From the Main Line to Hollywood, a Q&A with Luckiest Girl Alive’s Jessica Knoll
The Shipley-educated author talks the recent Netflix film adaptation and the sexual trauma that inspired her best-selling novel.
In 2015, Shipley alum Jessica Knoll released her debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, which went on to sell well over one million copies and this fall became a movie on Netflix starring Mila Kunis. One year after the book hit shelves, she revealed in a painful essay that the gang rape at the center of her work of fiction was part of her own life experience and came at the hands of Shipley students. Here, she tells her story.
Hi, Jessica. I’m in Philly, where it’s cold, damp and downright dreary. You’re in L.A., where I’m guessing it’s gorgeous.
It is! But actually, the seasons are what I miss most about Philly. And the history. That’s something you don’t get in Los Angeles. Everything is much newer, and when you talk about places that have history, you’re usually referring to the Italian restaurant that has been around since the 1950s. Oh, and how much I miss going to Rita’s for water ice on a warm spring day!
Is water ice not a thing in L.A.?
I don’t think so? I mean, there could be something here that resembles it, but not that I’ve seen. And I’m pretty sure if you ask somebody about water ice out here, they’ll say, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Right. Water. Ice. They’d be like, “That’s oxymoronic.”
Many expats still describe themselves as Philadelphians. Do you?
I feel very uprooted, like I don’t have any kind of home base at all. We lived in Chester Springs. I went to school on the Main Line. But then in my junior year of college, my parents moved to Charlotte, and that sort of split everybody up. We actually host Thanksgiving in L.A. because Charlotte is not really home, either. The last time I was back in Philly was for my first book tour, in 2015. It’s been too long!
Why no Philly stop for Luckiest Girl Alive‘s follow-up book, The Favorite Sister, in 2018?
Um, I just abide by what the publisher tells me to do. They tell me, “This city will be good for you,” and I just listen.
So basically, Jessica, what you’re saying is, you dissed Philly.
[Laughs] Spoken like a true Philadelphian!
Chester Springs was quite rural when you grew up there. I wonder if you would recognize it today.
When we lived there, it was very rural horse country. So many very old homes. We didn’t live in an old home. We lived in one of those new-build neighborhoods, and the old residents loathed us. I imagine there are just more and more of those new developments.
So you lived in Chester Springs but went to high school at Shipley. That seems … inconvenient.
Well, yes, it was quite a trek to get there. My father would take me to the train station in Paoli, and I would take the R5 to Bryn Mawr. I loved that ride so much, stopping at each little town on the Main Line, people-watching.
Considering the distance, how did you even wind up at Shipley?
I did kindergarten through eighth grade at Villa Maria, the all-girls Catholic school in Malvern. They were very strict, and in the ’90s, I went through my version of a goth phase. I was always at Hot Topic in the King of Prussia mall, and I would Manic Panic my hair purple. I was constantly getting in trouble at Villa Maria. My parents knew about Shipley’s reputation, and I did so well on the written portion of their entrance test that they opened up a spot for me. Shipley really prepared me for college. I got to college and was like, this is so easy, while everybody else around me was complaining how hard it was. I obviously went through very difficult personal things at Shipley, but it did have its good points.
Obviously, we need to talk about those difficult personal things, if that’s okay with you. But I am curious where your knack for writing came from.
My grandmother self-published books starting when she was in her 60s. She was a very staunch Catholic and would write these gothic bodice-rippers — the woman fleeing the castle in the middle of the night — but there was no sex, of course. I was drawn to it from an early age. I have a very clear memory of being in fifth grade and using the word “twirl” in such a way that my teacher said I had a way with words. And from there, I got so much encouragement. My girlfriend and I resurfaced the school newspaper, which we called the Villadelphia Inquirer.
Oh my God.
Yeah. [laughs] And then in high school, I would win writing competitions. And Shipley had this $3,000 writing-program stipend that you had to use for travel, and I used that money to go to Europe for the first time. And there was a writing scholarship at college. So I learned at a young age that there was money in writing.
