Chapel Hill author’s #MeToo-Era novel is a much-watched feminist debut


By Pamir Kiciman


The local journalist

The working woman, Chapel Hill author Alison B. Hart’s debut novel is set over the course of a single day and depicts characters on a collision course in the #MeToo era.

The setting is the Pacific Palisades estate of film and studio mogul Ted Stabler who, along with his wife Holly Stabler, is hosting the event of the season, a jungle nursery-themed benefit to support low-income women .

The story is told from the point of view of three women related to Ted.

The first is his hostess wife Holly, the mother of their two children and the face of Hollywood’s attempts to rehabilitate itself and champion women in all aspects of the film industry.

The second is Ted’s personal assistant, Zanne Klein (pronounced as the second syllable of “Suzanne”, her birth name) who has been with Ted for 8 years and has been drug-free for 9 years. If the benefit goes off without a hitch, she considers a promotion to chief of staff, buys a house in Los Angeles, and moves in with her girlfriend Gaby.

The third protagonist is Phoebe Lee, the first wife of Ted, former business partner and co-producer of the first two installments of The starfighter trilogy, the movies that elevated Ted into the ranks of Hollywood royalty, but didn’t go so well for Phoebe.

The novel is fast; it reveals new details about characters, relationships, and personal stories in dense layers that just keep coming. The story quickly alternates between advancing the narrative of what is happening in the present and revisiting the past.

In fact, the past looms like a dark shadow over the entire story and its main characters, who often seem stuck due to unresolved issues from their past lives. There are minute character details and interconnected stories, all of which abundantly color the events of the day.

Each chapter is titled after one of the main women and is told from that person’s point of view. However, the chapters are not necessarily about their eponymous character. Rather, with each chapter Hart deftly reveals more and more about the three non-titular leads.

Hart knows his characters intimately and achieves expressiveness and economy of words without losing plot logic.

The inner lives of Phoebe, Zanne, and Holly drive the story, each of them getting better by the end of the book at resolving internal conflicts, overcoming self-doubt, setting boundaries, and growing as people. .

Filled with a figure of Harvey Weinsteinian in power player Jerry Silver, The working woman is a crucible in which personal, cultural and cinematic truths burn enough to finally be revealed. This leads to the establishment of new relationships, the settling of old scores, and the completion of the inner journeys of each of the three female protagonists.

The novel offers an insider’s perspective on the machinations involved in the world of personal assistants. The Stablers have a team of 30 people to help them with all aspects of their personal and family office lives. In an afterword, the author acknowledges his experience of working in this world.

Despite its heavy contemporary themes, The working woman is a thrilling and incisively funny read. Readers will laugh out loud, giggle, giggle and smile throughout the action.

TLR interviewed the author about his inaugural novel.

How did you start writing?

I’ve been writing since I was little, but I started writing seriously in college. I was in pre-med, but I slept through the night to get a spot in my first fiction writing class. After that I got addicted and my dreams of becoming a doctor started to fade. A few years out of college, I moved to New York to get my MFA at The New School, and then started the clock for my years as a “working writer.” From then on, whether I’m self-employed, working as a personal assistant to a wealthy family (like Zanne), working 9 to 5, or not working at all, my underlying goal was to always continue to write in the image. I’m still in my “working writer” years, by the way!

You write with extreme precision in The working woman. What are your tips for new and emerging writers on how to refine a piece?

I used to write more slowly and my sentences tended to be more complicated and reworked. Over time, I’ve become less critical of myself at the writing stage and focus more on pacing, action, dialogue, and character dynamics. Since I’m focused on it all, I don’t care as much about finding the right word. Revision is when I go back over the sentences to make them as precise as possible.

In the novel, the character Phoebe Lee is a Korean American woman. She’s now a high school English teacher with ambitions to always have it warrior bride movie released. She was often the real talent and no-frills boss of The starfighter I and II. And she was sexually harassed by Jerry Stiller. How does Phoebe sum up the challenges women face that the #MeToo movement has brought to light?

