If you’ve lived in Hoboken for long you’ve likely heard the name “Caren Lissner.” She’s been the Editor-in-Chief of the Hudson Reporter for nearly two decades. Some folks may not be aware that Caren is also an accomplished novelist, with two books and several short stories and essays published over the years.
One of those novels, 2003’s Carrie Pilbyh, has been adapted into a film starring Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, and Gabriel Byrne. If you haven’t read the book, you should; it’s the hilariously acerbic tale of a 19-year old genius who has retreated into a misanthropic shell, challenged by her therapist to break out and try something new. The film, directed by Susan Johnson and adapted from Caren’s novel by Kara Holden, will open at the Village East Cinema in Manhattan on Friday, March 31st, and Saturday, April 1st, with a release on video-on-demand later. We recently caught up with Caren and picked her brain about what it’s like to be a Hobokenite with an IMDB entry.
HL: Carrie Pilby was first published in 2003. When was it actually written? How long was the road from final draft to publishing contract?
CL: I wrote it over about 12 months in 2000. I was in my twenties and really loved novel writing. I had written four or five young-adult novels about younger characters, but while they were warm and sweet, they were not very funny. Publishers found those novels “too quiet.” I had had lots more success publishing short humor pieces in the New York Times and elsewhere. One day I went to rent a video at Take One Video on Washington Street, a fun little store that had all kinds of indie films. The guy offered me a bag for my video, and I thought of a whole rant about not wanting people to see what I was renting. At the time, I was new to single life in the city and spent several Friday nights watching movies in my apartment, so I turned my rant into a story about a hyperverbal yet socially awkward young woman who’s new to the big city and isn’t quite sure how to date and make friends. The story came to me rather quickly, but I always do a lot of revisions to my writing. So after I spent almost a year writing it, I did a lot of tweaks.
I sent the first three chapters to agents in early 2001. A few agents requested the whole manuscript (back then we were doing this all on paper). A New York agent loved it, took me on, and we sent it to various publishers over the next year. I got lucky because at that time, single-girl-in-the-city books were all the rage (Bridget Jones and Sex and the City were both doing well). Mine had a quirkier, nerdy spin. Two publishing companies were interested. One of them was a new publisher of women’s contemporary novels, an arm of Harlequin called Red Dress Ink. RDI made an offer around mid-2002 (between mailing manuscripts out, revising them based on agent’s and editors’ feedback, and discussions back and forth, it takes a while). It came out in summer of 2003 when “chick lit” books were kind of exploding in popularity.
HL: How did the film adaptation come about? Did your agent shop it, or was there a bit of serendipity?
CL: There’s always both. Often, New York literary agencies deal with a film agent at a bigger Hollywood agency when they have properties that might be adapted. My agent had the wisdom to give it to Shari Smiley, who’s a wonderful agent in Hollywood who handles book adaptations. She liked the book and sent it to some producers. Over the years, it was optioned three times by producers who each wanted a year to see if they could turn it into a movie or TV show. Usually, they have meetings, raise money, try to get the green light, etc. It was 2012 when a successful producer in Hollywood, Suzanne Farwell, contacted me about the rights. She and an indie film director/producer, Susan Johnson, had read the novel and were looking for a property to turn into Susan’s first feature film. They optioned the rights later that year. I don’t know if they got the original manuscript back in 2003 or came upon the book some other way. You just never know. It did end up selling 74,000 copies, so they could have seen it in a few different places.
HL: How involved were you in the adaptation?
CL: I got to give suggestions on the script, which was wonderful. As with anything else, the director and producers liked some of my suggestions, disliked others, but ultimately I was very happy with how the script and movie turned out. The script, written by a professional screenwriter named Kara Holden, is true to the novel and also extends some of the storylines whose resolution I had left vague. It’s very poignant and funny, and very rich visually. Anyone in the Hoboken/New York area is sure to recognize the scenes. Susan, Suzanne, and everyone else did a fantastic job.
HL: Bel Powley plays Carrie, which seems like perfect casting. Were you familiar with her work before this? Did you have any say in casting at all? Does Bel match up with your own mental image of Carrie?
CL: I had been reading great reviews of her successful indie film, Diary of a Teenage Girl, around the summer of 2015 when they cast her, so that was pretty amazing. She can pretty much play any type of character—a witty, awkward genius like Carrie or an extroverted teen like Minnie in Diary or a member of the royal family like in A Royal Night Out. I think she did match up for what I envisioned for Carrie. In real life, she’s not shy and is actually a very down-to-earth person, but she knew exactly how to play Carrie. I met her on the set a few times and then go to talk to her at the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and she’s kind, a dedicated actress, and very smart.
I met several of the other stars of the movie: Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne, Vanessa Bayer, Jason Ritter, Zachary Infante, and Desmin Borges. They were all very welcoming when I met them. Nathan Lane had read the book and showed me that he had it with him when I met him on the set. I haven’t yet met Colin O’Donoghue, who does a great job playing the professor, and Michael Penn, who wrote the music. I’m a longtime fan of Michael Penn’s music and was floored to find out that he was involved. Colin has some pretty dedicated, smart fans and hopefully I will meet him too.
HL: You’ve been knee-deep in Hoboken as the EIC of the Hudson Reporter for the last 18 years. How much Hoboken is in Carrie Pilby, if only in spirit?
CL: There’s definitely some Hoboken in Carrie Pilby, and maybe the Hoboken/New York ethos in general. She’s a single girl who grew up—like many of us—in the somewhat structured, safe environment of elementary school, and now she’s in the real world without any boundaries and schedules and has to figure out exactly how to navigate that. She didn’t realized how good she had it. Like in Hoboken, she suddenly meets all different types of people from all walks of life, and they challenge her longtime beliefs. And as noted, my first steps into Hoboken life sort of inspired the beginning of the book, when I could walk a few blocks and rent a movie at a cool indie video store and just sink into the solitude of my railroad apartment.
HL: What’s next? Has the movie given your literary career a boost? Any Pilby sequels?
CL: The movie has certainly gotten more people to read the book (available on Amazon, by the way!) and I enjoy hearing readers’ and film viewers’ views and reactions, no matter where they fall. I’ve heard from readers from all generations, including older men who start out their emails with “I know I’m not your normal demographic, but I’ve always been a bit nerdy and I loved Carrie.”
I’m happy that more people are hearing about my writing, but each writer is only as good as his/her next project, so I’m working on two projects I really love right now and hoping someone will publish them. One is another teen novel, also quirky, called In For the Winter. I hope when I finish it in a couple of months we can submit it to publishers. Another project is a memoir of my awkward high school years in Central New Jersey, with my family life disintegrating, and getting to meet a few very interesting people. It’s called Wise Fool. If you check out my Twitter account, @carenlissner, I will provide updates, and I may just release it on Kindle in March for your inexpensive reading pleasure. I’ve got so many stories in my head that there’s always more coming. Anyone who enjoys writing or want to discuss the creative process should email me at [email protected], as I love discussing what people are doing creatively.
If you’re interested in Caren’s work, her second novel, Starting from Square Two is also quite excellent, and the holiday-themed Themes from a Holiday anthology contains a Carrie Pilby sequel, “Carrie Pilby’s New Year’s Resolution.” Caren is also a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Rumpus.