By Tizzy Brown
Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win is about a high-powered tech executive who is fed up with how her tech company is ruining the world by eliminating jobs and turning humans into robots. Her plan for righting her wrongs? Running for political office in her home state of Pennsylvania (which has still never elected a female senator!). It’s a look at what happens when Charlotte moves her family across the country and uproots their lives in sacrifice to her campaign. As a community ever-concerned with the effects of burnout, the news cycle, and modern womanhood, it was a no-brainer to pick this book for our GNI Reads October book club pick. After reading, we sat down with author Jo Piazza for a deeper dive.
Writing and Career
Girls’ Night In was founded after the 2016 elections, when more and more women were feeling burnt out and unheard. Was this book your own reaction to the election?
100%. During the 2016 campaign I couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant to run for office as a woman, how different it was from running as a man, how much more challenging it was. I was a tabloid newspaper journalist back in 2007, remembered covering Hillary Clinton’s run for 2008. I remembered writing about scrunchies and pantyhose and eyeliner choices and feeling terrible about doing that but also being told it was what people wanted to read and to shut up and just write about the goddamned scrunchie already. Then for the 2016 race I watched as the most despicable language you can imagine was unfurled onto Hillary on social media and right to her face at rallies and I couldn’t stop thinking about what it felt like to be the real human being taking all of that in. That was the beginning of Charlotte. In the beginning the book was going to be much more of a satire of how the world treated women candidates. I’d just finished writing two satirical novels. Satire was easy for me.
And then the election happened and everything changed.
The world became a satire and suddenly I couldn’t write the easy book. I had to write the harder book, a character-driven narrative about what it is truly like to run as a woman in this country today.
I believe in the power of fiction to change people’s hearts and minds; nonfiction too, but fiction is a different beast. With fiction you don’t feel preached to. You can enjoy a story, let the characters unfold in your mind. That’s incredibly powerful. I wanted readers to have this ambitious and fascinating woman unfold in their heads in the hopes that we might start to view women candidates in a different way. I’m hoping that through Charlotte Walsh the book, and soon-to be TV show, we can make people fall in love with a woman candidate who might not have considered one before.
Charlotte Walsh came out after the 2018 election, but before the 2018 midterm elections, where we saw the highest number of women in American history run for office and win their elections. Did you think about Senator Charlotte Walsh on the night of the midterm election?
Since Charlotte came out I’ve gotten so many emails from women who told me that they either decided to run for office or to work on a campaign during the midterm elections because they were inspired by the book. How fucking incredible is that? That’s pretty much the greatest response I ever could have hoped for. We also decided not to do a traditional book tour for Charlotte. A part of me hates traditional book events. I don’t think anyone wants to see me stand up and read from my own book. I feel like such an asshole reading from my own book. So in each city I actually convened a panel of candidates and women political operatives to talk about the work they were doing and I kind of used Charlotte as a way into their stories, which I think made for a more exciting night for everyone involved.
For those two reasons I couldn’t help but think about Charlotte during the midterm election and of course I now think about her every day during this groundbreaking presidential race filled with women candidates.
While you wrote Charlotte Walsh on your own, you often work with writing partner Lucy Sykes. Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like to work with a partner and what it is like to not?
I did write two books with Lucy and I loved them. I’m actually in the middle of a new book with a second collaborator, Christine Pride. Christine was my editor on Charlotte Walsh for Simon and Schuster. We became very close and conceived of this new novel idea together. It’s a book that neither of us felt comfortable writing on our own because we wanted it to truly represent two very different points of view and backgrounds. The novel is about a black woman and a white woman who are childhood best friends. The black woman is a television newscaster and the white woman is married to a cop. The book tells the story of what happens to their friendship when the black woman needs to cover the story of the white woman’s husband shooting and killing an unarmed teenager. Christine and I have had some incredible conversations about race and friendship over the past couple of years and we wanted to find a way to get those on the page in a work of commercial fiction that might help people start their own conversations.
