Bet­ter the devil she knows

Lau­ren Weis­berger’s poi­son pen turned her de­but novel into a world­wide smash. Six books and 15 years later, can the au­thor ever es­cape The Devil Wears Prada – and does she even want to?

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - In­ter­view by MEG MASON

She cre­ated a world­wide hit with The Devil Wears Prada. Now au­thor Lau­ren Weis­berger talks about her new novel… and an­swers the ques­tion we all want to know.

Ask it first, to get it out of the way? Or save it for last, in case pre­sent­ing the same ques­tion to some­one who has been asked some vari­a­tion of it ev­ery day for 15 years puts a hard end to the con­ver­sa­tion? Surely, one would pre­sume, au­thor Lau­ren Weis­berger is ready for the query that has tailed her end­lessly since she wrote The Devil Wears Prada all those years ago: “Have you spo­ken to Anna Win­tour since the book came out?”

It was 2003 when Weis­berger, 26 at the time and fresh out of a hellish in­tern­ship at US Vogue, pub­lished her ro­man à clef. It be­came a run­away pop-cul­ture phe­nom­e­non, and in the fever of pub­lic at­ten­tion, she couldn’t – and didn’t – try to deny that Mi­randa Pri­estly, the ice-cold magazine ed­i­tor at the cen­tre of the book, was based on Win­tour. Still, she stressed, it was an em­bel­lished, hugely ex­ag­ger­ated satire.

She was soon sav­aged in cer­tain quar­ters of the me­dia, for what one The New York Times critic called “a mean­spir­ited ‘gotcha’ book” and an­other “vam­piric se­cond-or­der cru­elty”. Read­ers didn’t care, and bought it in the mil­lions. Now 41,Weis­berger can only spec­u­late on why it touched such a nerve, to the point it be­came a smash-hit movie star­ring Meryl Streep just a few years later. (Win­tour never made di­rect ref­er­ence to the book,but did wear Prada to an ad­vance screen­ing of the film in New York.)

“Part of it was just tim­ing,” Weis­berger tells Stel­lar. “But be­yond that, I think it’s a very univer­sal story, re­gard­less of where you live and what in­dus­try you’re in. We have all worked for some­one truly aw­ful and while they may not be as aw­ful as Mi­randa Pri­estly, there is some­thing there most peo­ple can re­late to.”

Weis­berger was in­ter­ested in nei­ther fash­ion nor mag­a­zines when she stum­bled into the Vogue gig, but re­calls it as “an ex­tra­or­di­nary time and place. I didn’t feel that way when I was work­ing there, and acted like I was so put upon and re­pressed and I com­plained a lot, but I’m so grate­ful I got to see that world from the top down, and be­cause of it, got to make a ca­reer as a writer.”

In the years fol­low­ing Prada’s suc­cess, Weis­berger found it dif­fi­cult to sit down and start a new novel, say­ing it was “def­i­nitely in­tim­i­dat­ing – but know­ing that the chances of a se­cond book be­ing as big of a hit were in­fin­i­tes­i­mal took the pres­sure off”. The Win­tour ques­tion has been left hang­ing, at least for now.

The writ­ing mojo even­tu­ally resur­faced, be­cause Weis­berger is now pro­mot­ing her sev­enth book, When Life Gives You Lu­l­ule­mons, its ti­tle a ref­er­ence to the pricey yo­gawear brand that has be­come stan­dard is­sue for the kind of bored and wealthy house­wives her satir­i­cal sights are set on this time around.

The im­pe­tus for this book: af­ter she had chil­dren, Weis­berger de­camped to the af­flu­ent Con­necti­cut town of Green­wich, ground zero for… bored and wealthy house­wives. But none of these char­ac­ters, she in­sists, are based on women she’s met in real life. “It’s al­ways the peo­ple who think you’re writ­ing about them that you’re not writ­ing about,” she says. “But it seems to work it­self out. We live in a town where we have lots of friends and we’re re­ally happy; the last thing I want to do is in­vade any­one’s pri­vacy.”

The book is vin­tage Weis­berger – sharp char­ac­ters, smart di­a­logue – but in the cul­tural wake of #Metoo,

“Call it chick lit or what­ever you want – what I am try­ing to do is make other peo­ple laugh”

#Time­sup, body-pos­i­tiv­ity ad­vo­cacy and fourth-wave fem­i­nism, its fo­cus on weight and diet strikes a strange note. The hero­ines are ei­ther thin or try­ing to be; its anti-hero­ines are too thin; lesser char­ac­ters and those lower down the so­cial lad­der are dumpy or fat. Weis­berger defends her nar­ra­tive, point­ing out that for bet­ter or worse, “it’s an on­go­ing topic of con­ver­sa­tion for women from all dif­fer­ent facets of life, and at the fore­front of their minds. It’s some­thing that doesn’t go away.

“Weight plays an enor­mous role in the so­cial set I write about, so I would be re­miss by not ad­dress­ing it. In very af­flu­ent towns, you tend to have a larger than nor­mal fo­cus on ap­pear­ance, be­cause you have a tremen­dous amount of time and money, and the time to fo­cus on it. It was for sure a de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion to make it a theme, and it felt im­por­tant to the re­al­is­tic na­ture of the mi­lieu.”

In any event, Weis­berger says, she’s not try­ing to change the world, just write what she sees. And as for her books be­ing too light or fluffy, “I don’t care so much… call it chick lit or what­ever you want. Truth­fully, I feel like what I’m try­ing to do is satirise a spe­cific scene in a way I hope makes other peo­ple laugh. I ap­pre­ci­ate these books are a kind of es­capism to be read on a beach and air­plane. I don’t have an agenda be­yond mak­ing peo­ple smile and hope­fully giv­ing them a char­ac­ter they can re­late to.”

And she is ex­cited about the fact a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers is now dis­cov­er­ing Prada, who she points out weren’t even born when it came out: “It’s wild to be at a sign­ing and have a 13-year-old girl come up to me and say she loved it. That’s in­cred­i­bly cool and in­cred­i­bly ful­fill­ing.”

These new read­ers may also not be as keen to learn the an­swer to that Anna Win­tour ques­tion, but should it fol­low her for an­other 15 years, Weis­berger is san­guine. “There are un­doubt­edly times when I get asked ques­tions about work­ing at the magazine, or what­ever it is. I’m try­ing to talk about some­thing new and peo­ple want to go back to it, and I should be ir­ri­tated or bored or an­noyed, but I hon­estly feel so lucky what that first book af­forded me – to make a liv­ing as a writer. I’m so in­debted in that way, so if it means be­ing asked ques­tions about Anna Win­tour for the fore­see­able fu­ture, I will do that.”

So? Has she had con­tact with her old boss since the book came out, or not? “Di­rectly?” Weis­berger asks. “No. And not indi­rectly ei­ther, ac­tu­ally. It sounds like I’m be­ing coy about it! It’s just plain no.” When Life Gives You Lu­l­ule­mons by Lau­ren Weis­berger (Harpercoll­ins, $29.99) is out now.

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