Once I considered bringing a woman from Ted’s past into the story, I knew I wanted to explore the differences between the career trajectory of a male director and that of a female director. Ted has had twenty years to work unhindered by sexual harassment, sexism or racism. The world has conspired to make things easier for him, and he has used the money and fame he has accumulated to set up his career, his home, and his marriage to function exactly as he needs it. Also, Ted is barely aware of his own advantages. He’s not sure that Phoebe didn’t participate in her own assault (by criticizing the way she dressed, for example) and he doesn’t see color, which means he can’t quite understand. the additional set of rules she must follow. does not apply to him.

About two-thirds of the way into the novel, the pacing and language changes, becoming faster, and the three protagonists gain clarity in their speech, actions, and inner dialogue. How did you technically build to a climax in a seamless way that remains consistent with the rest of the book?

I’ve heard writers defined as pants (who pick up the story as they go, by the seat of their pants) or plotters (who use an outline and generally like to know where they’re going). I’m a plotter for sure. My editor too. We spent a lot of time before I wrote a word of the review plotting out all the story twists and figuring out exactly when all the reveals should happen.

Cover, The Working Woman. Courtesy of HarperCollins.

Gaby seems to be the conscience of the novel. She dismisses who Zanne is at work. She’s not at all interested in working for Ted. Gaby lays the groundwork for Zanne’s self-esteem regarding her complicity in the wrongs happening around her. Why did you choose to express this criticism through Gaby?

Gaby is much younger than Zanne, Holly, or Phoebe, and still retains a kind of jaded idealism about the world. She also never met Ted Stabler, the famous director, nor went to his field where his girlfriend works. There was a kind of critical eye she could bring to this world, seeing it for the first time, that none of the other characters in the book could. We also had to figure out who Zanne is when she’s not at work, and her relationship with Gaby gives us another view of her. The two things Zanne must lose are her financial security and her relationship with Gaby, which makes Gaby’s disillusionment with the kind of person Zanne becomes when she bids on Ted (and cashes in that money) all the more important. to do it).

Staff members Flora and Letty wear uniforms and call Holly “Senora”, while all other staff members call her “Holly” at her own insistence and have no uniforms. What are you highlighting with this obvious discrepancy?

This inequity is something that Zanne knows exists, but sticks in her mind as “just one of those things” until her girlfriend Gaby, who is also a Latina, calls her name. In Zanne’s workplace, the people downstairs are the Spanish-speaking landscapers and cleaners. Holly is one of those well-meaning white women who consider themselves fair and egalitarian and feel uncomfortable when white employees show her too much deference, but when her Spanish-speaking employees defer to her, it doesn’t trigger the same alarm bells for sound. As a queer woman, Zanne marginalized herself, but she somehow bought into the idea that the Stablers are fair and don’t care about status, because being a lesbian didn’t hurt her there. It takes Gaby’s presence that day, and seeing her workplace through the eyes of a woman of color, for Zanne to realize she’s had a little Kool-Aid.

What barriers do women writers face in publishing?

Women’s work is often considered ‘domestic’ or ‘low key’, when a man writing on the same themes is advertised. Statistically, white women are actually over-represented in the publishing industry, which doesn’t mean they all get a living wage or have a chance for advancement. And despite efforts in 2020 and beyond to diversify publishing, authors who get their books published are still extremely white. So it’s really people of color, and women of color in particular, that we should be thinking about.

You are a self-confessed people pleaser. Your motto was “happy to help”. These aren’t bad qualities to have, except when they get in the way of work-life balance. What ideas do you have for achieving this often elusive balance?

It’s something I’ve struggled with for years and wrote about recently in New York magazine. It can be very difficult for women, in particular, to find a balance between their personal and professional lives. It is easy and comfortable for me to play a helping role in my family and also in the office, but it often comes at the expense of pursuing my own interests. Now that I’ve reached my late 40s, I have to ask myself how much longer do I want to be backstage? For a long time, I subconsciously tried to “earn” this right, and now I am trying to challenge this notion. I’m still a big believer in community and helping my loved ones and neighbors, but I don’t want to put my own dreams last by default.

Alison B. Hart grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Chapel Hill with her family.

She’ll be in conversation with Lauren LeBlanc at Flyleaf Books on July 26, preceded by a book signing at 5:30 p.m.

Pamir Kiciman is a writer/poet, artist/craftsman, photographer, healer and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit or contact him by email: [email protected]

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