Ten years ago, Jessica Knoll was barely making ends meet, holding a series of low-paid internships and assistant jobs. “I couldn’t afford to take the subway home from work,” she says.
Eventually, her luck changed, and she landed a position at a magazine—and quickly rose through the ranks. Despite her demanding job, she knew she had a book in her, and squeezed in time in the mornings and on weekends for her passion project.
Now, her hard work has paid off—literally. Not only was her first book, “Luckiest Girl Alive,” the best-selling debut of 2015, but Reese Witherspoon is producing the movie adaptation, for which Knoll wrote the script. Her latest read, “The Favorite Sister,” debuts May 15, and she’s already in negotiations for a TV series.
We talked to the literary star about the upside of keeping up with the Joneses, what it’ll take to close the gender wealth gap—and her brazen desire to be rich.
The main character in “The Luckiest Girl Alive” comes from a middle class background and struggles to fit in with her prep school classmates, and later in the glossy magazine world. What advice do you have for those who feel pressured to project affluence?
A lot of [the character’s] experiences are inspired by my own life. I went to a prestigious school where a lot of kids were from distinguished, old money families; my family was not like that. But my classmates were very hardworking… and the competitive environment was like a boot camp. I rose to the challenge.
In some ways, I think it’s a good thing to feel like I have to catch up because it keeps me working toward a goal. Maybe [being satisfied with what I have] is a happier existence. But I feel a drive to constantly prove myself, and that has gotten me to where I am today.
There was a bidding war for “Luckiest Girl Alive,” and you ended up with a sizable advance. What did that feel like, and what did you do with the money?
It was extraordinary. I was knocked off my feet. That being said, it’s not like you win the lottery and are presented with a life-sized check. It is paid in installments, and taxes come out. It took a while to start earning royalties, so there was a little bit of catch-up before enough money started showing up in my account to make a difference. If anything, it drove me to strive for even more with my next book.
My husband and I moved to a bigger apartment with more amenities in a nicer, quieter area. We broke it down and could afford it, but were still worried it was too much. In the end, we went for it because feeling comfortable in your home goes a long way toward boosting your happiness.
Did you glean any negotiation tips through the process of getting a book deal and optioning the movie rights?
I thought we might be asking for too much money, but my agent assured me it was the standard amount. [She told me male authors] are always like, ‘Let’s get more than that.’ It taught me to be comfortable with asking.
Six months before your first book came out, you quit your magazine job to become a full-time novelist. Were you scared to take that leap of faith?
When I got my book deal, my first thought was, I’m not going to be the short-sighted idiot who gets a fabulous advance, quits her job and says [screw] everything. I was very much like, I need to keep my job and be absolutely sure I can make this a sustainable career path.
As I got closer to the book coming out, I started seriously thinking about leaving my post because asking other publications for coverage would be a conflict of interest. I wanted to be a free agent to promote the book and take advantage of every opportunity.
You recently penned a controversial essay for the Times, “I Want to Be Rich and I'm Not Sorry.” What inspired you to write this piece?
It’s taboo for a woman to say she likes money and wants to make money. Women are too polite, and the only way we break out of that is to be more impolite in our daily lives. [Wanting to be rich] is something I feel, but was too afraid to say—so [I decided] I was just going to say it.
I knew some people would have a strong reaction. But I believe we need to hear more women being like this. I looked at the way people reacted to Ellen Pompeo’s interview [talking about being TV’s highest-paid actress]. I thought she would get so many trolls, but on social media everybody said it was the most galvanizing thing they’d ever read. I looked at that response and saw a real culture shift happening.
What conscious choices have you made to help maximize your earnings?
I wanted to make my book visible, so I’m extremely involved with the publicity process. I write personal notes to everybody I send the book to—celebrities and influencers who will hopefully read it, love it and support it on social media. I hate calling on connections I’ve made, but I force myself to because you’re not going to get anything if you don’t ask.
I also wanted to write a book that would be received well in the marketplace. When I wrote ‘Luckiest Girl Alive,’ the ‘domestic thrillers’ genre was having a moment, [as were] female protagonists who were barbed, dark and mean. I had this rage in me tied to [a sexual assault] I had never gotten help for, so I had that voice already.
As you mentioned in your essay, less than 12 percent of the world’s billionaires are women, and most inherited their fortunes. What do you think it will take to close the wealth gap?
There isn’t one simple thing, but starting young with the messaging we give girls is a part of it. Even looking around at a lot of ambitious women I know, I can see the remnants of being raised to believe you’ll only go so far, whereas boys see the world as their oyster. We have to make people aware of these unconscious biases and stop ourselves before we say something that promotes them.
What money lessons did you learn growing up?
Financial planning was never talked about when I was younger. The idea was that you should work hard and support yourself, but how much of each paycheck should go into X account and how much [to spend] were not tools ever given to me. I hope that as our idea of how to raise girls evolves, this becomes a part of [what] we’re given in school and by our parents.
What was the best financial advice you got, and from who?
I can’t answer that because I don’t feel like I was given financial advice as I was growing up, and that’s part of the problem.
What do you consider your best investment?
My therapy. I wanted to go to therapy for a long time but could never afford it. As I started to do better for myself, I still was hesitant because it was such a cost, but within a month of making the decision to see a therapist once a week, I couldn’t believe I had ever doubted that it would be a smart decision.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.