Thursday, September 19, 2002

Women rage on the page about sex, work, marriage

By Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY

As those push-up bras melted in the flames of feminist fury of the '70s, it is probable that the movement's leaders did not expect women in 2002 to be publishing books such as The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, edited by Cathi Hanauer (Morrow, $23.95).

Before any feminists stab themselves in the heart with a stiffened underwire, Hanauer, 39, makes it clear that this is not a variation on The Surrendered Wife or a man-trapping manual like The Rules. Rather, the writer, editor and mother of two in Northampton, Mass., wanted to explore the reality of modern women, some of whom are trying to juggle kids, careers, housework and husbands. Others are trying to find love amid society's conflicting messages about money, sex and matrimony.

The Bitch in the House is one of a number of upcoming books that tap into contemporary women's exhaustion and exasperation. There is one connecting element: the kind of rage and guilt that turns a woman into, well, a bitch. "All my friends will admit, 'I feel like such a bitch,' " Hanauer says.

The title is a variation on Virginia Woolf's famous phrase, "the Angel in the House." Hanauer describes her own self-sacrificing mother as an "angel." The wife of a doctor, she raised four children and headed the PTA. But her daughter "needed something more."

Hanauer assembled 26 writers, ages 24 to 66. Among them:

Chitra Divakaruni, the award-winning author of the novel The Mistress of Spices. Living in San Francisco, she receives visits from hordes of relatives from India who expect the guilt-stricken writer to turn into the all-giving hostess, despite having a career and no servants. Guilt rules.
Hope Edelman, author of the non-fiction best seller Motherless Daughters. Edelman writes about the near-collapse of her marriage after her husband decides to start his own company and shared parenting goes out the window. Fury enters.
Veronica Chambers, author of the memoir Mama's Girl. Chambers describes how a struggling artist ex-boyfriend encroached on her life, her apartment and, most of all, her wallet. Yet because he was so different from her violent father, she put up with it — including paying for their vacations and food. Resentment boils.
Ellen Gilchrist, Pulitzer Prize winner Natalie Angier and novelist Kate Christensen also contribute stories. Elissa Schappell describes how she screams at her children when they misbehave.

This is not the first time a book has used the word in the title: Elizabeth Wurtzel, for example, released a book called Bitch in 1998. Hanauer recognizes that certain booksellers and others will be disturbed by it. She compares the title to Randall Kennedy's best seller, Nigger. Women can use the word "bitch," but hearing men use it is different. But the rage so many women suppress should be explored.

"It needed to be said," Hanauer says. "It makes women feel less angry to know other women feel the same."


Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Nanny Diarists, Maids No More, Dismiss Agents
by Rebecca Traister

When the novel The Nanny Diaries became a surprise hit last spring, its authors, former nannies Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, were catapulted from haute servitude on the Upper East Side to the best-seller lists, the talk-show circuit and a Miramax movie deal. But has their triumph only opened up the doors of discontent for the pair?" The authors are now on their thirdliterary agent, andsources familiar with their business dealings saidMs.Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin are unhappy about the details of the movie deal they signed before their book hit it big.

Last week,Ms. McLaughlin, 28, and Ms. Kraus, 27, informed their literary agent, Molly Friedrich of the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency, that they would be signing with William Morris agent Suzanne Gluck. The move comes less than two years after the pair, who have sold 800,000 copies of their book, fired their first agent, Christy Fletcher of Carlisle & Company, for Ms. Friedrich.

It was Ms. Fletcher who originally sold The Nanny Diaries to St. Martin’s Press in the summer of 2000, after suggesting to Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin, who had met as N.Y.U. students, that their idea for a joint memoir of their days as nannies to prominent New York families would be better—and legally safer—as a novel. Ms. Fletcher shopped a partial manuscript to publishers. She was turned away by many who deemed the novel too New York–y, until Jennifer Weis at St. Martin’s bought the book for an advance of $25,000. Ms. Fletcher later sold British rights for around $125,000, audio rights for $25,000 (with Julia Roberts doing the reading), and film rights—which Miramax bought in May 2001—for $500,000, plus best-seller bonuses that will ultimately total over $1 million.

During the process of completing the manuscript for St. Martin’s, Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin became dissatisfied with the way the book was being handled. One publishing-industry source said that the women heard negative things on the New York party circuit about St. Martin’s, a respectable press—and one often willing to take a chance on unconventional first books by unknown authors—but a publisher that lacks the cachet of a Knopf or Penguin Putnam. Another source said that, anxious to meet their initial publication date, the authors became frustrated with Jennifer Weis’ slow editorial pace. Ms. McLaughlin, reached by phone, said that she couldn’t comment on the situation, and Ms. Kraus could not be reached for this story.

"These are very ambitious girls, and they were worried about the house and their editor. They were afraid that the book was going to get lost, and they just panicked," said one source familiar with the situation. Ms. Weis, who did not return phone calls for comment, took a maternity leave during the publishing process. Ms. Fletcher got married and took several weeks off for her honeymoon. When she returned in April 2001, she received a letter informing her of Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin’s intention to make Molly Friedrich their new agent.

