Jessica Knoll is ready to thrill us again, in a whole new way.
Knoll took the literary world by storm when her debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, hit shelves in 2015. The thriller spent four months on bestseller lists and spawned a 2022 Netflix movie of the same name, adapted and executive produced by Knoll and starring Mila Kunis. The story follows Ani FaNelli, whose perfect-life exterior masks the inner turmoil created by her traumatic past. Secrets, in Knoll’s world, can’t stay buried forever.
She followed that up with another disturbing, page-turning thriller novel, 2018’s The Favorite Sister. Another bestseller, Knoll’s sophomore effort focused on a pair of sisters who appear together on a reality show, to a murderous result. Once again, the story offered an examination of the face that women show the world, and the compromises they make in their pursuit of power, the picture-perfect life, and survival.
Knoll’s newest novel, due out September 19, is Bright Young Women. As the name suggests, it once again centers on young women, but this time, Knoll took inspiration from a real-life crime for the story: Serial killer Ted Bundy’s bloody trail of crime from 1974 to 1978, including his attack on the Florida State University Chi Omega sorority house, where he killed two women and severely beat two more, before attacking another woman just a few blocks away.
In Bright Young Women, Knoll made her first foray into a noncontemporary story, and put her own twist on the Bundy narrative: She never names the character, only referring to him via her narrator as “the Defendant,” and makes a point to push back on the public perception of Bundy as an intelligent, handsome man who charmed women to their deaths, the aura that has led to Zac Efron portraying him onscreen.
“I found lots of transcripts, interviews with witnesses who described encounters with him or described witnessing an encounter with him and a victim where they were very clear that like, these women were not smitten with him,” Knoll recently told Vanity Fair. “They were irritated. They were kind of like, oh, I guess I have to help this guy because he's on crutches or whatever.”
Bright Young Women imagines how the survivors of the sorority-house attack and another of Bundy’s earlier crimes, when he kidnapped and killed two women in Washington State’s Lake Sammamish State Park, went on after the attack, as well as their search for closure, and what it cost them. Vanity Fair recently caught up with Knoll over Zoom to talk about her writing process, her latest haunting work, and her TikTok algorithm.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Vanity Fair: Can you tell me about the process of writing Bright Young Women? Let’s start with your inspiration.
Jessica Knoll: It was with the new docuseries that came out in 2019 [Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes] with previously unheard audio recordings. And, you know, obviously that was like served to me, that’s exactly the sort of thing that would pop up on my algorithm. I watched it and there was a lot that I thought that I knew about the case and that I learned and I just was very interested overall. I was like, I want to know more and I started researching and realized pretty quickly that a lot of what we knew about Ted Bundy had been grossly exaggerated in terms of his intelligence, his charm, and even his scholastic aptitude. I was also bothered by the fact that it was suggested that how he got his victims had to do with his looks and his charm when it was very extensively documented that he would pose as injured, and solicit women for help. I found lots of transcripts, interviews with witnesses who described encounters with him or described witnessing an encounter with him and a victim where they were very clear that like, these women were not smitten with him. They were irritated. They were kind of like, oh, I guess I have to help this guy because he’s on crutches or whatever.
It just made me really kind of indignant on their behalf that that’s the way they were remembered. I was like, God, I know guys like that, who are objectively handsome and like, he was fine looking, but there’s just something kind of off about them and you’re like, there’s something about you I don’t trust. And it was clear that these women had experienced that, but it wasn’t really recorded as part of what we remember about this case.
I’m curious about your feelings on true crime as entertainment and the fascination there.
I can’t speak to everyone else. For me, it’s a way to placate my own fears about living in the world as women where we do have to be very vigilant and on guard. I have felt a lot of fear before and so personally, I find that when I’m watching anything—not just true crime, anything, even like a horror movie—I can put it on before I go to sleep too. And instantly, I feel my eyelids start to droop because there’s this promise that something inexplicable is going to happen and kind of alter someone’s sense of normalcy in the world, but by the end of this Dateline episode, or this movie or whatever it is, some order is going to be restored. Sense is going to be made of this. There will be justice, there will be answers. I find it to be immensely soothing, because I think in real life, you so rarely get that.
In a book like this one, where it’s based off of a true story, how did you decide what to take from real life and what to make your own?
