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In Conversation with Elissa R. Sloan

If you follow Elissa on #Bookstagram then you’re already familiar with her adorable cats and her enviable built-in shelves, full to bursting and paired with a rolling ladder. This year her followers also got to partake in the cover reveal of her debut novel, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes, and the road to publication, which included ridiculously awesome album art Elissa recreated using herself as the stand-in for all our favorite 2000s pop stars. The titular character, Cassidy Holmes, is a member of the girl group, Gloss, who make it big in the early aughts. They’re at the top of the charts and it seems like they have everything, until Cassidy leaves the group at the height of their success. 15 years later, the rest of Gloss is left to wrestle with Cassidy’s sudden death, reminiscing about the events that led to Gloss’ demise.

Portrait of a woman looking in camera. Just her head to shoulder area. She has ombre hair, red lipstick, and teal rimmed glasses.
Author Elissa R. Sloan (Photo by Caitlin McWeeney)

Mel Rosenthal: Thank you again for your interest in interviewing! I’ve been following along with the parts of the publishing process you’ve shared on Instagram and I am ecstatic to share in some of the joy surrounding your debut, which is gorgeous inside and out.

How did you come to write the story of Gloss? Did it feel like a must having their heyday be the beginning of the new millennium?

Elissa R. Sloan: I caught a showing of the 1997 Spice Girls movie, Spice World, on TV one day in 2014. This was around the same time that the toxicity of Mel B’s (Scary Spice's) marriage surfaced, which was in all the tabloids. I remember thinking, what would it be like if a pop group that was big in the early 2000s had a member *die* suddenly, years after their peak? That's where Gloss came in. I knew I wanted to set the book in the early 2000s because it was such an iconic time in pop history. This was the era when MTV was still huge, the VMAs were must-see TV, Britney Spears was on fire.

MR: Too true… Britney, the Spice Girls. As someone who was a young adult in the 2000s, this book was so nostalgic for me. How was it for you reliving those years on the page? Were you a fan of American Idol? Which was your favorite boy band? Were you listening to any retro pop while writing early drafts??

ERS: I was a young adult in the 2000s too, and sometimes I feel like I never left! I still listen to all of those albums, and I read celebrity gossip and keep up with the careers of these stars. I have no idea who the new celebrities are — I can't keep up with all the YouTubers and Disney kids — but I'm invested in the lives of the folks I grew up with. I wonder if that's the same for a lot of people. Anyway, I can't say I was a huge fan of American Idol, but I definitely watched the first few seasons when it was still a novelty. As for the boy band... I loved NSYNC and BSB equally. I can't take sides! Though I did see NSYNC in concert but not BSB...

MR: That’s the same for me. Sometimes I open up a Buzzfeed listicle and just squint my eyes at the unrecognizable names but I still rejoice in continued success and joy of the musicians and actors who grew up before my eyes, and sometimes alongside me. I was just reminded by one such article that all of the members of NSYNC and Backstreet Boys are all over 40 now! Only makes me feel a little old….

MR: Anyway! I have to know how much fun you had replicating album covers on your Instagram! I’m partial to your most recent one of the Spice Girls. How did you get started doing those?

ERS: The album covers were so fun! They were sort of a quarantine project / photo project. I'm a professional photographer — I've shot weddings for nearly ten years — and wanted to do some creative promo for Cassidy Holmes. Something to keep my mind occupied while we were sheltering in place. Deconstructing how a lot of the original album covers were shot and replicating them did just that. Some were easier to deconstruct than others; for instance, the Jessica Simpson one was just a softbox lighting me directly. But a few were tricky. Celine Dion's and Jennifer Lopez's utilized barn doors to get that "highlighted" lit look.

MR: It shows that you put in a lot of work. I got such a kick out of them.

MR: To get into the writing itself, I couldn’t help but notice how your descriptions, of the physicality of the characters and of the atmosphere of each scene are so delectably precise, were so easy to visualize. Where have you drawn inspiration from for this specificity or for writing in general? Any specific authors?

