because I had known my literary agent for years,” Knoll told EW. “We came up in the world together and she was always keeping tabs on me and asking me when I was going to write a book. Finally I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this.'”
Knoll was accustomed to tight deadlines in the magazine industry, and aimed to send her would-be agent a few chapters every six weeks. They worked that way together until the book was finished, but it wasn’t always a smooth process.
“I had thought about [the story] for a long time — a couple of years at least,” she said. “I would attempt a few pages and be like, this is awful, I don’t even know where I’m going.”
Eventually, Knoll got into a routine, cranking out chapters before work and crafting Ani’s saga over her weekends. By Christmas 2013, she had completed the novel. After the new year, Knoll’s agent took it to publishing companies on a Friday, and by the following Monday, she had a preemptive deal with Simon & Schuster.
While bringing a book to market is often marked with stress and uncertainty, Knoll preferred the experience to the relative ease of selling The Favorite Sister — which, she joked, took “one sentence” to get purchased.
“You enjoy the sweetness of the deal when it’s done,” she said of Luckiest Girl Alive. “You feel like you really earned it. I didn’t feel like I could celebrate [The Favorite Sister] because there was so much work to be done.”
Now, on the heels of her second bestseller, Knoll is looking back on her debut with a fresh perspective. “I just see Ani so differently now,” she explained. “I wrote her probably six years ago, and I try to write women who are in my age group, so when I think about her now, she’s 28 and that’s very young to me. I had a lot of growing up to do and it’s fascinating to go back and read her as if it’s a case study of where I was at that point in my life — which is cool, because you always want to look back and have a tenderness for who you used to be.”
Shortly after Knoll finished Luckiest Girl Alive, Hollywood came calling. At the time, Reese Witherspoon and producer Bruna Papandrea were helming Pacific Standard — the production company behind Gone Girl and Wild — and Knoll became an early recipient of the duo’s female-first attitude.
The producers quickly signed a deal to option the film rights to Luckiest Girl Alive and had to push hard for Knoll to adapt the script herself. “I didn’t know if it was going to work out, but thank God Reese and Bruna believed in me,” said Knoll. “They saw that men adapt their own work all the time and studios are never worried they’re going to be too precious about it.”
After adapting her debut novel and earning her first credit as a screenwriter, Knoll is now looking towards what feels like an inevitable deal to do the same for The Favorite Sister.