Gina Fattore is a television writer and producer turned novelist who just released her debut book The Spinster Diaries. The story centers around a writer, obsessed with chick lit, who is overcoming her anxiety to become unfrozen and have enough hope to move forward. Gina's TV credits include Dare Me, Better Things, UnREAL, Masters of Sex, Parenthood, Californication, Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek.
Learn more about Gina.
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Passionistas: Hi and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington, and today we're talking with Gina Fattore. Gina is a television writer whose credits include, Dare Me, Better Things, Unreal, Masters of Sex, Parenthood, Californication, Gilmore Girls and Dawson's Creek. Her Ted X talk become what you believe has more than 16,000 views in her essays, reviews and comedy pieces have appeared to the Chicago reader, entertainment weekly salon, the millions and Mick Sweeney's internet tendency, and she just published her debut novel, The Spinster Diaries, a semi-autobiographical story, but a TV writer obsessed with chick lit. So please welcome to the show. Gina Fattore.
Gina Fattore: Thank you so much for having me here. It's an honor… to be considered a Passionista is a big honor. Thank you.
Passionistas: And we're excited to have you. We love the book and you have written some of our favorite television shows, so we can't wait to talk to you.
What's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Gina Fattore: My gut said to say writing, but maybe I need to be more specific than that because I write so many things, but it's always been writing. I am one of those people who I was 11, 10 or 11 when I, you know, first got, I guess praised for my writing. I went to the young authors conference when I was in the fifth grade with my first book, which, you know, remains unpublished because everyone's fifth grade book should probably remain unpublished. Um, but, uh, yeah, and I just, I always knew it's, it's the weirdest thing. It, it, I had a friend once say to me, a college friend who just, she called it a calling and especially when we had just graduated from college, and I believe everybody should sort of wander in their twenties until they land on the thing that is right for them. But I always had in the back of my mind, this idea of the calling, and I knew it was about writing.
Passionistas: Talk about that path from that fifth grade book to becoming a television writer.
Gina Fattore: (LAUGHING) Yeah. That was kind of a long journey. There aren't a lot of 11 year old television writers. I grew up in Indiana in this town called Valparaiso, which is in the part of Indiana. That's, it's like the Northwest corner of Indiana that's actually closer to Chicago than Indianapolis, but still like a small town, uh, sort of Friday Night Lights kind of place where people go to the football game or the basketball game every Friday night. And I was always that, you know, high school journalist person, you know, I did the yearbook, I did the newspaper, I did it all and I had this scheme or this plan that involved going to Columbia, which uh, was a funny thing in Indiana because nobody in Indiana actually knows what Columbia is. I know it's like this impressive school. It's in the Ivy league, but there's a lot of confusion with the university of Missouri at Columbia.
So it's, it costs a lot of money and it's difficult to impress people. But somehow I got it and my parents were on board with this and I moved to New York and at 18 as all Columbia freshmen do and I was an English major. I always knew I was going to be an English major. There wasn't a film studies or film major or anything like that available to undergraduates at Columbia. When I was there and I, I wouldn't have, I don't know that I would've wanted to do that anyway. It really did not occur to me that writing was screenwriting. I loved TV, I loved movies, but I really hadn't thought of it that way. It was all books and magazines and journalism to me. And then the accident that changed my life. When I graduated from Columbia, I was an English major, as I said, totally unqualified to really do anything in the world.
And I started applying for jobs at different places. And the one that I ended up getting was at the New York public library in the fundraising office. And I worked in major gifts and planned giving. I answered the phone, you know, we did research on the various donors we were trying to get money from. We would hold parties and events and my boss was this lovely, lovely woman named Judy Daniels and her son is a television writer. His name is Greg Daniels, and he created The Office, the American version of The Office and Parks and Rec and King of the Hill. And Judy Daniels, I always say was my first agent. She essentially said to me, I think you should move to LA and work for my son and he should help you be a TV writer. And he did and I became a TV writer. I was his assistant for two years when he was starting King of the Hill with Mike Judge back in the mid-nineties and that was how I got my start.
He assigned me a freelance episode in the second season, which is a very traditional way for TV writer to get a break as you get to write one episode of a show. And based on that I was able to get an agent and the agent helped me get my first real job as a staff writer. You know, when I didn't have to answer the phone anymore. That was the biggest victory of my professional life.