When I wrote the book, I remember thinking that I would put these events into a work of fiction and then let the reader decide if what happened to me was really rape. I didn’t even care if they gave the book a bad rating so long as they acknowledged the rape.”
I’m fascinated by people who decide to write fiction, because it’s something I feel like I just don’t have in me. How did you go down this path?
There wasn’t a moment where I decided to do it. There were many factors. I started writing Luckiest Girl Alive while I was at Cosmo as a writer and editor, and both my boss and the editor in chief at the time were novelists. We would get tons of books sent to us by publishers, and one day, Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places showed up. I devoured it in one weekend. Then her Sharp Objects. Then, of course, she released Gone Girl, which absolutely exploded. Everyone was talking about it. And I had my own story to tell, but I was scared to tell it as nonfiction, because when I tried to talk about what happened to me when it happened, it was very clearly dismissed. People didn’t want to hear it. But I was told that if I could embed parts of myself that are real into a fictional story, it would protect you and keep you safe.
For the sake of the Philly Mag reader who hasn’t read or seen Luckiest Girl Alive, I’ll summarize by saying that you revealed one year after Luckiest Girl Alive came out that the gang rape in the novel is something that actually happened to you when you were 15. There was a party, you got drunk, and three boys from Shipley raped you. The doctor you went to for the morning-after pill refused to acknowledge that you were raped. The girls in your class found out and called you a slut. Can you address the stigma of being a rape victim?
Well, that’s the thing, Victor. That’s the problem. I don’t think anyone considered me a rape victim back then. You’re only a rape victim if you’re walking down the street and attacked by a stranger wearing a mask. People struggle to recognize the experience you had if the assailant is someone you know, a member of the community, someone you flirted with, if you were drinking.
You mentioned recently on social media that a man in the publishing industry told you in 2015 that Luckiest Girl Alive would never sell. Who was that?
I was at a sort of speed-dating event between authors and booksellers. He asked me to categorize the book: Is it a romance? A mystery? A thriller? Well, it was all of those things. I couldn’t categorize it, and — this is true with the movie as well — that makes the decision-makers very nervous, because they don’t know how to market it. In the industry, they call it a “feathered fish,” because it’s not just one thing. All I know is, I am very proud that we crossed the million-marker in sales, and that was in 2019. I don’t know how many have sold since then and most recently, with the movie now out.
Do you know if your rapists are aware that you essentially wrote about them?
I would think they must be.
I hate to think this, but is it possible that they don’t think they raped you? That this was just your average Friday night for them?
Oh. The Brett Kavanaugh thing. I personally believe his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. But I also believe that this was just an average Saturday night to him and that he truly retains no memory of it. But in my case, this was a big thing. Everybody knew about it. Everybody talked about it. But whether they are aware of it or not isn’t important. The work I have put into processing this and just kind of finding my voice again … I don’t wonder about that as much as people think I might or as much as I once thought I would if I had some sort of flash into the future.
Do you get tired of people asking you about rape?
Yeah. [laughs] But I have to say, your questions are much better than most of the ones I get.
That’s nice of you to say. What do you wish people asked you about that they never ask you about?
Hmmm. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I feel like a musician who had a big hit album years ago, then they develop and release new music, and when people go see them in concert, they want to hear all those old hits. The artist doesn’t want to play the old songs, but that’s what the people want to hear. So that’s kind of how I feel about Luckiest Girl Alive. To date, it’s the biggest thing I’ve done in my career. I’m grateful it’s being read on the scale that it is, and I love that people connect with it, but it is hard sometimes.
Right, your follow-up wasn’t a big hit. But now I understand you’re working on a third book?
Yes! It’s a fictional re-imagining of a true crime that occurred in the 1970s in Florida and Seattle.
Ooh, true crime. Sounds like a movie to me.
Actually, we’re in talks for a TV show.
I look forward to watching. Jessica, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to get back to your public revelation. Before you came out with what happened to you, was it something you talked about with friends and family? Or did you keep it very private?
It’s funny. When I would meet people, it was like almost one of the first things I would tell them about me. I thought about this every waking second of the day. And I was so angry before I wrote the book that telling people was my way to have control over the narrative at any time. I would meet a new guy or a new friend, and I would tell them: You need to know this about me. Oddly, I did not tell Simon & Schuster, my publisher.
