Gossip Girl

 

Writer Cecily Von Ziegesar has served up Manhattan teens; now she's eyeing college

By Mackenzie Dawson Parks '99
Photography by Mary Schwalm '99
 

When Cecily Von Ziegesar '92 was a teenager at Nightingale-Bamford, a private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side, she wasn't into the party scene.

image
Cecily Von Ziegesar '92, writer of best-selling novels for young adults, with her children, Agnes, 3, and Oscar, 1.
Photo by Mary Schwalm '99
Instead, she was riding horses competitively, participating in horse shows, and traveling frequently.

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'"I wasn't around most weekends, and I didn't know any guys," Von Ziegesar admitted with a laugh. "But I was friends with all the cool kids. I was part of the cool clique"but not completely a part of it, because I kept leaving. And then by senior year it seemed like I didn't really know anyone."

As it turns out, this distance served her well. It is, in part, her working knowledge of the nasty-nice world of teens that has made Von Ziegesar, 35, a big success. "I had close friends who were incredibly wealthy and got to be part of their world," she said. "We were well off, but not"well, let's put it this way. One of my friends would fly on the Concorde to Paris to get fitted by Yves Saint Laurent."

Von Ziegesar is the creator and writer of the Gossip Girl novels, a hugely popular series of books that has attracted a near-cult following amongst its loyal readers, namely teenage girls. Her books have sold over two million copies, according to her publishers, mainly through word of mouth, with two recent titles making their debut atop the New York Times children's bestseller list.

With titles like All I Want is Everything, You Know You Love Me, and Because I'm Worth It, the series depicts the not-always-glam life of privileged teenagers"think Sex and the City for the junior set. "These books are all about living vicariously," said Danica Lo, a New York Post reporter who writes about fashion and trends.

"They're for the aspiring queen bee in all of us. These are like the teenage years you wish you had"for those of us who barely made it out of our teenage years alive."

"Welcome to New York's Upper East Side," begins the first book's first entry. "Where my friends and I live and go to work and play and sleep, sometimes with each other. We all live in huge apartments with our own bedrooms and bathrooms and phone lines. We have unlimited access to money and booze and whatever else we want, and our parents are rarely home, so we have tons of privacy. We're smart, we've inherited classic good looks, we wear fantastic clothes, and we know how to party."

Even though most of the characters are wealthy and not exactly your average everyday teen, they deal with the same problems teens deal with nationwide. One character is grappling with bulimia, while another just can't seem to kick his pot habit. But part of what sets the series apart from other young-adult novels is the tone; there's no moralizing or preaching. For all the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, the characters all turn out okay in the end.

"It's completely unrealistic to have a group of kids who are constantly reforming or who are being punished because they're 'naughty,'" Von Ziegesar said. "And I always resented that quality in books I'd read. I was terrified that the grown-up world would be horrified by my books, but all the parents hug me because their girls are reading. I don't know what it is that redeems the characters, exactly, but deep down, they're still good kids. They're not selling drugs to their little sisters."

Von Ziegesar came up with the idea for the series five years ago, when she was working as an editor at a book production company called Alloy Entertainment. At Alloy, she said, editors were responsible for generating concepts for books, writing out the proposals, and pitching them to publishers. She wrote the proposal for what would become the Gossip Girl series, and the people at Little, Brown liked the way the proposal was written"so much that they asked her to write the books herself.

With the October publication of the eighth book in the series, Nothing Can Keep Us Together, Von Ziegesar is hanging up the Gossip Girl reins and heading in a new direction in her writing career. From now on, the byline on the continuing series will read, "Created by Cecily Von Ziegesar."

With two children under five, Von Ziegesar gets her writing done when she can, "They're out of the house from ten until three, so I write furiously during that time," she said.

She had considered writing about motherhood for her first non-Gossip Girl book, but she quickly dismissed
this idea, deciding she was too new to the maternity scene to write convincingly about it. "I think I'll be funnier about early motherhood five or ten years from now," she said.

Instead she's elected to focus her narrative on college.

Which means her book could feature one strangely familiar New England liberal arts college with a blue light inthe library tower. "I might visit Colby to refresh my memory," she said. "I don't think I could write about a college that isn't similar. I mean, that was my experience. I couldn't write about Columbia."