Saratoga Springs native’s debut novel a coming-of-age story at prep school hit by scandal

Emily Layden and "All Girls."
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Emily Layden and "All Girls."

Emily Layden, a Saratoga Springs native whose debut novel was recently released, comes from a family of wordsmiths. 

Her father, Joe Layden, has written more than 30 books. Her uncle, Tim Layden, is a prominent sports journalist for NBC and formerly for Sports Illustrated. Early on in their careers, both worked at The Daily Gazette and the Times Union. 

Growing up, Layden would often create stories with her cousin (Tim’s daughter), Kristen, who is a television writer. 

“We were little kids who were allowed to write plays and put them on for the family at holidays and on family vacations,” Layden said. “Storytelling and fantasy and imagination [were] actively encouraged in our family.” 

After graduating from Saratoga Springs High School in 2007, she went on to Stanford University and was an American Studies major, though she took several creative writing courses as well. She went on to teach at private schools like Hebron Academy in Maine, as well as several others, most recently Albany Academy. 

Those experiences, in part, helped to inform the setting of “All Girls,” which takes place at Atwater, a fictional prestigious New England preparatory school. The novel, which was released earlier this month, follows nine young women as they navigate through their relationships and ambitions against the backdrop of a sexual misconduct scandal the school administration wants to keep quiet. 

Here, Layden discusses the novel and why she wanted to pay homage to the experience of being a teenage girl.  

Q: Were you teaching at the time that you wrote this book? 
A: I was. So I would get up and write for an hour at 5 a.m. every morning before going to teach. I think for me it was just the only way it was going to get done. I equally admire someone who could have sat down for six hours on Saturday and Sunday and written the whole book that way. I think I work better in a methodical, disciplined way.  

Q: What were some of the challenges that you had in either outlining the story or in writing it? 
A: I think a challenge for any young or new writer is really just believing in yourself. It’s a hard thing. It feels very private and very vulnerable to give so much of yourself to your art and without really knowing if it’s legitimate or if it counts or if you are a “real writer.” Getting up every day and making a choice to see this endeavor as purposeful without knowing what was going to come of it . . . I think that’s the hardest part.

Q: Why did you want to take on a #MeToo topic, though the book does take place before the movement went viral?
A: I set out to write a book that honored teenage girlhood in all its depth and capacity. I think that teenage girls are really remarkable and capable of tremendous empathy in a way that we don’t often give them credit for, and I wanted to give them voice and power and just the experience of being seen on my pages.
I think that unfortunately, a lot of the questions raised in my novel about power and consent and bodies and agency, are questions that are intrinsic to coming of age as a young woman today. So I think a book about teenage girlhood that left out some of these questions would just be sort of incomplete.

Q: It’s interesting that you have so many narrators that we’re seeing the story play out through. What made you want to include such a diverse cast? 
A: It’s funny, I get asked this question all the time and the truth is that I never saw it any other way. I never imagined this book as a single protagonist story because really from the beginning there were just too many experiences that I wanted to share and it seemed unreasonable and unrealistic to burden a single character with all that I wanted to say. I think the second part of that is that one of the things I’m trying to do in this book is depict a community, not just a single person. . . I like that sense of the world or the place being as much a character as the humans.

Q: As far as the setting goes, was there one school or teaching experience that influenced it the most?
A: Honestly, no. The Atwater that’s in my mind is distinct and specific. I have a little drawing of it on a legal pad that I made back when I was outlining it. It is certainly informed by not just my time at prep school but growing up in the northeast in New England, where . . . you can throw a stone to the nearest prep school. So I do have a sense of what these places look and feel like. But I made my own world.

Q: When you were finished writing it, did you have any of your family members read it?
A: The thing I’ve learned since the book has been out in the world officially in the past week is that it’s so much easier to share your work with strangers than it is to share with your family. I had really underestimated that.
My cousin, Kristen, has always been a reader and collaborator of mine. She and her partner, who is also a writer, read drafts of this novel on the way.

Q: What was the publishing process like?
A: I went the traditional querying route. You just cold email a bunch of agents with your pitch and sometimes with sample pages depending on what their preference is. Then, you wait to hear back and they might ask for more pages. They might ask for the whole thing. You might get a rejection. I got my agent, Lisa Grubka at Fletcher and Company, through that process. I’m so glad I did. Then I worked with her, maybe for about six weeks or so on a round of revisions and then she sold the book to St. Martin’s in 24 hours. I’m very lucky that it worked out in that way.

Q: Are you working on any other projects or even a follow-up to this one?
A: I am not working on a sequel to “All Girls” right now but I am working on a couple of other novels. One is sort of a multi-generational family narrative, like in the vein of [Celeste Ng’s] “Everything I Never Told You.” Another is a book that is really about exploring female ambition, still a novel, but that’s thematically where I am.

Q: Now that you’re a full-time writer, how has your writing schedule changed?
A: It’s such a funny question because everybody’s schedule is different from how it normally would be right now. I think in a lot of ways I was more productive when I was also teaching. The reality of a time crunch imposes a certain focus. But I think that what I try to do and what is important to do is to show up for the work almost every day.
I’m a runner and rest days are important as a runner. You can’t or you shouldn’t run every day especially if you’re injury-prone. You have to give your body time to recover. I try to make sure that I take a day off or sometimes even take a whole weekend off from the work to give myself space from it and perspective.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from “All Girls”?
A: I think that in so many ways teenage girls drive our discourse and shape our culture. They tell us what’s cool, what music to listen to, what to wear, but are really rarely given the credit for their full personhood. I hope that this book just reminds its readers that girls are whole, complex, compelling humans.

Q: Anything else you want people to know about it?
A: A poem by Emily Dickinson functions as the book’s epigraph and . . . people tend to feel overwhelmed maybe by Dickinson like she’s too obtuse. And I would just encourage people to come back to that epigraph after they’ve read the book. I would advise anyone reading any book with an epigraph to revisit that opening statement after they’ve finished because I think it unlocks itself after you’ve had the experience of reading the novel.

This Q & A was lightly edited for clarity. “All Girls” is published by St. Martin’s Press and is available at local bookstores and online. For more information visit emilylayden.com.

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