Books

How Younger Nailed Its Author Parodies — & Made Publishing Sexy

“Through seven seasons, the show's delivered plots that lived and died by the peculiar inner workings of publishing."

Younger Hilary Duff Sutton Foster
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By Megan Angelo

New York media has been the backdrop for what feels like millions of TV shows about women chasing their dreams. But so few get it right. (I’ll never forget the series in which a magazine editor berates a writer, “You didn’t even leave space in this story for ads!” Which, for the uninitiated, is something an editor would never be concerned with.) But despite Younger’s outlandish premise — a rom-com about a 40-year-old woman passing for 26 — it’s become perhaps the most authentic show ever about the world of book publishing. Through seven seasons, it’s delivered plots that lived and died by the peculiar inner workings of publishing — and managed to make dishy twists out of inside-baseball stuff like bulk sales and imprint/parent company dynamics. Don’t tell anyone who worked on my own novel, but the jargon I tossed off in conversation? Hilary Duff taught me all of it.

The best part of Younger’s evolution into an industry love letter is its prescient author characters, who always feel ripped from the splashiest book world conversations. See: this season’s Greta Thunberg dupe, played to yellow-slickered perfection by Nadia Alexander. “She has our favorite name from Season 7,” writer and executive producer Dottie Zicklin tells Bustle. “Füpa Grünhoff. Her name wouldn’t clear [with the show’s lawyers] until the umlauts were added!”

Füpa is just the latest in the show’s list of standout faux scribes, whose spot-on plotlines were in part the work of the show’s anonymous publishing consultant, who helped guide the staff on the industry’s trends and conversations. We still can’t reveal his or her identity, but we did get to talk to the consultant — along with Younger creator Darren Star, Dottie Zicklin, and fellow executive producer and writer Eric Zicklin — to get the stories behind how the show’s most iconic fake authors came to life.

Season 1: Jane Krakowski as Annabelle Bancroft

Bancroft, played with nightmare-diva energy by the 30 Rock star, was based on Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell. Star famously made the series based on that book, so an homage to Bushnell — in the form of Bancroft’s iconic scenester who spends her book launch party smoking indoors and fixating on the size of the crowd — felt like a safe place to start testing author parodies. “I thought Jane was hilarious playing [a version] of my friend Candace,” Star says. “She really made me laugh.” Writer and executive producer Eric Zicklin adds: “We loved her double-bounce off the glass door most of all.” (Bancroft runs into the door while chasing her coke dealer. Twice.)

Season 2: Kobi Libii as Rob Olive

This caricature of John Green — complete with a soulful leather necklace — hit just as I realized I was reading books about dying teen lovers almost exclusively. Libii is perfectly troubled and self-serious as the bestseller workshopping a Fault in Our Stars-style YA romance with Hilary Duff’s Kelsey at lunch. (Ever the brilliant brainstormer, it’s Kelsey who comes up with the idea for a hospice prom.) “We learned the term ‘sick lit,’ and the genre seemed natural for Millennial Press’ readers,” Dottie Zicklin says. “Trying to say John Green” — aka the author of Fault — “without using the words ‘John’ or ‘Green’ led to a great name.” Long live Rob Olive.

Season 2: Justine Lupe as Jade Winslow

With Lupe’s flaky influencer character, Younger dipped into the hazards of traditional publishing chasing Instagram sensations — Winslow gets a huge memoir advance, then fails to deliver a single page of work. (Liza has to cobble together a draft from the girl’s Instagram captions.) “The younger Younger writers brought up Cat Marnell as inspiration,” Eric Zicklin says. Marnell, a former beauty editor and socialite, wrote the smash 2017 memoir How to Murder Your Lifeabout her drug addiction and magazine-world adventures. “That story led Kelsey and Liza into learning about the balance between hype and substance.”

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Season 2: Richard Masur as Edward L.L. Moore

Between his aggressive rascalling around the office and his misogyny, the show’s George R.R. Martin homage became its best work in terms of authentic publishing tension holding up plotlines. Martin’s Crown of Kings fantasy series is key to Empirical staying afloat, so he gets away with — well, not murder, but making Liza wear a fur bikini in Times Square might actually be worse? It takes Empirical far too long to do the right thing and drop the author. (Right around the time Moore debuted on the show, publishing was scrambling to reckon with its own legacy of harassment.) And when they do, Moore strikes back, outing Liza as the 40-something she is. The writers didn’t know when they started writing the character’s arc that he would unpin the show’s central secret. “We had no idea how instrumental he would become in exposing Liza,” Star says. “But Richard Masur was so hilarious that I wanted to bring him back and back and back.”