Passionistas: That's a pretty impressive person to land without in LA. Did you learn anything specific from him that sticks with you?
Gina Fattore: The thing that sticks with me the most is always about story. You know, Greg is a comedy writer and you know, even before King of the Hill, he had worked on the Simpsons and on Saturday night live, but he was incredibly rigorous about story. So maybe it's not an accident that you know, I ended up being a drama writer more than a comedy writer, but I can remember him saying to me, you know about my own spec scripts and I was trying to write at the time, you know, to just make a beat sheet and go through every scene and you know, just ask yourself very, what is this scene doing?
And if you can't summarize it in, you know, one short sentence with a sort of active sounding verb in it, then there's probably a problem with that scene. And that's advice that he gave me that I think about 20 years later all the time.
Passionistas: Your book, The Spinster Diaries, is a semi-autobiographical story about being a TV writer. And I think it paints a really good picture of the fact that even though people may think it's a really glamorous life, it's a lot of hard work and not only the work itself but going from show to show, getting jobs is hard work. So can you talk a little bit about your experiences in Hollywood, some of the shows you worked on and what that lifestyle is like?
Gina Fattore: I would say to start that, that is one of the revelations that people have read my book and come back to me and said, this actually explains what it's like to be a TV writer. And that wasn't one of the reasons why I wrote the book, but it's just the world that I live in. So I was portraying it really accurately. And many TV writers have actually said this to me that like this is almost given them flashbacks and stuff in weird ways because the system of TV has changed a lot. The book has said it actually in 2006 which was a time when there were a lot more network TV shows and a lot more shows where we would make 22-23 episodes a year, which is the system that I started in. And nowadays we have these really short orders for shows, which has made it even more pronounced.
This nature of the job is insecurity and you know, you move from one thing to the next. I've been on many shows. I had to run and vibing three shows in a row that got canceled within those first 12 you know, so sometimes you make all 12 and you get paid for all 12 but one show we got canceled. You know, we were actually shooting episode eight and I don't think we finished shooting the rest of those. You know, you just stop when you're canceled. Everything just stops. I mean we're living through this weird moment now with production shutdowns for the virus reasons, but being canceled. It's odd. Cause I mean the great part about it is that everybody's in it together. But that's also the horrible part is that, you know, 200 people have lost their jobs in one day. But the funny thing about being on a show is that it is sort of more like a real job than I think people anticipate because there's this idea about movie writers, which is true that they kind of like sit by their pool or they're like in a cafe somewhere writing and you know, TV writers.
Honestly, I think in some ways we're more like journalists. Like we have a deadline, we're working together to put something out. And sometimes I think that because I worked at a newspaper in my twenties I worked at an alternative weekly newspaper. Maybe that's why I view it that way, but it is what it is. You know, if you're making 23 episodes of a show, everybody has to be on board with what are those episodes about? So a large part of what we're doing when we're writing a TV show is just making sure that there's one story that we're telling that all the characters are behaving consistently. And the writer's room, which back in the day when I started was standard. Not all shows are written that way anymore, but that was what allowed us to just stay on the same page and we had to be flexible.
And of course the showrunner had ultimate control over what the story would be. And so your job as a writer is just to spend all day thinking of pitches that will support what the story is. And there was one year I remember on Dawson's Creek, I season five I only wrote like two episodes and normally I would write first drafts more than that and I missed it. And I realized when you're in the room coming up with ideas, 80% of what you do gets rejected and that's a really high rate to, you know, keep yourself going at where you have to just keep pitching ideas and they might not be accepted. It's heartbreaking. So you have to have a pretty thick skin for that. How do you develop that thick skin? How do you not take it personally? I think you just said the exact phrase, which is not taking it personally.
And I think it did take me a really long time. I think season three when I was working on Dawson's Creek was my first real immersion in one hour drama writing. And again that was a 23 episode season, which I don't know that I had done one of those yet. And I would use all these little tricks. Sometimes I would tell myself, you know, you're writing the first draft for free. The first draft is what you want it to be. It's all this stuff. What they're paying you for is the 10 offer drafts that you're doing, where people are saying, do it my way, do it my way, do it my way. And early on in my career I had this great moment with a friend who, he's a graphic designer and at the time he was maybe working at the New York times or something like that, but his own work as a graphic designer was constantly being, you know, noted and all this stuff like do it again and do it again. Do it again.
