Home Author Interview with NSFW author Isabel Kaplan on the Hollywood-inspired novel – The Hollywood Reporter

Interview with NSFW author Isabel Kaplan on the Hollywood-inspired novel – The Hollywood Reporter

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Isabel Kaplan has a tortured relationship with Los Angeles. Enjoying the city wholeheartedly may require a suspension of disbelief the author of this summer’s high-profile #MeToo-inspired novel NSFW never really found. She grew up here, but was more interested in politics than Hollywood — by the age of six she was already dressing as Hillary Clinton for Halloween — and spent her two years interviewing book agents, before publishing a YA novel as a teenager. Ironically, she found herself fresh out of college with a job as a temporary floating assistant at an (anonymous) television studio, a gig that ended up giving her the material for her second novel.

NSFW follows an (unnamed) young protagonist who becomes an assistant to a young studio executive in the years leading up to the #MeToo movement. Not a revealer in any specific sense, the book nevertheless lays bare the many troubling elements of Hollywood’s corporate culture, from veiled sexism to blatant sexual harassment. Kaplan’s narrator sees herself as an outsider who can eliminate toxicity from within, but quickly learns that buying into the system costs a price she may not be willing to pay.

The author, who now lives in New York and works as a book-to-film agent, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the experiences that informed the writing of the buzzing new novel, and what she hopes readers will take away from its unshakeable pages.

What was your experience when you started on television?

I started as a floating temporary worker in a network where services had just been reorganized. It was development and then mainstream, the standard division, but they had just split into comedy and drama. I was a glorified intern and my first few months there were very confusing as I had no idea what I was doing. It was a lot of covering different people’s desks, which is the least reassuring thing to do because you don’t know who someone is, you don’t know who’s calling. It was also a crash course in all the really specific lingo and etiquette. I didn’t even know you had to ask what order people should go in on a conference call. I didn’t know that the network always turns on last, even if everyone else is on. And that it’s a really big faux pas to put the network exec before the studio exec and the studio exec doesn’t want to continue until the producer is on, who doesn’t want to continue until the writer is on. Everything is an endless game. The way to impress people is, for example, to memorize everyone’s meal orders.

Did you know at the time that you were going to write about the experience? Did you realize that the things that happened to you were good for a novel?

I’ve always had a hard time knowing that I’m going to write about anything while I’m living it. I mentally jotted down the nonsense, but without any plan. If I had written about this when I was still an assistant, I would not have had the right point of view. Even if you think the value system you embrace is messed up, or the things you do at work are weird, you have to on some level buy into it just to keep doing it. Otherwise, the whole house of cards collapses.

When did the house of cards collapse?

I mean, I’m really in a state where we’re going to burn it all down. I think there is no such thing as an ethical institution in Hollywood, nor a period of an ethical institution. By definition, they are unethical. They protect themselves, that’s how they are created. I bought into this idea that, here, I fight for change from within, I will defend the voices that are not in the room. It’s such extreme cognitive dissonance. Because it requires believing that even though you’re playing the game, you’re not actually playing it. It’s not special to Hollywood, it’s basically every society. It is our government. Over the past seven years, I have become much more disenchanted with the idea that anything can change. You can fire a few people, but you end up with a system of enablers. I kinda hate that we’re at this point where people think things have changed – they haven’t, it’s just that a lot of men are now familiar with the term “implicit bias”.

NSFW takes place just before the #MeToo movement. Were you still in the industry when Harvey Weinstein was exposed?

I was in graduate school, so I watched it all unfold from there. But most of my friends were still working in Hollywood, so I used some of their experiences to inform the writing. But I also think the space gave me some intellectual freedom to think about it differently and talk with others about their experiences. The truth is, my own experiences as an assistant weren’t that bad comparatively; I was constantly faced with worse situations. The shocking part of the #MeToo movement is that none of the stories that came out were shocking. Everyone wanted to be outraged, but everyone knew. I remember when an assistant position opened up for Harvey Weinstein and I was told, “Oh, don’t apply for that, you should be having scary meetings in hotel rooms.”

That’s not a the devil wears Prada style statement, but the book still exposes some of the darker sides of the business. Were you worried about anyone’s reactions to that?

It’s a novel, the plot and the people are fiction, but I had a lot of real feelings that went into this book. But I think what makes it a little easier is that it’s not like I’m “eliminating” a specific network or leader. What happens in the novel happened on all networks. Unfortunately, it’s structural and involves so many people. But I don’t think you can write things and worry about what people will think. I also had to think, is every part of the book a service, or is it just something I wrote because I was going through something?

What shocked you the most about book publishing, compared to the process of creating a TV show?

I’m just thinking about the creative control you have, and the fact that it’s a one-on-one situation with your editor. Or for me, one against three, since I had two publishers in the UK. Plus, once you sell a book, you know it will come out. Even if only five people read it, it will be published and available. Whereas with a TV show, you can sell it a million times and it may never become a show. The most disheartening part of television was how little was shown. There are so many opportunities for people to say no, and it’s so easy to say no. There were projects where I spent, on behalf of the network, with exactly one month of experience.

Do you think you had a relatively smooth process to sell the book? It’s really high profile and gets a lot of attention, but it doesn’t always reflect what the author has been through.

I was trying to sell it in the fall of 2020 when everything seemed so apocalyptic. We had the pandemic, and here in Los Angeles, because of the fires, the skies were red and the air quality was terrible, and the election was looming. I was like, who the fuck am I to care about my book sales, when democracy might collapse next week? It was total panic in every way. I would always find myself worrying about my book and feeling terrible. Sure, I’ve spent years of my life there, but society is falling apart and I’m here saying, don’t you want to read about sexual harassment in the workplace?

Do you feel the pressure to sell the adaptation rights to the book? This is Hollywood, and you’re literally a book-to-movie agent.

I think everyone who writes something wants it to live on in its best and greatest form. Obviously, I would like it to be adapted, but I also try to be very pragmatic about it. It can be devastating if you place too much emphasis on a specific outcome. I don’t know if I succeed, though – it’s hard not to ask my agent, who are you submitting to? Or have you heard that this person was looking for something like this? It is difficult to divorce these parts of myself. And it’s weird to have written a book about Hollywood and now want people in Hollywood to read it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.