I think collaborating on books can be a really powerful thing, especially when you have two people with incredibly different viewpoints and backgrounds. I think it takes a lot of ego out of the writing process. But I am also the first person to tell you it is really fucking hard. Writing is a vulnerable process and doing it with another person is like inviting someone you aren’t having sex with to come and just watch you shower every day, just to stare at all your jiggly bits.
I compare the co-writing relationship to a marriage in a lot of ways. Some days you can’t stand one another and yet you still have to find a way to come back together at the end of the day because you have made this commitment to something larger than you as an individual. I think if you can get through the bad days you can create something incredibly beautiful.
You have a knack for looking at a particular subculture, often involving hyper-competitive women, and cutting through it with biting humor. Fitness Junkie looks at the boutique fitness scene in New York, The Knockoff is set in the offices of a fashion magazine, and Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win dives into political campaigning. How do you go about creating these vibrant worlds? I’m assuming you aren’t a workout-addicted fashion editing tech bitch running for Senate.
Shit. You’ve just unveiled my secret identity. Piazza 2022. Just as soon as I’ve finished breeding I’ll be announcing my candidacy and run on a platform of reducing the price of spin classes from $40 to $10 and free camel milk smoothies for everyone just as soon as I finish up my new app that helps you find the perfect pair of body shaping undergarments using only mirror butt selfies.
I’ve been told that my book subjects are completely all over the place. I’ve also written non-fiction books about nuns and marriage and celebrities. I’ve covered every journalism beat from public finance (muni bonds bitches!) to celebrity gossip, to politics and street crime in Camden, New Jersey. I actually have this journalism class that I’m dying to teach called Covering Women from Candidates to Kardashians to Catholic Nuns.
At the end of the day I think that I’ve found a home in writing about the modern experience of being a woman, whether that’s a tech bitch, a fitness junkie or a candidate. I truly enjoy trying to peel back the layers of those experiences.
In terms of the world-building I tend to approach fiction as a journalist. That’s what I’ve been working as for the past 20 years. It sounds crazy to say 20 years but it’s true. So I interview hundreds of people every time I write a novel to try to immerse myself in a world and see it from different viewpoints. For Charlotte I interviewed more than 200 women who had run for office or working on campaigns about their experiences. I like to let those real stories shape the stories and the dialogue because I think it ends up creating an honest portrait of these worlds.
In your books, you write characters with such screen-worthy details and story lines with such rich and salacious drama. Every time I finish one of your books, I want to know what happens next. Have you considered turning any of your standalone novels into series?
Absolutely. Charlotte is currently with Amazon and that should be a series soon. Fitness Junkie is currently optioned. The Knockoff is one I keep revisiting. I think the option is up on it so I do keep thinking about how to develop it on my own, especially as we see more and more women phased out of careers and forced to reinvent themselves because of technology. I’m also focusing on an ABC series for Committed, my podcast, right now. We’re in such a wonderful age of television that I am incredibly excited to start dabbling in it.
I think (hope!) we are allowed to acknowledge that you were the ghostwriter for Younger’s Marriage Vacation. (For our readers, Marriage Vacation is the novel at the center of a major plot line in TV Land’s series Younger.) What was it like to work on this very unusual project?
It was great. I did a second novel for the TV show this season, a steamy romance told from Charles’ point of view called The Miseducation of Henry Cane. I love Younger so much. People like to call it a guilty pleasure. I think it’s just a pleasure. The writing is sharp and quick and the women on the show are total badasses. I channel Diana Trout on a daily basis. It was a strange way of writing though because we wanted to have the books be able to stand alone if you didn’t watch the show but then also act as a companion for the plot so we worked closely with the network to make sure everything aligned. I also binged through the whole show twice before writing Marriage Vacation to get a feel for the characters and get them to live inside my head which was a magical thing to be able to do in the name of “work.”
To switch gears a bit, at GNI, we are all about self-care. How do you balance the demands of your writing and family life with your own personal self-care?
