Copygirl,” the new novel by Anna Mitchael and Michelle Sassa, has been billed as “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Mad Men.” That’s an apt description. The main character, a young woman fresh out of ad school named Kay Carlson, works at an edgy ad agency in New York City. But “Copygirl” is also a little like the movie “Mean Girls.” At one point Kay asks herself a question that could have been asked by Cady Heron: “Could it be that I’m way more of a phony than I ever thought?”
The novel is about Kay’s life at work, but it’s also about her relationships with other women — her co-workers, her mother, her best friend — about how those relationships change the way she sees herself. In turn, she becomes better at her job and makes better choices in her personal life. Publisher’s Weekly calls the book, “wickedly funny and smartly sweet.”
Michelle Sassa has helped create award-winning ad campaigns for New York Road Runners (organizer of the New York City Marathon), Reebok and Coca-Cola. She lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey, with her husband and three kids, including twins, and blogs at thefemininemystake.com. “Copygirl” is her first novel.
Anna Mitchael, whose column “Notes from a New Mother” is featured every month right here in the Wacoan, is the author of “Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am,” a memoir; “Rooster Stories,” a Kindle single; and “Copygirl.” She blogs at thirtysexysomething.com. After working in advertising both in-house and at agencies across the country, she left the glamour of the big city to come back to Texas — rural Texas. “Where I live now, people can literally MacGyver wood and nails into a functioning chicken coop with no plans, no Googling,” Mitchael said. She lives with the man who stole her away from the city life and their two small boys on a ranch not far from Mosheim, west of Waco.
Mitchael and Sassa met in 2004 at Berlin Cameron (now Berlin Cameron United), an ad agency in New York City. The primary account they worked on together was Georgia-Pacific, one of the global leaders in sales of toilet paper. No men at the agency wanted to work on the account, and Georgia-Pacific, knowing that it is usually women who decide what brand of toilet paper to purchase, sent “the chick team” (as Sassa describes herself and Mitchael) to Colmar, France. Yes, they got to travel to a lovely village in the Alsace region, although they also spent a lot of time at a toilet paper factory, learning the difference between one-ply and two-ply tissue in a country where the toilet paper is primarily pink. Then they came home and wrote an ad campaign.
In “Copygirl,” Kay writes ads for a fictional cat food company called Little Kitty.
“People have this idea about advertising that everything’s going to be a Subaru commercial,” Mitchael said. “It’s great to have this big client that has Super Bowl ads, but for every one of those there’s a kitty litter client or a Procter & Gamble detergent that pays the bills, and somebody’s got to write that too.”
One of the plot lines in the book concerns the agency’s attempt to steal the account of a soda company, a fictional competitor of Coca-Cola. Sassa knows a bit about writing an ad campaign for a soda company: She worked on Coca-Cola twice.
“My first advertising job was at McCann-Erickson [now McCann], and then our agency [Berlin Cameron] stole the account from them,” she said.
One uncomfortable aspect of copywriting is that whatever a writer or an artist or even a creative director produces is ultimately in the hands of the client.
“When you sell an idea, it becomes someone else’s to interpret and own and do what they want with,” Mitchael said. “The problem in copywriting comes if you start believing it’s your message, because it’s not your message — it’s the company’s message. They aren’t paying for you to be a writer. They are paying you to think about their products and write words that sell their products and to understand something about the culture that is there but isn’t articulated yet.”
Since leaving New York City, both Mitchael and Sassa have kept one foot in the advertising world. Mitchael works as a freelancer, often after her kids are in bed. Sassa refers to herself as “permalance.”
“I have my long-standing marketing company that I do projects for on a continuing basis. I pick and choose my projects,” she said. “I never stopped working in advertising, just after [having] the twins I worked for myself.”
Sassa is grateful she lived and worked in New York City, where she developed her skills.
“I think New York has the best of the best. And even the level of drive, that adds to the competition. It can be overwhelming if you don’t have the confidence, but it’s a great place to get the confidence,” she said. “It opens your mind to possibilities, dreams you didn’t know you had.”
Sassa and Mitchael worked at an ad agency similar to the one portrayed in “Copygirl.” Sassa, who worked there longer than Mitchael, experienced more of the male-centric aspect. By the time Mitchael arrived, the agency had women in higher roles.
“Anna came to our agency much later than I did, and there were more women, so her experiences were different,” Sassa said. “I was the only female copywriter when I came on. I became the first female [associate creative director] there, even though one of my bosses wanted to make me a creative director instead because I had direct relationships with the CEOs of Reebok, Coca-Cola, etc., and was running presentations. But several of the other partners who led the boys club swore that there would never be a female creative director at their agency. They told me this to my face.”