Season 3: Jay Wilkison as Colin McNichol

Remember the guy who asked Kelsey at the end of their first date to take a look at his novel? Or did you try to forget you ever heard the chilling invitation, “Come on in, I’ll print you out a copy”? Ah, the perils of being a single girl presiding over New York’s hottest imprint. Kelsey actually dates Colin for a while anyway — his 600-page epic turns out to be good, by her measure — but it doesn’t stop the character from feeling It-Boy insufferable all the way through his arc. (Which includes Netflix jumping on the option for his book, naturally.) As for the trend that inspired Colin? The big-money debut epic that seemed to dominate publishing years ago — see books that scored massive paydays like The Art of Fielding or City on Fire — has subsided somewhat. But Younger’s publishing consultant says it’s never really gone. “I think there was a moment where books like that were happening more often, but it could still happen,” the consultant says. “Everyone knows attention spans are shrinking, but people still want to find that ‘It Book’ of the year.”

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Season 4: Kristin Chenoweth as Marylynne Keller

Younger’s first episode in the post-Trump era featured Chenoweth as a Kellyanne Conway sendup who declares the world post-facts and claims that “Truth is a four-letter word.” (When Charles corrects her math, saying truth has five letters, she purrs: “Not the way I spell it.”) One trillion bonus points to costume design for the jacket that mirrors Conway’s inauguration outfit. “Not to say the show was ahead of the culture,” Dottie Zicklin jokes, “but when the national conversation became about Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer cajoling the truth, we felt like we were already on that topic. Liza was living it from episode one.”

Season 5: Gina Gershon as Chrissie Hart

If you had Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless on your rockstar memoir shelf, you were so ready for this plotline starring Gershon in heavy bangs and week-old eyeliner. She plays Chrissie Hart, a famous singer whose memoir Charles and Liza chase to Shelter Island. (Obviously, Chrissie Hart doesn’t email drafts, because the internet is suspect.) The head of a major publisher personally retrieving a manuscript, messenger-style? Zany but plausible, the show’s consultant confirms. “If anyone’s ever worked on celebrity books, they are their own beasts — totally fun and awful and amazing,” the consultant says. “You know what you’re in for, and yet we can’t help ourselves because they sell and they’re glamorous to work on.”

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Season 6: Willa Fitzgerald as Audrey Colbert

Fitzgerald, um, kills it in this tribute to wink-wink-did-I-murder-someone-or-not books. Her character goes around shopping a memoir meant to refute her villain status on a Serial-like podcast; she’s chaperoned by Michael Urie’s Redmond. (The only lit agent in New York, according to Younger, but would I want Urie sharing screen time? I would not.) Fitzgerald’s dead-eyed smize is what gives this character her hall of fame status. As Dottie Zicklin says, “Willa was able to give that staredown that says ‘beware’ and ‘I might have sex with you right now.’” Eventually, though, a press outcry kills the project — totally realistic, according to the show’s consultant. “If you are dealing with someone who the public believes to be guilty, or unworthy of a book deal, that can bring a major backlash,” the consultant says. “See Jonathan Mattingly or Josh Hawley — and, years ago, O.J. Simpson.” Yeah, remember If I Did It? Unlike Beaufort Books, the shop behind that one, Empirical eventually declined to publish Colbert’s book.

Season 6-7: Laura Benanti as Quinn Tyler

Quinn is the one Younger author who’s transcended cameo status. Once a Sheryl Sandberg parody in a wiggle dress, she’s become a prolonged meditation on the subject of women doing it all. “To us, the key to Quinn was understanding that she’s just as smart and successful and impulsive, and just as tone-deaf, as any male billionaire,” Eric Zicklin says. This season, Quinn becomes much more than a villain with an endless font of ice-queen comebacks — proof that Younger is well versed in publishing’s golden rule: Never judge a book by its cover.