In Jessica Knoll’s Bright Young Women, She Takes On Ted Bundy

In her third novel, the bestselling author digs into a very American tragedy.

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Jessica Knoll, author of Bright Young Women and Luckiest Girl Ever.

A few years ago, a journalist asked bestselling author Jessica Knoll whether she’d prefer critical or commercial success. Without hesitation, she chose commercial. Critical recognition for her books, like her blockbuster debut Luckiest Girl Alive and The Favorite Sister, seemed out of reach anyway. “I was caught up in an old, limiting mindset for a long time — that things I wrote weren’t important enough for recognition by certain people at places like The New York Times Book Review, and so I should just be grateful that readers liked what I did,” Knoll tells Bustle. But then the interviewer pushed her: Didn’t she believe she could have both?

Now, speaking from her home in Los Angeles, where she’s healing from a chemical peel (“I’m basically always recovering from a chemical peel so we might as well immortalize that in print,” she jokes), Knoll can honestly say that hasn’t been the case. Following the instant success of her first novel in 2015, Knoll, then 31, suddenly became the new face of commercial fiction — and her self-esteem began to fluctuate with success metrics. If she wasn’t receiving quantifiable, positive feedback, she’d wonder, who am I and what do I have?

“That was a really scary question to pose to myself,” she says. “I had to contend with my biggest issue, which is that my inherent worth is deeply tied to my professional success in the world, and that’s not a way to live.”

When Knoll was tapped to write the screenplay for Netflix’s adaptation of Luckiest Girl Alive (starring Mila Kunis), she realized how far she’d come. “I revisited the book more carefully than I had in a long time and couldn’t believe the number of times the character calls herself ‘a piece of sh*t,’” she says of the book’s protagonist, who was inspired by Knoll. “I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s scary that I was going around for the better part of my life, talking to myself like that. I do not think that about myself anymore.’”

This reckoning freed her up to take greater challenges. Namely, writing the heavily researched, more literary Bright Young Women, a fictionalization of Ted Bundy’s 1978 attack on a Florida State University sorority house. At once nuanced and propulsive, the book has received widespread acclaim, and even earned Knoll her first-ever (glowing) NYTBR review, written by comedian Patton Oswalt. Knoll is honored by the recognition — particularly by the validation that, yes, women’s fiction can be considered commercial and literary. That she can really, truly have both.

Below, Knoll reflects on confidence, refusing to make herself “small,” and splurging on a boob lift.

What first drew you to Ted Bundy, and these sorority murders, in particular?

It started with the documentary that was on Netflix in 2019, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which was followed up almost immediately by [the movie] Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Zac Efron played him. At the time, a lot of people were posting clips on Twitter of the judge in his sentencing remarks, where he called him a “bright young man.” It was absolutely egregious that that was what he said to him. I started thinking, like, “Wow, there’s so much about this that I didn’t know.” I didn’t know that his crime spree ended in Florida because he escaped prison twice. [Then in Florida], three people died. One was a 12-year-old girl. If they were alive today, they’d only be in their 50s or 60s. These women wouldn’t even be grandparents yet, necessarily. They would still be young. Having that realization, it makes me even emotional to think about, it just made me so angry. I needed to understand how this happened.

You’ve mined your own life for inspiration in the past, but this is the first time you’re fictionalizing a well-known, true story. I loved seeing your TikToks about reading court transcripts, or going to Tallahassee to visit the college where it all took place. How did you find the reporting process?

It definitely slowed me down, but not necessarily in a bad way. It felt like something I had to wrap my arms around before I felt like I’d earned permission to tell this story. Also, the idea that, for the first time, I was going to be writing something that was not set in a contemporary era gave me a little bit of a crisis of confidence. Could I really capture what it would’ve been like to be a 21-year-old young woman in 1978? But the more research I did — and the more I got my hands on interview clips from the other sorority sisters and read about how they were abandoned by the community, how no one was really there to support them — I was like, “Not that much has changed.” That’s when I felt like, “I know what it’s like to be abandoned by your community in the wake of something very violent happening to you and having to only advocate for yourself. I can write about that.”

The title of this book, Bright Young Women, is a play on what the judge said to Bundy at the sentencing, that he was a “bright young man” with such wasted potential. But that experience isn’t unique to Bundy. It’s what we saw happen with Brock Turner, or I imagine part of the reason you felt abandoned by your community in high school after your assault. It’s such a disturbing impulse society seems to have, to not want to ruin a man’s life — despite the heinous crimes he commits.

[Brock Turner’s] father had the audacity to say that his son shouldn’t go to prison for 20 minutes of action. To me, it’s one and the same as the judge saying [to Bundy], “You’d have made a great lawyer, and I would’ve loved to have you practice it in front of me, but you went another way.”

What makes me crazy about that is he wouldn’t have been a great lawyer. He didn’t even get into law school! Then he couldn’t keep up! He was basically failing out less than a year in, and then he was arrested for the attempted murder. [I was] in disbelief that the documentary didn’t go deeper, because it’s like, OK, we have the judge saying that, and it’s so awful that we’re going to give airtime to that, but let’s go one step further and be like, “Were those remarks even warranted?” All the evidence says no.

Is the portrayal of violent men in the media something you’ve always been fascinated by, or was it spurred by this reporting?

I’ve always been fascinated by a narrative about an event being different from the one that sticks in the public consciousness. That’s how the school shooting became a part of Luckiest Girl Alive, my interest in Columbine. Columbine happened when I was a freshman in high school and it was shell-shocking to me that two guys my age were capable of that level of violence, [even though] I was raped by three guys [and] that’s violence, too. [At the time] I couldn’t think of what was done to me as violence.

