Author Cecily von Ziegesar — creator of the GOSSIP GIRL series and its attendant phenomenon — comes to Long Branch this Saturday to promote her new GG title I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU, in an event presented by NovelTeas.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit November 19, 2009)
There’s Serena Van der Woodsen, self-styled Queen Bee of Manhattan’s beyond-exclusive Constance Billard School for Girls, and the “It” girl that sets the standard for all pretenders to the throne. Blair Waldorf, her BFF and something of a rival for the attentions of rich, dashing jock Nate Archibald. There’s arty/ gothy Vanessa, sensitive Dan, It Girl-in-training Jenny and the sexually seeking, somewhat sinister Chuck. And hovering just out of reach, all-seeing and all-knowing yet ever elusive, is the mysterious narrator known only as Gossip Girl.
When Cecily von Ziegesar created the first in the Gossip Girl series of YA (young adult) novels back in 2002, she came to the project as an author with no track record among the book-buying public — it was the first credit for this young veteran of the publishing biz — but a wealth of experience in the realm of elite all-girl prep schools and rich-kid friends with grown-up desires, as well as a penchant for being a “gossiper” herself.
It was obvious to millions of fans that von Ziegesar was a keen observer of the world in which Gossip Girl was set — and the successful debut spawned ten top-selling sequels, one prequel, two spinoff series (The It Girl and The Carlyles) and, lest we forget, a TV series that’s singlehandedly kept the CW network in office supplies, on its way to being branded everything from “mind-blowingly inappropriate” to “Best. Show. Ever.”
While the carnally curious, pharmadventuring teens of the TV series continue to generate culture-war salvos and countless fan sites (along with a parallel industry that tracks the movements of the show’s young cast as they film in various NYC locations), the flagship Gossip Girl stories actually ended their run in 2007 with the graduation of the Billard School girls. Since then, von Ziegesar has penned the aforementioned prequel It Had to Be You, worked on the forthcoming and highly anticipated Cum Laude — and, just a couple of weeks ago, published a new novel that revisits the core characters of GG’s milieu.
Entitled I Will Always Love You, the book picks up several months after the original series left off — and follows Blair, Serena and company as they reunite during the next few years of holiday-season homecomings, complete with the requisite “makeups, shakeups, and breakups,” and even “a Christmas temptation to get the drama flowing.” This Saturday afternoon, November 21, the author visits Avenue/ Le Club at Pier Village on the Long Branch promenade for a discussion and signing; a 15-and-over event (1-3pm) during which a specialty selection of non-alcoholic drinks will be made available for younger fans.
It’s a presentation of NovelTeas Author Events, whose founder Kim Widener recently brought just-named National Book Award winner Colum McCann to Red Bank’s Two River Theater (and who’s currently busying herself with the imminent opening of her own nearby tea/ books/ performance venue) — and, as an added bonus, the program will feature live acoustic music by another artist profiled previously in oRBit, Island/ Def Jam singer-songwriter (and Fair Haven native) Laura Warshauer.
Guys like your Red Bank oRBit correspondent don’t usually get to talk to girls like Cecily — leastwise not back in high school — but when we rang up this alumna of Upper East Side prep schools we found her to be an entirely well adjusted, engagingly down to earth conversationalist, not at all the Queen Bee wannabe or It Girl emeritus. We root for her in her new, post-Gossip endeavors, so Continue Reading to tag along.
Waldorf hysteria: Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Ed Westwick and their costars have made GOSSIP GIRL the closest thing to a flagship on the CW “notwork.”
RED BANK ORBIT: A lot of your local fans must be excited to get a chance at meeting the creator of GOSSIP GIRL here in their backyard. How did this Jersey Shore appearance come about? Are you familiar with our neck of Monmouth County?
CECILY VON ZIEGESAR: My stepmother lives nearby in Sea Bright, so I was kind of familiar with the area you’re in — she had gone to one or two of the earlier events and met the woman who promotes them, and she asked if I’d be interested in doing one. Kim later met me at another event, and I thought it’d be fun to do.
What’s interesting is that the event is taking place in a restaurant/nightclub sort of setting — although your teenage fans will be able to get into the restaurant.