ERS: That's so kind of you to say! I read a LOT. I don't know if I draw inspiration from a specific author. I feel like I absorb a little bit of each author's work as I read, and it starts to reflect in my writing a little bit. Between when I started writing the book in 2014, to finishing big drafts in 2018, I probably read over 250 books and took in a smidgen from every one.

MR: I love that! That’s incredible. Authors say all the time that to write you have to read, but I feel like while drafting many authors also say that they stop reading. I’d never be able to stop reading, no matter what I’m working on, so I’m so happy to hear that you kept up with such an impressive reading practice!

On a similar note, the way you utilized suspense, leaving crumbs of clues throughout and occasionally shocking/revealing statements at the end of most chapters— I was totally riveted, making notes in the corners of pages to keep track of all the new information as it became known. That seems like a tactic often used by mystery or thriller writers and it proved so successful here. I couldn’t put the book down!

Did writing this way come naturally or was it that once you figured out the ending, it was just a matter of “laying the trap” for the reader by giving up the details in small pieces? Did you put a lot of time into planning everything out? Did the final version take many drafts?

ERS: I had an idea of how the story would take shape, and I wrote the book laid out as you see it now: we start with present-day Yumi, flash back to Cassidy in 1999, present-day Merry, flash back, and so on. But after I finished the first draft, I deleted the whole second half and rewrote it. Then I went back over and over throughout the entire story to weave in hints and details so that everything felt "tight." I didn't mean to emulate mystery or thriller writers; I just wanted people to keep reading. In the first draft, I had the soggiest middle. It was so boring. I made a note to myself: "Make her highs high and her lows low." I rewrote with that in mind, and I think it naturally progressed to wanting to keep the reader engaged.

MR: I noticed that each of the surviving Gloss women make claims in their respective first chapters that they, singularly, lay claim to being the closest one to Cassidy when they were all still together—and yet not one can wrap their head around why she would have killed herself since they hadn’t spoken to Cassidy in months or years. Can you speak to the decision you made to only utilize Cassidy’s first person narration in the past and let her former bandmates interpret their brief shared history color the present?

ERS: To be honest, I didn't think that the present from Cassidy's perspective would be interesting. She was deeply depressed. She would probably go to work at her charity, she'd feed and walk her dog, she'd be at home in her little house inadvertently distancing herself from friends or family. That doesn't make for an interesting story. At the time of writing, I was also depressed and didn't feel like what I was doing (which was very little, besides working and writing) was worth noting. In the interest of keeping the story going, I thought that Cassidy's voice should stay in the past where her story made more sense to share, than to include it in the present when there were already so many voices to describe 2017.

MR: Such a good point. I also enjoyed how leaving her voice in the past leaves more interpretation to her present.

Now, no spoilers, but can I just stay how much I couldn’t stand the girls’ manager, Peter? Sterling Royce, a 40-something celebrity hanging around girls half his age, was cringeworthy, and Stephen St. James, the first winner of Sing It, America, was… something else, but the way Peter willfully disregarded Cassidy’s mental and physical well-being when he had the power to do otherwise was mind-boggling. Was his character always going to be that way toward Cassidy or did his flaws become more prominent in the wake of #MeToo? Did #MeToo factor into the way Cassidy’s interactions with Jerry (UGH!), and other random men she met on tour, played out?

ERS: Peter was always going to be terrible. You see these celebrity women, working so hard, driven to exhaustion by their handlers, just so everyone can make more money. I remember when someone leaked audio from the group Fifth Harmony in 2016, where one of the performers sounds like she's about to cry, and she says something like, "We work and we work and we work, and for what? Nothing." Which reminded me of TLC's Left Eye breaking down finances for the group, describing how everyone got a piece of the money pie before the performers finally got to split everything three ways, and that's why they were broke. These young women are promised the world, and end up shackled to contracts that make them workhorses for the record companies.

Likewise, Jerry was always going to be Jerry. Celebrities have always dealt with stalkers and Jerry gave a face to that threat.