Sassa says things are beginning to change for women in the ad world. When the 3% Conference launched in 2012, only 3 percent of creative directors in the U.S. were women. That number is now 11 percent — in a country where women direct most consumer purchases.
For “Copygirl,” writing as a creative team was not difficult for Sassa and Mitchael, perhaps because ads are created that way. In the book, Kay is initially paired at work with an art director named Ben, a friend with potential. Kay describes their working relationship by saying, “Ben makes the pictures and I write the words.” In writing a novel together, Sassa and Mitchael both wrote the words.
“Although in advertising you’re used to having a partner, I never thought I would approach a novel that way,” Sassa said. “This is a story we experienced together. For me, it was a great way to work. You have a built-in editor along the way.”
And that collaboration paid off when pitching the book, which was published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
“By the time it got to an agent it was really tight,” Sassa said. “Most of what we did change with the publisher was grammatical. There was nothing about the story that we had to change. We were expecting months and months of revision, so we were shocked.”
Functioning as a long-distance team was not an obstacle for either writer. They hardly even talked on the phone — most of their collaboration was done through email and Dropbox.
“Working in the cloud, that was easy peasy,” Sassa said. “What’s most difficult for Anna and I, we are two very busy moms. Sometimes you need that other half of your brain when you need them, but they might be in the middle of a diaper change or a Music Together class.”
Mitchael agrees, adding that Sassa brought strengths to the project that she doesn’t have.
“Michelle is hands down better at visuals. She thinks more that way than I do. When it comes to pacing or pictures-to-words, that’s when you’re glad you’ve got a writing partner,” Mitchael said. “I love bouncing ideas off of a person.”
Working together is one way to keep ideas fresh. Another way is to completely step away from writing for a while. Sassa calls it “filling the well,” which occurs in “Copygirl” when Kay and her team take some time away from work in order to refuel. Initially, Kay does not embrace the idea.
“Kay’s wrapped up in ‘I need to put these hours in, they need to see me putting these hours in,’ whether they’re quality hours or not,” Mitchael said.
But the idea of a creative team leaving the office to play does happen, Sassa said.
“In the ad world, people did leave and go to the movies or look at photography books in the bookstore. They’d go have pop culture experiences to draw from,” she said.
Recently, Sassa has found new creative energy from participating in a women’s soccer league.
“I hadn’t played in years. When I found my way back to that, it’s been wonderful,” Sassa said. “It’s a form of therapy, a break for my brain. It refreshes me to go back and write.”
Mitchael says she’s revived by running and yoga.
Ultimately, what fuels Kay’s creativity is reviving a hobby from childhood — one that only two other people know about: her mother and her best friend. Sassa says the idea partly came from her own time in ad school at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, Georgia, when she made candles.
“I did it alone in my room as a way to express myself,” she said.
Both Mitchael and Sassa know people in the ad world like Kay who have artistic hobbies. Some of those side projects represent bigger dreams — to make a movie, to write a screenplay, to become a serious photographer — and some were only trotted out at a happy hour to impress the boss. Mitchael says real projects, like writing a novel, don’t garner the same office interest as attention-grabbing stunts, like the pigeon poop project from the boys club in the book.
“People don’t exactly crowd around writers at the water cooler to hear talk about the exciting, thrilling, hilarious work of extending one sentence into a paragraph or re-evaluating character X last night at 3 a.m.,” she said.
In “Copygirl,” much of the novel focuses on Kay’s relationship with her best friend, Kellie, who lives in France. Both women are pursuing their artistic dreams, and Kellie encourages and promotes Kay’s hobby, one stashed in a shoebox.
I asked both Sassa and Mitchael to describe their best friend.
Mitchael met hers in the ad world at her first agency job in Boston, Massachusetts. When that friend got married a few years ago, she and Sassa reconnected at her wedding. One of the things Mitchael values in her best friend is what she calls her “bird’s-eye view” of Mitchael’s life.
“I think she knows when I am not being kind to myself. I think a best friend always sees the best in you and always believes for the best in you,” Mitchael said, adding that Kellie does the same for Kay in the book. “Her best friend sees the potential in her project, probably because she has seen the potential in Kay for the duration of their friendship.”
Sassa has known her best friend since they were toddlers.
“We were in Pack ‘n Plays together, 2 years old, lived across the street,” she said. “Anyone lucky enough to have that, it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Besides a best friend, the other relationship in a woman’s life that simultaneously defines and pushes her is the relationship with her mother — this is also true for Kay.
