Laura Stampler missed the subway a few dozen times when she moved to New York City from California, so the former TIME writer channeled that frustration for her first fiction novel, Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies.
The book follows a California girl named Harper as she tries to adapt to her swanky internship in New York, where she quickly finds herself out of her comfort zone. Read on for our interview with Stampler about her first foray into fiction and creating the main character, and see an exclusive excerpt from Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies, out July 19, below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did any real-life experience from your days as an intern make its way into the book?
LAURA STAMPLER: Although Shift magazine and the people who work there are totally fictional, I wanted readers to get a taste of what its like to work in online media. Like my protagonist Harper, I’ve experienced the giddy highs and surprising lows of having a story go viral. Like most women on the internet, I’ve been a victim of antagonistic trolls. And like the interns at Shift, I’ve both reported stories I’m really proud of and churned out quick hits about how, from some angles, Miley Cyrus’s knee looks like Seth Rogen’s face. Granted that wasn’t during an internship — I was a staff reporter! With health benefits!
Your character comes from California to New York City, not unlike yourself. Did you find New York overwhelming when you first arrived, and did that inform the character of Harper?
New York is totally overwhelming, but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to move here. It’s the meeting point for so many different cultural events, people, beliefs, styles, and foods. I wanted to capture some of the city’s magic, from the sunsets you see to the sense of discovery you feel upon finding a new bookstore or running into an old friend while walking from one destination to another, or just exploring on foot. You interact with fewer people in my hometown Los Angeles, where you’re cocooned in a car driving from place to place. Sure, like Harper, I got lost on the subway my first time or 200, but I finally got the hang of it. And I can’t explain how accomplished I felt the first time I gave tourists what I 100 percent knew were the right directions.
You’ve written on a variety of topics including current events, feminist issues, as well as live-tweeted The Bachelorette. How did you decide on a YA fiction work for your first novel?
My reporting background and sworn allegiance to the #BachelorNation actually played a role in the development of this book. When I was a reporter at TIME, an editor from Simon Pulse reached out to see if I wrote fiction after reading some of my articles, including a magazine feature chronicling my adventures in app dating and Bachelor recaps itemizing how Juan Pablo was the absolute worst. I’d been working on a different novel at the time, also with teen protagonists, but since I was deeply enmeshed in the Tinder-sphere both personally and professionally, I had the idea for a story about a girl kind of like me in high school, a.k.a. with zero game whatsoever, who suddenly has to write about dating for all of the internet to see.
At the end of the day, I just love telling stories. And I write them in whatever voice best brings them to life. Sometimes it’s as a raving Bachelor fanatic, sometimes it’s as a more even-keeled journalist covering social justice issues, and sometimes it’s as a 17-year-old girl. Though it is possible to merge all of your passions in one place: I’m proud to say that LBDLWL cited both the Bachelor franchise and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Tell us about Harper and her fake-it-’til-you-make-it philosophy.
Harper feels like she doesn’t belong in her small, water-polo-obsessed suburban town. And when she gets a summer internship at a chic New York magazine, albeit under false pretenses, she’s determined to fit in and thinks that the only way she can survive is to take on the persona of someone she deems worthy of the job. And maybe, if she plays this character long enough, she’ll start to absorb her “better” self’s confidence. Harper’s goal is to fake it until she feels it. Until she is it.
Check out the excerpt below.
I’M EXHAUSTED, AND NOT JUST BECAUSE I BUNK with a plump pug who suffers from severe sleep apnea—although Aunt Vee says the vet has recommendations to get Princess’s snoring under control.
My first week in New York is a whirl of memorizing subway maps (I’ve either gotten off at the wrong stop or taken a train in the wrong direction every day); memorizing designer names (after the Hermès incident, Aunt Vee has decided to make me fashion flash cards: “I used to help your mother study too!”); and memorizing Shift rules so I can be the best intern McKayla has ever had.
Most of our orientation with the office and staff is led by a member of the editorial team who has been at Shift the longest. But even though her hair is gray, the reporter’s face is really young. And not in a Botox-y way.
“I love your granny hair,” says Brie, Beauty, during a training session where we tell random factoids about ourselves to get to know one another better. “So on trend.”
Comparing your superior’s hair to your grandma’s should not be a compliment. But in the world of Shift, this geriatric dye job is clearly intentional, and apparently popular.
“How long have you worked here?” Abigail asks.
“Five years longer than McKayla,” Granny Hair says. “Since back in the day, when a person could write maybe one story a day. Under McKayla, make that more like six if you’re on the viral news team. And that’s not including when she’ll call you at two in the morning when she needs you to write about a newly trending topic. But I’ve survived since her takeover, so that’s something. It’s . . . uh . . . challenging.”
“Six stories aren’t challenging for me!” Jamie says. “And viral’s the section where I have the best shot of getting a job here by the end of the summer.”
And there’s the interesting factoid about overambitious Jamie. Even though she’s only nineteen, Jamie has already graduated from college and is gunning for full-time employment at Shift after her internship ends. She thinks that if she wins the magazine intern profile, they’ll have to hire her.