Now, Sterling Royce was the one whose flaws became more prominent when I factored in #MeToo. That, and part of a Gloss girl's story (I won't say who so readers can find out for themselves).

MR: I was so glad to see your Author’s Note, and to see it at the beginning of the book, rather than at the end. In the Behind the Book section of the PS notes, you speak a little about your personal reasons for depicting Cassidy’s struggles the way you did. Do you have any advice for either new or established authors who are writing similarly tough situations? Either in how they provide content warnings like you did, or how to make choices on the page?

ERS: The author's note has been getting a lot of attention, here and on social media! People have been thanking me for putting the trigger warnings in the start of the book, rather than somewhere in the back after folks have finished reading. I was dealing with depression while writing this book, and Cassidy was an outlet for me. I knew that if someone who was in a similar place mentally, who read this book without realizing what it was about and saw that someone completed suicide and was mourned, it would be immensely triggering for that person. I did not want anyone to feel blindsided by the material, which is why I asked my publisher to put the trigger warnings in the front and to gently mention Cassidy's death in the book jacket text before actually saying "suicide" in a later paragraph. I feel like it's the responsibility of the author to make sure that if people are in a vulnerable mind space, to not aggravate them further with their content.

MR: Readers have started talking more about content warnings as they share thoughts on books. With any luck, having more of these warnings in print in the books themselves will become the norm.

Publishing is a very slow process. You mentioned that you’d started writing Cassidy in 2014, but there is the inevitable comparison to the popular Daisy Jones and the Six, published last year. When & how did you first hear about it and did it factor into anything you did/did not want to include in your own book? I’d also be curious to hear how you first comped Cassidy either to get your agent or to editors before it sold!

ERS: I remember reading and loving Taylor Jenkins Reid's The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo the year it came out. Evelyn Hugo was so thematically close to what I had already spent 3 years writing in Cassidy Holmes. When Daisy Jones was announced, I even wondered if I should shelve my manuscript because there was no point in continuing to write a book that already had been written. But friends encouraged me to keep going, saying that if Daisy Jones did well, it meant there was a market for my book too. I deliberately did not read Daisy Jones until the bulk of my writing was completed, and I didn't change anything; I do think that the books are similar in concept but very different in execution. I comped Cassidy Holmes to Spice Girls crossed with Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng when I pitched it. I believe my editor pitched it as a 2000s Evelyn Hugo meets EINTY when she brought it to acquisitions.

MR: I personally found Daisy Jones lacking something, and didn’t love the format of the story, so I’m quite happy you didn’t shelve Cassidy! I got a lot more out of her story than Daisy’s. I’m also a big fan of EINTY, and the Spice Girls, as I’ve mentioned—your comp was spot on for me at least!

And finally, how excited are you for your debut to be out in the world? How might you advise other writers going through any part of this process, whether they’re still editing a first draft, just querying agents, about to sell, or about to publish their first books?

ERS: I'm so excited for this book to be published! Because my book was chosen for Book of the Month early release and came out to their subscribers in August, a whole month before my official release date, I feel a little bit like I've launched already: the jitters about my work being read have already peaked and subsided, leaving only excitement about what the rest of the release will bring. That overanxious feeling is the worst; I really feel for those writers who are waiting to hear back from someone, whether it's an agent, an editor, or actual readers.

I think what I'd say is: take your time and do it right. There's this pressure that you need to be published before X age, or that you shouldn't take Y number of years to write the story you've been envisioning. I understand that fear, that time is running out and you need to seize the moment, but it's not real. Don't try to find an agent with a half-baked book. Most of my good ideas happened when I let my thoughts sit and marinate.

MR: Great words of advice!

Thank you again. I really cannot say enough how much I enjoyed reading your work! No pressure, but I’m already looking forward to your next book.

ERS: Thanks so much for having me! I'm so glad that you enjoyed the book. I'm working on something new, but I'm also taking my own advice and not trying to rush it. Hopefully this new work will find a home somewhere.

Read Mel Rosenthal's review of THE UNRAVELING OF cASSIDY HOLMES HERE.


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