And you know, it just becomes not what the person wanted and you just have to tell yourself over and over again that mantra I think because it's just not what they wanted. And when you're writing something for money, that's what your job is, is to give the person what they wanted. And in TV it's always very clear that person is the showrunner. And then once they're happy with it, they got to go and deal with the network and the studio. There's a whole other level of people who might not be happy with it.
Passionistas: As a writer that's not the showrunner, you're kind of shielded from having those conversations. But last season you developed and executive produced and wrote the TV series Dare Me. So talk about how you became the showrunner of and what it was like to be in that position versus on staff.
Gina Fattore: It was kind of amazing to get to this place where this pilot that I had written with Meghan Abbott, based on her novel Dare Me, we made a pilot in the summer of 2018 really it was when we made the pilot and then all of 2019 was when we were making the, the nine additional episodes. And here I was finally doing this job that we, for a long time I had basically resigned myself to the idea that none of my pilots would ever proceed forward and become serious cause I had written so many of them and I knew how hard the job was. I mean frankly I was the showrunners assistant. So who knows better than the showrunners assistant, how hard the job is. And so I think what happens in TV a lot of times is that the person who becomes the showrunner is perhaps a novelist or a playwright or a screenwriter.
Especially if you win an Oscar, they will just basically give you a TV show. So essentially that person is really overwhelmed just by the sheer idea of what it means to be a showrunner, which is that you're not just a writer anymore, you're a producer and you're the boss who's hiring everyone and who's also responsible for making sure that everyone's working well together to actualize the vision that you have in your head. So in a funny way, I have to say, I knew it was going to be hard, so it was hard, but it wasn't as hard, I don't think, as it would have been for someone who hadn't been working on TV shows for essentially 20 years at that point. I mean, I like to joke, and this is terrible, but I was like, you know, like the American presidency running a television show, it is a job that sometimes goes to someone who's never done it before, but sometimes that person has actually been the secretary of state, or sometimes they've been the first lady, maybe they've been a Senator, so that person might have a better idea of how this whole thing works than someone who's never worked in government before.
And that's how I felt. I felt like I was that person and I ended up being so proud of the work itself. The episodes I think are brilliant, but also just really proud of all the people who told me how much they enjoyed working on the show. I mean, honestly, the costume designer, the, you know, the cinematographer, like all of the directors, like just knowing that they felt like they were in an environment where they were being heard and appreciated even when their ideas were rejected meant so much to me. Because looking back, I can see there were many jobs where I didn't have that and that was the hard part to keep going. When you don't feel like you're being heard, it's one thing to be rejected, but it's another to be sort of ignored or dismissed.
Passionistas: You're listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Gina Fattore. Visit GinaFattore.com to find out more about Gina and her book, The Spinster Diaries, now available at IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and more.
Now here's more of our interview with Gina.
Talk about The Spinster Diaries and why did you decide with your busy television schedule, why did you decide to write a book?
Gina Fattore: Well, you know, I realized, I think I already set this up because I talked a little about the frustrations of being a writer who is on staff on a show, but you're not the boss. And at the time I started writing the book, I really did start writing the book around the time that it set. So like 2006, 2007 and I had been working on shows at that point, well, you know, I guess about eight years. So I was at the point where I was doing this job that was a dream job to me. And you know, it, it, I had far exceeded any dreams that I had, you know, as a young person in Indiana, I was living in LA and I was going from job to job, but definitely, you know, uh, making money and working with interesting people and it was all great.
But the one thing I didn't have was any kind of control over what story was being told. I mean you're always rewritten when you're a writer on staff. Like it's very, very rare. When I was working on Dawson's Creek, I was genuinely, I don't know, I had been there for so long that by the time we got to the end, those were my episodes. Those were my words. Like especially the last one that I wrote, I did all the rewriting on them. They're my work, but that's very unusual. The more usual way is to just write and contribute, but you never have any say over the final product. And so I think I just started writing pros because it was, first of all, it was what I originally wrote when I was a young person and I was a high school newspaper editor and all of that.
But also just because I knew I could control it and I didn't even know at first what I was writing. I think I really was just writing, you know, on the weekends I'd just be like, well, I have something I need to say. And then I just kept writing and went on this journey and it really did take me a very long time to get someone to publish the book essentially because it is a little unconventional. I think they were fooled by the opening of the book and they thought that it would be more of a conventional Bridget Jones's diary type book and then suddenly they're reading about this woman from the 18th century, like it's about TV writing and they think, I think that there was some confusion about what the book was, but I really persevered because I knew at that point I was like, well, I have my other job, which I never quit, which is my day job writing and producing television and I know that I'm good at that.
