Gossip Girl author ‘92 holds reading
Cecily Von Ziegaser ’92, acclaimed author of the popular series Gossip Girl—now a CW network television show—visited the Hill on April 12 to give a reading from her new book Cum Laude.
Von Ziegaser was one of Professor of English Jenny Boylan’s “very first great students,” Boylan said. She was also the “only creative writing student ever to do a senior scholar project,” a task in which a student devotes his or her entire senior year to a single project in both poetry and fiction. Boylan introduced Von Ziegaser to the audience as “a woman who was once my prize student is now my friend and my colleague.”
As Von Ziegaser took the podium in the Robinson room in Miller Library, she confessed to the audience, “The last time I was at Colby was for my graduation. And the last time I was in this room was for my senior scholar reading. I read some poetry and fiction. I can’t believe that I’m back here.” She began by reading a passage from Cum Laude, her novel that takes place at a fictional college much like Colby. The audience enjoyed hearing quotes during the reading that referenced features of the College, such as the Health Center and the Chapel. She also honored Foss with a reference, renaming it “Root.”
Von Ziegaser went on to describe her life after Colby, during which she lived with her roommate in Budapest for four months. “I started writing my own little column called ‘A Young American Woman in Budapest,’” she said. “It was like what people blog about: me talking about random anything. So, that was probably the beginning of Gossip Girl without me even knowing it.”
Boylan asked about the author’s experiences in graduate school. “I went to the University of Arizona and I hated it,” Von Ziegaser responded. “I had taken every creative writing class that Colby had and they were so good and my teachers were just so great. All the professors at my program at Arizona felt like they were just teaching because they had to…so I only did a year.”
Von Ziegaser summarized her life after her brief stint in graduate school, saying, “I left [the University of Arizona] and met a guy in a bar and he was English and we hit it off and I went to England to live with him and it worked out. We’re married now.”
In England, Von Ziegaser got her very first job working as an editor for children’s picture books. She described the workplace as “a crusty old office with a crazy English boss.” While at work, Von Ziegaser decided to start writing a book. “My boss would come over and ask what I was doing and I [would say], ‘I’m writing a book’ and she would say, ‘Oh, I’d like to read it sometime.’” The book Von Ziegaser was writing was a western called The Dead Daisy Rant. “It never went anywhere,” she said.
After working in England for several years, Von Ziegaser and her husband moved to New York. Her husband quickly found employment there, while Von Ziegaser looked for a job as a children’s book editor. “I still wanted to be writing,” she said, “but I didn’t know how to do it, and it’s not going to work if you’re writing something called The Dead Daisy Rant.” Eventually, Von Ziegaser was hired to edit a children’s book series about horses called Thoroughbred. In this position, Von Ziegaser constantly had to come up with exciting and readable plots.
One day, Von Ziegaser and her co-workers “were sitting down in a plotting meet, trying to come up with the next big book series teenagers might be into…Another editor said he had just read an article about how girls are gossiping about each other on the Internet—a new concept. The word blog hadn’t even happened yet,” she said. As they continued to brainstorm, Von Ziegaser explained, they came up with the title Gossip Girl. “My boss was like, ‘Cecily, go away and do something with this,’” Von Ziegaser said.
Von Ziegaser explained that, as she considered her assignment, she thought, “I hate these books set in these suburban places I don’t know anything about. If I were 16 years old, I would want to read about people in the city.” So she began writing out character descriptions of people she knew growing up in New York City at a private all-girls school. Following the conclusion of her proposal, Von Ziegaser sent it to a bunch of publishers and only one was interested. Von Ziegaser described this publisher as her “champion.”
As for the success of the Gossip Girl series, Von Ziegaser told eager students, “I just thought, ‘I’m going to write it and it’s going to be great.’ But it didn’t do that well at first. They didn’t publicize it; it’s very racy for its time…So Gossip Girl hit the best-seller list when the third one came out and that was a complete surprise.”
Von Ziegaser explained, in terms of the commercial nature of the book, that “there are two layers. There’s the ‘it’s about shopping and teenagers and partying and cute boys’ layer, but then there’s the artful thing. I really try hard to write something new every time I write…I’m really just sitting down writing the books I want to read and write. The whole commerce thing is an accident; but I do like to shop.”
At the end of her talk, Von Ziegaser admitted to the audience, “I still think I’m your age and I don’t really get when you become an adult. I’m pretty responsible, but I don’t feel like I’ve changed at all…It’s nice to have a kind of genre to write for: this young adult audience. I’m really just writing the books that I want to read. It was liberating just to be published.”