I was always fascinated with that case. A couple of years later, I read Columbine by Dave Cullen, and I’d always thought the shooters from Columbine wore trench coats, listened to Marilyn Manson, and were outcasts. But they wore those trench coats to conceal the weapons. That was it. They were normal jock-y guys. They were clean-cut. They had friends. [One of them] went to prom on Saturday night and committed this on Tuesday. I remember being blown away that a [false] narrative could take form in the media. I was like, “I’ve been duped my whole life.”

Another narrative fascination of yours is the concept of success. Having lived through the “Girl Boss era,” we’ve done a lot of grappling with, and have come to accept, women’s ambition. But what you’ve written about feels a lot more radical to me: your desire for monetary success.

I think money is a dirty word. Lots of people do. I didn’t get a lot of blowback for [my op-ed] in The New York Times, [but I did] with that interview in The Cut. [Ed Note: An interview with Jessica Knoll ran in New York’s The Cut with the headline, “How to Be a Writer and Still Get Really, Really Rich.”]

I remember my feelings got hurt. I was really wounded by some of the people who said not-so-great things about it, like other women who were very vocal feminists. There was a comment made, “Yeah, it’s interesting and women should be allowed to want money, but I guess I like writing. I don’t just do writing to make money.” And I’m like, “But that’s what I’m saying. We can have both. I love writing, but I also want to make a lot of money.” Reese [Witherspoon] gave an interview where she was asked, “If acting hadn’t worked out for you, what would you do?” The thing she said that I thought was so radical was, “If it didn’t work out, I would’ve moved back home and become the top cardiologist in Nashville.” I was like, “That is brutal honesty.” And I love that, because I would’ve figured out something else, too. I would’ve been like, “This isn’t enough for me.”

How do you respond when people hurt your feelings?

My therapist says to just say “ouch.”

Why do you think that people were more bothered by that interview than your op-ed where the headline was literally, “I Want to Be Rich and I’m Not Sorry.”

That column that The Cut did was about honest discussions of money. I wasn’t cushioning it. It was only about money. Whereas the “I Want to Be Rich” piece was a little more well-rounded, in terms of what my writing meant to me and also about owning my talent and knowing I was good enough. I wonder if there was something that felt more wholesome because I was able to also be like, “But I also really love this and I’m good at it!”

Did that experience ever make you rethink being so outspoken about money?

I think a lot about when I first got the publishing offer for Luckiest Girl Alive. My concept of money at that time was limited to something very close to an assistant salary. I was a senior editor, so I was making more than I had when I was an assistant, but living in New York, the cost of living is extremely high. I didn’t have any sense of what the number would be [for the book deal], but whatever my sense was, it was bigger than that. I was shocked but thrilled. Then I immediately freaked out, and my first thought was, “I should make a donation somewhere.” Now I look back and I’m like, “Are you f*cking crazy?” I am charitable, but within minutes of hearing the number, my first instinct was I should give away a large chunk of it.

You didn’t feel worthy of it.

I didn’t feel like I deserved it. And I’m like, “Has any man ever felt like that?” I also had friends and acquaintances who I instantly knew I had to minimize myself for. I was living in LA and I had an old friend in town and we were going to get together that night. The “I Want to Be Rich” essay had just been published and was picking up steam online. I’d emailed it to Reese being like, “Hey, I wrote this piece and I was really inspired by your speech at the Glamour [Women of the Year] Awards.” She wrote back very quickly being like, “I love this.” I’d just come off lunch with an actress that you would tell your friends about and they’d be like, “Oh my God, what was she like?” But I didn’t mention any of it [to my friend]. I knew I couldn’t.

I remember telling my therapist about it the following week. She was like, “You are never to do that again. You were minimizing yourself to make other people feel comfortable. We don’t want you doing that anymore.”

As someone who is so keenly aware of money being the bottom line, can you share a bit more about your experience living through the writer’s strike?

The residuals are a real thing. What I love about every writer who’s fighting so hard is that people are like, “It doesn’t have to be like this. We don’t just have to accept this.” I think I can roll over too easily, like, “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.” It’s nice to have a community of people who are like, “We deserve this.” To see writers from shows like Abbott Elementary and The Bear, and to see what their residual checks are, I’m like, “This is actually egregious.”

Finally, in that The Cut interview, you revealed that you’d just splurged on a Porsche. So I have to ask, what’s your latest splurge?

The new Porsche is a boob lift and a breast reduction.

I am absolutely obsessed with you admitting that.

I did it in July. Lots of my friends have kids, and now that they’re done having kids, they’re getting tummy tucks and boob lifts, and they look so fucking good. I’m like, “Wait. I haven’t had kids, but my boobs have looked like this since I was 14 years old. I would like to not wear a bra.” I’m like, “Do I deserve this because I didn’t carry children?” It’s like, “Yeah. I want this, I can afford it, and I’m going to treat myself.” That was my big splurge.

I have two more weeks in [my compression bra], then I’m like, “I’m never wearing a bra again.” The next time you see me, I’m just going to have nipples out.

You’re going to wear the most low-cut top ever to your book launch. Your skin will also be perfect by then.

I know. I’m hiding out in my house [right now], but I’m like, “When I emerge, it’s going to be great.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographs by Xin Xin

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Editor in Chief: Charlotte Owen

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