Um, especially it's no small part of it is the producing part. Like that's a completely separate skill from writing. And now that I've done Dare Me and been a showrunner, I've done that on every level. So I figured my book didn't have to be something that was going to be a bestseller or a big source of income for me. I could just make it whatever I wanted to be. Just be playful with it and have fun.
Passionistas: You say that it's some I autobiographical. So how much of it is based on you? Obviously the TV writing part is.
Gina Fattore: Yeah, I'm laughing because like I really wanted to be one of those fancy novelists who's all like, ah, I made it all up, or whatever. That's what fiction writers do. But it's all, it's all true. Basically. Like all of it. It's true. I was interested in the idea of biography and autobiography.
So if the narrator of my book is sort of this exaggerated unreliable version of me, and she's telling you a story though about this other writer from the 18th century, so how reliable is she? But if you read the book, I should make a disclaimer that it is actually a biography of the writer from the 18th century whose name is Francis Barney, and she was a novelist who wrote at the end of the 18th century. She's really the person who inspired Jane Austin in many ways. Her books were read by Jane Austin and Jane Jane Austin makes reference to Francis. Bernie's novels at like six different places within her own work.
Passionistas: Why are you fascinated with Frances Burney and why did she become such a central character in the book?
Gina Fattore: I was just talking about this with someone who I know from college because I did read Frances Burney for the first time when I was in college. I was an English major at Columbia. There was, I think looking back, I've now researched this like in the, in the eighties the feminist scholars in the English departments all over the country were looking for female writers, you know, trying to resuscitate them. And at the end of the 18th century was a time in England when there were actually quite a number of female novelists. And so I read her work and then it, but it wasn't in college. It was like later in my twenties I learned about her diaries. She kept them her entire life. They've, they've finally finished editing all of them and they are 24 volumes long. So it was really like a blog. I mean, I think when I first read her diaries, I didn't even know what a blog was. It was probably like 95 but it was like you're hearing the unfiltered voice of this woman who lived, I mean, she actually lived from 1752 to 1840 but the time period in her life that would most fascinated me was sort of, you know, her coming of age and her first novel was written when she was 25 and I think when I, the more I learned about her story, it was something that captured my imagination when I was that age in my mid-twenties and I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know how I was going to get there.
I mean, I think it was even before I started working for Greg Daniels, I was 27 when I actually moved to LA and started working for him and ultimately became a TV writer. But all those years of my twenties I knew I wanted to be a writer and I was writing. But you know, you don't, you have a day job, you know, it's hard. You don't know really what you should be writing and what's the right format for your voice. And all those things. And I just kept reading about her more and more. And I was always just so convinced that there was something very modern about her life. Also in that anytime we hear about women from that era, they're generally very wealthy women. And so the stories, while they're these sort of odd princess stories about like duchesses and ladies and all that stuff, or think of Downton Abbey, right?
Those three sisters are incredibly wealthy and aristocratic. And for instance, Bernie, her father was a music teacher, so she was the equivalent of what we would think of as middle class. And for me growing up, you know, as I mentioned, I grew up in Indiana, so I am not from aristocrats, let's just say, um, my grandparents are all from Italy. So yeah, I think I, I love this idea of a role model who had, you know, been a writer from the time she was in her teens. And also looking back, I can see where I think like maybe a role model who isn't, you know, isn't Jane Austin or George Elliot or the Bronte sisters is a little better. At least for me it felt better. Like I feel like there's the people who you admire so much that it kind of stops you.
You know, like I've had that feeling before where you watch your all-time favorite movie, are you, you know, read your all-time favorite book for the zillion with time and there's a part of you that thinks I could never achieve that or I could never do that. Whereas I don't know. There was something about Frances Burney as a role model that I guess made me think, you know, she just did her best and kept writing and that's what you need to hear. Especially when you're 25 and you're just starting on your journey.
Passionistas: What do you hope readers take away from reading the book?
Gina Fattore: I've already gotten some feedback from people from what they did take away and it's been surprising, I guess I would say in a big way. I realized that the book is about anxiety and so it's very odd that it's coming out at this time where everybody is, you know, really just swimming and anxiety because anxiety is different than fear, you know, fear.