Really? I was under the impression that it was going to be in more of a mall sort of setting — but it is taking place at one in the afternoon, so I can’t imagine it’d be too much of a bar-type crowd at that hour!
Would you say that this speaks to your having a readership that’s expanded beyond the “young adult” market that you originally aimed the series at?
It’s because of the TV show — there’s a much wider interest, a wider demographic that’s picked up on the books, and you can see it at the personal appearances; it runs both younger and older. There are 11- year olds who are interested in the books and the show, and a lot of grown women as well. What’s happening now is that when the young girls are done reading the books, their moms pick them up and read them.
So would you say that, beyond the cultural references and the signifiers of 21st century life, your stories strike a chord with anyone who survived high school? You know, the sheer drama of the teen years; the need to form cliques and to dish on anyone who’s outside of that circle?
Not much has changed, as far as the way that people behave — it’s technology that’s changed. To give you a good example, I was at a party in London for the Tatlermagazine, where they were celebrating their 300th birthday. Can you believe that? The magazine started in 1709! So there was an appetite for that sort of thing, as far back as anyone can recall.
How would GOSSIP GIRL have fared 300 years ago? Would the whole thing even have been possible in an age of quill pens and sealing wax?
I graduated high school in the late 80s, and I didn’t have email at that time — it’s the way we communicate now that’s made the series possible. The way that Gossip Girl communicates is through the anonymous blog, and I don’t think I would have been able to do much of what I’ve done in these stories without that sort of device.
I was interested in how you developed the series while you were working for a company that packaged series concepts to publishers — specifically, how you were able to maintain control over your creation, rather than the company taking it away from you as a work-for-hire sort of deal.
I developed Gossip Girl as part of my job as an editor, so the publisher owns the copyright on it. But when we sold the concept it was based on my proposal — I sketched out the characters, drew up an outline of the story, and gave them a sample of a completed chapter. What made it a happy story is that Little, Brown wanted it, but only if I wrote it — I had to get myself an agent to negotiate with them, but it worked out so that I split the profits with the company. Which is not a bad story at all.
Now, from what I understand the series has officially concluded, and that the book you’re promoting here, I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU, is an epilogue of sorts; a reunion of the main characters?
The series, as everyone knows it, is eleven books — each of them spanning about one to three weeks in the lives of the characters. Basically, the series is the senior year of high school, so that year ended with graduation in the last book of the regular series.
I Will Always Love You is a follow-up to the main series, and it’s also different in that it spans about four years in the characters’ lives — it covers the time in which they’re going to college, and it’s centered around the holidays, when they all get back together and see each other over New Years. For me, it’s a very satisfying book.
So is there an effort here to take these characters even further into the future, as everybody — both the characters and your original readers — grow up and mature?
The first book came out in 2002, so my original readers, assuming they were about 14 or 15 at the time, are now in college. As for everyone becoming more mature, well — at that age they’re still finding themselves; repeating old mistakes and reverting to old habits. At that point in your life, you get to thinking you’re that much older, and then you find yourself regressing a lot of times.
I have a new book coming out soon, early next year, called Cum Laude, which is through a different publisher, aimed at a different readership, older than the Gossip Girl books. It’s intended as a stand-alone story, although I’m working on the next one now — I have a two-book deal with Hyperion.
How far afield have you been traveling from your home in New York? With the TV show picking up fans, have you stepped up the personal appearances?
I actually haven’t traveled much within the U.S. to promote the books — the publisher hasn’t really sent me out on the road on a cross-country tour. Part of that may be because teens don’t necessarily go to book events. Another factor is that I have two young children; my kids are five and seven — my seven year old is a big reader, but my five year old, being a boy, has been a little harder to get interested in books. If I do tour nowadays, it’s to visit foreign countries.
What are some of the foreign markets where you’ve gotten a big response?
My books are very popular in Brazil and in France — I’ve been to Rio, to Sweden, to Germany — but there’s not as great a response in Catholic countries!
What can your fans expect to see when you stop by the Shore on Saturday afternoon? And what do the coming months hold for you and the Gossip Girl gang?
I’m going to read a little something, not necessarily from the new book, but something to set the mood. Beyond that, I’ll do whatever anybody wants me to do! I’ve never had a plan; never approached any of this with a great strategy. We’ll see what the future holds when we get there!