I’m a complete psycho about taking time out for myself and it’s something I couldn’t do if I didn’t have an incredibly supportive husband with a flexible work schedule. I’m militant about handing off our son to him so that I can go to a yoga class or go for a run or get a manicure or a massage. I’m so pregnant right now that it is mostly massages and manicures.
I work on so many different projects that people always say to me, “oh you must not sleep.” The opposite is true. I need so much sleep. I’m a nine-hour-a-night person. I’m terrible at falling asleep but I am in my bed before ten most nights and then still in it until at least seven the next morning.
I’m trying to be generally better at saying no to things. I get so excited that I want to say yes to all the things but I am well aware there needs to be a lot more nos.
As a writer, you must have great self-management skills. How do you make sure you are staying on track?
I’m a creature of habit. I know that writing is this muscle that you can’t neglect and so I have a pretty militant word count philosophy when I am in the pure writing stage of a book that varies between 1,000 and 4,000 words in a day depending on what it is I am writing and what the deadlines look like and I don’t let myself stray from that because I only get the ideas flowing if I make sure to visit the page every single day. I write fast and often commit myself to deadlines that are too short which is a blessing and a curse because I think that a book’s best friend is time. But it’s a blessing because I tend to write about things that are in the zeitgeist and being fast gets them out quickly.
What are some ways you deal with stress?
Screaming at my husband until he cries. I’m sort of joking. I’m bad at stress management. I have pretty bad anxiety most of the time that I try to work on with exercise, meditation and Zoloft. I love Zoloft. I don’t like being on it while I’m pregnant though so I’m more anxious when I’m pregnant due to the lack of Zoloft and the general anxiety of growing a human. Dealing with stress is a constant learning experience for me. I know the tools at my disposal to do it. It’s just a matter of using them.
Since I started out as a journalist I’ve lived and died by the news cycle. That started before social media which was indeed a better time to be a journalist. However, after we entered the 24/7 new cycle there was never a time I wasn’t plugged into the news. I slept clutching a Blackberry and then a Sidekick and then an iPhone for all of my twenties and early thirties. Until now.
Right after I turned in Charlotte Walsh I put myself on a news diet that I still follow today. I read a newspaper in print in the morning… I mix it up between the Times, NY Daily News, the Post, Philly Inquirer, WSJ if I’m feeling bold and smarter than usual. I’ll listen to a brief news radio update midday or at the end of the day and that’s about it. I like to call it living in 1994, the last year before the Internet was a part of everything we do. I don’t scroll Twitter for breaking news or watch cable news anymore and I have no push notifications on my phone or computer and I’m a lot less stressed out because of it. I’m also no less informed than I was before and I have very little news related anxiety.
I just finished The Testaments and loved this version of Aunt Lydia. She was everything I wanted her to be on the television show. I absolutely adored The Most Fun We Ever Had and I have Jia Tolentino’s book on my nightstand right now.
I just started Succession even though I know I’m late to the party and after the Emmys I decided to watch Fleabag Season 2 for a third time and you know what…. it just gets better EVERY SINGLE TIME. I’m having a baby like any day now and last time I was postpartum I re-watched the first two seasons of The West Wing while hibernating and it was a delight. In the current political climate, it’s like climbing into a warm pan of meatloaf. I might do that again this time around.
Favorite Instagram account you’re following right now?
I’m so basic with my Instagram love. Like everyone else I just love me some Jennifer Garner. Although I recently started following A LOT of momfluencer accounts. I’m working on a new podcast project about the momfluencer industrial complex and I’ve immersed myself in the world in a really intense way. So far it’s inspired me to decorate my entire bedroom in white things which is difficult because I am a messy person and I live with two other messy people so I imagine that it won’t last very long.
Go-to shopping guilty pleasure?
Doen dresses. They suck me in with their content marketing of beautifully lit profiles of women in peasant dresses running around barefoot carrying artfully disheveled toddlers and herding chickens. But to be honest their dresses work really well for my pregnant and then flabby postpartum body.They’re easy to dress up and dress down and they’re easily washable even if they are on the pricey side.