What was your motivation for going public?
I finally felt like I would be supported. When I wrote the book, I remember thinking that I would put these events into a work of fiction and then let the reader decide if what happened to me was really rape. I wanted to hear people use that word when talking about that chapter of the book. I would look at Goodreads or on Amazon, and Susie from Ohio would be talking about the book and how she was raped. She would use that word. And I would see the word rape over and over again. I didn’t even care if they gave the book a bad rating, so long as they acknowledged the rape. And I would go to events throughout the year after the book was first released, and women would approach me and ask, “How did you write this scene? It’s so realistic.” I knew they were hoping to hear me say something that turned it into, like, an actual MeToo moment, but I always froze up. But over that year, I collected myself and built my confidence to the point where I could come forward and I wouldn’t be shamed or not believed, like in high school.
Is vengeance something that still occupies your mind?
My revenge has always been that I wanted these people to look at me and be like, “Oh, she’s someone now” and regret the day they treated me this way. I actually have had more vengeance directed at the girls who were so nasty to me in the wake of the assault. Something about that almost hurt more. It’s the opposite of what you hope for or expect. I understand why and how women get pitted against each other, and I haven’t always had every woman’s back in my life, so I totally get it. But it still hurts.
I actually have had more vengeance directed at the girls who were so nasty to me in the wake of the assault. Something about that hurt more.”
Unlike many authors who sell the rights to their books and then walk away, you were very involved. Screenwriter. Executive producer. Why?
I’m a control freak. [laughs] They needed a screenwriter, so why not me? It would take too long if they had to find another writer. And I was on the set every day that we filmed and very involved with post-production. I was on all of the calls with Netflix.
And the casting decision of Mila Kunis and Chiara Aurelia as adult you and teenage you, respectively?
Now, now. They aren’t playing me.
Sorry, the character inspired by you.
Yeah, legal will sign off on that. [laughs] We had been thinking for years about who we wanted as the adult. Netflix suggested Mila, and we were like, why didn’t we think of that? But then, also, we thought that she would never go for this. I was so surprised when she agreed to talk. As for the younger version, there were over 1,500 girls who submitted audition tapes. Casting narrowed it down to 10. And we sat down and watched them, and the choice was clear. There was no competition for Chiara.
Was there anything in the movie that made you cringe — something you wish had been done differently?
That’s with everything I do. Both books. Actually, Chiara and I watched the movie together, and she was so critical of herself: “I can’t believe I played that scene that way! I am so mad at myself!” And I’m just like, “What are you talking about? That was incredible.”
There have been plenty of people outside of the production who have been critical of the film version of Luckiest Girl Alive as well, with several professional critics expressing significant issues. Do you read the reviews?
They were really disappointing at first, because they came out before the film was publicly released, and we didn’t have an audience response yet. But I knew. I was like, give it the weekend. It will be okay. We’re gonna hear from the people that this movie works for them. And that’s exactly what happened. We heard from the people. And the film really connected with them.
Many rape survivors have difficulties establishing romantic relationships due to their trauma. Yet you’ve been married for 10 years, as I learned while scrolling through your recent Instagram posts. So, first of all, happy anniversary. And: What has 10 years of marriage taught you?
What I have learned is that you’re a completely different person in your 30s than your 20s. I got married at 28 and am 38 now and hardly recognize the person I was at 28.
I can’t let it go without saying that I also noticed on your Instagram that in addition to a husband, you have an adorable dog. What can you tell us about this creature?
A “creature” is exactly what she is. Not a dog. Her name is Beatrice, and we adopted her from a rescue five years ago. I first fell in love with bulldogs when my really good middle-school friend Erica Orman had one named Capone. And then when I lived in New York, they were everywhere, because they’re so lazy that they make perfect apartment dogs. They don’t do a lot of walking around.
Thanks, Jessica. I see our time is up, which is great, because my son needs me to drive him to work.
And I need to give the creature a bath! Bye!
Published as “Jessica Knoll: Dark Places” in the December 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.