[It has been featured] on several most anticipated releases of 2021 lists, including Newsweek, Refinery29 and Popsugar. With an eye catching cover, a local setting and an instantly intriguing premise, Girls With Bright Futures is the book everyone is going to be talking about. Taking place in Seattle at the fictional Elliott Bay Academy, and told from three alternating points of view, we get an inside look into the cutthroat world of college admissions and the unrelenting pressure on both the kids applying for college and the parents trying to ensure their success.
I was hooked from the very first page, plunged into the high stakes of vying for the last early admission spot at Stanford, and thankful that my college application days are now in the distant past! Seattle residents and co-authors, Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman, were kind enough to answer a few of my questions about their book and the writing process. And be sure to check out the details for their book launch at Island Books at the end of the blog!
Welcome Tracy and Wendy! How did you two decide to write a book together?
We’ve been friends for more than 20 years. In fact, Wendy’s husband and Tracy first met when they were right out of college living in Washington, DC. We all ended up in Seattle in the mid-1990s and connected when our oldest kids were toddlers, and the two of us became instant friends. Over the years, we’ve supported each other through careers, motherhood, community volunteer work, and many life events—some wonderful, others terrifying. Throughout it all, we bonded over our deep reliance on humor and our tremendous mutual respect. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we always felt a collaboration on something was inevitable. But for years, the perfect idea eluded us. On long, angsty walks, we batted around book ideas (always non-fiction in those early days), business ideas, and even an idea for a board game. But at the bottom of it all was a desire to better understand the culture of motherhood today—all its rewards and privileges, and on the flip side, the judgment and toxic self-doubt that plague so many of us.
Finally, just when we were starting to launch our kids from the nest, we read two books that really set us off on this path, but for very different reasons. The first was Modern Romance which was a collaboration between the comedian Aziz Anzari and Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist from Columbia, in which they looked at how romance and courtship rituals have evolved over the last 100 years or so. Something about that the way that book took on a culturally relevant topic, combining humor and research really resonated with us and got us thinking about whether we could do something similar with modern motherhood and friendship. But we quickly realized we were neither stand-up comedians nor sociologists, so we were still casting about for an idea.
And then we read another amazing book—Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. We were so inspired. For years, we’d been telling our kids that it’s OK to try new stuff even if it means failing sometimes, and yet we’d been unwilling to take that kind of risk ourselves. And so we thought: If we were going to “go big” and really risk being vulnerable, what would we do? All of the sudden we realized we wanted to write fiction (and please believe us: writing a novel and sharing it with the world is an excruciating exercise in vulnerability!). We wanted to create something, to be free to dream up characters and stories and worlds. The only flaw in this plan was that neither of us had ever written a word of fiction. If only we could figure out how to write a novel, we believed our work ethic and willingness to hold ourselves accountable to each other would get us the rest of the way there. So what did we do? We kid you not…we pulled out our computers and googled: “How do you write a novel?” That was at the end of February, 2016—and the rest is history!
What was the inspiration for Girls With Bright Futures?
Because our book is launching in the wake of the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, most people assume that salacious news story was our inspiration, but that’s actually not the case. In fact, prior to Girls with Bright Futures, we had already written an entire manuscript featuring college admissions mania as a major theme, but that manuscript was submitted to publishers in 2018 without success. Forced to go back to the drawing board, we ultimately conceived of Girls with Bright Futures in late 2018 and had not only plotted out the entire book but had nearly completed our first draft when the scandal first broke in March 2019!
As far as why we chose this topic in particular, it’s kind of a long story! But in a nutshell, when our older boys were in the midst of the college admissions process, each of our husbands suffered a life-threatening health crisis. Thankfully (knock on wood), our guys are alright, but it was such a bizarre coincidence that we both experienced such intense brushes with mortality during the high anxiety of the college admissions process—it felt like a sign we couldn’t ignore. Initially, our writing was more therapy than anything, enabling us to try to make sense of all our feelings. At the same time, we became fascinated by what seemed to be an increasingly competitive and anxiety provoking college admissions process for our kids. We wanted to explore the impacts of all this on families, friendships, students, and school communities.
The pacing is so good in your narrative, what was your writing process like to make that happen?
Well first, thank you for saying that! We’re staring at each other over Zoom right now trying to remember how it all came together! Before we start writing, we work out every scene—e.g., whose point of view, where the scene starts and ends, and what we need to accomplish. Every scene has a specific purpose to keep the plot unfolding. In addition, we really wanted our story to illustrate and mirror the real-life phenomenon of how an anxiety-fueled action by one character can provoke escalating responses in others. Some of our pacing derives from this tension. Finally, we intentionally juxtaposed humorous or satirical scenes against more serious ones, and dialogue-heavy scenes with more expository-laden scenes. After all, variety is the spice of life (ugh—and cliches are the bane of a writer’s existence!).
How did you decide what kind of representation you wanted in your characters?
Our overarching goal was to write a compelling (even shocking!) fictional depiction of the toxicity of the college admissions process for parents, families, friendships, and communities. There were many different approaches we could have taken and we considered all of these, including race, ethnicity, and income/class. As two white women, we were conscious of not wanting to misappropriate any stories, but we did want to find a way to show how racism rears its head in this setting. We decided to make our three main characters white women of varying socioeconomic levels while incorporating plot twists (no spoilers here) and a whole roster of women whose races and ethnicities are intentionally ambiguous to expose some common racist assumptions in many high school communities. Telling this story through a lens of extreme income inequality allowed us to shine a light on the role of that particular trend as a major driver of anxiety and bad behavior in many school communities. Our hope is that we’ve constructed a story that will stimulate discussion on a range of social justice issues.
What was surprising to you about writing your first book?
Writing and publishing a book are two totally different endeavors. On the writing front, we had no idea how little time we’d spend actually writing our book versus planning it on the front end and revising/editing it on the back end. In terms of publishing, we were initially surprised to learn how much marketing is involved and that the majority of that marketing involves social media (even more so now because we’re launching in a pandemic). As neither of us were remotely active on social media before our publishing journey, we had to push ourselves to overcome our discomfort and there has also been a (very) steep learning curve (like what the heck is an Instagram story for and why do we have to do it?). We’ve been fortunate to have digital natives (i.e., our children) who owe us big-time for all the years we spent raising them. Check out our social media game on Instagram @katzndobs.
What are you working on now?
While we can no longer sit side-by-side at Tracy’s house, we’ve continued working together over Zoom. Our next novel isn’t a sequel to Girls with Bright Futures, but it’s set in a similar world with more parents behaving badly. That’s about all we can say right now!!
And last but not least, at Island Books the staff is always asked about what we’re reading. What are the two of you reading and recommending now?
Photo by @KristenSycamorePhotography
Tracy and Wendy will be at Island Books on Saturday, February 6th from 10am to 2:30 pm for a Covid-era signing of Girls With Bright Futures. A free custom Hello Robin cookie is their special gift to you with purchase of their book, while supplies last! So put on your mask and stop by to support these lovely debut authors and their fantastic book. Hope to see you there!