Taylor Jenkins Reed struggles with her own ambition

Uwhen you’ve reached the top of your game, where can you go next? This is a question that plagues the protagonist of Taylor Jenkins Reed’s latest novel, Tennis drama from the 90s Cary Soto is back, coming August 30. Carey, now 37, is coming out of retirement to reclaim the record that made her a legend, just equaled by a young star. with 20 Grand Slams on her behalf, she’s desperate to live up to her reputation for dominance, which she once believed was impeccable but now feels slipping away, forcing her to come to terms with how much of her identity is wrapped up in her record—and wondering if he is expecting too much of himself in an attempt to prove his worth to the world.

Reid, 38, knows those feelings well. She worked for a full decade, producing book after book, the last three of which, part of a quartet about famous women, finally made the author herself a household name. Carrie Soto is the final installment of the package that began with Reed’s 2017 novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, about a 1960s Hollywood icon who falls in love with her co-star. The book, which was both praised and criticized for its portrayal of a queer woman of color, became a sensation on TikTok four years after its publication, photographing it in New York times bestseller list in January 2021 and has been back for 75 weeks and counting. The two novels published by Reid in the interim — 2019 Daisy Jones and the Sixabout a ’70s rock band and their magnetic frontwoman, and 2021 The Malibu Revivalabout a supermodel surfer and her siblings in the 1980s – also hit the bestseller list and toured celebrity clubs; Reese Witherspoon chose the former, Jenna Bush Hager, the last one. All three have adaptations in development.

The books in Reed’s famous female quartet stand alone, except for a few Easter eggs here and there, such as the mention of a Daisy Jones biography in Carrie Soto and the appearance of singer Mick Riva in all four novels. But each of the books centers on a vibrant heroine managing the tension between her glamorous life in the public eye and the pressures she feels in private. For Reed, there’s something universal about that. “You make it a movie star, a rock star, a supermodel, a tennis player, it’s all the same thing we’re faced with: How much of myself do I want to give and what am I hiding?” she says in an interview.

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And each of the books captures a specific time and place, with Reed meticulously picking up small but meaningful details to help build compelling worlds. For Carrie Sotoit meant learning as much as she could about a sport she had barely watched, let alone played, reading books on the strategy and technique of the game and the careers of Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Billie Jean Kingand Althea Gibson, learning different styles of play and court surfaces and watching old matches on YouTube, soaking up the language of the athletes. She brings that level of intensity to all her projects, and in order to publish eight novels in nine years — as well as writing screenplays with her husband and working on her own adaptations and having her daughter — Reed follows a strict timeline for each book. devoting a certain number of weeks each to research, drafting and revision.

It’s fitting, then, that the author decided to end the quartet that made her famous with a story about a woman struggling with her constant pursuit of success—and finally realizing that it might be too much. In detailing Carrie Soto’s evolving feelings about her tennis career, Reed emphasizes the charge that lives under such pressure can take “This isn’t really a story about whether Carrie can win a Slam?” she says with a pointed look.

“It’s about whether she can stop climbing mountains.”

Reid likes this picture: climbing mountains. She has oriented her entire adulthood around him. Growing up, she was fascinated by Hollywood gossip, so she studied film at Boston College and then moved to Los Angeles, where a four-year stint in casting gave her a window into the lives of the rich and famous, as well as the dehumanizing realities of working with certain “great personalities”. Then she realized she didn’t want to relive other people’s stories—she wanted to write her own. At 24, she wrote her first book, which ultimately did not sell. But it was not phased. “There was nothing stopping me,” she says. “There was a target and I was going to get it.”

That determination has driven her ever since. Eight novels later, she has gained a huge following of readers who are obsessed with her escapist stories, full of dramatic twists and funny dialogue. And she found her way back to Hollywood in exactly the role she wanted. Reed and her husband, Alex Jenkins Reed, wrote the screenplay for the 2016 film adaptation of her novel. One true lovewhich stars Philippa Su and Simu Liu and was shot last year. The television adaptation of Daisy Joneswith Riley Keough and Sam Claflin as bandmates Daisy and Billy, wrapped filming last spring. And Small fires everywhere showrunner Liz Tigelaar is set to accommodate both The Malibu Revival and Evelyn Hugo, for Hulu and Netflix respectively.

Reid, without intending to, has become an IP machine pumping out novels that readers can’t get enough of in an era when Hollywood is voraciously hungry for adaptation material. The concept of success can take on a flexible definition for authors—satisfaction can come with any number of readers, large or small, finding your work. But in Reed’s case, it’s quantifiable: 5.4 million copies of her books have been printed in the US; her works have been published in 36 languages.

The success did not come without the criticism Reed faced for writing novels that focused on characters who did not share her identity. Her most popular book, Evelyn Hugois about a bisexual Cuban American. Cary Soto is back features multiple conversations in Spanish between Carrie and her Argentinian father. Reed, who is white and straight, says she’s heard from readers who appreciate the performance, as well as those, including some of her own friends, who range from skeptical to downright angry about it. She is one of many authors whose work has been raised in the context of a larger debate in publishing industry about who has the right to tell what stories. For her part, Reed firmly believes that writing books that focus only on heterosexual, white women — thereby forcing characters of color and queer characters into supporting or peripheral roles — is not the right choice for her. “I’m not saying that a white woman writing about women of color is automatically the right answer. There is no good answer,” she says. “I try to understand it with the awareness that my intention to create a good performance does not mean that I have done it right.” I come to it conflicted and open to criticism.

Like many authors who have achieved mainstream success, she sometimes lends her platform by highlighting the work of other authors or featuring their voices on her social media, and she has taken a public stance on the importance of casting a Latin American actor for the role of Evelyn Hugo. “I try to do everything I can do,” she says. “At the end of the day, the real goal here is for women of color to be empowered to tell their stories and be given the attention and opportunity that a white woman like me is given.”

In the middle Cary Soto is back, the main character begins to wonder if her ambition has gotten out of hand. She flees to Palm Springs, where she has gone into hiding, to train The French Open, and she feels like she can’t rest. Her knee is giving out, she just lost in Australia, her dad, also her coach, is hounding her for being too impatient on the court, and her manager has just informed her that one of her sponsorship deals is at risk . She has lost the sense of joy that came with the game.

Reed also questions his own ambition at times. For all the goals he sets and pursues, the moment he finally achieves them is surprisingly hollow. “My happiest moment is not when I’m standing on top of a mountain,” she says. “This is when I’m about to go there. When I’ve worked so hard and it just shows – and I have to keep working.”

Her husband has a specific look he gives her when she announces a new project idea – a sort of “here we go again” expression. And for years she’s been promising her friends she’s going to take a break, to the point where they no longer believe her. But Reid emphasizes that the pressure women feel fighting for a place in any field is real, and once you start achieving success, it can seem impossible to stop striving. “We say, Oh, look how productive she is. Look how hard he works. Look at how much she was given and how much she made,” she says. “No one says, Oh, look at her, just be.”

But now that her quartet is complete, Reed is determined to take a break — albeit in her own, productive way. She will read more books: classics she never got around to and works by her contemporaries that she missed. He will try to live a little so that he has something new to write about. “I want to have that feeling where I’m not itching to get to the computer because I want to feel like I’ve done something today—I’m itching because I have so much I want to say,” she says. But even in this there is an advantage. “The next time I publish a book, I want to come out and be a different writer,” she says.

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Write to Annabelle Guterman c [email protected].

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