With Ruth’s story, there was almost nothing written about the Lake Sammamish victims. All I had to go on was the day of the disappearances of these two young women, and the fact that it was on an unseasonably hot day in Seattle, and that Lake Sammamish was packed with, like, 30,000 people. I think that that story in particular really grabbed me because again, it’s this idea that you can’t even be safe on a gorgeous summer day surrounded by tens of thousands of beachgoers. That just really stuck with me. I just knew that’s where [her story] would end, but I had total freedom to come up with where she started. And I actually found that to be less of a challenge than Pamela’s story, which felt much more constrained by real-life dates, like the night of the attack, when he was arrested, when he was charged, when she was deposed. Obviously, Pamela is a work of fiction, but I did have the general dates, that’s all very well documented in the record. So I felt I had more coordinates I had to hit for her and trying to fit her story in there proved more of a challenge than having more of an open-ended storyline for Ruth.
What’s your process like? Are you like a yarn-wall person?
I wish I could be a yarn-wall person, that it could be as easy as mapping it all out like that. Believe me, I’ve tried. I think the thing that freed me up in the end was I really struggled with that story. It was like my literary agent pointed out: Ruth’s story has never given you any trouble, that has always flowed and so you might need to not be so tied, because it is fiction, you may not need to be so tied to some of these dates and events and the way things happened. If that means kind of just freeing you up, to come up with a story that is just paced a little bit better. From this whole process, I learned I do better when I’m spitballing than when I’m trying to stick really closely to some sort of beat sheet.
Do you have a daily writing routine? Are you project monogamous or do you work on a lot of things at once?
I’m gonna steal that. I believe very strongly in project monogamy. Even though I tend, as I’m sure you do, all writers do, to have a couple balls in the air, I can only focus on one at a time. I can’t do like, the morning on this thing and the afternoon on this thing. I’ve also tried to do that. It actually slows me down in the end to try and bounce between things all at once. I try and just say, Okay, I’m turning my attention to this now, and I’m going to see this through until it’s done or till this next pass is done, and I can turn it in and while I’m waiting for notes, I can turn back to this other thing. I do most of my writing in the morning first thing when I wake up, just because that’s how I was able to write my first novel. I’m afraid to go off course there because I’ve had success with it before and I’m like, I don’t want to mess with it. But who knows, maybe I could one day. I used to be more of a night owl, so maybe that’s something I’ll try in the future. But for now, it’s still early morning.
Your debut, Luckiest Girl Alive, was a huge success. Has that changed how you write at all? Does it feel different having that kind of public expectation now?
It does feel different, and I wish it didn’t, but I don’t think there’s a way around it. I definitely wrote Luckiest Girl Alive for myself, and I had a certain naivete about how the whole process of getting a book published and out into the world works that I think served me well. I think I was able to do that thing Stephen King says to do, which is write with the door closed. I was so un-self-conscious as you said, because I wasn’t worrying like, oh, when this person reads it, how are they going to feel? I just had no context for that. Now I do. And I find that of course I’m vulnerable to feedback and criticism and people still do this thing where they’ll tag you in negative reviews. I don’t understand why. I’m like, do you understand you do not need to tag me in this nasty review about this thing that I poured my heart and soul into for three years. That’s fine, but please don’t. Just leave me out of it. It’s hard when you get stuff like that in your head. It can mess with you and can mess with the creative process. I think one of the best things I did for myself was probably get off Twitter. That eliminated one avenue for people to reach me that way. I try and just write what feels good to write because I feel like if I’m engaged in the process, then I’m likely writing something that is going to engage a reader.
Writing is difficult to compartmentalize. Are you thinking about what you’re working on, or might work on, all the time? How do you keep ideas?
I have a couple of things kind of percolating, so I’m not really in the space of coming up with new ideas. I feel like I still have this backlog of things that I owe people, and I also feel like what I’m drawn to write is constantly evolving and changing. Even with this book, this is the first time that I stepped outside of the contemporary zone. With my next book, I think it freed me up to really cast a wider net in terms of what I’ll write next. Obviously with the strike going on, there’s projects that are just on pause until all of that is resolved, so I’m trying to use this time to my advantage to get ahead on my next novel, just so I have somewhat of like a workable draft before all of this ends and I have to look at 10-page note documents for other things I have do that are hanging over my head.
The next novel is a light rom-com, right?
I don’t know that I’m there yet. I haven’t cast that wide of a net yet.
Maybe an unlikely animal friendship story.
I’m adapting a viral TikTok video. An interspecies friendship. I would actually do that.
Speaking of which, what is your TikTok algorithm like?
I’m big on Cat Tok. It’s surprising to me because I’m more of a dog person but I became big on Cat Tok. I feel like I find myself down different kinds of rabbit holes. I found myself in this weird space of a lot of people being like, “Something’s been off with me for a couple of months and I finally went to the doctor and now I’m waiting for these tests.” So then I feel like I get into this hypochondria spiral that I need to get myself out of, but right now it’s a lot of the spinning the cats and dogs and various animals with Taylor Swift music playing. Which is a great algorithm to be on. I’m really happy about it.