In a blog entry titled “Making Mum Proud,” Sassa recalls her mother’s reaction to an online review of “Copygirl.”
“Then [Sassa’s mother] turned to her friend Kay and said the absolute last thing I was expecting to hear. ‘Attila the Mum, that’s ME,’ she beamed proudly, referring to the plot summary portion of the review that mentions how the heroine tries to win the approval of her overbearing mother.
There were 202 words in that review, some positively flattering, and instead of telling me ‘nice job’ or ‘way to go,’ my mother honed in on ‘Attila the Mum,’ inserting herself.
‘What makes you think that character is YOU?’ I laughed incredulously. ‘She could be Anna’s mom for all you know. Or an amalgamation of every mom we’ve ever met.’
But my mom shook her head, insistent, not buying a word I was selling. The irony was, here I was, trying to make her proud, just like my heroine, so the parallels weren’t much of a stretch.”
Although Mitchael agrees that Kay’s relationship with her mom could use some work — “I think she and her mom could stand to have some therapy,” she said — Mitchael has perspective that Kay lacks.
“Kay interprets it as she’s not enough, but really, her mother is encouraging her in the only way she knows. Her mother is just loving her,” Mitchael said. “I like Kay’s mom. She gets things done. All it takes is Kay reaching success and not feeling insecurity in her [mother’s] presence.”
One area in which Kay has felt insecure is how she looks, that she lacks the time and money to dress like a chic New Yorker. There is a section in the book when Kay goes out on the town with some co-workers, and along the way she gets a manicure, a new haircut and (finally) some fashionable clothes.
I asked Mitchael and Sassa to talk about the power a woman finds in looking beautiful. Sassa first answered the question in terms of advertising.
“My experience in the ad world is that having a certain look definitely helped. Somebody said to me that you always want to look like the most creative person in the room. [The clients] are the ones in the suit. It reminds them that they can’t do what you do,” she said. But on a personal level, she added, “I think that our confidence is tied to how we see ourselves, and when you like the way you look, you feel good about yourself. Having that confidence translates into other areas of your life. I, myself, on a day when I’m at home in sweatpants, I may look like a wreck. I feel very ‘Grey Gardens,’ but I go somewhere and clean up a bit, and then I feel stronger, more together.”
Just as Kay’s new look leads to other changes in her life, Mitchael says a shopping trip or a new haircut can lead to transformation.
“Sometimes I think changing your look is permission for a new chapter, to make a big turn,” Mitchael said. “When I lived in New York, I really remember specific shopping days. It’s these collections of nuggets of confidence.”
And she does not apologize for that.
“What I think is that we have been made to feel bad about beauty — we aren’t supposed to want to be beautiful, or it’s this frivolous thing. But I think the feeling of beauty is irreplaceable,” Mitchael said. “What I think ‘Copygirl’ deals with is the line between walking out to the world with your war paint on, feeling beautiful, versus needing other people to tell you you’re beautiful or feeling like you have to do what they are doing, wear what they are wearing. I think it’s a constant fight to be able to believe in yourself. And we are the only ones who know when balance has been lost and when we have given away the keys to our kingdom. When we need other people to tell us we’ve made it or achieved it, we’ve lost.”
The refrain in the book is “Don’t be a Copygirl.” Kay learns to find confidence in herself while re-examining her relationships with other women.
Mitchael loves the parts of the book about female friendships, “especially in a work environment,” she said. “The competitiveness — you want to be strong and independent, but when do you decide to be vulnerable?”
Female friendships are at the heart of the novel. By the end of the book, women whom Kay initially identifies only by nickname are real people with real names. Eventually, Kay creates something for all the women in her life, from her co-workers to her mother to her best friend, for “All the chicks who’ve always been on my team, even when I was too daft to know it.”
At the end of “Mean Girls” the cliques have blown up and the girls, if not exactly friends, are nicer to each other. There is a similar arc in “Copygirl.” I can almost imagine screenwriter Tina Fey — who also played the teacher and mentor in the film — saying these words from “Copygirl,” which are spoken by Kay’s unexpected mentor: “Kindness is the cure for this city.”
It’s the cure for high school. It’s the cure for a cutthroat office (if you know who to trust). It’s the cure for a broken heart.
“I think about Kay’s lack of kindness toward herself. That’s where we start [the novel]. She’s a hot mess. She has all these expectations for herself, and she’s not kind about the pace she’s reaching them at or the routes she might take to get there,” Mitchael said.
Sassa and Mitchael have completed a second fiction project, which is in development.
“It draws on the strengths of Anna and I and who we are as people,” Sassa said.
Mitchael added, “It takes place in Texas.”