Taylor Jenkins Reid, the author of “Daisy Jones & the Six” and one of this summer’s hits, “Malibu Rising,” is tapping into the desire among readers (and Hollywood) for escapism plus complexity.
If Taylor Jenkins Reid were writing herself into one of her novels, which include “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” “Daisy Jones & the Six” and this year’s “Malibu Rising,” she might slip in a scene where, roaming the stacks of a university library in Boston, she comes across “Starring Roles,” the 1992 book by Ron Base that explores the trajectory of actors like Judy Garland and Dustin Hoffman, whose careers were transformed by roles that nearly went to others.
There Reid was, a 19-year-old pop-culture sponge — who spent a childhood vacation reading Lucille Ball’s memoir and who wrote movie quotes with marker on her bedroom walls (such as John Cusack’s “I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed” from “Say Anything”) — finding, in “Starring Roles,” her bible. It laid bare the layers of fame: the fictional character, the actor, the persona the actor sells to the press and the image the press presents to the public.
“This has been the dynamic with movie stars since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks,” Reid, 37, said on a video call while pacing the backyard of a Topanga Canyon rental (her Los Angeles house was under renovation), wearing a red T-shirt with the words, “Fiction, because real life is terrible.”
“Now with Instagram and Facebook, that’s what everyone’s doing,” she said. “We’re all putting forth a story about our lives that is not exactly our life. What I’m interested in is the difference between the truth and the myth.”
Reid’s truth, notwithstanding the terribleness of real life, is that with “Malibu Rising” and “Evelyn Hugo” currently on the best-seller lists, screen adaptations of two of her other books moving into production, and a third book in development, she has become a publishing juggernaut and a go-to creator in Hollywood.
“‘Malibu Rising’ was one of the most asked-about books that we were queried on by all of our clients this spring,” said Emily Conner, the founder of Conner Literary, which scouts material for producers and streaming media companies. “Post-pandemic, people are really wanting easy escapism, things that are entertaining and narrative and with a sense of time and place, and Taylor is a master of tapping into that.”
The entanglement of fame and real life frames Reid’s books. “Malibu Rising,” published in June by Ballantine, depicts two generations of a prominent family in the Southern California beach enclave. It focuses on a bikini model named Nina Riva, who has lost her mother, is estranged from her celebrity crooner father and has raised her three younger siblings on her own.
Set in 1983, the drama unfolds amid big waves, big parties and big affairs, but it poses thoughtful questions about the expectations often placed on women to provide men with forgiveness and absolution. It is one of three books by Reid to hit the best-seller lists in two years. It was a Jenna Bush book-club pick for July, and before it was published, it was optioned for Hulu to develop for television.
“Malibu Rising” is the follow-up to her 2019 novel-as-oral-history, “Daisy Jones & the Six,” which explores the frictions and affections between members of a 1970s rock band. It reads like the backdrop to a Joni Mitchell song.
“Daisy Jones” was selected by Reese Witherspoon for her book club in 2019, and is now being produced by her company Hello Sunshine as an Amazon limited series. Scheduled to start filming next month, it stars Riley Keough, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and one of the leads in the movie “Zola.”
“I devoured it, and I immediately flagged it for Reese, who read it at the speed of light,” said Lauren Neustadter, president of film and television for Hello Sunshine, who got a copy before it was published. “It was very clear to us when we read it that it was something that was perfect for adaptation and was also perfect for the book club, and we don’t often have overlap.” (At one point when she met with Reid, she put her on the phone with Witherspoon. When the call ended, Reid said, “I’m having an out-of-body experience, but I think Reese Witherspoon just told me all the reasons she loved my book,” Neustadter recalled.)
Before “Daisy Jones,” there was “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” Reid’s 2017 novel about a 1960s screen siren who steamrolls her way through high-profile marriages but hides her greatest love, for a woman. It hit the best-seller list for the first time this summer, thanks, Reid said, to TikTokers who discovered it amid the publicity for “Malibu Rising.”
Reid’s writing is “soapy and juicy and glamorous and complex,” said Amy Talkington, who is writing the pilot for “Malibu Rising” and was a co-executive producer for the Hulu limited series “Little Fires Everywhere,” based on the best-selling novel by Celeste Ng.