My eyes go from girl to girl as I match them up to their “fun facts.”
Brie is the social chair of her University of Texas sorority and an aspiring YouTube beauty vlogger, who has the ability to make anyone look like a totally different human being with contouring. (She showed us the videos.)
Gigi is a rising high school senior like me but at a boarding school in Switzerland—“The French part. Obviously.” She’s half Filipina and half Nigerian, and has lived on every continent except Antarctica. She once owned a pet peacock.
Abigail wants to be premed when she goes to college, but her parents made her take this internship after they bought it at her high school’s silent auction. (“Trenton Bosh’s kids went to Holland Prep too.”)
Sun-Hi, who prefers going by Sunny (even though her face is in a perpetual frown), just finished her freshman year at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
I can’t think of anything interesting to say, so I panic and tell everyone I’m the editor of my high school paper (lie) in California (true).
“Where in California?” Granny Hair asks.
“San Francisco.” (Lie. Why am I lying?)
“Love SF,” Granny Hair says, and then thankfully moves on to show us the most important features of the office.
My favorite spot by far is the Shift open kitchen.
Stocked with free-flowing, complimentary food and drinks, the kitchen has exposed me to a whole new world of luxury organic snack foods I never knew existed, and has been a major enabler of my Diet Coke dependency. It also has a state-of-the-art seltzer machine that pours out bubbly water with specialized flavor combinations—the kumquat-lime is not to be messed with—and a regularly replenished up-for-grabs table filled with leftover lunches from meetings and pastries sent from public relations firms trying to get reporters to write positive stories about their clients via carbohydrate bribery. (“The calories don’t count if it was sent by a PR person, right?” people ask, staring longingly at rows of uneaten, designer brownies.)
The most intimidating office feature hangs literally over our heads in the bullpen. Projected on an always-on television set is something called the Leader Board. With real-time data updating every seven seconds, the Leader Board shows the ten best-performing articles on the Shift website. This is our key to the magazine feature.
“You want to make this board,” Granny Hair warns. “And this is how you get there.” She points to a piece of paper hanging under the television screen that reads, the nine commandments of clickiness. It’s McKayla’s own religious doctrine.
Shift biblical law includes: “Thou shalt write only odd-numbered listicles” (readers don’t like clicking on even numbers), and “Thou shalt embrace puns” (the Internet loves puns). My personal favorite commandment, however, is the eighth:
Thou Shalt Not Pitch a Story If You Can’t Think of a Good Headline First
A headline is hands-down the most important part of an article. Yes, even more than the writing. Because if your headline is bad, who will even read the story? Sell your story and yourself, even if you have to embellish. Any click’s a good click.
I’m quick to memorize all the commandments—you never know when there’s going to be a quiz—but am slow to break into the Shift Girls’ social circle. They all laugh simultaneously several times a day at their computers, which makes me think they have an e-mail chain I’m not a part of.
So Friday, in hopes of speeding up the friendship process, I get to work extra early and leave a Sprinkles cupcake on each intern’s desk in celebration of a successful end of our first week. Buttering them up by means of buttery treats.
Jamie is already at her desk, chugging coffee and watching a YouTube video of a toddler twerking when I arrive. To the untrained eye, it would look like she’s goofing off. But watching crazy YouTubes is actually a big part of her job. Every day, Jamie and the rest of the viral team comb through Reddit boards and trending hashtags to round up a batch of “quick hits” to write up for the Shift website by ten minutes ago. One hundred fifty words tops.
“My goal for June is to publish at least two viral stories before they go up on BuzzSnap,” Jamie says. “I’ve gotta prove that I’m fast so McKayla will hire me.”
She puts out her hand to accept the cookies-and-cream-flavored cupcake without even looking at it. Her eyes never leave her computer monitor when she pops it into her mouth and starts to chew.
When nine o’clock rolls around and the rest of the interns begin trickling in with giant cups of coffee, they appear underwhelmed by the treat. I start worrying that I maybe shouldn’t have ignored Aunt Vee’s warning that I should “try to kill them with kindness, not carbohydrates, dear. They’re very different things.”
“What’s this?” Gigi asks in an accent as silky as her gorgeous dress.
“I thought it would be fun to—”
“Fun? Do you know what’s not fun, Harper? Debilitating stomach pains. Given how many people suffer from gluten intolerance, I find this action to be very insensitive.”
“One in every one hundred thirty-three people has celiac disease,” Abigail, the trusty Health intern, pipes up. She’s chomping on sunflower seeds rather than cupcake.
“That doesn’t sound right,” Brie says. “In my sorority, like, one in every three girls can’t eat bread. My big, my big-big, and my big-big-big—”
“Well it is,” Abigail says, seriously and severely. “I’m pitching a listicle about gluten intolerance for the health section, and I’ve done my research.”
“Regardless,” Gigi cuts her off. “This is very rude, Harper.” She drops the red velvet in the trash.