Did you get sucked into Bama Rush and all the sorority stuff this year, especially since your book focuses on a sorority?
I got a little of it. I really liked a couple of those but then it kind of lost its shine for me, so I stopped liking those because I was like, meh, I’m good.
It’s interesting, part of the fascination in the Bundy case was sororities and today, big groups of these shiny girls have not lost their allure.
My understanding is, because I went to a college that didn’t even have sororities, so this was also a very foreign concept to me, but my understanding from all the research I’ve done, especially from women who were part of the Greek system in the ’70s and ’80s is that it was a totally different beast than it is now. It almost reminds me of like, what a wedding used to be like. My mother-in-law’s like, I didn’t even get a pedicure before my wedding, there wasn’t even like a place you could go to get a pedicure, you know? And now of course you have your professional makeup artists and everything has just morphed into a bigger version of what it was. It just feels so much more intense and like there’s so much more riding on it. Whereas, what I gleaned from what it was like to be in a sorority in 1978 was it was really career-focused. It was big on leaning on the alumni network after graduation for internships and job placement and all of those things. Every sorority had, for each quarter, they would release [essentially] a magazine for their sorority. Those were fascinating to read through. All of that was really illuminating and fascinating. Thank God for eBay and being able to order stuff like that. I could really sink myself in what it was like to be a young woman in 1978.
I’m interested in how your novels explore young women and their power, and how they use it. In this case, that power is part of what draws the killer to them. Do you feel like you have a through line with your heroines, or sort of a thesis about who these women are?
I think I’m always looking for ways I can find myself in my characters, in new characters that feel fresh and different, but that I can still write about them in a way where they feel really fleshed out and fully realized. And I think that for me, at least, the only way I can do that is if I find a piece of myself in them. For instance, the idea of this kind of unspeakable act of violence happening to you and to your friends and then being expected to go to class on Monday, I was like, whoa, I know what that’s like to just kind of be expected to just carry on and pick up the pieces by yourself. I can find something there. I can find a character there. Pamela has a lot of kind of OCD tendencies about order and cleanliness. That’s also something that I’ve been coming to terms with, how—my therapist uses the term colicky—I can get if things are slightly out of order. It’s not even necessarily like I’m the cleanest clean freak in the world, but there is an order to the way things must be and if they’re not, it is devastating to me and I have really been looking at that and trying to understand what that’s about. A lot of that can be born out of a sense of a loss of control when you’re younger. All of these things I think I’m continuing to discover about myself as I get older and as I grow as a person, they’re exciting because they’re opportunities to kind of infuse that in a character and give them qualities that feel really realistic. They’re not necessarily qualities that I’ve even understood about myself until now.
How did you decide that this was your next book? How did you settle down into novel monogamy with Bright Young Women?
There were several earlier attempts at something else, it’s hard to even remember what those were. But I really think this one, [it was] watching the docuseries, getting really kind of amped up about feeling like we’ve unearthed this story once again 40 years later, with supposedly shocking new information. But I still feel like all I did was scratch the surface and see that there was way more to this that no one’s talking about and like, how did we miss going even deeper, you know? Something I’ve realized about myself is I’m very drawn to stories where it feels like there’s a popular narrative that has cemented over time, but it’s not the full story. I’m really drawn to stories like that, I want to read them and I want to write about them.
You also come from a journalistic background. Did you engage with anyone who lived through this in your research?
I interviewed one of the survivors from the Florida State University attack. She was very generous with her story and with her time. She’s an amazing person who really made the decision at a young age that like this was a very terrible thing that happened, a very frightening and physically painful thing that happened. She was in the hospital and had to have many, many surgeries because she was beaten very severely, but that she wasn’t going to let this define her and that she wasn’t going to be afraid of men. That was very important to her. She was like, I refuse to be afraid of men. I just found her to be someone with the most grit I think that I’ve ever spoken to, but who was also incredibly sweet and bubbly. I just adored her.
And is she your Pamela?
No, no, no. Everyone is.
Beyond your novels and screenwriting, you’re also vocal about personal issues and put a lot of yourself out there about your life, past, and ambitions. Do fans talk to you about that work often?
The money one is a big one. People find that essay and I do get asked about it a lot. And I think it’s great. I felt like I was nervous for that to go out there, but the response that I received was like, so many women are like, Thank you for saying the quiet part out loud. So I feel like that essay still stands the test of time, even though it’s like going on five years old now.
Would you make changes to it now?
If you gave me an opportunity, I would redo everything I’ve ever done. Like, you can never stop editing.