The idea is that fear is like there's a lion about to come and eat you and you know what that is and you need to respond to what the lion that's directly in front of you. But anxiety is that more free floating feeling. I at a certain point, I did realize that like years ago, like years, you know, years before it was published, I thought, Oh, the book is really about anxiety and that's a valuable lesson right now. And also the journey of the character she goes on is about like just getting out of a paralysis and the paralysis is sort of, you know, people always talk about fight or flight, right? That idea that if you're in this stressful situation, either you'll lash out and you'll fight or you're flee, but the other thing you do is you just freeze. And that's a very real reaction.
I mean I, I don't think I'm making that up. I think there is actual psychology to base that on, but it's always been my personal experience that you get frozen and the character is frozen. So the journey of the book is really to become unfrozen and to have enough hope to move forward. And I think that is a really vital message at this time.
Passionistas: Is there a lesson that you've learned on your journey that really sticks with you?
Gina Fattore: I was just thinking about this, like the idea of this journey cause I was talking, the thing that's been so great to talk to old friends and this time, you know, like there's, there's just been a little more of that. Like people reaching out, like high school friends, college friends, like let's do a zoom. And it was making me think about my younger days and I had this sense when I was very young, that little things made an enormous difference.
I mean that a little bit in terms of writing, you know, that like precision and detail and all that stuff. Um, but also just, I don't know, this idea that things could change in an instant or that everything was kind of on a Razor's edge. And I think just what I learned this past two years in being the boss and making a show is that idea that not everything has to be perfect. And you think I would have known that earlier in life because as anyone who a writer knows, there's always a rough draft. There's always a first draft and it's a process to make it better. But I think this is a particular problem for women, which is this idea of perfectionism and how it holds you back because you're not willing to do the sloppy version of something.
And one of the coolest things I learned when I was making the show was I was like, I've been doing this for so long. TV is a process and the process is not, you start with the thing that the people see when it's on TV streaming. You know, you start so far back from that, you know, you start with some note cards on a board, you know, you turn that into an outline, you turn that into a script. There's so many steps of the process and being the boss and doing that really made me remember that, that like you have so many other chances to, to do that, that thing and to make it right. You know, not that it's not important to meet your deadlines and be conscientious and all that stuff, but I do wish I had felt that a little more when I was younger. Just let yourself be wrong.
Passionistas: What's your definition of success?
Gina Fattore: I guess in some way I do think it's, it's liking what you do for work because we all, almost all of us have to work. And uh, even people who don't have to work for financial reasons, you know, I guess that's the famous Freud quote, write about love and work. And I mean, my had a next door neighbor who lived next door to me for 10 years. Ever since I bought my house, my neighbor next door, he was elderly. He was 79 when I moved in and he passed away at 89 and he worked like three or four days a week at this job up until he was like 87 and the minute he wasn't able to work anymore, he just shut down and you could see it so clearly. And he got so depressed and he, this is a person of like, you know, the world war II generation practically. He, well, Korean war I guess is the one he fought in and people like that don't use the word depressed lightly, you know?
And, and I could see that in him and I feel like it makes me so happy. You know, when people talk to me about their job and you can see that they're suited to the job and they get some kind of reward back from it, I think that is just a huge part of being successful in life.
Passionistas: What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to be a writer?
Gina Fattore: Sadly, right? Is the only advice that, I mean, I know there's all this stuff about, you know, uh, I don't know, networking. And there's a lot of classes now you can take and stuff like that. But you learn, you do learn by doing and you know, I think you just need to keep writing and that everything you write, you learn something from that. And you know the feedback. Showing it to other people honestly is the hard part.
That to me is, is harder than the writing. I know some people have a problem with that, but you know, that's where the introverts win because the part of the job where you are alone in the room with the piece of paper, that doesn't scare me. And I think that it's got the main benefit of you can control it. You can try things out, you know, I mean, Oh, this is terrible. But like when I started, I had a typewriter in college. Like you had to do the whiteout, you know, you had to do all that stuff. Like nowadays, whatever, just try something and if it doesn't work, you know, uh, I was going to say delete, but don't delete, just save it and another file. You might need it again someday.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to our interview with Gina Fattore. Visit GinaFattore.com to find out more about Gina and her book, The Spinster Diaries now available at IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and more.
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