Even after she lost Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus as clients, however, Ms. Fletcher retained her rights to 15 percent of all future grosses of The Nanny Diaries, as well as her stake in the film, audio and foreign editions of the book. Ms. Freidrich’s position is not quite as fortunate: The authors’ second agent—who helped them navigate the final stages of publication, including book design and final edits—may be left high and dry by the departure of Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin. One source close to Ms. Friedrich confirmed that since Ms. Friedrich didn’t sell The Nanny Diaries or the pair’s (still unsold) second book—and since she prefers handshake deals to binding contracts—she probably won’t receive any future sale or royalties money from either book.

Ms. Friedrich, who represents authors like Frank McCourt, Sue Grafton and Terry McMillan, wouldn’t comment, but through an associate, Lucy Childs, issued this statement: "Refer to the acknowledgements at the back of Nanny Diaries and we have no further comment." The acknowledgments open by thanking "Molly Friedrich and Lucy Childs … for their unflagging support—should Nanny ever have to go head-to-head with Mrs. X, these are the women we’d want behind her!"

Reached by phone, Ms. Fletcher seemed to have no hard feelings about her former clients. "Suzanne Gluck is the perfect agent for Emma and Nicky," she said. "Given their interests in the entertainment industry, it makes perfect sense for them to be at William Morris."

Ms. Friedrich put a great deal of time into developing the pair’s second book, which is about a girl named "Girl" who begins a job at a dot-com. Any deals for that book will now be cut by Ms. Gluck.

Ms. Gluck refused to comment for this story.

Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin’s disillusionment with the film contract they signed appears to be substantial. Sources involved in the negotiations said that Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin were distressed to learn that in signing initial binding short-form agreements with Miramax, they had signed away rights to their characters, not just to the novel. They were also upset that Miramax would have the right to turn the story into a television property. But The Nanny Diaries had already hit the best-seller list, and Miramax was sitting on a potential gold mine.

Asked whether Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin suffered from a nagging sense that they could’ve gotten a better film deal, a source familiar with the deal said that a loss of creative cinematic control, not money, was the root of the authors’ concerns.

According to sources involved in the film’s development, the authors also requested that they be let out of the standard confidentiality clause that would prevent them from talking about their experiences with Miramax. Sources said that the authors were hoping to turn the story into a Spalding Gray–type show about Miramax. Some of the long-form contracts are still unsigned by the authors, although this will have no impact on Miramax’s plans to make the film. Jennifer Wachtell, Miramax’s vice president for creative affairs, said that "it’s not unusual to take some time to finalize a deal."

Ms. Wachtell said, "The project is in development and we’re having nothing but a great experience," adding that "it’s very difficult for anyone, especially two young women, to be thrust into this kind of spotlight very quickly. The scrutiny is difficult for anyone. But we’ve been having fun."

One publishing-industry source said that Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin’s new creative ambitions are one of the byproducts of the critical success of The Nanny Diaries, and that the women now consider themselves literary writers. Since the book’s publication, the pair have been writing short stories for women’s magazines. Susan Kittenplan, the executive editor of Allure, said that she had nothing but warm feelings for the pair, who published a short story in the magazine’s August issue: "I had a great experience with them. Particularly for best-seller writers, they were incredibly professional and enthusiastic." But another editor who knows them said that "they obviously were thinking of themselves as doing pieces for The New Yorker more than they were thinking of themselves as writing for Cosmopolitan."

While it’s not unusual for authors who have hit it big to "trade up" their agents, editors or publishing houses, the way Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin have replaced agents bears some resemblance to the way that their book’s antagonist, the spoiled and unhappy Mrs. X, tears through child-care help. Several sources speculated that though The Nanny Diaries is acid-tongued about chilly Upper East Side wealth, Ms. Kraus and Ms. McLaughlin could reasonably expect to become a part of the very world they’ve skewered. Both are from comfortable backgrounds: Ms. McLaughlin grew up in Rochester, N.Y., the daughter of a college professor and landscape designer while Ms. Kraus, whose parents own a bookstore on the Upper East Side, grew up in Manhattan and went to Chapin. The authors have contractual deals for hair and makeup at every public appearance, and they have developed a fondness for writing little notes—à la Mrs. X—on their own Nanny Diaries stationery.

One person who met the women said, "They both used the word ‘lovely’ about a million times. It was like having Gwyneth robots trying to kill you." The fundamental irony about the authors and their book may be that in the guise of a cautionary morality tale about the wretched excess of New York’s social elite, they wound up writing a paean to that world and the women who inhabit it.

"It’s a little like Toby Young skewering [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter, when you know that he thinks Graydon walks on water," said one source. "There’s a reason that they were able to write the book that they did. A Dominican nanny would not have been able to do it. By writing it, they’re establishing that they are a part of that world. They are not the nannies, but the mother in this book.

This column ran on page 1 in the 9/23/2002 edition of The New York Observer.

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