Streaming companies are hungry for content, Talkington said, that is “commercial, but they want it to be more, they want the themes to be there, they want the characters to be there, they want the complexity.”
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Reid has also written a screen adaptation, with her husband Alex Jenkins Reid, of her 2016 novel, “One True Loves,” about a woman whose husband is presumed dead in a helicopter accident but is found years later, after she has gotten engaged to another man. The film will star Phillipa Soo, who played Eliza Hamilton in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton.”
Reid was raised in Ocean City, Md., and Acton, Mass. She had some standard millennial cultural tastes (“Saved by the Bell,” “Friends”), but her greatest crush was on Lucille Ball (“one of the first times that I was seeing a woman be silly, funny, unselfconscious and very carefree,” Reid said). She spent hours watching “I Love Lucy” and thinking about the separation and overlap of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
She studied film and television at Emerson College, taking advantage of a satellite program in Los Angeles that the school offered to second-semester seniors. Still fixated by the interplay of actress and role, she landed an internship in the casting department for “CSI: NY.”
After graduating, Reid became the casting assistant for the casting directors Sarah Finn and Randi Hiller, earning her first casting credit for the 2006 movie “The Guardian,” starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. She began to write in her spare time.
“I couldn’t know Taylor would be this successful as a writer, but I’m also not surprised,” said Hiller, who now oversees feature film casting at the Walt Disney Company. When Reid was helping to cast a part, Hiller added, “she was always very focused on the interior life. Now, she’s writing characters that are very multilayered, they are quote-unquote flawed, but actually they are really just human, in the way we all are.”
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In 2011, Reid quit her job in casting to focus on writing. She signed with a literary agent and drafted a novel, “Forever, Interrupted,” about a man and woman who, like Reid and her husband, met and eloped in a matter of months. The husband dies in a bike accident, forcing the wife and the mother-in-law she had never before met to grieve together.
The agent hated it, as did a manager Reid consulted. “I remember I was bawling my eyes out and laying on my bed,” she said. She thought of a story in Ball’s memoir about when an acting teacher told her mother that Ball had no talent and no future in entertainment.
“That did not stop Lucille Ball,” Reid said. “She found another way.”
She parted with the agent, reworked the book and submitted it to 30 agents. Twenty-nine passed on it, but one agent saw promise, signing Reid and selling the book. She wrote three more books published in the following three years: “After I Do,” in 2014; “Maybe in Another Life,” in 2015, and “One True Loves,” in 2016. The books found middling commercial success.
In 2013, she read a Vanity Fair excerpt from “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations,” about a ghost writer hired by Gardner to help her dish on her marriages to Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw. This was the spark for “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.” It sold well and elevated Reid’s profile as a novelist, but she still felt she wasn’t breaking through as she knew she could.
“I wanted to be a bigger name, and I wanted to be aggressive about that,” Reid said.
She decided to sign with a new agent, Theresa Park, who represents authors such as Nicholas Sparks and Janice Y.K. Lee. Reid pitched two ideas to Park: one about a man and woman who start a correspondence after learning their spouses are having an affair. The other a novel “about rock singers that were in love with each other but not admitting it and writing songs about each other,” written as an oral history.
Park loved the rock ’n’ roll idea. Reid began researching the music scene of the 1970s, but then realized what she had gotten herself into.
“How do you write a fake oral history?” she said. “Oral histories are predicated upon common knowledge. I have to somehow incept you with common knowledge from the very first sentence and then break it apart and undermine it. I have to somehow create a myth while cutting through the myth at the exact same time. I was like, ‘What have I done?’”
A year later, just before her daughter’s first birthday, she emailed the first draft of “Daisy Jones” to Park, who responded, “This is a masterpiece.” Published in 2019, the book was a hit with readers and debuted at No. 3 on the best-seller list for hardcover fiction.
Reid is now writing her next book, which she sees as the capstone to a “quartet” of books about women and fame. “It’s about a type of woman who I want to talk about, a woman who has naked ambition,” she said. “It has made me ask a lot of questions about myself, like, ‘At what point is it OK to lay it down and relax for a minute? When is enough enough?’”