I interviewed Stanford graduate and former high school teacher Emily Layden ’11 on her debut novel “All Girls,” released last month. We discussed the pressure of constantly striving for more achievements, institutional failings in addressing sexual assault, the importance of teenage girlhood representation and more.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Did your experience at Stanford influence any aspects of your book?
Emily Layden (EL): I think that what I got at Stanford was the gift of having my writing taken seriously. I’ve always been someone who made sense of the world through telling stories, but it wasn’t until I had the gift of the Creative Writing and American Studies departments that I really felt as though my writing was a “Real Thing.” A young writer needs the experience of having their work legitimized, and I felt really validated from the moment I walked into my first workshop sophomore year.
The phenomenon of Stanford duck syndrome was really real for me when I first got there. As a freshman, I felt like the smallest fish in the biggest pond, like I wasn’t smart enough or good enough. The Creative Writing Program just felt like a big hug, and they really welcomed me.
TSD: In your book, there’s this section about Lillian, a mother of a current student and a graduate of the boarding school Atwater, the setting of the novel. She struggles with reconciling her protégé status as a student with her current life as a regular suburban mom. Do you think that theme of being pressured to live up to your school or your degree was influenced by Stanford or by your time teaching in boarding schools?
EL: That’s such an excellent connection! Until you had drawn that out for me, I might’ve said it was informed by my experience working with really high-achieving young people. Of course, you’re totally right that you and I and all of our classmates are also very high-achieving young people.
We all know what it is to be on that treadmill of externally validated success. Lillian and a lot of the characters in the book are wrestling with being defined by their school and how they do at that school and what their school does for them. That brings us back to the bigger question of, “Are we what we do? How else do we define ourselves if it’s not by what we do?”
It’s still something I struggle with. It’s a hard thing. It doesn’t just feel like getting off the treadmill and standing on solid ground; it feels like getting off a treadmill and into an abyss. It’s alluring but also terrifying.
TSD: I couldn’t help but draw parallels between how the students at Atwater responded to their anonymous sexual assault case and Chanel Miller’s memoir “Know My Name.” Did you consider her story when writing your own book?
EL: My book is critical of institutions, and it’s really engaged in a query of how powerful institutions behave and what they’ll do to protect their reputations. That’s something Chanel is also doing in “Know My Name,” and it’s similar to what Lacy Crawford does in her book “Notes on a Silencing” about her experience at St. Paul’s School. So, we’re all in a conversation.
As a Stanford student watching how my school behaved in the Brock Turner case and in its fallout, what I felt is what a lot of the girls express in my book: feeling such a strong connection to a place and feeling like a place does, in part, define you. And, feeling like a place has given you something that you’ve benefited from in big ways from your relationship to that place. But, there’s also feeling really disappointed in that institution and having to wrestle with the fact that an institution has flaws and is capable of failing.
TSD: Did you write on the side while also teaching, and did either task impact the other in any way?
EL: I would get up every morning at 5 a.m. and write for an hour before teaching. That was really the only way it was going to happen for me, since I’m someone who needs to do big projects in methodical chunks. Since I had to pay for my existence, I had to do it around teaching.
To teach was to receive daily lessons in wisdom and empathy and the tremendous optimism of teenage girlhood. I love teaching, and I’ve always felt super safe in a classroom. Teaching motivated me to write something that took the experience of teenage girls seriously and to give any teenage girl what they deserve: to be imagined as full, complex people.
I think that teenage girls really do drive our discourse and shape our culture; they’re the arbiters of taste. We take and take from teenage girls, and we often don’t give them credit for their full personhood.
TSD: I really appreciated how you didn’t shy away from the prevalence of mental health in these competitive environments. I love how you thanked your therapist in your acknowledgements, which I haven’t seen often! Would you be comfortable sharing anything about your own mental health story?
EL: I do really struggle with anxiety and obsessive thoughts, and I have a history of disordered eating. Those are all things I wouldn’t be able to move through without the support of an excellent therapist. I don’t think you need to have a clinical disorder to benefit from therapy, and I just think it would be wonderful if everyone could go there. I would love to imagine a world where therapy is not only easier to access technically and financially, but one where we understood that you could reach for it like any other tool in your personal toolkit.
TSD: Has anything surprised you about being a writer and changing careers?
EL: Oh, everything! I’ve always wanted to publish a book and spend my days writing stories. When I got my book deal, you would think it would’ve felt like a triumphant moment. But because of that achievement treadmill we were talking about, I didn’t immediately feel a sense of accomplishment. Instead, it was the sense of, “What is the next thing I have to do in this new career? How do I now prove that I belong here?” These are just thought patterns that high-achieving, successful people have had from a very young age, like there’s a sense of only knowing how to reach for the next rung.
TSD: And last question, did you have a favorite creative writing class at Stanford?
EL: I did! It was called “Novel Salon,” and it was taught by Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey. We met once a week for three hours, and it was very small — around 10 people. We would usually order food, and the writers of the books we read would come. It was very cozy, and it was one of those classes that made you feel like you had arrived. It felt like I was with my people, and it gave me a sense of belonging.